A Brief History
On November 15, 1969, the Cold War in the icy waters of the Barents Sea became very real when the US submarine USS Gato collided with the Soviet submarine K-19. Lucky for both crews, neither sub sank and no lives were lost. Throughout history, ships have found ways to run into each other or other objects, sometimes on purpose, but usually by accident. Today we list 5 of these unfortunate occurrences.
1. USS Gato vs. USSR K-19, 1969.
While both ships were patrolling the arctic waters of the Barents Sea North of Scandinavia and Murmansk, the K-19, a Soviet nuclear powered ballistic missile Hotel Class submarine, and the USS Gato, an American nuclear powered attack submarine, were 200 feet below the surface when they accidentally struck each other. The Gato was lightly damaged and continued her mission, while the K-19 suffered bow damage serious enough to require using emergency ballast to blow to the surface and limp to port. Both subs remained in service after repairs. The collision with Gato was only one of many incidents involving the K-19, a reputedly “unlucky ship” that from the start seemed cursed. Its christening in 1960 was (untraditionally) done by a man who failed to break the champagne bottle on the hull, considered an unlucky sign. The sub later suffered catastrophic nuclear power plant problems, resulting in the death of 8 crewmen at the time and another 15 within the next 2 years (from radiation sickness). In 1972 a fire on board the K-19 killed another 30 crewmen, while in 1982 an electrical short killed 1 sailor and injured 2 others. The miserable reputation of the K-19 resulted in a major motion picture about the 1961 radiation problem being released in 2002 starring Harrison Ford called K-19: The Widowmaker. Oddly enough, “widowmaker” was never the nickname of the K-19. After the 1961 radiation incident she was called “Hiroshima” by the Soviet sailors.
2. SS Andrea Doria vs. MS Stockholm, 1956.
By 1956 the lessons from the Titanic sinking had been learned, and ships were built with multiple watertight compartments and adequate lifeboats for the entire crew and passengers aboard the ship. Modern equipment such as radio and radar made seaborne travel much safer in the second half of the 20th Century. SS Andrea Doria, was a sizeable Italian ocean liner, 701 feet long and displacing 29,000 tons, capable of carrying over 1200 passengers. She was in service since 1951, and despite advanced construction, was somewhat top heavy and prone to heeling over excessively when hit by seas from abeam. The MS Stockholm was much smaller, in service for Sweden as a cruise ship since 1948, 525 feet long and displacing 12,000 tons. Stockholm sailed for the Swedish American Lines and carried a maximum of 548 passengers. On July 25, 1956 while sailing off the American coast of Nantucket, while in a heavy fog, the 2 ships approached each other head on at around 20 knots each. Both ships were radar equipped, with the radar functioning normally and in use at the time. The problem was the lack of communication between the ships, as neither radioed the other, both assuming a starboard turn to avoid the other, which only put them on a collision course. Only when it was too late to avoid collision did the lookouts on each ship visually spot the other vessel. Emergency reversal of engines by Stockholm and an emergency turn to port by Andrea Doria could not prevent collision, and the Stockholm struck the starboard side of Andrea Doria with Stockholm’s bow, creating a large hole in the side of Andrea Doria and demolishing the bow of the Stockholm. The Andrea Doria had been penetrated 40 feet into her hull, flooding 5 of the 11 watertight compartments of the ship and resulting in a severe list to starboard. Half her lifeboats were unusable because of the list. Aboard Stockholm, emergency measures leveled off the ship that going down at the stricken bow, though 5 crewmen had been killed. On Andrea Doria, the decision to abandon ship came only 30 minutes after collision, with the crew quickly discovering the severe list precluding the use of the lifeboats on the port side of the ship. Lifeboats from Stockholm were used to ferry passengers from Andrea Doria to the Swedish ship, and several other ships responded to the rescue. Of the 1706 people aboard the Andrea Doria, 46 died during the incident or from their injuries. The following morning, the Andrea Doria keeled over and sank, 11 hours after the collision. The Andrea Doria’s captain and crew were assigned most of the blame for the tragedy, going way too fast in the fog, failing to follow radar procedure and failing to properly ballast the ship as fuel was consumed. Investigation showed the Stockholm’s radar had been set to 5 mile scale when the radar operator thought it was set to a 15 mile scale, resulting in the ships being 3 times closer to each other than the watch officers aboard Stockholm thought they were. The loss of life was the most in American waters since 1915.
3. PT-109 vs. INJ Amagiri, 1943.
Commanded by Lieutenant (junior grade) John F. Kennedy, a future President of the United States, the US Navy patrol torpedo boat PT-109 with a crew of 13 (counting the skipper) was on patrol at night in the pitch dark around the Solomon Islands. PT-109 was operated with mufflers on its engines, creeping around quietly at idle speed, when out of the darkness the Japanese destroyer loomed suddenly and cut the smaller (80 feet long) PT boat in half. Aboard the Amagiri, the crew observed PT-109 was cut in half and had suffered a massive explosion and fire. Amagiri left the doomed torpedo boat and was sailed back to port with a damaged propeller. The aft portion of PT-109 sank quickly, and 2 men were lost, never seen again. Kennedy and the 10 crewmen were aboard the sinking bow section, with 2 of the crew seriously injured. Kennedy and his crew swam through shark and crocodile infested waters for 3.5 miles, a 4 hour swim, to unoccupied Plum Pudding Island, a tiny piece of land only 100 yards across. With no food and water, Kennedy was forced to lead his men to another island over a mile away that had coconuts and water. A week later a couple of native Solomon Islanders in a canoe spotted the stranded crew and reported their find to an Australian coast watcher with a note scrawled on a coconut by Kennedy. The coast watcher in turn notified the US Navy via radio and the surviving 11 men were rescued by another PT boat. Instead of being charged with negligence for losing his ship, Kennedy was decorated as a hero (after all, he did perform heroically after the collision) and rode his fame to the White House, winning the 1960 Presidential election. A famous song and movie were made about the most famous PT boat.
4. USS Greenville vs. Ehime Maru, 2001.
On February 9, 2001, the USS Greeneville SSN- 772, a ballistic missile nuclear submarine of the US Navy, was conducting training in the Pacific Ocean with 31 guests aboard. In a maneuver sure to thrill the guests, the Greeneville was put through an emergency surfacing drill in which the sub shot to the surface as fast as possible, breaching out of the water. Unfortunately, the skipper of the Greeneville and the officers of the deck neglected to notice the Japanese fishery training vessel for high school kids on the surface above the sub. When the sub suddenly surfaced, it struck the Ehime Maru, sinking the unlucky ship in 10 minutes with the loss of 9 lives, including 4 high school students, 2 teachers, and 3 crewmen. Captain Waddle of the Greeneville and his watch crew were hampered in their duties by the civilian guests crowding around the spaces critical to running the sub safely. Minor equipment malfunctions and an incorrect assumption about the position and course of the Ehime Maru, just identified as an unknown surface contact to the sub’s crew, combined with the eagerness of the guests to get the exciting emergency surfacing drill going led to the premature decision to blow tanks and make the rocketing rise to the surface before it had been authoritatively established that it was safe to do so. After the collision, the Greeneville did not immediately offer assistance to the Ehime Maru, a failure that incurred the wrath of the Japanese people and government. Nor was an apology from Capt. Waddle or the United States quickly made, further incensing the Japanese. In reality, the heavy seas and amount of time it took to pump out remaining ballast water in the sub to raise her deck enough to open main deck hatches for rescue operations precluded a rapid response to rescue survivors from the Ehime Maru. A US Coast Guard rescue helicopter from Hawaii finally got to the collision scene to begin rescue operations over 40 minutes after the collision. The Greeneville suffered mainly superficial damage to its stealth coating, minor dents, and a small puncture, damage totaling $2 million. Captain Waddle was given the lowest version of military discipline and allowed to retire from the Navy. The US Navy later paid over $11 million for the loss of the Ehime Maru, and $16.5 million in compensation to the families of those killed in the incident. Captain Waddle later made a trip to Japan to personally apologize to the families of the victims and to visit the Ehime Maru memorial.
5. SS Mont-Blanc vs. SS Imo, 1917.
During World War I the ship traffic from North America to Britain and Europe was vital to the Allied war effort, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, was a vital jumping off point for ships heading to Europe. On December 6, 1917, the French ship SS Mont-Blanc was heavily loaded with ammunition and explosives bound to join a convoy to France at Halifax, while the SS Imo, a Norwegian passenger ship converted for carrying cargo was at Halifax carrying only ballast water on her way to New York to be loaded with relief supplies to be sent to Belgium. The 430 foot long Imo displaced 5000 tons, while the Mont Blanc was somewhat smaller, at 320 feet long and displacing 3100 tons. The 2 ships collided in the narrow section of the approach to Halifax harbor, a collision that seemed fairly minor at first. In reality, the real damage from the collision was in the toppling over of some barrels of highly volatile fuel aboard the Mont-Blanc, fuel that caught on fire when the Imo hastily reversed course to disengage from contact with the Mont-Blanc, creating sparks between the ships that ignited the spilled fuel. Knowing of the immediate danger of the Mont-Blanc and her cargo exploding, the captain ordered abandon ship, while Halifax citizens gathered on the nearby shore to watch the ship burn. Mont-Blanc crewmen yelled at the crowd to get away, fearing imminent explosion, but could not be heard over the noise of the fire, ship engines and other ambient noises. About 2 hours after the collision, with the abandoned Mont-Blanc aground at Pier 6, the explosive laden ship finally blew up with a tremendous explosion, obliterating the ship and killing 1 of her crewmen with flying debris from the blast, the only man lost from Mont-Blanc. The incident, later labeled “The Halifax Explosion” resulted in about 2000 deaths of people in the immediate vicinity of the ship when she blew up. The explosion was so huge, the 1000 pound anchor shank from Mont-Blanc was blown 2 miles away! The 90mm gun from the bow of Mont-Blanc flew 3.5 miles from the blast site, testament to the mighty blast. A Court of Inquiry found the fault for the collision lay with the Captain of the Mont-Blanc, the harbor pilot assigned to the Mont-Blanc, and the officer in charge of harbor defenses, allegations that shocked observers that thought the Captain of the Imo would be held accountable for sailing on the wrong side of the channel. The men blamed for the accident were later exonerated. The giant blast had been felt as much as 129 miles away, and 400 acres around the scene were completely obliterated. The Imo was hit hard by the blast and resultant tsunami of water, being thrust aground and having her upper portions blown away, killing most of the crew of Imo. Another 9000 people had been injured in the giant explosion, and the toll of death and injury could have been higher but a heroic railway worker remained at his post, knowing he faced certain death by not fleeing, and warned incoming trains (by telegraph) of the imminent explosion. He died at his post, but saved at least 300 other people from certain death. An incredible 1630 homes had been destroyed, with many more damaged, leaving thousands of people homeless or in less than adequate shelter.
Question for students (and subscribers): What ship collisions would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Huchthausen, Peter. K-19 THE WIDOWMAKER: The Secret Story of The Soviet Nuclear Submarine. National Geographic, 2002.
The featured image in this list, the USS Gato (SSN-615) as seen in an official Navy photograph, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.