Lots of new information coming to light on a number of topics:
First, the submarine MIAMI, having hung in there for so long, will hang no longer. Late last year, the Navy announced plans to repair and put MIAMI back out to sea, even if, as many supposed, they would have to partially cannibalize her decommissioned sister MEMPHIS, also in Portsmouth’s Shipyard, to do so. MIAMI’s arsonist, Casey James Fury,, set the fires so he could go home due to anxiety about his girlfriend. While he set the initial fire in the Crew’s Quarters, it soon spread to the Torpedo Room, Control Center, Auxiliary Machine Room, and Sonar Room. These rooms are highly complex with thousands of components and interrelated and interconnected systems. Fixing her would amount to gutting the MIAMI and rebuilding her most central and sensitive rooms. That being said, MIAMI still had at least ten years left on her nuclear fuel, and until the fire, was in fairly good repair. Moreover, submarines are under more demand than ever, but new boats cannot be built at the same rate as the older girls are scheduled to be decomissioned.
Cross section of an LA-class submarine (like Miami) with the fire damages highlighted. This may or may not reflect all the damage Miami suffered since some damage might be classified. Still, it's a decent schematic of where most of her damage likely lies. It's a large graphic, so click on it if you want to see it full-size.
So back in 2012, shortly after the fire, the Navy weighed the extra costs of repair against the cost of scrapping, against the personnel costs of keeping other submarines at sea longer while MIAMI holds her place in a drydock long after she was supposed to…on and on and on. The submarine force is a thing of precision, in more ways than one. Each sub’s crew, schedule, maintenance is all based on the movements of her sisters worldwide, all of which has to dovetail with the surface fleet as well. MIAMI’s longer tenure in her drydock affected the next submarine scheduled to have maintenance in that drydock, which affected her mission schedule, which may have forced other shipyards to pick up extra jobs, or shuttling extra jobs, also forcing another submarine to pick up MIAMI’s future missions, while screwing up maintenance, crew rotations, and missions all over the place. It was a nightmare, and each ripple of change had costs.
But submarines form a good portion of the backbone of the Navy, and many believe we need as many submarines as we can safely keep afloat. All things considered, MIAMI was best put back to sea, and plans went forward.
Then this little thing called the sequestration happened. MIAMI times ten.
Now the Navy had to reconsider MIAMI’s status in light of less money. Then, more news came in–cracking. In a highly controlled environment, like a submarine underwater, the slightest crack in any part of hull, piping, or componenent can end a submarine’s life, and that of her crew. In 1963, a faulty pipe in the THRESHER likely lead to her sinking and the loss of her crew. In MIAMI, cracking was now reported in pipes in air, hydraulic and cooling systems which run through the torpedo room and an auxiliary machine room. More repairs. More time. More money. More potential problems yet to be uncovered. For every day MIAMI was in drydock, another surface ship or submarine may have to wait longer for necessary repairs and crew rotation.
According to the Navy, it was a hard choice, but now, instead of repairing a submarine, Portsmouth Shipyard will now scrap her, a process that requires fewer workers, so layoff processes are now in consideration. The money that had been earmarked for her repairs, both this year and next, will be re-allocated to the standing fleet for their maintenance and upgrades.
After a long and respectful career, most of which is still buried under Top Secret classification, the MIAMI will be scrapped where she stands, in the dockyard where she burned.
She becomes the first submarine as well as the first nuclear powered naval vessel to be lost in a naval shipyard.
Godspeed MIAMI, you and your crew served your country well, and we thank you.
Following in MIAMI’s footsteps are nine submarines in various stages of construction: form the MINNESOTA, due to be commissioned in less than a month, to the ILLINOIS, WASHINGTON, COLORADO, INDIANA, SOUTH DAKOTA, and DELAWARE….all ordered and named, but whose keels are not yet laid. Currently, construction takes sixty-fie months, start to finish (Construction has likely started on some of these submarines, if not all, but the keel has yet to be laid), and is soon due to constrict further to 60 months. (Way down from the 84 months a Virginia-class sub used to take!). Still, that’s five years from start to finish. MIAMI’s loss will be felt.
As I’m trying to tie up loose ends, I’ll touch on the Griffon’s “wreck”. After delving 20 feet through Lake bottom, the surface sonar detected and was thought to potentially be the Griffin was…bedrock, so no ship there. That doesn’t mean she’s not out there, nor that the “bowsprit” is fake. It may indeed be a part of the Griffin, and the rest of her may be nearby–or may be broken up. It’s possible, if she really did sink in that general area, that she broke up, either in the process of sinking, or over the intervening centuries. So she may be found yet.
The “Bowsprit” had to be taken care of. The archaeologists had two choices: take it or leave it. Taking it would be problematic, as the State of Michigan claims ownership of the “bowsprit” and issues 30-day “leases” on it for research purposes. Leaving the legal nightmare that is likely coming up behind, the bowsprit itself will need highly technical conservation to prevent its decomposition, and allow for study. (See Development’s in the Griffin’s Dig, near the photo of the Mary Rose’s conservation for more information of what conservation will entail) Leaving it, however, was also problematic, as the bowsprit could be stolen by someone or even lost once again under Lake Michigan’s sands.
Not shockingly, they took it. I hope we’ll hear more about any forthcoming tests or results on it. Preliminary tests already suggest it’s the right age. If more tests are done that can conclusively prove it’s from the late 17th century, then whatever that big stick is, it’s most likely part of the Griffin. A small step forward, is a step forward!
Below, see a half-hour documentary made on-the-ground as it were about the recent Griffin dig and what they found. Really interesting. Locally produced.
That’s all for right now. But news is still forthcoming: MINNESOTA is due to be commissioned soon, the submarine command has transferred, and underwater archaeology is always changing and revealing new things!
Update: Wednesday, June 19, 2013. With the initial excavation permit (the first underwater permit in Michigan’s history!) due to expire on Friday, and the French archaeologists scheduled to leave the USA shortly thereafter, time is running out at the Griffin site.
A map showing Griffin's last days in the blue (any route taken by Griffin is pure speculation, though the dates of her ports of call were recorded by Hennepin.As before, click image of larger image.
Initially, the sonar scans done last year suggested a large object, around 40-45 feet long, consistent with the Griffin’s descriptions, was buried only about 2 feet below the surface. So this week’s excavations have involved dredging around the alleged bowsprit sticking out of the mud, hopefully uncovering the deck of the Griffin. Unfortunately, what they found first was a near impenetrable layer of quagga mussels, and what the Sonar was picking up earlier seems to be much, much, much, further down. At least another 8-10 feet, if not further. The extra depth forced the Griffin Excavation Team to bring in new excavation equipment that could handle this new depth.
Then, Tuesday night, as they were working near the “Bowsprit”, it suddenly began to wobble. Divers realized that if it had once been connected, it wasn’t any longer, just deeply stuck in the mud. Archaeologists decided to lower it to the lake bed, before it became a safety hazard. So now we have a nearly twenty-foot long…something.
This is both good and bad news. The bad news, obviously, is we’re still no officially closer to the Griffin if they’re excavating the right spot. The good news, however, is multi-fold.
With the “bowsprit” down, they can now start excavating wider and with…well, one hates to say “with less care” but they certainly can explore a wider area faster than when they were concerned about the “bowsprit” and its stability.
The “Bowsprit” is now eligible to return to the surface and be fully examined. This will include some really extensive conservation, but would allow it to be examined in controlled conditions.
The “Bowsprit” has been examined underwater by French archaeologists, who are convinced that it came from ship, and it a bowsprit, though the top, exposed ten feet are eroded from three centuries of sand and water (ya think?). And therefore, SOMETHING interesting is in the area. If she sank in a storm, the Griffin could have broken up, leaving this “bowsprit” where it is, and other items in the area. Even broke up, she would still be archaeologically very valuable
The Bowsprit is the long, needle-like projection that extends from many (but not all) sailing ships' bows. Of the four drawings of the Griffon done by Dr. George Quimby based on contemporary descriptions, this is the only one that shows any bowsprit at all, surprisingly. If the Griffon is only 45 feet in length as most scholars believe, I have a hard time believing her bowsprit is nearly half that length, but then again, 17th century sailing ships are not my speciality.
Now, the sand they’re sucking up is being sucked to the fishing vessel “Viking” which is the home base for this expedition. The sand is filtered and checked, before being put back in the Lake. This far, one or possibly two artifacts have come to light: a “cultural artifact”, with no further description, and a 15-inch long slab of blackened wood that shows signs of hand shaping. These artifacts, could, of course, be one and the same.
Ideally, what they’re looking for is a French artifact from the 17th century, which could definitively prove that this place is the site of the Griffin, warranting a larger excavation this year, or a return next. The perfect artifact would be one of Griffin’s guns, as these would be emblazoned with the arms of Louis XIV, proving beyond doubt that the Griffin settled near here.
Three days down, two to go, and of course, what happened today is not yet known—that’ll hit the papers tomorrow.
What happens to the bowsprit now? Who knows? There are two real options: leaving it near the site, and bringing it to the surface.
The exact site of “the Griffin” is a closely guarded secret (in fact, the discoverer, Steve Libert sat on that piece of information for nearly a decade as the rights to this expedition were dragged through court after court after embassy, after court as his trump card. ), but the general location is known. To prevent theft or vandalism, the “bowsprit” may be buried nearby, and they’ll hopefully return next year.
Or, they could bring the Bowsprit to the surface and return with it to shore. The problem here is that wood is full of natural oils. What does oil do in water? Float to the surface. Carbon-dating tests and archaeological surveys already suggest that that “bowsprit” is centuries old whatever it is and wherever it comes from, and over the hundreds of years, most of the oil in the original wood will have seeped out, up and away.
If it’s brought to the surface and allowed to dry out, the wood will essentially crumble to dust. Another 17th century shipwreck, the Swedish Vasa, had to be kept damp until it can be sprayed with polyethylene glycol, which filled and the spaces the oil used to and stabilized the water-logged wood. The Vasa had to be sprayed for seventeen years and dried for nine to allow for full penetration and stabilization, while the Mary Rose was sprayed for sixteen, and is currently drying (the earliest it will be considered “conserved” and ready for visitors will be 2015.). Being one piece of wood, of course, the process for the “bowsprit” here will be faster, but it’s a long journey from the Lake to the nearest place that would be equipped to do that sort of work, and it would have to be kept wet and stable the whole time.
The Mary Rose undergoing the glycol treatment. If the bowsprit is brought to the surface, it'll undergo something like this--though obviously, not at this scale! Image from Wikipedia.
The other good news, is the mud surrounding the “wreck” appears to be thick and possibly anaerobic, meaning no oxygen penetrates and therefore, anything that could eat the wreck can’t do anything. She could possibly be whole down there…I’d say that’s asking too much, but the name Richard III rolls around in my head and reminds me that, yes, every so often, you can strike the Archaeological equivalent of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
But as I was thinking about the bowsprit, it got me to think about some possibilities about the wreck:
If that is the bowsprit, the wreck, if the bowsprit didn't break at the beginning, could be tilted ast much as this. Still, the final dimensions of that "bowsprit" are close to 20 feet, and again, a bowsprit that's half the length of her ship seems very unusual to me.
A set up like this, where the "bowsprit" is actually part of the main or other mast makes a little more sense to my point of view. It at least would explain why the original staff was between 10 and 11 feet high and the hole was reportedly around 8 feet deep when it started to tumble, but sensors indicate the ship, if she's there, is still several feet further down. It would also explain why we haven't come across many artifacts yet.
Or even this idea. The top right sketch of Quimby's Griffon drawings shows no bowsprit at all, but a main mast that appears to be two masts joined roughly half-way to two-thirds the way up. If this upper portion came loose and that's what has just been excavated, (The "mast" to the right would indicate its original position) that would also account for why no ship was attached to the lower end of the spar, and why sensors show a mass of something several feet down. Of course, there are any number of other possibilities: she could be broken up, she could be on her side, she could be scattered everywhere. Still, it's fun to wonder...
One of the most unique shipwrecks in the world may be on the verge of coming to light. And being a native Michigander some four generations back, I’ve always heard about “The Griffin” and her wreck. Part legend, part haunted ship (she’s the “Flying Dutchman” of the Great Lakes by some sources), part wild goose chase, it now appears there may be an end to her story.
In 1679, the Great Lakes region looked much different. The area was known as “New France” or “Louisiana”. French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle was sent by King Louis XVI to explore the New World and formally claim part of it for France. He’d been doing this for a number of years, exploring parts of modern New York, Michigan, and possibly down as far as Kentucky.
Satellite view of the Great Lakes Region as it appears today. The Great Lakes region, or Louisiana, part of New France, as it was called them, would appear very different. It was under these raw conditions that the first cobbled-together shipyard would produce "The Griffin" the first European decked, sailing ship to appear on the upper Great Lakes.
Of course, the native peoples of the Great Lakes region were welcoming of Europeans as long as there were few of them and they were eager traders, but as more colonists came desiring land, things got a little more uneasy. Some tribes were welcoming and some were openly hostile, yet others allied with other tribes against the Europeans or with the Europeans against their own enemies. (Of course, individuals have unique agendas, further blurring these lines.)
Setting out to map the Great Lakes, and discover if the rumored Ohio River did lead to the Mississippi and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, de la Salle took a ship up Lake Ontario, but was stopped by a little obstruction called Niagara Falls, and had to figure out what to do next. He couldn’t go around Lake Erie, as the local peoples, the Seneca nation, did not want him in their territory, so he had to continue on ship…and the only one he had was stuck at the base of the falls.
He had two choices, use the large canoes used by the native peoples of the Great Lakes, or build a new, European style ship. Guess which one he went with?
Named “Le Grifon” or “The Griffin”, this ship, only about as long as one of those canoes, but much higher and more heavily armed, was built between January and June 1679. But think for a second: the Griffin’s men first had to build their own lodgings, and guard against attacks from the Seneca and Iroquois, who did not approve of this new ship. They had to fell great, virgin trees, likely hundreds of years old, cut them to length and width, plane them down, shape them, and set them in the ship on-site, while a blacksmith would first have to build a forge, then create all of the metal fastenings to hold Griffin together.
Thankfully, de la Salle had a priest along on this expedition, a Louis Hennepin, who chronicled the entire journey, including Griffin’s short life. It’s his writings that give us the clearest and one of the only first-person accounts of the build to loss of this unique ship. He records that one master carpenter, one blacksmith, and ten other workmen built the Griffon in five months (January – May 1679). The only pre-made items for her construction were the cannons, guns, rigging, chains, sails and anchor. She had a griffon on her bowsprit, and an eagle carving as well.
Griffin's possible appearances based on Hennepin's period descriptions, other French ships of the time, and the research of Dr. George Quimby, Field Museum curator. Only finding the wreck will prove which, or any, of these designs are accurate.
The map below shows where Griffin’s only voyage went. All things considered, she was very fast for her time.
Griffon's Voyage, based on Quimby's research and Hennepin's accounts. Click on the map for a larger image. To read the Griffon's account in Quimby's book for yourself, go here: (Link on the right).
In September, De la Salle, wanting to continue down Lake Michigan and find a river that could lead to the Gulf, but also needing to return to settle debts and acquire more supplies, decided to divide and conquer. The priest Hennepin wrote what happened next:
“M[onsieur] la Salle, without asking anybody’s Advice, resolv’d to send back his Ship to Niagara, laden with Furrs [sic] and Skins to discharge he Debts: our Pilot [Luc the Dane, by all accounts] and five Men with him were therefore sent back, and ordere’d to return with all imaginable speed, to join us toward the Southern Parts of the Lake…They wailed the 18th of September with a Westerly Wind, and fir’d a Gun [cannon] to take their leave. ..it was never known what Course they steer’d, not how they perished; for after all the Enquiries we have been able to make, we could never learn anything else but the following…
The ship came to an Anchor to the North of the Lake of the Illinois [Lake Michigan] where she was seen by some Savages, who told us that they advised our Men to sail along the Coast, and not towards the middle of the Lake, because the sands [shoals, bars, islands] that make navigation dangerous when there is any high Wind. Our Pilot as I said before, was dissatisfy’d and would steer as he pleas’d, without hearkening to the Advice of the Savages, who, generally speaking, have more sense than the Europeans think at first; the ship as hardly more than a League from the Coast, when it was toss’d up by a violent Storm in such a manner that out Men were never heard of since and it is suppos’d that the Ship struck upon a Sand as was there bury’d.”
The Griffin was never seen again. De la Salle later heard some rumors that the pilot, Luc the Dane, and his men had scuttled the Griffin, and made off with his supply of furs worth £49,830 (in 2005 values) or $90,689.73 (2005 values). Another rumor that floated around was the local peoples had boarded the Griffin, then burned her to the waterline, where she sank. Of course, the most common conclusion was the Griffin had sunk the four-day storm that Hennepin noted in his diary from September 19 to September 24, 1679.
The only European built ship in the Upper Great Lakes for nearly another hundred years, the Griffin is unique for several reasons: she’s the first European style ship built on the Great Lakes, using mostly native materials. She may have utilized unique construction techniques due to this construction. She’s from a time period that few examples survive, even few accurate plans. As a wreck, she would be a time capsule, allowing an unpolluted view into this elusive time period of North American history, when the lines between the native peoples and the European settlers was constantly shifting, the concept of the USA and Canada was not yet born, when a French Flag flew over most of modern New York, Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and the whole place was called “Louisiana” (And now you know where the name “Louisiana Purchase” officially originated.) But most important, she seems to have sunk in a relatively deep, cold place in Lake Michigan, and possibly was completely covered in sand.
Why is that important? Because unlike the ocean, where wooden ships quickly rot away, leaving their outlines in weaponry, metal fastenings and other stable cargo, wooden shipwrecks of the Great Lakes can remain whole for decades, if not centuries. Many 19th century shipwrecks in Lake Michigan and Huron still bear their riggings, and hold cargo in perfect condition. The Griffin, if found, even raised, could change our concepts of this time, much as the Mary Rose did Tudor England, or the Vasa about 17th century Sweden.
To give an idea of the excellent condition the Griffin could be found in, if she reached the bottom relatively intact, check out this video of the HMS Ontario, which sank in Lake Erie in 1780, during the Revolutionary War, or the American War of Independence. Outside of some zebra mussels, she’s in such perfect condition, her discoverers said even two windows are still intact.
Or look at these 3D models of shipwrecks from Thunder Bay, most of which sank in the 19th century. Many of them look as though they sank a short while ago, still standing some with masts and some rigging intact.
The Griffin could indeed tell us much of the earliest written history of the Great Lakes. But if the site that’s been investigated now is Griffon, who owns her and what happens next? Heck, her discovery is a story in and of itself.
That’s another post.
For More Information:
This movie was put out by the Great Lakes Expedition team which is heading the Griffin expedition:
And this one is a highlight reel of the excavations taking place this summer (June 2013) Apparently, this spar of “the Griffin” was 10 feet, and they’ve excavated another 8 feet down to find, more spar! If this is the Griffin, I’m wondering if it’s the mast, not the bowsprit as previously thought, but then again, I’m not on site, and 17th century sailing vessels aren’t my speciality!
I took a long time away from this project, mostly because the USS Flier exhibit now on display at the Silversides Submarine Museum swallowed me whole! It was a great ride, and the exhibit is now open for the public!
When I started this blog, I assumed I would be in Muskegon to work more closely with this project, instead of working remotely from another state as the historian and consultant checking facts, drawing maps, ect. But I couldn’t be happier with the results.
Designed by Kalamazoo-based Jeff Bernstein Exhibitions, I think the Flier exhibit is very well executed and tells the story very well. Even though Flier herself only lived 13 months, from launch to sinking, and more than half of that was training, transport and repairs, she left her mark on the Navy, and history.
The exhibit highlights each member of the crew’s personal story, artifacts from the Flier’s crew, and the Coastwatchers and Filipinos working against the Japanese behind enemy lines.
In addition, we also have a cross-section WWII-era torpedo, and history of submarines in WWII highlighted as you head into the museum.
It’s a permanent installation, so if you’re ever in Muskegon, stop on by and check out the story!
Several months absence can put you far behind on submarine news–even of the historic kind.
Breaking news: a new U-Boat wreck has been identified in Norway. The U-486’s remains, split by a British torpedo, has been found in 820 feet of water off of Norway.
She was only on her second patrol. Her first had been amazingly successful, especially given that it was late 1944, and Germany was operating from a defensive position, with many experienced submarine hands already having been lost.
U-468 at sea, likely 1944 or early 1945. Original Image from The Local.
U-468 departed for her maiden patrol on November 26, 1944, out of German-occupied Norway, to circle the British Islands. Armed with acoustic torpedoes, she also sported a new skin: rubberized tiles coated her hull, designed to counter the Allied sonar. She circled the north of Scotland and down the western coast of Ireland, approaching her assigned patrol area, the English Channel. She quickly found and sank the cargo ship SILVERLAUREL, who was en route to Hull from Falmouth, carrying tons of supplies, but only a small crew, most of which was saved.
But on Christmas Eve, she’d strike a greater blow: the LEOPOLDVILLE.
The Leopoldville in her passenger days of the 1930's
By 1944, the old Belgian passenger ship has an old hand on the Southampton to Cherbourg run. She’d transported over 120,000 men in 23 runs, and now took 2,235 more Americans plus some British troops aboard. Unknown to them, they were destined for the Battle of the Bulge.
As per usual, she and another troop transport, the CHESHIRE, departed with three escort destroyers, BRILLIANT, ANTHONY, and HOTHAM, and the free French ship, CROIX de LORRAINE. The trip would be quick, less than 12 hours, and the men aboard, who had abandoned their Christmas celebrations in England, would celebrate in France instead.
But there were some differences for the LEOPOLDVILLE. For the first time, the entire convoy was ordered to zig-zag, a standard anti-submarine move designed to make it more difficult to aim a torpedo accurately. The reason? U-Boat activity seemed to have picked up recently, though no one had seen any.
Of course, what no one would know until the war’s end, is the German’s had invented the Snorkel, a specialized pipe that allowed a submarine to draw in the necessary air to run their diesel engines without having to surface. Now, U-Boats could operate relatively safely even in the heavily patrolled and defended British waters, and they were taking full advantage of that. Snorkels were soon standard equipment, the U-468, watching the convoy, had one aboard.
Aboard the LEOPOLDVILLE, things were a bit in disarray. For the fifth time, an incomplete and, as it would turn out, highly error-filled passenger list had been delivered before she left the dock. Inside, the men were ordered to sit in benches in the former cargo holds and cabins, anywhere they could find room. This lead to some groups being split up. A lifeboat drill was called, but due to a faulty loudspeaker system, not everyone heard. Those that reported were not trained in how to lower lifeboats, or the proper way to wear and enter the water while wearing LEOPOLDVILLE’s life jackets. A minor oversight that would have severe repercussions. But one wrinkle that may have initially saved lives: the December sea was rough, forcing many of the men in the hold to make a dash for the heads and rails on the upper levels as soon as LEOPOLDVILLE hit open water.
By 1745 (5:45 pm local time), the LEOPOLDVILLE had already been stopped twice, as the BRILLIANT’s sonar made a submarine contact (which may actually have been the U468). The alert and depth charges didn’t bother the traveling troops, most of whom had suffered similar alerts on the trans-Atlantic trip the month earlier.
Now five miles from the French coast, the U-468 took aim and fired one torpedo, hitting the LEOPOLDVILLE in the starboard stern.
The U-468 headed for the bottom again to dodge the depth charges that quickly came raining down, while on the surface, the men in the depths of the LEOPOLDVILLE struggled through the debris and newly dead to clamber to the higher decks. Stairs had been blown away, some debris sank, injuring the flailing men, others floated and became their own obstructions. The men already on the higher decks reached down and hauled as many men to safety as they could, even those severely injured.
Still, as many as 300 died in the initial attack.
The LEOPOLDVILLE’s deck was now flooded with the passengers. Those in the forward sections knew exactly what had happened, and the commanding officers quickly ordered the men to spread out as evenly as possible, to prevent a capsize.
Everyone was quiet and calm. Three of the escorts were actively hunting the U-boat, while the BRILLIANT was trying to raise help from Portsmouth via radio, or Cherbourg, by signal light. The CHESHIRE stood off at a distance, unable to risk her passengers to save the LEOPOLDVILLE’s.
As the initial minutes passed, LEOPOLDVILLE looked like she might, despite her wound, be able to be towed to shore. But complications were starting to show, and the disarray of earlier that day was about to be costly.
Portsmouth and Cherbourg were, for security reasons, on different radio frequencies and codes, forcing BRILLIANT to spend a lot of time switching back and forth. In addition, being Christmas Eve, everywhere was lightly stationed, giving as many as possible the night off. The many small vessels that crowded Cherbourg’s harbor and normally would have raced to help at the initial strike, were dark and cold, their owners and crews celebrating in town.
LEOPOLDVILLE began to drift in the current, towards a minefield. Her captain, Charles Limbor, ordered the anchor dropped, a sensible action which would not pay off later.
Ten minutes after that, about 40 minutes after LEOPOLDVILLE was hit, Limbor ordered all non-essential crew to abandon ship, an order not fully understood even today. With those men gone, few remained who knew how to raise the anchor, lower lifeboats, or safely evacuate the ship in an emergency.
At the same time the crew was rowing away, HMS BRILLIANT finally managed to get a message to Fort L’Ouest, near Cherbourg, which had noticed the drifting LEOPOLDVILLE. L’Ouest tried to signal the LEOPOLDVILLE, but BRILLIANT answered: “LEOPOLDVILLE hit, need assistance.” L’Ouest asked what kind of assistance, but BRILLIANT didn’t reply.
The HMS Brilliant at sea. Undated photo.
At that moment, probably one of the bravest and insane rescues started. With no one coming and the LEOPOLDVILLE in rough seas, BRILLIANT’s captain decided to take a risk and save some of the trapped men if he could. Sidling his own, smaller but more heavily armed ship next to the LEOPOLDVILLE, he made his ship available for anyone who wanted to…jump.
This was no mean feat. Even with LEOPOLDVILLE’s scrambling next hung down her side, the seas were tossing the two ships back and forth and up and down. The BRILLIANT’s deck, one moment was 12 feet below LEOPOLDVILLE’s deck, another moment, twenty feet, yet another, forty. Then the ships would yaw apart for one moment, before crashing together the next. Jumping took nerves of steel, and those that didn’t make it…
Blood soon smeared the sides of both ships.
On the BRILLIANT, the survivors broke bones as they landed. BRILLIANT’s crew grabbed their hammocks, laying them in the “landing zone” to cushion the falls, and evacuated the injured as quickly as possible.
Five hundred men later, the little BRILLIANT could not physically hold many more, and drew away, leaving hundreds still trapped with no way out. It was 90 minutes after the LEOPOLDVILLE had been hit, but help was finally coming from For L’Ouest and Cherbourg. The tug ATR-3 was on her way, as were a number of smaller boats, ready to stand by and help as needed. BRILLIANT’s commanding officer, noting that even now, there was not much on LEOPOLDVILE, believed that most of the passengers could still be saved. 
The Tug ATR-3 threw tow lines to the LEOPOLDVILLE, but too few on board knew how to tie them, or raise the anchor so LEOPOLDVILLE could set underway. A Coast Guard cutter tried to sidle up beside LEOPOLDVILLE as BRILLIANT had done, but the sea battered her too badly, and she pulled away before many could get onboard.
Lifeboats were lowered, or cut away, with many of the injured on board, as the men started to improvise evacuations. Captain Limbor marched through the masses, officially ordering “Abandon Ship” in French and Flemish, as the ship’s loudspeakers had died, but few understood him. Some lept overboard with improperly secured lifejackets. If not secured snugly enough, the front and back halves of these jackets “clapped” together as the men hit the water, breaking necks.
Suddenly, between 2020 and 2040 hours (10:20 pm – 10:40 pm), approximately five hours after she had been hit, two explosions were heard deep within the ship, blowing hatch covers and men into the water. LEOPOLDVILLE keeled over and sank in moments. Those left aboard scrambled over the side and into the water, or simply stepped into the sea as the ship fell beneath them.
Drawing of the Leopoldville sinking, done by Richard Rockwell, nephew of Norman Rockwell, for the book , "SS LEOPOLDVILLE DISASTER" by Allan Andrade.
The water was 48 degrees, and the waxing gibbous moon low in the sky, giving little light. Some of those thrashing tin the water were still in their full gear and were dragged down by it. Others managed to drop what they had quickly enough to re-surface. The small vessels that had stood by now rushed in to grab the living and the dead. In the dark, it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which.
Captain Limbor went down with his ship, as well as four crewmen from Belgium and the Congo. Due to the error-filled, incomplete passenger list, it would take days for the British and the US to figure out who and how many had been lost. No number has yet been released by the British government (even nearly 70 years later) but it’s probably less than 10. The American number officially stands at 763, though unofficial numbers frequently reach as high as 802. It was the second worst loss of infantrymen in the Atlantic Theater.
To finish the LEOPOLDVILLE’s story quickly, the men who survived, nearly 1,400 of them, were re-routed away from the Battle of the Bulge, and most survived the war. They were, however, forbidden to talk about the LEOPOLDVILLE’s loss, and their letters were censored to make sure. A highly erroneous story about the loss of LEOPOLDVILLE was released to the official press to confuse any German spies (some said LEOPOLDVILLE was a hospital ship, others said it sank too quickly to help the passengers.) Some in the Navy believed that the LEOPOLDVILLE’s loss reflected so poorly on them (Christmas Eve, for example, should not have been an excuse to half-staff ports when a convoy was expected, communication should have been more coordinated in case of emergency, especially since U-boat attacks were rising, a lifeboat drill should have been done, records kept accurately) that the story was buried, and the families given few details. The loss of the LEOPOLDVILLE was little known for decades.
Painting of the Leopoldville wreck, as she's seen today.
In the chaos, the U-468, simply waited until Christmas Day dawned. No one found her, and she spent a quiet Christmas in the same general area she had been on the eve. On December 26, as the French people were recovering the bodies of those lost on LEOPOLDVILLE from the beaches formerly known as Omaha, U-468 struck again in the same area.
Two frigates, the HMS AFFLECK and the HMS CAPEL, were hit by acoustic torpedoes, the CAPEL sinking with the loss of eighty-five men. The AFFLECK, having lost 9 in the initial strike, was stable enough to be quickly towed to the over-crowded Cherbourg harbor, and left as a total loss until the war’s end.
Map showing the location of the three known attacks of the U-468. Both LEOPOLDVILLE and CAPEL went down near the now-famous Normandy beaches that had been taken only six months earlier.
With four kills under her belt, U-468 returned to Norway. After three months, she was sent out again on April 9. Three days later, the submarine HMS Tapir, patrolling near Bergin, heard the U-468. Nineteen minutes later, U-468 surfaced for Tapir’s periscope. Four minutes after that, Tapir fired 6 torpedoes, one of which hit the U-468.
From the Taipir’s log book:;
0755 hours—One hit was observed on the enemy submarine, which blew up and was seen to disintegrate. A huge column of brown smoke arose some 500 feet in the air. Breaking up noises were heard on the Asdic [British equivalent of Sonar] and after the smoke had cleared nothing more could be seen.”
No more was ever heard of the U-468 until now. Found by accident by Statoil company while seeking a oil pipeline route underwater, U-468 will be left alone with her crew of 48. Her wreck confirms what Tapir saw, she disintegrated into two pieces.
Sonar image of the U-468's wreck. Her bow has been severed, and she lays on her starboard side. From The Local.
Hopefully, though her wreck location is known, she will be left in peace there.
Some other submarine wrecks haven’t been so lucky this year.
U 468's conning tower, with the periscopes still attached at the top. From the Local
For more information:
First, my favorite: a unique telling of the sinking of the SS LEOPOLDVILLE:
 The BRILLIANT made directly for Cherbourg’s port, which was already filled with the half-sunken, scuttled ships the Germans had attacked earlier. There was one quay left open, and a Jeep had to pull the BRILLIANT in and tie her up. By the time BRILLIANT’s LEOPOLDVILLE passengers were unloaded, she turned and headed back for more, but it would be too late.
 The wreck of the Leopoldville, in 820 feet of water, was discovered by author Clive Cussler in 1984. She rests on her side, her stern severed and laying beside her.
News keeps coming out of the world of the submarines, both past and present, and in a way, future.
Three days after the man who set the May 23 and 16 June, 2012 fires on the USS Miami, yes another small fire was reported on March 18, 2013. While this fire does appear to be purely accidental (reported as being sparked by a damaged light fixture), it put Miami’s future in further doubt.
Initially determined to put Miami back in service, the Navy had to start making decisions about what and where to best put their money after the sequestration kicked in on 1 March 2013. This most recent fire has only furthered those questions about whether Miami is most effective for the Navy refurbished and back in service, or torn apart (possibly for parts for her sisters). As it is, the civilian workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard are already going to have to take 22 days off without pay between April and September 30, which, of course, further slows the rate or repairs.
On the other hand, the US House passed a bill that would still preserve the construction of two Virginia-class Submarines in 2014, setting aside the approximate $777 million dollar cost for their materials and work for that calendar year. That bill has headed to the Senate.
This debate opens up a new and interesting debate that’s been slowly growing in the Submarine Force. Each submarine is the pinnacle of her era’s technology, and is constantly being updated between patrols and tours. That being said, at the pace of technology, not to mention nuclear fuel rods, most submarines have a certain life-expectancy. If you replace the fuel rods once, a submarine can expect to serve 32-33 years (Los Angeles, the longest in-commission submarine served 34 years from 1976 to 2010. Currently, the USS Bremerton, (1981-current) is the closest to beating her title at 32 years and counting.). But at the height of the Cold War, the American Navy was commissioning 2-5 submarines in a year. Right now, Virginia class submarines, from the Virginia to the new John Warner, were being built and commissioned at the rate of one every other year to one a year. On 2008 and 2010 two were commissioned, and two submarines were started in each year for 2011 and 2012. If this bill goes through, the two subs for 2013 (likely the South Dakota and Delaware) will also start construction.
At the same time, the aging Los-Angeles Class boats are being phased out, frequently at a faster rate than the new constructions are being phased in. From 2004-2007, only three Virginia class submarines joined the US Navy, (Virginia, Texas and Hawaii), while six submarines were deactivated (Hymen G. Rickover, Augusta (finally deactivated early Jan 2008, but scheduled for 2007) Salt Lake City, Honolulu, Portsmouth, and Parche). This resulted in a net loss of three submarines. While things are balancing out a little more, as some of the oldest boats in the Navy reach 30+ years of age, the Navy has serious issues to grapple with.
Submarines are some of our most versatile vessels. They can go where surface ships can’t, whether by treaty or treacherous sea conditions. Most submarines are positioned to be in a strategic position to strike any location on earth within a 24 hour time frame (or so I’m told). Smaller numbers of submarines available means longer deployments, longer times between repairs, perhaps longer lifespans and limitations on technology as upgrades cannot be fitted into a boat without ripping her apart to her hull.
I’m not sure what the right answer is. Each Virginia costs a $2-$2.4 BILLION each, but are designed to be highly versatile. And the Virginia’s will age: Virginia herself is nine years old this year. Building new is expensive.
But the expense in decommissioning or drawing down the number of decommissioned boats is also expensive. AS anyone who owns an older car can tell you, breakdowns seem to occur more frequently as a car ages—and a sub is no exception.
Well, I expected to hear quite a bit about the Miami weeks ago, but all was quiet for a long time. Then this morning, that story took an abrupt and strange turn.
My specialty in submarines lies in their development up to WWII. That’s not to say I’m not interested in Cold War submarines or modern submarines, but it’s SO MUCH EASIER to get direct information about that time period (when most classifications have been dropped) than the modern time period (where they’re nice and healthy and in place–and from the scuttlebutt I’ve heard strongly hinted at, likely to be for many decades, if not, “Ooops! A match just fell into this box of sensitive documents. What will we do?”) But to my knowledge, there’s been no arson aboard a submarine.
The story about the vacuum was on its way to being a freak accident in the annals of submarine history, when a second fire happened in the Miami’s dry-dock cradle on June 16. It was quickly extinguished, but got investigators thinking that this was one fire too many, so started looking deeper into every aspect of the fire. And at the bottom of it, they found a very anxious young man.
A drydock worker, named Mr. Casey James Fury, has been arrested and arraigned in federal court this morning with two counts of arson. (Since the Miami is federal property, causing damage to her is a federal offense) He was initially questioned about the small fire in the drydock and soon confessed to that, but denied any involvement in the large fire on May 23. It was only when investigators told him he had failed the lie detector test that the whole story came out.
It seems that Mr. Fury clocked in for his shift at the Miami on 4 pm on May 23 and reported to work as a painter and sandblaster in the forward section of the torpedo room. This is deep in the belly of the submarine, seen in the diagram below. According to the Navy paper, that day, Fury was needle gunning in the torpedo room, or blasting paint and/or corrosion using a pneumatic or electric tool called a needle gun, which is used on irregular surfaces. At 5:30, he claims he suddenly felt really anxious, grabbed his lighter and cigarettes and went one deck up to the Crew’s Quarters (some articles say “stateroom” which normally would imply an officer’s cabin, but this area is not listed among the damaged compartments, so that could be a misstatement). Spotting a bag of rags and a vacuum on a top rack, set the rags on fire, leaving when the flames were about two inches high. The vacuum therefore, had nothing to do with the fire, other than proximity. Fury then went back to his assigned location and waited for the fire alarm to go off.
All so he could get out of work for the day. Twelve hours later, dozens of firefighters at risk from three states, seven injured, this fire was finally out.
And the vacuum was eventually announced as the culprit in a truly bizarre accident.
But then Fury had another bad day. in the early evening of June 16, Fury had a text conversation with an ex girlfriend which worried him, and he felt he needed to get off of work. Ironically, he was assigned to be “safety watch” that day in Miami’s drydock cradle. From what I can find, the safety watch’s job is just what it sounds like, to keep everyone safe. Part of that involves making sure flammable materials and sources of fire are kept separate, extinguishing fires if they start, fighting fires or hitting fire alarm for evacuation if necessary, and making sure, at the end of a shift, that there are no embers, or fire sources still active.
According to the investigator interviewed for the Navy Times, after Fury decided he had to leave early, this is what he did:
“Fury explained that he became anxious over the text conversation with his ex-girlfriend and wanted to leave work,” Gauthier said in an affidavit. “At around 6:30, he started pacing in the area of the [Main Ballast Tanks] and eventually walked aft toward a cut out in the hull near the back of the boat. His mind was racing.”
Fury grabbed some alcohol wipes, setting them on wood in the dry dock cradle. He ignited the wipes with a lighter and walked back to his work area, when the fire alarm sounded and the workers left the boat. The flames were put out before they reached 18 inches high.”
Soon, someone reported seeing a drydock employee in company jumpsuit and hard hat in the area of the fire moments before it was noticed, and soon the investigation apparently settled on Fury. He was interviewed on July 18 about the June 16 fire, and eventually admitted to it, while denying the Mat 23rd fire. It wasn’t until July 20, just four days ago,when the full story came out. To test him, the investigators asked him to retrace his steps on May 23rd aboard the USS Pasadena, an identical submarine to Miami in dryddock there in Portsmouth, then again aboard the Miami herself. However he explained himself, it was apparently enough to arrest Fury on Friday and arraign him yesterday.
Fury has apparently had his share of problems. On four different medications for Anxiety, Depression, Insomnia and Allergies, he claims he initially didn’t come forward because of is fuzzy memory of that time. To his credit, he did check himself into a mental health facility on June 21, six days after the second fire, and checked himself out two days later on June 23rd.
Now he faces life in prison, and a steep fine, as well as potential restitution.
And the story is still not done. The fate of the Miami still hangs in the balance. The official estimate of her repairs, for whatever reason, has not been announced, and the Navy is facing budget cuts this year and next. How deep those cuts will be still hangs on either passing a budget in Congress or raising the debt ceiling. The only thing that has been announced regarding her repairs, is that if they’re done, they’ll be done there in Portsmouth.
One of these day’s I’ll be able to get back to the announcement of a new U-Boat wreck recently discovered (or re-discovered) near Scotland. I’ve been enjoying researching that story because the U-1206 was one of those boats that we KNOW sank through mechanical failure, and we know how it happened because most of her crew survived (I’ll give you a hint: the seawater that sank the 1206 came in through something most of us sit on to let water OUT)
But some more news came out about the USS Miami this morning, and I wanted to strike while the iron was still hot, as the old saying goes.
And who would have thought a household(ish) appliance would be responsible?
After the Miami was vented, then explored, the Navy was able to assess the damage. Among those that went through the Miami were Maine’s two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Maine’s representative from their First District (which includes Kitterey Maine, where the Portsmouth Shipyard is located) Chellie Pingree. In addition, Joe Courtney, the representative from Connecticut’s second district (which includes nearby New London and Groton Connecticut, each major submarine locations, including a submarine-equipped drydock and shipyard) spoke with Navy representatives at the Commissioning of the USS Mississisppi (SSN-782) on June 2. (And WELCOME Mississippi to the Submarine Force! May you serve long and honorably, together with your crew!–more on her in another post)
The cross section of a Los-Angeles submarine with the allegedly damaged areas highlighted in red.
Thankfully, there were no weapons on board when this happened and it doesn’t sound like (at least no one’s mentioning it) that the batteries were in any way ruptured, even though they were just below the torpedo room. In that interview that includes Senators Snowe and Collins, two of the firefighters talked about fighting the blaze–like going into a tin can where the fire’s temperatures are just intense. Getting in and out of the sub, they said, was like descending into a chimney, but there is no choice. The worst damage, from all accounts, is in the Control and Command Center and Sonar Compartment, located on the top level.
This is likely Miami's control room, as photographed by the Navy during her 1994 overhaul. According to reports, this room was likely one of the most damaged in the May 23 fire. The only thing I recognize, which hints that this is the control room, is the helm that's just there on the right of the photo. I have to smile when I see the tarps pinned over the dials on the helm's instrument panel. When a similar helm from USS Silversides (II) SSN-679 was delivered to the USS Silversides Submarine Museum, some of those same dials had been removed and replaced by covered wooden corks. Some things are just going to remain classified. Photo source: navsource.org
Miami has been drained and had temporary lights and staging equipment installed, and just late yesterday the cause of the fire was announced:
The vacuum in question, whose name, make, model, kind, ect., is still unannounced at this time, was in an unoccupied compartment when the fire started. Being in an unoccupied compartment probably helped the blaze to spread more quickly than if it had started in an occupied compartment.
But two details that I managed to find, located in the Boston Herald and The Day, added more details to this story.
So that’s how it started and got strong enough to require nearly 12 hours of suppression to put it out.
A photo of crew's berthing from Miami's close sister sub, USS Asheville. Modern US nuclear submarines practice "hot bunking" where two crewmembers share a bunk in alternating shifts. That aside, think about trying to fight a fire down here, two decks below the only way out! Likely in the dark! Source: navsource.org
While initial repair estimates varied (Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal quoted initial repairs at $700 million to $1 billion), the current (very) rough estimate the Navy cited is $400 million dollars, plus another $40 million for cost overruns, since Miami, if she’s repaired, will now be in Portsmouth much longer than her original scheduled release of November 2013. That $40 million will cover rescheduling and reshuffling other repairs, other sub’s schedules, and possibly hiring other contractors to cover parts of various projects this will now cause or inconvenience.
The Navy and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is quick to point out that investigations are still ongoing and that quote may change. Right now, Miami is having her internal and external hulls examined for more damage. Any heat warping or damage here will be VERY expensive to fix. JAG is still conducting its investigation. NCIS, having concluded that the fire was not arson or any criminal involvement, has closed theirs. The results of all the various investigations are expected to conclude soon with an announcement sometime at the end of next week (June 15 or so) about the full extent of the damage, Miami’s fate, and the costs of either recycling or repairs. So we still have to wait for the conclusion of this story.
From Miami's close sister, USS Asheville, a torpedo room photo. Granted, the torpedoes were off the Miami during the fire, but this might give a hint and the close and cramped quarters a submarine really has. And by the time the fire fighters got this far down, they had to descend THREE decks. The battery, by the way, is just beneath this deck. Batteries which don't like heat. And do like to explode in the right conditions. Those are some firefighters! Source: navsource.org
And those firefighters were probably wearing gear similar to this. Again from the Asheville, taken in 2007 during a civilian dive day, the crew demonstrates fire fighting techniques. Each fireman would have to carry his own air, which, according to articles, only held a half-hour's air. You could carry two. (as an aside, it was December when this photo was taken, and you can get the sense how submariners decorate for the holidays on board) Source: navsource.org
The Navy has a general standing policy of fixing her boat and surface ships whenever possible. It’s often cheaper to do so. The Miami, with 22 years service under her belt, cost $900 million to build initially, and has already undergone at least two previous overhauls (1994 in Groton and 2002 in Portsmouth, which included extensive modernization). The modern Virginia-class boats which are now rolling off the ways in Newport News (VA) and Groton (CT) each cost $2.6 billion, hence the reason we don’t build as many submarines as we used to. I counted three under construction right now, with delivery dates varying from the Minnesota estimated to be commissioned late next year, to the North Dakota whose keel was laid only this past May 11. Construction will take between 15-20 months, testing a further 5-8.) So, provided Miami’s repairs aren’t too expensive for the potential years the Navy could now get out of her, they’ll likely keep her. Right now, that’s the scuttlebutt, that she will be kept, but the final decision is, of course, pending on those final results of the various investigations.
There is, as it turns out, one more resource at hand to help Miami: her older sister, MEMPHIS (SSN 691). Memphis, who is also a Los Angeles submarine like Miami, served from 17 December 1977 to 1 April 2011. She came to Portsmouth to begin the inactivation process, which includes de-fueling the reactor (and storing or reprocessing the nuclear rods), shutting down the sub and removing any usable equipment, removing the entire reactor COMPARTMENT before making her watertight and sending her off to be recycled. So, Miami has a (kind of) twin full of spare parts, sitting in a drydock not too far away which could reduce the costs of bringing her back into service. (Both in money and in time)
Taken on her way to be decommissioned, this is the USS Memphis, whose parts may go back into service aboard the Miami. Source: navsource.org
That’s where the Miami stands for now. Her future seems to be gleaming again, but the final decision is still coming. Incidentally, while researching this post, I did some digging into what Miami has been up to for the last 22 years. It’s always difficult (if not downright impossible) to figure out what and where a submarine is at any given time, but what I did find about her career is interesting. More on that later. And the U-1206. And the mini Japanese submarine recently discovered outside SYDNEY harbor, Australia. And the USS Mississippi…
For more information (besides the links in the article)
Health issues and client work (I do graphic arts and writing in addition to the historical research for this blog…besides all the regular stuff you do with and for your family!) have bogged me down lately, but I do pay attention to some of the search terms that bring people here, and I want to give my readers what they want (or stories they may never find otherwise!) so with a <gasp> moment today, here we go…
There have been submarines in the news a lot lately…from the wreck of the WWII Japanese midget submarine recently discovered off Sydney Australia, to the recently discovered U-1206, to US First Lady Michelle Obama sponsoring the new submarine USS Illinois (joining ranks with former First ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton)…the list goes on and on.
It’s unusual to see this many submarines all at once, but interesting.
As I’ve reached a breathing space in my most recent project for a museum client, I decided to tackle the news story that I noticed a lot of searches for lately: The fire aboard the Miami last week.
Miami, first of all, is a Los-Angeles class submarine which entered service in 1990. The Los Angeles class boats are the third largest class of submarines in the Navy (second only to the WWII-era Balao and Gato classes, respectively) and have been serving since 1976. If the Navy continues in their policies, it is unlikely that any Los-Angeles class submarine will be opened for public display as a museum ship, so what we know about their layout relies on information the Navy releases.
Like all nuclear submarines, Miami occasionally has to go into drydock, not only for the normal repairs for regular wear-and-tear that the sea puts on any ocean vessel, but also possibly to overhaul/replace the nuclear plant or fuel rods. A lot of what exactly happens is, obviously, top secret and kept vague, but what has been released is that Miami entered drydock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (Kittery, Maine) for a scheduled 20-month overhaul on March 1, 2012. Once secure, her nuclear plant was shut down, though her nuclear fuel rods were left on board. From what I understand from nuc sub vets, if a sub is undergoing significant overhauls or repairs, shutting down the nuclear plant seems to be a standard step. All weapons, from torpedoes and missiles down to likely the small arms, were also removed.
A submarine is a much more cramped and limited space to work and live in than a surface ship, and when you combine that with welders, braziers, grinders, electricity and other sources of sparks and flame, it can get…interesting. To that end, whenever there is a possibility of fire, there is a fire watch on duty. His job is to make sure every safety precaution is taken to keep fire from breaking out and, if it does, keep it from spreading.
The fire on Miami started around 5:45 pm on May 23, 2012, and burned for 12 hours, 5 minutes. From all accounts, it was a fierce blaze. These quotes jumped out at me from the accounts I’ve been reading:
“There was stuff burning that I didn’t even know could burn on a submarine,” John Dwire Jr., one of the firefighters, said Tuesday.
Deep inside the hull, Dwire said, he had to cut through the burning wires and cables overhead and then duck or crawl just to get to the fire in the forward section of the Groton-based attack submarine.
“It’s like going into a chimney,” said Portsmouth Naval Shipyard firefighter David Funk, who described insulation and wiring fueling a smoky fire that became hot enough for aluminum to burst into flames.
Smoke billows from the Miami through the night as the crews worked. Due to the heat, toxic fumes, and oxygen problems, firefighters had to work in shifts, often lasting less than an hour.
In total, seven people were injured between the fire and the fighting, but all, thankfully, have already been released from medical care.
How or what caused the fire on Miami has not been disclosed, and a thorough investigation is underway about it. The problem with studying the Sub Force is, for security reasons, we (the public) might never be told the details of all that happened. Still, what has been released is the fire was located in the command and control and living quarters of the Miami, which puts the fire about here:
A cross section of a Los-Angeles submarine with the possible burned sections (according to description) highlighted.
Apparently, once the firefighters left the submarine, the damaged sections of the boat were sealed, preventing a small stray spark from reigniting another fire. It’s only been recently that the Miami was opened, vented, and inspected.
From what I’ve been able to find out, the investigation will now (likely) center on some the following questions:
1.) What started the fire and how did it spread?
2.) Were all fire precaution procedures followed?
3.) Where was the fire watch when this went on?
4.) Did everyone follow procedures to limit human injury and casualty and damage to the Miami?
5.) Was this preventable based on current safety procedures (and if so, who carries the blame?)
6.) If this was due to a unique or unforeseen set of circumstances, will more or better fire procedures prevent this from happening again?
There are likely more questions, but those are the ones that seem to pop up in my reading. On the line could be the careers of the shipyard’s CO (if he did not enforce proper procedures that could have prevented or lessened the damage to Miami), the CO of the Miami (same reason on board his boat) the Fire Watch on duty (if he had fallen asleep or somehow been absent from or derelict in his duty, for example), anyone else involved, and the future of the Miami herself.
The investigation is currently estimated to be complete in 2-3 weeks.
Miami was scheduled to be practically torn apart and reassembled over the next 18 months, so her future will be partially dependent on what the fire DID. There are rumors (gotta love scuttlebutt) that the portion of the boat that was damaged was already pretty well gutted, so that’s a point in her favor. Officially, over 3 million gallons of water were used in dousing the blaze, and some compartments were nearly flooded, so there’s bound to be some water damage as well as fire. If the heat of the fire damaged her frame or structure in some way that would make her susceptible to underwater weakness, or something else that would seriously compromise the Miami without extensive repairs, the Navy may choose to scrap her instead, despite her relatively young 22 years. If the damage would cause only a few more months and millions, and the forecasted use of the Miami over the next twenty years outweighs having one less US submarine in the oceans, they may decide to add the fire repairs to the roster and keep moving forward.
How these decisions are made are complex and multi-faceted. When the San Francisco ran into an underwater mountain in 2005 and practically removed her bow up to the forward battery (one of the few times you can clearly see the sonar array in a submarine’s bow), one of the factors that saved her from being scrapped was the fact that she had just recently come out of an overhaul, including a complete refueling. It was more cost-effective, from the Navy’s point of view, to keep the San Francisco with her new fuel rods and updated technology, and replace San Fran’s bow with the bow of her soon-to-be-retired sister USS Honolulu.
The exposed bow of the San Francisco after her collision. The ruined sphere that looks like it's made small tiles is the sonar dome. Source: NavSource
A fire that ended a submarine’s career early was the fire on the USS Bonefish in 24 April 1988. While at sea, a leak caused a battery explosion and fire. The fire was so intense that it reached 1200 degrees and melted the crew’s shoe soles on the deck above the battery compartment. Three men died and the Bonefish was abandoned at sea. The remaining 89 submariners were rescued by helicopters from two nearby aircraft carriers and a whaleboat. The damage, once Bonefish was towed into drydock and examined, was too severe to fix, and she was scrapped.
USS Bonefish fire at sea. The smoke (and toxic fumes) from the fire are billowing out one of the few vents available to it. The crew is gathering on deck preparing to abandon ship. The helicopter is from a naval aircraft carrier that happened to be nearby, and the lifeboat is likely from the whaleboat that assisted with rescue.
So what happens to the Miami the next few weeks and months will depend on the findings of the investigation. Whatever is announced to the public, it’s likely that if she’s saved, the damage was minimal, or minimal enough to warrant her return to the force.
We can all hope for the best, and be thankful that whatever happens, if there is a casualty, it’ll be Miami, none of her crew.
When I was a kid, Memorial Day to me was a weekend where Dad got to stay home an extra day, weekend when we opened our pool and planted our garden. Despite their best efforts to teach us about what Memorial Day really meant, it was hard for me to really comprehend it. My grandfather served in WWII, my Uncle was in the Air Force in the 70′s, but both survived. There was no close relative or friend who I knew who had gone away and HADN’T returned, no photo of that missing uncle or cousin, the grandparent who I knew only from stories, so despite my respect for veterans that my parents instilled in me and my siblings, it was a kind of an abstract concept for me for many years–in fact, well into my young adulthood.
It’s so different now. I still don’t have that relative or friend who hasn’t returned from a warfront, whether WWII or Afghanistan or Iraq, though I know many who are serving and have served our country in the current theaters. But working with veterans and listening to their stories, happy, sad, frightening, wistful, has opened a door into that world that I can no longer NOT see. I’ve seen Submarine Veterans who literally live with ghosts, and have for years, of friends who they took R&R with, who schooled with, who got on a different boat and simply vanished. In talking to Al Jacobson and Jim Alls of the Flier crew, and the relatives of the men who never returned, I’ve gotten to “know” in a little way, these men who were so bright an vibrant and have remained frozen in youthr decades now. It’s so easy, especially when we’re young and “immortal”, for us just to see old men who can’t stop telling stories about days long gone and a world that no longer exists…but when I finally listened, I got to see the 18 year old behind the wrinkles, the greying hair, the cane, and hearing aids…and I got to meet the men who are fading into the mist if we DON’T listen. Who had dreams, and families, and plans which never flowered…and my gratitude grew so much…and I’m so thankful.
So this Memorial Day, I’m still planting my garden with my kids, still celebrating the world my family and I are blessed to live in, but I do so with a thankful and sad heart that for some people, those who never returned, those who returned with struggles they did not have to bear, and those who bore their part at home. I have greater respect than ever (sadly, six years too late) for my own grandfather who fought with Patton through the African Theater into Italy and Berlin, and who never spoke of it. I wish I could tell him, what I say now: to anyone who has served, is serving, or will serve:
Thank you for putting your life and dreams on hold to live where you’re told, wear what you’re told, and work together to do something, and even die doing something so that I can live at home and not have to fear. Thank you for leaving your comfortable and familiar world to enter situations where life, death, and injury were sometimes a matter of luck, or seconds, or a few feet right or left. Thank you for being willing to experience horrors to keep them from us. Thank you for serving so I can live in a world where my biggest worries CAN revolve around the price of gas, and the quality of my children’s education, not if someone will invade and rape, murder, torture me or steal my food and house and children, like so many of my ancestors had to worry about for centuries, and many people around the world still do. Thank you for being some of the first on the scene in natural disasters here and around the world. Thank you for being among the first to build schools and help build in places blighted by violence and natural disasters. Thank you for not only protecting those of us you leave behind in America, but protecting and serving those people whom have little connection to your personal world before you joined, and whom you may never see again.
Our military, both individually and collectively, isn’t perfect. No human is, so no organization of humans can be. But when I watch all the branches of our military, and listen to those who are willing to talk, I see people who give their all, and do their best in situations that they are protecting me from. There are no snipers in my neighborhood. No warlords taking my daughter in lieu of food a drought won’t let me grow. No one putting a gun to my head and threatening me or my family unless we change our faith, or politics, or opinions. I will never have to choose between giving my children a good education at the risk of their lives…
And our men and women in uniform, past, present, and future, are a big part of the reason why.
So this Memorial Day, (as well as everyday) I want to say “Thank You” again. For just doing what you do the best that you can, in often difficult, dangerous, and uncomfortable situations.