As one of the “Senior” members of the Saint Paul Association, I have been asked to write a monthly column for inclusion in our USS SAINT PAUL ASSOCIATION web site. I guess that is the kind of thing you can expect to occur when you get to be old, hence, the request.
While I will generate such a column, I would hope that you would be so triggered to respond with your own recollection of the event, or contribute a “rememory” of your own.
Why me? As I said, because I am old! I enlisted in the Navy straight out of high school at the age of seventeen just as the Korean War began. After completing Fire-Control Technician Class A School, Richard “Joe” Lea, # 900, and I came aboard the ship in the Fox Division. We served aboard from 1951-54 through the “Police Action” and beyond.
I had never heard of the USS SAINT PAUL ASSOCIATION until I received a call from a former shipmate from Fox Division, Kiffin Gilbert, #1118, who called me to join. I soon became a Director, Vice-President, President, Immediate Past-President and then served as Secretary for twelve years.
So, yes, I am old! But what an advantage that is for this assignment! I have significant knowledge of this Association, and have stories of my time aboard the Saint Paul as well as those told to me by others that I can share. But as I said, I welcome your contributions to this column as we progress. So let us begin.
One of my strongest memories occurred on April 21, 1952. That was when an explosion occurred in Turret #1 while we were conducting shore bombardment. Thirty shipmates were killed nearly instantaneously. This was the largest Navy casualty of the Korean War.
The ship was nearing the end of it’s second Korean cruise, and contemplating a return to the states in six weeks. It was a bright, sunny Spring-day. We were continuing shore bombardment in the Kojo area. Turret One was manned and firing as were two five-inch mounts and a couple of three-inch mounts. The ship was in Condition II watch which was typical for such shore bombardment. I was down in Sky Plot (the computer plotting room where all fire-control was conducted for all five-inch mounts). Sky Plot is immediately adjacent to Main Plot where similar operations are conducted for the Main Batteries (the eight-inch guns). It was about 1600 hours so watches were being changed. The crew manning Turret one was from the Third Division and had just come on watch.
There was a muffled explosion that could not be heard five decks below in the plotting rooms, nor did we experience any shaking of the ship. Apparently, the Captain saw smoke curling out from under Turret One and General Quarters was sounded throughout the ship. This was followed by “this is not a drill! Away fire and rescue party to Turret One!!”
With the sounding of GQ, all hatches are closed and dogged down locking all hands in their battle stations. The plotting rooms are five decks below so that any chance of escaping should “Abandon Ship!” be called were vanishingly small. Information was sparse as to what had occurred or was happening. Fox Division has personnel manning the gun-fire control directors high in the ship’s superstructure, so we received some word about the smoke from Turret One. Some time later word began to be spread from the Fire and Rescue Party who had entered the turret.
When the hatch to the turret was opened, the team found no fire, only heavy dense smoke. As the dense smoke began to clear, battle lanterns revealed dead bodies. The sprinkler system in the turret did function, but was of little value for what occurred.
One of the guns had been loaded and fired, but for some reason there was a hang-fire. The powder loaded in the gun had been triggered, but did not explode ejecting the loaded eight-inch projectile. Mistakenly, somehow, the breech was opened exposing the two bags of powder in the gun that then exploded, along with two more bags on the loading ramp to be loaded for the next round, and the fire swept down burning more gun-powder bags. The resultant burning released toxic fumes immediately killing all 30 men exposed. Had that fire swept down to the powder rooms, the resultant explosion might have blown-up the ship.
A pall hung over the ship as we were released from GQ, and word spread as to the disaster. The bodies were removed from the turret and identified. None had been burned – all died from asphyxiation. Master Chief George Johnson, # 444, began the unenviable task of sewing the bodies in canvas for transfer. The ship steamed south at full speed to Pusan where the flag-draped bodies were transferred to the Hospital Ship, USS HAVEN. All hands, dressed in blue uniforms stood at attention and saluted as an Honor Guard and pall bearers transferred the bodies to small boats to carry them to the USS HAVEN. The Navy Hymn was played as the last body was transferred. The ship’s crew made one last salute as the ship’s bugler sounded Taps.
The ship weighed anchor and began the long cruise back to the firing line. Rest-In-Peace these 30 young shipmates of the USS SAINT PAUL (CA-73).