Exactly a year after being named after a volcano in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, the USS Mount Hood was lying at berth off Manus island in the Admiralty Islands north of New Guinea. With around 4000 tons of different types of ammunition aboard, USS Mount Hood had travelled from Norfolk, Virginia via the Panama Canal to the Pacific, bringing munitions for ships that would be supporting the Philippines campaign.
She was busy this morning, men were in the process of moving ammunition in all five of her holds, but there was time to run 18 men into shore at 0830. Just 20 minutes later the remaining 249 men on the ship would be disappear in a cloud of smoke.
At 0850, local time, on 10 November 1944, USS Argonne lay moored to a buoy in Berth 14, Seeadler Harbor. The USS Mount Hood (AE-11) (Ammunition Ship-11) was 1,100 yards away. USS Argonne’s captain, Commander T. H. Escott:
At the time of the explosion, I was standing outside my cabin… in conversation with the executive officer. By the time we had recovered our stance from the force of the explosion, and faced outboard, the area in the vicinity of Berth 380 (where USS Mount Hood had lay moored) was completely shrouded in a pall of dense black smoke. It was not possible to see anything worth reporting. A second or so thereafter, fragments of steel and shrapnel began falling on and around this ship.
Some 221 pieces of debris, ranging in size from one to 150 pounds, were recovered on board, totalling 1,300 pounds. Several other pieces caromed off USS Argonne’s port side into the water alongside, and others landed on YF-681 (Freight Lighter-681) and YO-77 (Oil Barge -77), the latter alongside delivering fuel oil at the time.
USS Mindanao (ARG-3) (Internal Combustion Engine Repair Ship-3), suffered heavily, moored in a berth between the disintegrating ammunition ship and USS Argonne. Riddled with shrapnel, USS Mindanao suffered 23 killed and 174 wounded in the explosion. USS Argonne suffered casualties, too, as well as the destruction of a 12-inch searchlight, five transmitting antennas broken away, and steam, fresh-water, and salt-water lines ruptured… as well as extensive damage from concussion.
D.D. Haverley was among a party of 30 Torpedomen waiting to go ashore from the USS Rainier to be assigned to other ships:
I was coming up the ladder from below decks when a tremendous blast threw me against the bulkhead and partially down the ladder… my first thought was that we had been hit by a torpedo. Got topside in a matter of 2 or 3 seconds, just in time to see the initial smoke and flame of the Hood’s explosion. I was mesmerized by what I saw next… the column of smoke rose straight up, and “mushroomed” at the top… a complete preview of how the A-bomb looked a year later. Within one or two minutes a terrific wave rocked the ship.
As I watched the mushroom cloud, I became instantly aware of large and small objects falling from the sky, landing in the water, some very close to us. I can not speak for the thoughts of the skipper of our ship, but suspect that he felt that the harbor was under attack, wanted to get the hell out of there, and wanted to dump us 30 Torpedo men ASAP… we were ferried to shore at once.
About the time we got to shore, the first small craft with casualties started to come in… do not recall if it was raining, but do recall that there was “red mud” everywhere. The utter chaos was a scene from hell.
Initially I thought that because the 30 of us were “ammo savvy”, that was the reason we were immediately pressed into service… the reality was, that here were 30 strong backs that were badly needed.
As the various types of small craft arrived at the beach for the next few hours, it was our job to carry the individual metal “litters” up from the beach, to a growing line of ambulances. Each litter held a body, or parts of a body…as we got near the first ambulance, a corpsman checked each litter, quickly determining the ones that held a “live” body… those were taken to the next waiting ambulance. The corpsman would say “he’s dead, over there” or “in the ambulance”.
Those that were dead or contained only body parts, were laid out three abreast, and soon piles were made with three litters laid crosswise, and three high.
After a few hours in the tropic heat, someone initially decreed that a bulldozer should dig a deep and long trench for burial purposes, basically one big “mass grave”, and the bull dozing began. It was at this point a Chaplain (I do not know his name or denomination) stepped in, and with God-given fury , he stopped the concept of a mass grave and demanded INDIVIDUAL graves for each and every body.
He prevailed, and, there were a number of Japanese prisoners of war on the island who were forced to dig the individual graves. All I could think when I heard that, was “GREAT ! HOW APPROPRIATE !”
This was the subsequent account of CDR Chester Gile, USNR,Ret., published in the US Naval Institute Proceedings, Feb., 1963:
Conversations must have been choked off in mid-word, gestures interrupted in mid-air, thoughts ended at mid-point. One moment she was a ship teeming with life, humming with activity. Seconds later, she was a vast black billowing bier which momentarily marked the spot where 350 US Navymen perished without a trace.
Mount Hood was anchored in approximately 35 feet of water. The force of the explosion blasted a trench in the harbor bottom, reported by divers as 1000 feet long, 200 feet wide and 85 feet maximum depth. In the trench was found the largest piece of the ship’s hull- a piece less than 100 feet in it’s longest dimension. Destruction was complete. Nothing was found after the explosion except fragments of metal which struck other ships. There were no bits of human remains, no supplies of any kind, nothing that had been made of wood or paper, with the single exception of a few tattered pieces of a signal notebook, floating on the water several hundred yards away.
The flying fragments from Mount Hood smashed into some 30 other ships and harbor craft bringing the total casualties to nearly 1000 killed or wounded. Some of the harbor craft simply vanished with all hands…
For some unknown reason, Mt. Hood had been anchored in the midst of the ships of the Seventh Fleet Service Force. Casualties to other vessels would have been minimized if the ammunition ship had been spotted at an isolated location a few miles down harbor, off the ammunition supply depot at Lugos, the customary anchorage for ships of this type. Somebody was at fault for designating an anchorage for Mount Hood so near to the other ships.
For more from these and many other accounts see USS Mount Rainier. Includes a transcript of the subsequent official investigation, which simply attributed the accident to “rough handling” of ammunition, without being able to be any more specific.
This account is from David Greenroos a 16 year old Navy man on the USS Mindanao:
Our last anchorage was Seeadler Harbour in the Admiralty Islands, not too far from New Guinea. This was one of the world,s largest natural harbors. I once counted 400 large ships, cruisers, battleships, freighters, troopships, etc. that were anchored briefly in the harbor, preparing for the invasion of Japan. The harbor was relatively empty when the Mt. Hood blew up. If it had blown up while the harbor was crowded, the death toll could have been ten or twenty thousand or more.
Many times, my buddies and I would look over at the Mt. Hood, and we could discern that it flew the ammunition ship flag with the E on it. In fact, we called it the E-11. We often remarked to each other that that ship was illegally parked, according to navy regulations, because an ammunition ship is supposed to be anchored thousands of yards away from other ships. We often felt very uneasy because it was there week after week.
On the morning of the explosion, I had started to work early with a new helper who had been assigned to me. His name was Italo Skortachini, an Italian kid, from New York, I think. There were six minesweepers tied alongside our ship for routine maintenance and repairs, and I was on the outermost of these minesweepers, and Italo was holding a heavy piece of metal for me to weld on a damaged railing of this minesweeper. When the blast happened, I was temporarily knocked unconscious for a second or two. I know that it was very brief because debris hadn,t started falling from the sky yet.
The blast was so strong that it blew off most of my clothes except my underwear, including my shoes. The first thing that I saw was half of Italo’s body on one side of the deck and the other half on the other side. It could have been the sheet of metal that he was holding for me that cut him in half. When I got to my feet, the captain of the minesweeper came out of his cabin and was looking toward my ship, and a flying piece of steel came through the air and impaled him like a spear to the cabin wall, It was in the center of his chest., and he gasped a little bit and then seemed to die.
Debris began to fall from the sky at this time. A large artillery shell fell on the deck, right at my feet, just as a crew member of the minesweeper came up from below. All of the minesweepers were made of wood, so as not to attract magnetic mines as the ship went about its work clearing minefields. The shell did not penetrate the heavy wooden deck of the minesweeper, and just lay there at our feet. I looked at him, and he looked at me. He asked, “Should we run?” I said, “Nobody can run that fast if it blows up. Let’s throw it overboard.” And that’s exactly what we did, expecting to be blown to bits at any second. Meanwhile, he said that there were dead men below, the ship had split open, and we were starting to sink. There were dead and dying and drowning people all around us at this point.
Read the full account at http://ussrainier.com/greenroos.html.