Some background information

Captain William D. Brown had recently taken command of USS Missouri (BB-63) when he was ordered to proceed from Hampton Roads early on 17 January 1950 to perform a routine training mission. As part of this excursion, he was ordered to run his ship through an acoustic range that would measure the noise signature that the ship created. As the ship headed out, Capt. Brown and his navigator, Lt. Cmdr. Frank Morris, were on the 08 level, high in the superstructure. The officer of the deck reported to the captain that he had spotted an orange and white buoy, which marked the left edge of the acoustic range. Unfortunately, both the navigator and the operations officer advised Capt. Brown to steam to the left of this buoy when they should have told him to bear to the right. At the same time, Capt. Brown ordered an increase of speed to 15 knots. The XO and the quartermaster tried to warn Capt. Brown that he was heading the wrong way, but their advice was ignored. As a result, Capt. Brown ran his ship aground at a point 1.6 miles from Thimble Shoals Light, near Old Point Comfort in Chesapeake Bay. USS Missouri went into the mud at 12.5 knots and traversed shoal water for a distance of about three ship lengths from the main channel. The grounding lifted her about 7 feet (2 meters) above her waterline and left her badly stranded on a mud flat. This was also during an unusually high tide, making matters worse. During the next three weeks, four unsuccessful attempts were made to free her. After a channel was dredged back to the main shipping channel, the fifth try, with the aid of a fleet of tugs, pontoons, an incoming tide and good deal of elbow grease, succeeded and she was refloated on 1 February 1950.

The damage was relatively minor and the Missouri was quickly repaired and was able to proceed on a previously scheduled training cruise in mid-February. However, for years there have been persistent rumors that her keel had been badly bent and that she was limited to no more than 15 knots for the rest of her life. One of the biggest rumors has been that one of the 16" (40.6 cm) turret barbettes, a round cylinder made up of Class A armor between 11.6 and 17.3 inches (29.5 to 44.0 cm) thick, was badly cracked as a result of the grounding.

None, repeat, none of these rumors are true. But, let me let Dick tell it in his own words.

Tony DiGiulian

The Crack

There have been many rumors and sea stories about the crack in the armored barbette of turret III on the USS Missouri. Most rumors claim it was caused by the ship's grounding in Hampton Roads. Not hardly, since the ship's hull was bogged down in a sand bar several hundred feet forward. There were also rumors that not all of the hull repairs for the grounding were completed, thus restricting her speed. All of these rumors are untrue and this article is being offered to clear the whole mess up.

In 1982 I was assigned to be the Hull Configuration Manager at Long Beach Naval Shipyard for the reactivation of Missouri and to inspect and compare configuration control on all four ships of the class. I was responsible to monitor, inspect, advise and design all structural modifications and repairs to the ship's hulls, superstructure and armor. So what you are about to read comes directly from "the horse's mouth".

In 1982 and in 1983 we did shipchecks of Missouri as she was still laid up in Reserve in Bremerton, Washington. On the first trip I photographed the crack in the starboard side of the barbette.

Prior to that, NAVSEA had also inspected the crack and cut a rectangular coupon out of it for analysis. I wish they had called me first because I had all the manufacturer's specs as to the analytical content of the class A armor (thanks to Nathan Okun in Oxnard, California for supplying them). That coupon cut with the square corners to concentrate stresses was just asking for more cracks to emanate from the corners.

Additionally, NAVSEA also X-rayed the barbette panel to see how deep the crack went. Their readings were still written on the side and I copied them all down. I also measured the exact shape and size of the crack using grid dimensions from the aft panel butt and down from the underside of the main deck.

Upon return to Long Beach, I then developed a repair procedure for the crack. Actually, it wasn't repair, but cosmetic cover up. Primarily, we had to cut out a couple of large chunks of the separated armor surface to eliminate the square corners of the coupon cut. Then we merely filled it in with underwater hull smoothing epoxy resin. After painting, you cannot tell where the crack is.

Now, for the cause of the crack. It is actually a laminar separation of the heat treated face of the class A armor. The face was carburized and hardened to a 540 Brinnel hardness up to 40% of the depth of the plate. The barbette panel is 17.3 inches thick and the laminar separation went no more than 6 inches deep, thus proving it was within the outer 40% heat treated depth.

Actually, throughout the entire ship, examples of laminar separation, starting near the edge of an armor panel, are quite common. During modernization at the shipyard, I got called out several times by ship's officers to inspect (and alleviate their fears) "cracks" in the class A armor. But this was only on the Missouri and not the other three ships of the class.

Checking the Basic C&R (Construction & Repair) drawings still on microfilm, drawing number 351465 "BARBETTE-III-ARMOR, PLATE- III-B-4" gives the most obvious clue as to why only Missouri has the most obvious evidence of laminar separation over her sisters.

The drawing lists which manufacturers were to make which armor for which ship. Bethlehem Steel Co. made the class A armor for the Iowa and New Jersey. Carnegie-Illinois Steel Co. made the class A armor for the Wisconsin, Illinois and Kentucky. But Missouri’s class A armor was made by The Midvale Co.

I checked with Nathan Okun, and he confirmed through his personal research that Midvale used a different carburizing and heat treating method than either Bethlehem or Carnegie. Midvale's method probably quenched the surface too quickly and caused many cases of laminar separation. But, as long as the heat treated surface stayed there, it would still do its job to break up a projectile casing of incoming artillery.

You see, it's pretty tricky face hardening 12 to 17 inch thick nickel-chrome steel and still leave the edges "soft" for machining of keyways that would lock the panels together. Generally, the armor panel would be lying with its back side down on a flat car of wet sand and the edges would be wrapped in wet asbestos while the face was heated for its final treatment. When the top 40% of the panel was hot enough, it was then cooled with water sprays. If it cooled too fast, then some areas would start to peel away, usually beginning along an edge that was kept "cool" with the wet asbestos shielding.

As for interior damage up forward remaining from the grounding, I personally inspected the decks and bulkheads in that area and found no residual damage. When the ship was drydocked in Long Beach, I went down into the dock, before all the water was even out yet, and it took some time but I finally found the welds of the shell insert where she was repaired. That general area also required the installation of new sea water intakes and discharges for modernization era air conditioning plants. I had the shipfitter's report back to me if they found any damaged areas that still needed repair. After a few weeks, I was getting concerned since I received no reports. Interviewing the shipfitters and their supervisors, they said that nothing needed further repair. They were able to identify how far into the ship's framing the repairs went and discovered that all repairs were A-1 in quality and completeness.

In summary, the crack in panel III-B-4 of Barbette III was caused by laminar separation during heat treatment at the foundry. Repairs by Norfolk Naval Shipyard of the hull from the grounding were thorough and expertly done.

Also, speed restriction of the ship to only 26 or 28 knots are also anti-Battleship biased. I was on Missouri’s high speed trial run in 1986 and that old gal kicked up a rooster tail you wouldn't believe at 32 knots for 4 hours without a waiver. Then we did a full "Crash Back" by changing the props from full forward to full reverse in just seconds. The momentum of 50,000 plus tons still carried the ship forward for over a mile. But the reversal of props never even sent the slightest vibration through her. I was about midships down on Broadway at the time. Then we ran full throttle in reverse for another 2 hours. Then we went full forward again at 32 knots and did dozens of high speed turns with the rudders hard over.

Crack? I dare you to find it.

Grounding hull damage? You need diving gear to find the repair welds, maybe.

Speed restriction? HAH!

So there.

Additional comments

1 August 1999

Further points about the grounding:

  1. The bow did not strike anything, nowhere, notime, nohow.

  2. The caved in shell plating was out by the bilge strake way back around frame 40 or so.

  3. It was not the centerline keel that was damaged. It was the bilge keel. Two slivers of 3/8" thick plate riveted together as a V shape to help stabilize the ship as anti-roll planes. Most of the seriously damaged bilge keel was replaced, but not all of it. No need to because every time one of those ships go through the Panama Canal, they don't put enough water into the Gatun locks and the edges of the bilge keels get all buggered up by the radius corners of the lock gates.

  4. Drydock survey, with transits and sight lines, after installation of new chill water sea chests, could not detect any deformation in the centerline keel.

  5. When we did the New Jersey hull repair, I noticed how the keel was not quite resting on the centerline blocks for about 20 or 30 feet up just aft of the bow. Up to a half inch gap at a couple of the blocks. But Missouri's setting was solid all around.

  6. If any such damage actually occurred and restricted the ships speed, then when I was on her high speed run and she was clipping along at 32 knots, I wonder what her full speed should have been then. I hardly call 32 knots at 200 shaft rpm restricted, especially since we could have kicked in another 10 or 15 rpm.

Editor's note

Many people ask, "what happened to the people involved in the grounding?"

Captain William D. Brown

Courtmartialed, pleaded guilty, reduced by 250 numbers on the list of captains, spent the rest of his active duty time on shore duty.

Lieutenant Carr, CIC Operations Officer

Received letter of reprimand.

Lt. Cmdr. Frank Morris, Navigator

Reduced on promotion list.

Commander George Peckham, XO

Cleared of all charges. He had tried to warn the captain of the dangers but was ignored.

Quartermaster Bevan Travis, Helmsman

Cleared of all charges. He had questioned the captain's orders, but then obeyed after Captain Brown had poked his head in and made sarcastic remarks towards him.

Lieut. James Forehan (engineering officer), Ensigns Fredrick Koch and Robert Walters were commended for their quick action in shutting down the valves sending fuel into the boilers. These men had been on deck but quickly went down into the machinery spaces when the grounding occurred. Their timely actions prevented catastrophic damage to the ship's engines when cooling water was lost after the ship's intakes became stuffed with mud.

Tony DiGiulian


This article originally appeared in the ICPA newsletter. It is republished here with the kind permission of of the author, Richard A. Landgraff.

All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.

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23 June 2002