US Coast Guard Photo, from The Saturday Evening Post, May 13, 1944.
From The Saturday Evening Post, May 13, 1944:
The "Subway Sailors"
|Not even the citizens of Manhattan and Jersey City know how close they came to disaster the day a burning ammunition ship almost blew up in their faces.|
A BATCH of those land-based Coast Guardsmen sometimes jeeringly referred to as "subway sailors" were dawdling in their Jersey City barracks at 5:30 o'clock on the afternoon of April 24, 1943. They were waiting for supper and, afterward, the pleasures of liberty. It was payday and the day before Easter, and New York, in holiday mood, was just across the harbor.
These Coast Guardsmen were members of the munitions detail, which meant that they fought the war by supervising the loading of ammunition at New York harbor. The ammunition went to battle, but these Coast Guardsmen stayed home. Other Coast Guardsmen distinguished themselves landing marines and soldiers under fire at Tulagi, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Africa, Sicily, Salerno. But the voyaging and adventures of the munitions detail so far consisted mainly of riding the subways to visit girls in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and the dark nooks in Central Park suitable for pitching woo. That's why their traditional sparring partners, longshoremen and ship workers, dubbed them "subway sailors."
The term seemed particularly applicable on this pre-Easter afternoon, as the boys prepared for romantic forays. They had donned their pea jackets and carefully pressed dress blues. Some were rubbing shoes already gleaming like onyx and some were doing their nails when the door was flung open and a voice yelled, "Hey, ammo ship on fire! They want thirty volunteers!"
A burning ammunition ship is a Gargantuan bomb. It is perhaps the most dangerous thing in the world. These youngsters knew that. Yet, of the nearly sixty slicked and dressed-up Guardsmen in the barracks, not one hesitated. They dived for the door like kids released from school and headed for the circus. They scrambled for places on one truck until they were dripping from the fenders, clinging to the top of the driver's cab, dangling over the tail gate. About twenty others piled into a small pickup truck designed to hold ten, and the two trucks went racing the eight miles through Jersey City with horns blowing, the red USCG lights blinking, fenders rubbing on tires, white sailor caps blowing off and the boys whooping as if on a roller coaster. They passed Jersey City fire engines as if they were in low gear.
Startled traffic cops and auxiliary policemen at the pier tried to flag them down, only to be forced to jump for their lives. These subway sailors weren't going to lose their first chance for action. They thumbed their noses and jeered raucously at white-faced carpenters and longshoremen fleeing the scene; then, as the trucks screeched to a halt, piled off and poured onto the burning ammunition ship.
Despite these Keystone Comedy aspects, the situation was fraught with overtones of potentially vast tragedy. It may be that these boys, skylarking into peril—and, of course, Jersey City firemen and two New York fireboats—saved downtown New York and parts of North Jersey from the worst disaster in history.
The burning ship was the El Estero, an ancient Panamanian freighter, with 1365 tons of explosives, including one-ton bombs, in her hold. She was docked at an Army loading pier in Jersey City. Tied up to the same pier were two other ships, similarly loaded. On the pier were railroad cars with another deadly shipload. If the El Estero went, the rest would almost certainly go too. That would mean an explosion of about 5000 tons, or 11,000,000 pounds, in practically one terrific blast.
What that could have done to downtown New York, eastward across the harbor; to the Statue of Liberty, a half mile away; to Jersey City, Bayonne and Staten Island literally baffles the imagination. The devastation that can be wrought by even one ammunition ship exploding is not only incredible but unpredictable. The explosion of one such ship in Halifax Harbor during the last war leveled half that city. Here were four shiploads. In theorizing on the effects of increasing quantities of explosives, experts square rather than multiply. The blast of a two-ton bomb is supposed to be four times as violent as that of a one-ton bomb, rather than twice; and the devastation possible from a six-ton bomb is theoretically thirty-six times that of the simple one-ton gadget. Here were 5000 tons. What they might do to the New York area under the circumstances is a guess. One Coast Guard official who has dealt with explosives for fifteen years says that blast could have razed half of New York's famous sky line, flattened the Empire State Building and Radio City, and killed up to 1,000,000 people. Other experts say this is exaggerated: that it more likely would have broken a lot of windows and rocked some buildings in New York City and done quite a bit of damage to Jersey City, Bayonne and Staten Island. The danger was such that disaster-control units were mobilized in Bayonne and other North Jersey cities, and residents of those places and downtown New York were warned by radio announcements to open their windows and stay away from them.
ONE thing was certain—anyone aboard or close to the El Estero when she went up would not require a funeral. He would be too thoroughly blown to tiny bits.
There were Coast Guardsmen aboard the El Estero before these volunteers arrived. There was, for instance, Tom Savoury. He is a chunky lad, happy-go-lucky and devoted to dancing. He worked as a tool-and-die maker in Nyack, New York, before joining. Tom was on a near-by ship when he saw the black smoke pouring from the El Estero. Workmen all around him began running to safety. Tom ran, too, but to find Lt. (j. g.) Francis McCausland.
"There's a fire on that ship, sir!" he blurted. "May I go aboard?"
There was Tom Joyce, a tall lad with a cautious air and a down-East twang. He brought the latter from Portland, Maine, where he worked his way through high school by cashiering at the Elm Enterprise Roller Skating Rink. Joyce was on antisabotage duty aboard the ship. He was sitting on the edge of No. 1 hold, 'tweendecks, watching carpenters below boarding up cargo, when he heard running overhead. He looked up and saw smoke.
Casually he called to the carpenters, "Okay, you guys! Quitting time!"
Just then a running voice yelled, "Fire! Fire!"
The carpenters began milling toward the ladder. Panic seemed imminent.
Joyce calmly threw a leg over the edge of the hatch and drawled, "Nah, there's no fire. That guy's crazy. Bring your tools with you; it's quitting time."
Obedient to the calm authority in this slim youngster's voice, the men came up in good order, bringing their tools along.
Joyce and Savoury were to play further roles in this battle against disaster and sudden death, but meanwhile others were getting into action. About a dozen Coast Guardsmen scattered over the pier converged on the burning ship, some bringing trailer pumpers. Lieutenant McCausland--on military leave from the New York Sun--began organizing the battle. He ordered alarms sent to the barracks. He signaled near-by tugs to move the two other ammunition ships to safe anchorage. Three trim red Coast Guard fireboats--converted fishing craft with pumping engines mounted on deck--were closing in. Soldiers began moving the explosives-laden railroad cars off the pier.
Into this scene scrambled the volunteers from the barracks, waving their hats and howling like cowboys at a rodeo. Once aboard, however, the horseplay ceased. Dressed in their holiday best, they grabbed hoses and axes, and dived into the smoke and steam down inside the ship, hunting the root of the fire. By this time great clouds of the thick, black, greasy smoke peculiar to an oil fire were gushing from the ship and settling over the harbor, but these boys plunged into the thick of it without gas masks.
The rule books say an oil fire should be fought with chemicals. But the source of this fire was the bilges under the El Estero's blazing boiler room, too inaccessible and too hot to get at. Fuel oil had leaked into the bilges, under the floor plates, and there it had somehow ignited. Flames swept through the boiler room itself and licked at the metal walls until they became so hot that the wooden sheathing and crates of cargo in the hold on the other side began to burn. Already, bombs and other explosives were warm, and becoming warmer every moment.
The only thing, apparently, was to pour water, and more water, and hope to beat down the flames to a point where they could be reached with chemicals. The instinct of the first arrivals was right. When professional firemen came, they concurred; and two Coast Guard lieutenant commanders—John T. Stanley, commanding the munitions detail, and Arthur F. Pfister, in charge of Coast Guard fireboats—nodded their heads when they saw yellowish-white streaks in the black smoke. They were on a fast boat, racing from Stanley's office.
"It shows they're getting water right on the fire," said Pfister, who was an acting deputy fire chief in New York before joining the Coast Guard.
Getting water right on the fire had been difficult. Tom Savoury had grabbed a hose and wrestled it to the top deck. But when he ran back to turn on the water, there was no pressure. Here he was, aboard a burning ship likely to blow sky-high any moment, and no water. Just then, however, Coast Guardsmen got hoses aboard from their trailer pumpers. Tom Joyce, having got his carpenters safely off the ship, grabbed the first hose aboard and dragged it to the deck above the boiler room. It almost got away from him when water surged through it, but he hung on until two mates relieved him. They were Joe Semonik, a twenty-year-old former soda jerker from Trenton, New Jersey, and Leo Merrill, a husky from the backwoods of Maine. Then Joyce grabbed an ax and smashed in a skylight to make room for more nozzles. Smoke and steam rushed out with a roaring "whoosh."
Tom Joyce's ax was all over the place after that. He came along as Commander Stanley ordered steel ready boxes containing cases of antiaircraft shells for the ship's own guns moved to a safer place. They were on the top deck, dangerously close to the blistering top of the boiler room. The shells had tetryl in them, a touchy stuff quite sensitive to heat. But the ready boxes were too heavy, and they were padlocked, and the Navy gun crew had taken the keys along when they left the ship. Joyce sized up the situation. He spit on his ax handle and swung. Off popped the locks.
Coast Guardsmen then toted the metal cases of shells across the hot deck to the bridge, and from there slid them down a greased plank to the foredeck. There, other Coast Guardsmen nonchalantly caught them.
It was a race against time, with the stakes potential disaster for throngs in New York and the North Jersey harbor cities now pouring home from work, doing belated Easter shopping or having supper, unaware of the menace that hung over them and the drama going on at that drab pier. Radio warnings had reached comparatively few, and been pitched—mirabile dictu—in understatement. Even in Bayonne, where air-raid wardens were going from house to house, warning residents, there was no panic. It seemed too remote, too impossible. But to those aboard the ship there was the stark question: Could they pour enough cold water in time?
Several volunteers were groping in the dark, smoke-packed holds, feeling the bombs and other explosives. When they found some too warm, they signaled for streams of water in that direction. Few front-line fighting men have ever been in greater danger than these kids, these subway sailors. But they laughed whenever they had the breath, and today it is the comic aspects they talk about.
Bill Ryder, an open-faced youngster fresh from boot camp, was told to wander around the afterdeck, feeling for hot spots with his hands. He did so, religiously, and reported them, so that water could be poured into the dangerous areas.
After a while, he sang out blithely, "Sir, I can feel it through the soles of my shoes now."
This added new consternation to the confusion of the fire. The skylight caught the cord of the huge steam whistle, pulling it taut. Everyone within hearing jumped as that whistle let go. The effect was worst on Tom Savoury and two others, who had dragged a hose up the ladder of the funnel with the idea of sticking the nozzle into the funnel itself. Two things happened suddenly and almost simultaneously. The water came on, making the awkwardly held hose buck and hard to handle on their precarious perch. And the steam whistle went off three feet from Savoury's nose. The idea of sticking the nozzle down the funnel was dropped right then.
Within three hours it became obvious that, despite the skill and bravery of the New York and Jersey City firemen, the subway sailors and the handful of crew members who stuck, it was a hopeless fight. The El Estero was doomed. It was only a matter of time—perhaps minutes—before she blew up; unless she could be sunk first.
The Army authorities in charge of the pier rightly objected to sinking her where she was. That would mean tying up critically needed pier space. While Commander Stanley and weatherbeaten Ole Ericksen, tugboat captain, pored over a harbor chart, Coast Guard officers went among the now grimy and weary volunteers and put it to them. They had done a noble job, far more than their duty. Who, now, was willing to go the last perilous mile with the doomed ship?
So many volunteered that the officers arbitrarily had to assign a few to remain at the pier. As Ericksen's two tugboats, the Margaret Olsen and the Ola G. Olsen, took hold of the burning El Estero, now belching smoke worse than ever, the boys who remained on board tossed their wallets, watches and their pea jackets, which they had doffed and carefully stowed, to their mates on the dock. They understood the chances against their coming back.
The land firemen, except for a few volunteers, had left. It was now strictly a Coast-Guard-and-fireboat job. The fireboats still clung to the El Estero, with their hoses reaching up her sides. In the dim light, each looked like a giant octopus clutching the dying ship. The water pumped into her was now making her list sharply until the starboard rail was several feet under water. On the high side, the deck was so hot that shoes sizzled and curled at the toes. Directly over the boiler room a dull orange glow lighted the thick black smoke. A few portable electric lamps and flashlights winked around the decks, sometimes flickering briefly over a fireman or Coast Guardsman slumped from exhaustion and too much smoke. The afterdeck was garish in the glare of fireboat spotlights.
Lieutenant McCausland, with a broken finger and swollen hand from helping pull a fireman out of No. 3 hold, his eyes bloodshot, staggering from smoke and fatigue, had to be ordered out of the engine room. He spent the next three weeks in the hospital. Lt. George Spellman, a former merchant-marine captain, passed out life jackets. He tendered the last one to Ed Mulvaney, noted in the detail for his jitterbugging. "You keep it, sir," protested Ed.
"Put it on, son!" he said quietly. "That's an order!"
Men did queer things in those hour-long minutes as the ship was anchored in forty feet of water just off the channel and she began to sink under the weight of the water poured into her. A dark-faced youngster from the ship's crew pointed to the emergency lamp Homer Nagy, one of the volunteer Guardsmen, was using. "Thees lamp belong on sheep," he warned in his Panamanian accent. "You put him back when fineesh. Don't forgat!"
A Jersey City fireman stayed aboard to the bitter end, poking his flashlight around, demanding of each person if he had seen his special crowbar, made of hard copper.
Down in a small, hot and smoky compartment adjacent to the boiler room were the two clowns of the outfit: Larry Blancone, who used to press pants in his father's tailor shop in Riverside, New Jersey, and Herman—Jake the Fake—Jacobson. When the order, "Abandon ship!" at last rang through the El Estero, Larry stumbled over Jake, overcome by smoke. Larry is five feet five, and Jake is more than six feet, built in proportion. But somehow little Larry got Jake partly over his shoulder and dragged him up the narrow ladderway to the deck. Jake, semiconscious, kept a death grip on his fire ax. It swung like a pendulum, the spiked end occasionally jabbing little Larry's legs and causing him to swear bitterly at the pal whose life he was saving. This sight, as they emerged on deck, somehow struck the rest of the subway sailors as hilarious. It broke the tension. They exploded into raucous laughter.
And thus they left the sinking ship.
They had not, of course, done the whole job, alone, of saving New York from whatever would have happened had the El Estero blown up. But it was undeniably their timely arrival, numbers and daring work which tipped the balance. All have received personal letters of citation from Rear Adm. Stanley V. Parker. Commander Stanley got the Legion of Merit medal, and Lieutenant Commander Pfister got the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. The subway sailors didn't even get supper when they got back to their barracks. The cooks were all asleep.