Cumberland Times-News

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Surviving the Leyte
Mount Savage veteran returns to scene of fatal ship explosion

(Photos courtesty of Robert Morgan and U.S. Department of the Navy)

James Rada
Times-News Staffwriter

How quickly time erases our memories. How quickly progress erases history.

Aug. 4, 2003

"Where is it?" Robert "Rags" Morgan of Mount Savage asked as he looked at the office building in front of him.

He had come to Boston to find the South Boston Naval Shipyard Annex. He had almost died there 50 years ago. Thirty-seven other men hadn’t been so lucky.

"Are you sure this is it?" asked Joe Leedy, Rags’ friend.

"It was here. This used to be the dry dock. There used to be a dozen aircraft carriers there," Rags said, pointing to the building that now sits on the waterfront.

 

"There’s not even water there now," Joe noted.

Rags nodded. The dry dock was gone and he hadn’t even been able to find the memorial that had been placed in Boston two years ago. The Navy officers they had spoken to hadn’t even known where it was.

He had come to pay his respects, but to what? It was as if all memory of the USS Leyte had been wiped from existence.

 

Oct. 16, 1953

Rags, a 21-year-old sailor, pulled his handkerchief from his back pocket and mopped the sweat from his brow as he headed up the stairs to the mess deck shortly after 3 p.m.

The aircraft carrier USS Leyte had been out to sea this morning. It was an impressive ship that cost $90 million when it had been built in 1945. It was 890 feet long and 90 feet wide and weighed 27,500 tons. When serving combat duty, it was home to 3,000 men, but there were only 1,400 men on it today as it floated at the South Boston Naval Shipyard Annex.

The morning mission had been to test the Leyte’s systems and send all of its 95 planes off on their way to Korea. The Leyte would be joining them on Monday, two days from now.

Rags wasn’t sure how he felt about the conflict. He had joined the U.S. Navy as part of the Cumberland Reserve unit in 1948 as a boiler man, but he had been activated full time in January 1951 because of the fighting on the peninsula. Though the Leyte had seen action in 1950, it hadn’t been back to Korea since then. Instead, Rags had seen many of the countries that bordered the Mediterranean Sea and found that he enjoyed Navy life. He was proud of the work he did in maintaining the ship’s eight boilers. The boilers were the heart of the ship. They drove the engines, providing up to 150,000 horsepower to allow the Leyte to reach a top speed of 32 knots per hour.

With the ship berthed, all of that power wasn’t needed. Some of the boilers had been shut down, giving Rags a break. He reached the mess deck and stopped at the geedunk stand, a place where snacks could be purchased.

Rags stopped in front of the stand and fished out his wallet.

"Hey, Jim, here’s a dollar. Give me a double-dip ice cream cone," Rags said to the sailor running the stand.

The response was a low rumble that sounded like an approaching subway train. On the deck above, a hydraulic catapult tank had ruptured and was spreading fire and death through the ship.

 

Rags barely had time to register the noise before he was thrown backward by the explosion and slammed up against the steel bulkhead. He felt a sharp pain and then dropped to the floor unconscious.

The thick gray smoke filled the lower decks as hydraulic oil burned, slowly suffocating Rags. Sailors all over the ship worked to put out the fires. In a ship where throwing matches, cigarettes and cigars on the deck was forbidden because of the fire hazard, this fire could turn the entire ship into a fireworks display. There was enough ammunition aboard to light up the Boston sky like the fourth of July and it could all be set off if the fire reached any of the 2 million gallons of fuel oil, 199,000 gallons of high-octane gasoline or thousands of gallons of paint carried on board.

Sailors worked desperately to rescue their shipmates. Men tied ropes to each other and worked their way through the halls in long lines, sometimes feeling their way through the smoke, trying to find the injured and dead. Due to the urgency of rescuing trapped shipmates crying out for help, many of the rescuers didn’t take the time to don oxygen masks or asbestos gloves.

Capt. Thomas Ahroom recalled later, "I can’t single out any individual, or any single instance of bravery, but I saw men go down through small hatches with fingers of flame shooting around them. I saw them return, singed, smoke- blackened, coughing, barely able to see, but carrying their injured buddies to safety."

Apparently, Rags may have moved or called out. Perhaps a heroic sailor was searching for survivors. Whatever the reason, Rags was found by an African-American sailor who picked him up and slung him over his shoulder and carried him up two flights of narrow stairs and through numerous 18-inch-wide hatches to the flight deck.

Rags’ younger brother Donald had been working above deck, helping with fire control and treating survivors. He saw the sailor emerge from the smoke-filled hatch with a body slung over his shoulder. The sailor placed Rags in a rescue basket to be carried off the ship and then turned and walked back below decks to continue his help.

 

As soon as he recognized his brother in the basket, Donald ran across the deck and fell to his knees besides Rags. Donald grabbed his brother and hugged him, thinking he was dead. Then his brother coughed, trying to spew the smoke from his lungs.

Amid the noise of the fire equipment and pounding of water against the Leyte as it extinguished flames, another sound, far more ominous could be heard.

"Twenty-five!" Then a few minutes later, "Twenty-six. Twenty-seven."

It was the death count as the bodies of the sailors were removed from the ship. That day the count stopped at 32, though five more men would die from their wounds later.

Death had been cheated from its 38th victim. Rags still lived.

He woke up in the infirmary. He wasn’t sure what time or day it was. He blinked and tried to look around but his neck was bound so that he couldn’t turn it. He had ruptured a couple of disks in his neck that would require an operation later.

"Just lie still. You’ll be all right," said Donald, who had been by his brother’s side since the fire had been contained at 6 p.m.

"What happened?" Rags asked.

Next to Rags’ bed, an orderly and another man reached down to pick a sailor up from the floor. When they stood up, the orderly was holding the man’s arm and that was all.

His eyes went wide when he realized what had happened and he screamed. The other man grabbed him and tried to calm him to no avail. In the end, the orderly had to be sedated.

Though Donald hadn’t answered Rags’ question, that sight explained much to Rags.

He had survived the worst Navy explosion in peacetime since 48 men died on board the battleship Mississippi off the coast of California on June 12, 1924.

Aug. 4, 2003

Rags was lost in his memories as he stood on the edge of the pier looking out on the ocean where he once thought he would spend his life. Tears ran down his cheeks, remembering his friends who had died 50 years ago.

He and Joe tossed the wreath they were holding out on the water and watched it bounce back and forth on the waves before the current took it out to sea.

Rags stepped back from the edge and Joe turned on a tape player. The sound of "Taps" came out of the player and Rags and Joe faced the ocean and saluted the fallen sailors of the USS Leyte.

Some things can never be forgotten.

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