Many of you probably know the story of one of the most infamous groundings to occur in Hampton Roads—that of the battleship USS Missouri—whose captain merrily drove it onto Thimble Shoals on January 17th, 1950 thanks to sheer arrogance fueled by terrible interdepartmental US Navy communication (read: it wasn’t just bad communication–there wasn’t ANY communication!).
The story has been told well in other places (My particular favorite is: https://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-infamous-grounding-of-uss-missouri.html), so I thought I would relate an interesting incident that occurred during the salvage operation that most people haven’t heard; a circumstance that led to Mariners’ having a really odd commemorative object related to the event in our collection.
The story comes from LCDR Robert K. Thurman, commander of the USS Windlass (ARS(D)-4), one of two salvage lifting vessels sent to help with the refloating of Missouri, and LCDR Negus W. Knowlton, who served as a liaison between the staffs of the Commander Service Force and Commander Cruisers and was in charge of the Service Force Vessels at the time of the grounding.
When Windlass arrived from the Bayonne Salvage Center in New Jersey on January 19th, Thurman was ordered to prepare his ship to pull on the port quarter of the grounded ship (the USS Salvager would pull on the starboard quarter). To undertake their task, they loaded two additional 8,000-pound Eells anchors and two 3,000-foot sections of 2” towing hawser (wire) on board Windlass and proceeded to the vicinity of the grounded USS Missouri.
In the following diagrams you can see the layout of the beach gear and the multitude of ships it took to refloat the stranded vessel. On the first one, you can see the Windlass off the stern port quarter of Missouri and the layouts of its anchors and cables. On the second, you can see the cables running between Missouri and Windlass and from Windlass to her stern anchors.
Thurman relates that they prepared to lay out two 900-foot 1-5/8” cables each “with two Eells anchors in tandem” from the port and starboard quarters. With the help of a harbor tug, Windlass placed and secured both sets of Eells anchors by stringing the 1-5/8” wires out over the stern and then moving Windlass towards the Missouri until both the wires were tight. They then dropped Windlass’ anchor to keep the ship in position.
They prepared to run the 2” wire cable to the port quarter of the Missouri by carefully flaking the cables in a figure-eight pattern on Windlass’ deck and tying off the after ends of each coil so the cable could be temporarily stopped to prevent too much wire from running out at one time. While they were running out the starboard cable, one loop of the flaked wire caught a loop underneath of it. The crew shook the wire hoping the tangle would sort itself out and continued paying out the wire.
After both cables were secured to the grounded Missouri, the Windlass’ winches took in the slack of the cable to the point where the “catenary of the wire” was just above the water line. [Vocabulary lesson time! The “catenary” is the bottom of the curve in a cable when its suspended between to fixed points.] At that point, Windlass’ crew noticed something hanging off the starboard cable. It was late, so they just secured everything for the night and hoped that whatever was snagged on the cable would fall off overnight.
The next morning, however, showed the unknown object still hanging on. Thurman ordered a harbor tug to take him and a few of his crew out to examine the cable and what they discovered was very interesting! Apparently the tangle had not resolved itself and when Windlass took the slack out of the cables running between the two vessels, the 100 tons or so of strain put on the cables tightened the loops into a perfect bowline knot. [Well frack…two ships can tie a perfect bowline out of 2” wire cable without even looking while I can’t even do it with flimsy rope while carefully reciting the “bunny comes out of the hole and runs around the tree”!]
To overcome the problem, the crew of Windlass worked some sort of magic with the cable that involved a new section of wire, a 20-ton chain-fall and something called a Bolivian clamp in order to circumvent the knot. I’d explain it better, but I’d probably be lying to you. If you’re truly interested let me know and I’ll send you LCDR Thurman’s exact description of what they did.
During the clean-up and recovery phase of the operation someone cut the knot section out of the cable. LCDR Knowlton mounted it on a board and donated to the Museum on February 28, 1950. I wonder if Mariners’ can claim ownership of the biggest, heaviest knot on the planet?