On this day in 1916, a U.S. Navy armored cruiser is wrecked by a massive tidal wave. USS Memphis was effectively destroyed and dozens of her crew were lost. Three sailors would earn the Medal of Honor for their actions that day.
One of the three Medals had to be awarded posthumously.
Perhaps the tragedy drives home two points? First, our military makes sacrifices even outside the sphere of battle. Second, captains and generals may get many headlines, but sometimes it is the guy in the engine room, toiling away to get a boiler working, who proves to be the real hero of the day!
USS Memphis was then anchored in Santo Domingo. Bad weather was not unusual at that time of year, so Memphis sat at anchor with 2 of her 16 boilers operating.
It wouldn’t be enough.
Not too long after noon on August 29, Memphis began to roll a bit in the water. No weather warnings had been received, but Captain Beach ordered more boilers lit. He was told that Memphis would have enough steam to get moving at about 16:35.
Unfortunately, the cruiser wouldn’t have that kind of time.
By 15:45, a gigantic wave had been spotted. It stretched the length of the horizon! By 16:00, Memphis was lurching at a 45 degree angle. Water cascaded into the ship via her gun ports and ventilators. By 16:25, water was washing into the ship via her funnels. The crew had been trying to get the boilers going, but now the fires in the boilers were extinguished.
Soon the full strength of the massive wave hit the ship. Crewmen were washed overboard. Memphis hit the beach and was more or less destroyed within 90 minutes.
Was Captain Beach at fault? Was it a tsunami? A wind-generated rogue wave? You can imagine that these issues have been discussed at length during the course of the past 100 years.
But maybe the heroes of the tragedy deserve a little attention, too.
Claud Ashton Jones was the senior engineer officer working to get the boilers up to full speed. He was so close to succeeding! But he didn’t quite make it. “[B]oilers and steampipes [were] bursting about him in clouds of scalding steam,” his Medal citation notes, “with thousands of tons of water coming down upon him and in almost complete darkness.” He stayed as long as there was any chance—but then the boilers exploded.
“Jones would not leave his post,” Captain Beach later wrote, “until all the fire rooms were cleared. I have heard captains praised for being the last to leave a wrecked ship; but what about the chief engineer, who, standing in darkness, scalded by steam, with boilers popping about him, is the last to leave his Hell?”
Jones was lucky. He lived to tell the tale. Chief Machinist’s Mate George William Rud did not. Rud’s Medal citation describes a man steadfastly holding to his post “amidst scalding steam and the rushing of thousands of tons of water into his department.” He was seriously burned and killed.
Machinist Charles H. Willey narrowly escaped the same fate. He, too, remained at his post in the midst of scalding steam and rushing water, refusing to leave until he was finally ordered to do so. When the boilers exploded, he continued to help many of his fellow sailors into the breathable air in the engine room.
All three men would receive the Medal of Honor. Their stories deserve to be told! Don’t you think that such “extraordinary heroism” and “supreme unselfish heroism” would prove so inspirational to younger generations today?
- Craig B. Smith, Extreme Waves (2006)
- Edward L. Beach Jr., The Wreck of the Memphis (1966)
- Edward L. Beach, Sr. & Edward L. Beach, Jr., From Annapolis to Scapa Flow: The Autobiography of Edward L. Beach, Sr (2003)
- Medal of Honor citation (Charles H. Willey, 8/1/1932)
- Medal of Honor citation (Claud Ashton Jones, 8/1/1932)
- Medal of Honor citation (George William Rud, 8/1/1932)
- Naval History and Heritage Command, Tragedy of USS Memphis