The crew of DE 221

Pulling into Leonardo Pier I of the Naval Ammunition Depot at Earle, N.J. to discharge ammunition, just prior to the explosion that killed 7 crewmembers.

Shortly after 1130, three explosions
blasted the ship near her number
2 upper handling room.

Salvage work was begun by 1500 and
her wrecked superstructure was cut off
to prevent her capsizing.

Her number 2 gun was demolished and the bridge, main battery director, and mast were all blown aft and to starboard. Both sides of the ship were torn open.  The following photos detail the damage.

 

click on a photo for a larger view

Photos courtesy of the National Archives, J. D. Reed, Fireman First Class from the Navsource Web Site
 and Pat Perrella, USS Slater DE 766 Volunteer Curator from photos donated to the museum collection by John M. Mitchell, ET1, USS BRISTER DER-327. The photos are on exhibit in the C-203L compartment near Locker #50.

USS Solar DE 221

Solar was commissioned at Philadelphia Navy Yard on 15 February 1944, Lt. Comdr. Hadlai A. Hull, USNR, in command.

From April to December 1944,  she escorted one convoy to Casablanca and three convoys to the Mediterranean and back to the U.S.  From December to February she served as a training ship for destroyer and destroyer escort crews.  On 2 February 1945, she resumed Atlantic convoy duty.

In the spring of 1945, Solar was slated to be converted to a radar picket ship, but this work was never undertaken and was later canceled.  With the declaration of V-J Day in mid-August, her orders were changed again.  She departed Boston on 7 September for two weeks of refresher training at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  At the completion of this training, she headed for Casco Bay, but enroute there, she was diverted to Miami, FL, where she became the training group flagship.  In late October, she visited Baltimore for the Navy Day celebration.  On 19 December, Solar was assigned to the Commander, Operational Development Force, for anti-aircraft and fighter director practice.  The beginning of 1946 brought an assignment as a sonar test ship.

On 30 April 1946, Solar was berthed at Leonardo Pier I of the Naval Ammunition Depot at Earle, N.J., to discharge ammunition.  The operation went smoothly until, shortly after 1130, three explosions blasted the ship near her number 2 upper handling room. Her number 2 gun was demolished and the bridge, main battery director and mast were all blown aft and to starboard.  Both sides of the ship were torn open and her deck was a mass of flames.  The order to abandon ship came after the second explosion and was carried out expeditiously.  Nevertheless, the tragedy claimed the lives of 7(1) sailors and injured 30 others.


Gone But Never Forgotten

30 April 1946
John Lawrence Berrigan S 2/C
Charles Edward Kline GM 1/C
Elisha Nelson, Jr. S 2/C
Eugene Paul Norman CBM
William Scott Reardon F 1/C
Victor Francis Sousa GM 3/C
Ernest W. Worrell Lt.(jg)


 NAVAL SHIP DISASTER 'WARSHIP BLOWS UP AT MUNITIONS PIER IN PORT, KILLING FIVE'
60 on Escort Vessel Injured - Blasts Shake New Jersey Towns near Big depot
BOMBS ASHORE SET OFF
Sailor Is Only Slightly as Depth Charge Explodes as He Is Carrying It
By MEYER BERGER Special to The New York Times

LEONARDO, N. J., April 30, 1946 – One officer and four sailors (later corrected to 6 people) of the Destroyer Escort Solar’s complement of 14 officers and 136 enlisted men vanished utterly before noon today in an ammunition explosion that tore away one-third of the 306-foot ship's forward structure.
About 60 of the ship’s crew were injured (later listed as 125 men), but only thirty-five were hospitalized, and of them only a handful remained tonight for further treatment. The Navy withheld the names of the 5 (6) missing men and the names of the injured because not all their families had been officially notified.
The explosion happened as the Solar’s crew was unloading her ammunition supply in preparation for an overhaul. Normally she carries about 15 tons of assorted ammunition, including depth bombs and smaller charges, torpedoes (none on board) and shells for her cannon. Only one-third of this amount was still aboard when the blast occurred.
TONS OF EXPLOSIVES NEAR BY
Near by, when the detonation shook the New Jersey coast in and around the Raritan Bay district, were a number of other vessels preparing to unload ammunition. It was unofficially estimated here that these vessels held, all told, about 25,000 tons of explosives. Tugs dragged these craft out of the dangers zone.
Burning fragments from the Solar, hurled at tremendous force against freight cars on the pier, started other explosions. One car in a freight string, filled chiefly with depth charges, blew up and all but vanished in dust and smoke, scattering its parts in all directions. Three strings of cars were hauled shoreward by their locomotive crews, at great risk.
No one seemed certain tonight what had caused the explosion, but what seemed like a possible explanation came from Jack Horne, fireman second class, of Charlotte, N.C. He thought a piece of ammunition carried by Joe Stuchinski, seaman, of Baltimore might have done it. “Ski,” the fireman said, “was carrying a ‘hedgehog’ from the forward magazine. While he was holding it, it just went off. He must have bumped it against something, because those things go off when anything touches them.”
Seaman Stuchinski oddly was not seriously injured. He was deafened, a few minor scratches showed on his chest when he got to the first-aid station and his dungarees were split. “It went off. The thing just went off,” he said.
The “hedgehog” Stuchinski carried was an anti-submarine depth charge. Metal-cased, weighing about sixty pounds, it is generally cylindrical, about thirty inches long and between four and five inches in diameter.
BOW LIKE ELEPHANT'S TRUNK
The Solar lay at the northern or bay end, of the easternmost of the three great piers that jut out from the Navy’s Earle Ammunition Depot, when she blew up. She was approximately one and a half miles from the beach end of the depot. The blast curled her bow in much the same shape as an elephant’s back-bent trunk.
The concussion was felt twenty to thirty miles around. The detonation rushed across Raritan Bay to shake homes in Tottenville, Richmond Valley, Pleasant Plains, Princess Bay, Great Kills, Oakwood and New Dorp, all on Staten Island, and shattered panes in some of these communities. Ground tremors were felt to the west and the southwest. There were some freakish effects. Residents in Middletown Township, including Rumson, Fair Haven, Red Bank, and Little Silver, for example, seemed certain the explosion was local. Several frightened housewives called the police to say, “The boiler just blew up in my cellar.”
Dogs raced away from the beach in hysterical rush, ears twitching, and tails between their legs. Cars stopped on Highways 35 and 36 on the New Jersey shore route and motorists got out to inquire about “the earthquake.” The damage, however, was confined pretty much to the Solar and to structures on the pier.
Lieutenant Commander G.R. LaRoque of Kankakee, Ill., Bronze Star holder who saw thirteen engagements in the Pacific, was outside his cabin on the Solar’s port side, watching his crew at the unloading at 11:35 A.M., when the first blast occurred. It sounded like a three-inch shell exploding in the starboard forward magazine.
One third of the crew was at mess on the second deck. They and most of the other men aboard swarmed to the fire stations. Within less than a minute a second minor explosion in the forward magazine shook the craft. Commander LaRoque gave the order, “Abandon ship!”
Several of the crew nearest the magazine had already suffered burns. Many were blinded by fuel oil sprayed into their faces by the blast. All who could see, though, manned the ship’s hose and directed streams toward the burning bow. On shore the disaster sirens screamed and disaster units roared toward the piers.
At 11:38 A.M. the third, and by far the greatest, blast deafened the DE’s crew, tore away her bridge and all her forward structure, and a giant cloud, black at the bottom and dull gray where it mushroomed at the top, twisted and snaked toward the clear, sunlit sky. This blast seemed to blow out the flame that shot through the smoke of the earlier explosions. It tore the ship from her hawsers and shot her back, southward, almost 300 yards, toward the beach end. Civilians and Navy personnel on the concrete pier cowered under a rain of nuts, bolts, steel and iron fragments, slivered glass and great gun shields from the Solar that screamed past them. Powdered metal dust covered their heads and shoulders.
Fifty to sixty men of the crew had leaped from the Solar’s decks to the pier when the skipper called “Abandon ship!” but few of the men still aboard realized that the DE had been blown back 300 yards from her original position when they, too, recovered from the shock and leaped to the concrete. Some were bleeding. Several were scorched and oil-smeared.
Commander LaRoque’s hand and face were burned, apparently by a searing flame from the final the final explosion, but he could not recall exactly how he came by his injuries. Much the same was true of many of the others in the Solar’s crew. They had only vague notions of what burned or cut them.
Just south of the Solar when she blew up were the LST 28 and Y Freighter 446, both loaded with assorted ammunition. Navy and Coast Guard tugs, backed by water-spewing fireboats, slid through the rising smoke to tow them bay ward, out of the rain of hot metal and screaming shell fragments.
Roughly one mile north of the Solar’s original position, at the Army Pier, which juts like a great concrete finger almost three miles into Raritan Bay, were the Liberty Ships Lamar, Washington Alston, Behrman and Grace, each with an unofficially 5,000 tons of ammunition aboard. Tugs pulled them bayward, too.
Small craft, chiefly fifty-footers, swarmed around the burning Solar, meanwhile, picking injured sailors from the bay. The water’s surface was thick with oil and on it floated sea bags, shoes, parts of wooden chests, books, magazines and odds and ends blown from the Solar’s decks and from her interior.
Curiously, not all the ammunition on the Solar exploded. Of the ammunition still aboard her when the blast destroyed her, the greater consisted of ‘hedgehogs,” 20 millimeter ack ack and 3-inch shells. Her torpedoes and her 650-pound depth charges, fortunately, already had been unloaded.
As the great thick cloud from the explosion slowly lifted from the bay, as rescuers picked up the injured hurled into the water, the Solar’s officers and men went aboard again to fight small fires. The fireboats stood by, helping, and land fire crews poured tons of water, too, on the Solar and on near-by burning structures.
These included a Navy barge, which stood, empty, on the western end of the pier, opposite the Solar’s original position, a trestle about 200 yards west of the Solar, and two Navy vans, or ammunition trailers. Parts of the pier were torn away, too, and burning oil sent waves of heat until the fire fighters quenched them.
The Solar’s paymaster went aboard after the explosion fires were out and poked in the debris for the ship’s safe. Tomorrow was to have been payday for the crew and he was to have distributed, roughly, $ 6,000 to the men. He found the safe at last, buried in debris, and badly dented, but the $ 6,000 payroll and an additional $ 24,000 in cash were intact.
Naval officers at the depot expressed astonishment and gratitude for the swift response of rescue units and medical and Red Cross aid. The Monmouth County Red Cross assembled its membership in record time and got all its rolling stock and other equipment to the station in ample time to be of service.
Ambulances and more doctors, nurses and medical attendants than were needed swarmed into the depot from Fort Hancock, Raritan Arsenal and Monmouth County hospitals. Within twenty minutes after the blast they all but clogged the main highways leading to Leonardo
Commander N.F.X. Banyard, senior medical officer at the Naval Ammunition Depot, said tonight that the injured were dispersed as follows; Eight in Fort Hancock Army Hospital, two of these critical; one critically injured, in Monmouth Memorial Hospital in Long Branch; one critically injured, Fort Monmouth Station Hospital; twenty five injured one critically, Naval Dispensary, Earle, N.J.
Station spokesmen announced tonight that two investigations were under way. One is being conducted by a depot investigating body, the other by a Naval Board of Inquiry.
The spokesman reported that the Navy board, which began its investigation today, consists of Rear Admiral Paul F. Foster, Navy inspector general, senior board member; Capt. J. A. Rood, general inspector, Third Naval District member: Capt. C. E. Coney, assistant Navy inspector general; Capt. C. R. Will, general inspector, Bureau of Ordnance, and James H. Sheridan of the office of the Navy inspector general, clerical Assistant.

Casualties
Killed
Worrell, H. Lt.(jg)
Norman CBM
Kline GM 1/c
Sousa GM 3/c
REARDON F 1/c
Berrigan F 1/c
Nelson S 1/c

Severely Wounded
McCollum CWT wound on head.
Reilly bad body burns and head burns.
Young F 1/c lacerations on the head.
Towne Cook Toes blown off, head injuries, amputated hand and abdominal wounds.
Miller. L S 1/c Toes blown off, big hole in the back, several internal injuries.
Watson WT 3/c Foot blown off, later leg was amputated because of gas gangrene.
Winne S 2/c Severe burns.
Mansfield. M Cox. Severe burns, hit numerous times by steel fragments.
Lillis Terrible burns on face and hands.
Foster CPhm Burns and wounds on head.
Parson CEM Burns on face and arms.
Sly Broken leg in two places.
Hamblin Ens Bad burns on face and arms.
Brooksmith Lt (jg) Burns and lacerations on face and arms.
Nord Ens Almost scalped and burns.
SKIPPER ACCLAIMS HEROISM OF CREW
Men Went Into the Teeth of Fire on the Solar to Fight it, Says Comdr. La Rocque

Special to The New York Times

LEONARDO, N.J.., April 30 Grim, blackened , hollowed eyed crewmen, who had seen and cheated death aboard the ill-fated U.S.S. Solar, straggled back to the headquarters of the naval ammunition depot here today and told in tired voices of how tragedy and comedy enveloped.
Lieut.Comdr. G.R. La Rocque of Kankakee, Ill, the Solar’s 27 year old skipper, who was burned on the face and hands, spoke quietly of the heroism of his enlisted men as he stood looking out to the sea in the tattered and smudged remnants of his smart tans.
“ Those sailors were wonderful,” skipper said. “God, they were brave men. Believe me, I saw a lot of brave sailors. I couldn’t begin to put into words what those men did. It was wonderful. On the starboard side and on the port side, they went into the teeth of the fire to fight it.”
Commander La Rocque said there were a series of explosions; the first one of good size; the second, somewhat smaller, and the third blowing up the whole bow. The last explosion, the skipper said, lifted one of the Solar’s guns and deposited it on top of another some distance away. The Skipper said the first blast enabled all in the forward mess hall, including his petty officers, to clear out in time.
Saved by Circumstance
Chief Soundman Edward Daniels, 26, of Mt. Orab, Ohio, credited a quirk of circumstance with saving his life as well as those of all other chief petty officers. Daniels said the chiefs were eating in the general mess hall instead of the chief’s petty officers mess today because A.R. Bone of Richmond, Virginia, the chief’s mess cook, had injured his hand earlier in the day. The petty officer’s mess is directly over the hold that was demolished.
“ I started for the burning magazine when I heard the first blast,” Daniels said. When the second blast went off, I saw flames coming out of the magazine. I saw one body blown over the side, but he didn’t sink and his feet were sticking out of the water. I started to abandon ship when the third blast blew me halfway across the ship. I grabbed for a lifeline and lowered myself to the dock.”
Machinist’s Mate, 3/c, Frank Iezzi, 25, of Philadelphia, joined three other shipmates,
Richard Pegler, A.E. Wolkonowski and Melvin Joschko, given warm praise to the Chief Boatswain’s Mate, whom they only knew as Norman, for his devotion to duty. The last time they saw Norman, they confessed, he was at his station fighting the mushrooming flames. Similar praise was given to Lieut. (jg) H.Worrell, the chief engineering officer who was serving as officer of the day.
Among The First Survivors
Nineteen-year old Joschko, a machinist’s mate, was one of the first survivors to leave the ship. When he hit the dock and was taken in hand by first aid men, the first man he saw was Walter Seavers, a pharmacist’s mate, 3/c, and boyhood school chum from La Porte, Ind., whom he had not seen in four or five years.
Some insight into the series of events leading up to the first explosion was given by the members of a five-man ammunition team, which was passing up hedgehogs, or anti-submarine missiles, from below the decks to topside.
Maynard Spurlock, 20, of Louisville, Ky., was in the hold passing the hedgehogs with Michael Mansfield to Paul Polemeni, 21, of 380 Sackett Street, Brooklyn: Leonard “Cheesecake” Miller of Washington, and Joseph Stuchinski, 23, of Baltimore, Md.
“I was passing this equipment,” Stuchinski said, “when it suddenly exploded. I saw a guy blown to pieces and I don’t remember how I got out, but I got out.”
The bulk of the crew of the Solar are ready to be discharged from the service in about a month. A crewman carrying a sheaf records told some of his companions they were payroll records. The men grinned gleefully. Tomorrow they get paid.

"Dog Last to Quit Ship; Mascot Wet But Unhurt" Special to The New York Times

LEONARDO, N.J., April 30 - Lobo, a brown-and-white mongrel of uncertain ancestry, who has been the mascot of the Solar’s crew for the last five months, left the damaged vessel after all the personnel had been removed somewhat damp – but in style.
Lobo returned to the naval ammunition depot headquarters in an ambulance that had come all the way from Oakhurst, N.J., to aid at the disaster. He was attended by a first-aid squad, although he was uninjured. When he arrived a rousing cheer went up from the crewmen who had grown to love Lobo and to regard the part Spitz and part spaniel as a member of the crew.
Lobo joined the Solar in Norfolk, Virginia. He represented an investment of $4.
"RED CROSS-SPEEDY IN DISASTER RELIEF"
Wartime Plans Put To Use For The First Time
To Rush Aid To Explosion Victims
Plans outlined in wartime, but never put in use, enabled the Disaster relief Committee of the Monmouth Chapter of the American Red Cross to speed two Red Cross nurses and a field director yesterday to the scene of the explosion of the U.S.S. Solar within 15 minutes after the last of the three blasts had rocked the area.
The emergency brought into action 300 trained Red Cross workers of all kinds, many of whom worked all day and through the night both at the Naval Ammunition Depot and the chapter headquarters in Shrewsbury, N.J. Throughout the day cars, trucks, station wagons, ambulances and the chapter’s mobile kitchen shuttled back and forth between Shrewsbury and the depot carrying blood plasma, relief supplies, food, disaster equipment and personnel.
Plasma, Morphine Urgent
The first and most urgent call from the base was for blood plasma and morphine syrettes. A telephone message to North Atlantic Area Headquarters in New York located ninety-six units of the former in Trenton, where they had been stored at Crescent temple by the New Jersey State Board of Health. The Red Cross chapter at Trenton at once sent the units on to Leonardo.
Twelve more units were picked up by a member of the Monmouth Motor Corps at the Monmouth Memorial Hospital in Long Branch. The hospital also supplied all its available morphine syrettes and all the 4 x 4 sterilized bandages it could spare. All were delivered speedily to the depot hospital at Earle.
On hour after the explosion two truckloads of food were sent over the eight-mile route to the depot. By late afternoon officials of the disaster committee estimated that they had dispatched twenty gallons of coffee, twenty gallons of milk, 600 sandwiches and a large number of cakes. More calls for food were expected.

News articles courtest of:
http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/w/i/l/Delores-S-Willey/GENE4-0002.html


(1) There are many books and other resources that note 165 men were killed aboard USS Solar. Below is information noting the correct number of men lost aboard DE 221.

28 September 2002

I must point out some errors in the information provided for the USS SOLAR (DE 221).

On April 30, 1996, the Garden State Chapter-NJ sponsored a memorial service at Naval Weapons Station Earle, Leonardo, NJ, honoring those lost in the terrible tragedy which took place exactly 50-years earlier to the day. I had the honor of MC/ing the event and over 225 attendees were present with much preparation and research having gone into the event. This included checking old news clips and conversations with the 16 crew members who were present and the SOLAR's skipper, Eugene R. LaRocque, who was a LCDR at the time but retired as RADM. It is true that some news reports at the time stated that 165 fatalties had occurred but the fact is that one officer and six enlisted men perished in a series of three explosions which destroyed the ship. Another thirty men were injured some very seriously. The cause was probably a dropped hedge-hog device during ammunition unloading which dropped down 2-3 decks through a hatchway into an ammunition storage area where it detonated.

In his remarks in 1996, Admiral LaRocque, went to great lengths to explain that at the court martial, which followed the incident, it was acknowledged that the Bureau of Ordinance had provided completely inadequate directions on the proper handling of the hedge-hogs which were somewhat difficult to grip. The result was that no charges were found against the officers and men of the ship.

I have seen the 165 figure many times and I try to correct it whenever I can as I believe such information to be almost sacred with a high need to be accurate.

The correct information is: USS Solar DE 221 destroyed in a series of explosions at NAD Earle, NJ during ammo unloading - 7 men lost - April 30, 1946

Note: at the time Earle was a Naval Ammunition Depot or NAD.

Jim Mitchell
USS ROCHE (DE 197)


Update:  As webmaster I received the following information via email.

13 June 2004

Shortly prior to event date I had been transfered from the NAD as an Ammo Handler to YF 854 crew as a seaman.  On the morning of 4/30/46, I observed the Solar come in and berth ahead of us, bow to stern, with an LST in between.  I also saw the arrival of a crew of Ammo Handlers (approx 12), some of whom I recognized as my ex-team mates.  I walked up to them and went aboard the Solar. 

The team was arranging a roller conveyer from about the position of the #2 3" 50 to the pier where a box car was positioned.  I recall that I did not see any ships crew.  About an hour prior to the first explosion, I returned to my ship.  I did not return to Solar until after the 3 explosions had occurred at which time a salvage crew had already removed the superstructure and placed at least some of it on the pier.

I specifically recall the signal flag locker and a tattered MIKE flag.  Where the conveyer had been was a rather large half moon crater all the way through about 5 ft plus of concrete pier. The box car was blown outward indicative of internal explosion and its overhead was blown about a half a mile or so landing on the adjacent and parallel pier finger.   I hopped a ride over and examined it. 

I never again saw any of my ex-team mates and assumed they had been killed. The reports I have seen do not address the "box car" but rather imply explosion on deck, rupturing cases resulting in burning torpex, another explosion due to cook off and then fire in the forward magazine causing it to explode.  They do suggest the possibility of a faulty fuse finding its way into one of the Hedgehogs being unloaded that day. 

It is a rather late date, but if anyone there that day recalls the fate of the ammo handling crew unloading I would appreciate them advising me.
Robert (Bob) J. Whitsitt then S/2c   Whitsitt7@aol.com ....now living in Englewood, FL.

19 June 2004

I have been looking at the pictures of the Solar after the explosion as found on your web site. If you enlarge and examine picture 3rd from top in left column you will note how far back the ship was driven. Also there appears to be what remains of a roller conveyor without its rollers. It has been dragged there. However, it is in good enough shape to indicate that the boxcar explosion was contained and thus it sustained only blast force. The Solar was berthed up at the end where you can make out the box car and debris. In the bottom picture on the right hand column you can note a piece of box car overhead peeled back. A large portion ended up on the other pier in the background. Enlarge and magnify and you can see the hole in the pier at the boxcar and the pilings still remaining on both edges with the ones in the middle missing.
Bob

 

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