Speed Before Safety

The Tragedy of the USS Saturn

By Ross Patterson II, Assistant Curator, Portsmouth Museums

Published March 27, 2020

At 6:20 PM on April 27, 1944, a fire raged at the Norfolk Navy Yard. USS Saturn, a seized German cargo vessel being converted into a US Navy refrigerated provisions stores ship, was burning. Ambulances and firefighting equipment were rushed to the scene in minutes, but it was far too late for many. By 7:16 PM, a collection of twenty men were taken to the yard’s dispensary and stabilized by artificial respiration, but fifteen more were dead, killed from carbon monoxide poisoning in the hold. This was the largest loss of life caused by a single accident in the history of the shipyard. But why did it occur?

In a word, speed. The Allies were ramping up for the Invasion of Europe, and supply ships were just as crucial to the operation as combat vessels. The Saturn had been built in 1939 as a general cargo vessel, her hold lacking the cold temperature controls desired by the Navy to carry perishable food supplies. A new generator, compressors, and pumps needed to be added, new decking built, and insulating layers added throughout. The official deadline to carry out the work was sixty days.

USS SATURN after her conversion from cargo ship (AK-49) to refrigerated provisions stores ship (AF-40) in 1944. United States Navy Photograph

With an overall length of 423 feet and 4,354 gross registered tonnage, this was not a task that should be rushed. Welders worked alongside carpenters. Scaffolding was erected overtop of escape ladders. Safety and work equipment was in short supply. And highly flammable cork, used as insulating material, was piled up near several work stations. According to the Saturn’s War Diary entry, errant sparks from a welder on the main deck fell into the third deck of the Number Three Hold. There it ignited a stack of piles of primer coated cork.

The man on Fire Watch, Raymond W. Bohler, tried to extinguish the blaze, receiving second degree burns before he had to retreat. The fire rapidly spread on the third deck’s starboard side, trapping a group of workers. A fortunate few hid in the new generator room and open bottom tanks, but those whose instincts told them to go up were not so lucky. Men ran for the ladders, but found them blocked. Men ran for hanging ropes and power lines, but were forced back by the heat. Men ran from the flames, but found themselves trapped. Huddled together in a corner, there was little they could do as the air slowly became poison.

Firemen looking through the charred Number Three Hold of USS Saturn, with burnt pieces of insulating cork visible in the foreground. United States Navy Photograph
A Court of Inquiry was immediately opened into the incident, taking time to examine the scene and hear testimony. In the end, three men were blamed for the disaster. They consisted of the ship’s Executive Officer, Lieutenant Henry Porter Gill, who was in charge of the vessel while his superior Commander Thomas A Marshall was on leave, the yard’s superintendent for work on the Saturn, engineer Lieutenant Ernest Lennon, and yard supervisor Clifford Short. Short was found directly responsible for failing to provide a fire watch for each active welder, and received an official warning. Lieutenant Gill and Lieutenant Lennon were found to be indirectly responsible via neglecting standards, and received letters of admonition in there personnel files. Papers carried the story of the fire and some of the details, but details and findings were kept under wraps. There was a war to win after all.
Excerpt from USS Saturn’s 1944 War Diary regarding the fire. National Archives
In the aftermath, safety procedures at the shipyard were tightened. The damage to the Saturn was surprisingly minimal, and conversion work resumed in short order. By September of 1944, the fully functional vessel was bound for the Mediterranean with supplies for the invasion of Southern France. Decommissioned on July 23, 1946, she sat in the James River as part of the ‘Mothball Fleet’ until finally being scrapped on September 12, 1972. The men who died in the accident are buried in family cemeteries in both Virginia and North Carolina, silent testaments to the importance of safety over speed.