Speed Before Safety
The Tragedy of the USS Saturn
By Ross Patterson II, Assistant Curator, Portsmouth Museums
Published March 27, 2020
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.
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.