The Disappearance of Captain Hinnant
 R.A. Phillips

From The Rockaway History Site

 
The report of Ensign R.A. Phillips, the last person to see him ... half a century ago

  
On the afternoon of 6 December 1950 the lines trailing from a target raft this vessel had put over the side had somehow become fouled in the port screw.  Just after dark an attempt was made by Cdr. Hinnant, JOHNSON, Lew J. (275-258) YN3, and myself to cut the lines by swimming from a rubber life raft that had been put over the side.

Each of us took a turn at trying but failed due to the poor visibility underwater in the vicinity of the screw and to the turbulence of the water caused by the ship’s moving up and down.

It was impossible to get a good breath in order to stay down for any length of time.  A knife tied to a long pole was also tried, but due to the turbulence of the water it was impossible to hold it against the lines long enough.  This attempt was given up and we returned aboard.

I took a shower, got cleaned up, ate supper, and sat in the wardroom reading.  About eight o’clock (time not definite) the captain came into the wardroom and said he had the lines almost unfouled.  He said he was going over the side and asked if I would "stand by him."  I again put on my swimming trunks and a foul weather jacket and went back on the fantail.         

I saw that the raft had been removed but there were still some lines fouled around the screw.  I was told a floodlight was hanging from a two-by-four a short distance out from the side so that it illuminated the area around the screw.  A diving mask had been rigged up for the captain.  An air hose led from an outlet on the quarterdeck through a pressure regulator to the mask.  The hose was made fast to a cartridge belt a few feet from the mask.  The belt was filled with weights.
 

The captain was wearing a faded sweatshirt, a pair of khaki trou, and, I believe, some type of soft footwear.  The captain sharpened his knife and tied it to a length of marlin.  He also asked for a heaving line with a weight on the end to be put over the side.  He put on the mask and belt and descended the Jacobs ladder.  I followed him down.  There were a number of men on deck watching.         

He let go of the bottom of the ladder and took a few strokes over to a hogging line which had been passed under the ship.  From there he pulled himself down to the shaft between the strut and the propeller. He soon came back tho, climbed up the ladder, and asked that more weights be put in his belt.  Five or six more weights were put in his belt and he again descended the ladder.  I hung near the bottom of the Jacobs ladder alternately being completely clear of the water and being practically submerged as the ship moved up and down. The last few rungs of the ladder were in the water at all times.         

The visibility under water was very poor.  I could only see the captain about half the time when the water was reasonably calm.  The knife was lowered from the deck and I passed it to the captain.  He seemed to have no difficulty breathing.  He kept his legs wrapped around the shaft so that he wouldn’t be thrown around and every so often changed his position so he could cut the line more easily.  He worked around the propeller for about fifteen minutes and then moved aft of the propeller and sat on the hub.  He did something - it may have been some more cutting ? I couldn’t make it out.  The captain then reached out for the heaving line which was trailing in the water in back of him.  I swung myself over, grabbed it, and swung it to him.  I thought he wanted to come up, but instead he went hand over hand down the hogging line toward the rudder.  That was the last time I saw him clearly; it was too dark back by the rudder.  In the next five minutes I thought I saw him twice clinging to the after side of the rudder, but I couldn’t be sure.   By this time it seemed that he had been down too long and I and the men on deck became worried.

A battle lantern was passed to me which I held underwater and shone toward the rudder.  I couldn’t see anything in the vicinity of the rudder with my head above water, so I tried opening my eyes underwater, but still couldn’t see anything.  A more powerful light was passed to me, but I still couldn’t make out very much.  I then tried tugging gently on the air line and heaving line but they were fast somewhere under the ship.  I pulled on the marlin attached to the knife and it came easily.  The knife was pulled up to deck.         

I then swam over to the hogging line, got a good breath, and followed the air line down to the shaft between the strut and the propeller.  It seemed to be made fast there, but I couldn’t make out how.  I tried two more dives but could discover nothing more.  The water was so turbulent that I was in danger of being thrown against the screws.  The water was warm but the air was cold.  By this time I was shivering so much that I could hardly talk.  I requested that another swimmer take my place.  Ens. William S. SCHWOB, Jr. U.S.C.G. stripped to his skivies and prepared to go down.  I told him as best I could what I had discovered and to watch out for the screw.  At no time during the operation did I see any fish in the vicinity.         

I took a warm shower, dressed, and felt much better.  Ens. G.K. BURKMAN, U.S.C.G., the O.D. requested that I take a pulling boat to windward to search.  Some floating lights had been dropped in the water, and we rowed up wind well beyond these.  Two men in the bow searched the water with powerful lights.  We did not see or hear anything, and after about forty-five minutes, we were ordered to return to the ship.  We were hoisted aboard about 2330.  I was very tired and turned in.

 

Additional comments added 11 November 2003

The target raft lines became fouled because the Executive Officer, who had the con, overshot when we attempted to pick up the raft.  The water in the Gulf Stream is warm and clear.  The captain would have been better to wait for day light when it would have been easy to follow his movements.  But he was concerned that we would not be able to make our weather run or respond to an emergency call.  The cartridge belt had a clasp that had to be turned at a right angle to release it.  It was open when pulled up.  The captain had to have taken it off.
         The captain was a good swimmer and may have tried to swim back to the Jacobs ladder.  He may have been struck by the hull moving down or found the distance too great due to the ship drifting down wind.  We will never know.

Additional comments to our webmaster on 16 November 2003

This report is exactly as I wrote it almost 53 years ago.  As a newly commissioned ensign, I was assigned to the Rockaway in June 1950.   I do not know how long Cdr. Hinnant had been skipper before I arrived on board.  I do know that I liked him a lot.  I felt his death was a great loss and I felt very sorry for his family.

                                                                                 —Dick Phillips

A note from the daughter of Captain Hinnant—15 at the time

Time causes a 15 year old girl to become the grandmother of 10, but time does not dilute the memories of her father, James Reed Hinnant, Captain of the Rockaway in 1950.
       Many, many thanks to the gentleman who wrote the narrative of the search [Ensign Phillips]; it was much, much more detailed than I had ever read or heard before.  In fact I think that it was more information than my mother had at the time.
       History is history, of course, but for some of us, it is still immediate.
       I am delighted that some men still remember him.
       My very best to all of you.

                                                                                 —Sena Hinnant Zane

 

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