Fatal Collision

By Tony Stolze

Tony passed away July 29, 2002  

Tony Stolze was on the CG-480 patrolling 15 or 20 miles off of Norfolk in 1942 when this event happened. 

The sea was calm and the night was pitch black. Hopefully this would be an uneventful patrol. We were proceeding slowly on one engine, the other in neutral. This was the most efficient method of passive searching next to drifting. The faster our speed the less efficient our sound gear became. No one said anything unless they felt the need to speak.

Suddenly the sky lit up. It lasted a short time and then subsided quickly. There was no sound above the constant drone of our engines. Nothing. The sound of the explosion went right over us, but the explosion was heard ashore.[2]

Off in the distance we could see flames beginning to brighten the sky. Assuming it was another ship torpedoed, we went full ahead on both engines. No need to sound General Quarters as everyone came on deck as soon as our engines roared. To our surprise we arrived on the scene in about eight minutes.

While approaching the burning ship, a searchlight suddenly came on and swept the area. We noticed their beam bounced off something in the water and turned on our two searchlights to direct them to the object. It was a ship, bottoms up, about half out of the water at the stern. We swore that the propeller was still turning.

Our first priority was to search for survivors. We found only the body of a young Armed Guard sailor in his blue uniform and pea jacket with the back of his head gone. Hours later we received orders to collect the casualties from the other units and return to base, but another unit had taken them in except the body we had.

When returning to base under full power, I was on the helm. Glancing down at the dead sailor I thought that somewhere a mother or a loved one had asked in their prayers to keep him safe and let him return soon. We were answering half of their prayers. We turned the body over to the waiting medics.

Shortly after, a truck came down the pier with 100 of five-gallon drums with chemicals to create a foam or mist. Someone had the foresight to send a group of naval recruits to the gas dock to help us load the drums onto our deck while we took on fuel. As soon as we fueled we got underway again for the scene—we had learned they were going to try to save the tanker (a ship that was in critical shortage at the time) that had rammed an ammunition ship

When we arrived at the scene, a Navy tug had rigged a hose over the stern, trying to extinguish the flames with water, which was impossible. Our chemicals were to be poured into some gadget on the nozzle of the hose to make some sort of a foam or mist—it looked like a combination of both.

We tried to carry the drums up a Jacob's ladder at the stern but couldn't do it. Stationing men head-to-toe on the ladder, we passed the drums up in a bucket brigade. I was worried that the ladder would hold the weight, but it did. I dreaded to think what would have happened if the ladder broke.

As the cans came up, we took them forward to the nozzles, spending about two hours on the tanker helping to put out the flames. The heat was dreadful and the flames must have been over a hundred feet high.

The tanker had a stern engine room with a catwalk leading to the center island where the bridge was. Someone was lying on the catwalk and every time the flames swept over him, he would glow like an ember. When we finally got all our chemicals on deck, we went down the ladder and returned to base.

After topping off with fuel, we went to pick up our skipper who had gone for further orders. He came back with a couple of naval officers and a man wrapped in bandages, who they helped aboard—they told us that he was the Gunnery Officer in charge of the Armed Guard aboard the tanker. They were sending him out to check his guns and ammunition. The man that ordered the injured officer to return to the ship should have been shot.

We were no more than ten minutes out with our boat twisting and pounding when the badly burned officer broke down and started to cry. There was no way our Coast Guard skipper was going to hurt that man any more than had already been done. We laid him on deck, put a life jacket under his head and covered him with blankets. He couldn't even wipe his eyes with his bandaged hands. We didn’t know how to console him but did what we could.

At the tanker, we went up the Jacob's ladder to check the guns, which were still warm. We opened the ammunition boxes and gently, very gently, jettisoned the ammunition. Returning to port once again, we gave the officer the report on his guns and helped him to the sick bay. That was the last we saw of the man.

A strange statistic about the affair was that no one from the ammunition ship or from the deck force of the tanker survived, only the officer from the Armed Guard. But all the engineers from the tanker survived. It seems that they were all below in the stern engine room when they hit, and it was they who threw the Jacob's ladder over the stern to abandon ship. I have no idea who picked them up, how they did it or what ultimately happened to them. Had our unit or the one that arrived prior to us been a mile closer when the ammunition ship exploded, the chances were that none of us would have been here to tell our tale.

The next day we went back out on patrol of the swept channel, passing the tanker being towed in. No one believed that the ship would ever sail again. It seems that the tanker was later run aground, had the fuel pumped out, then was towed out into deep water and scuttled.

When the unit we relieved disappeared below the horizon, we looked around. There was nothing, just a choppy sea as far as the eye could see in every direction. It was as if the tragedy had never happened, confined only to the memories of the people involved and the heartaches of the families and friends of the lost.


[1] CG-480 became WPB-8330 after the war.

[2] We were told we were in an “acoustical void.”

Return To Coast Guard Stories