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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Return To Coast Guard Stories