A slip in the deep

The Navy’s summer training cruise in 1951 on the battleship Wisconsin included liberty in several ports.  We boarded in Norfolk, and were scheduled for liberty in Halifax, Nova Scotia, New York City, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, affectionately referred to as Gitmo.  Halifax was great as it is a deep-water port, and the ship was able to tie up along the pier next to the downtown area.  Gitmo is a U.S. Navy base on the east end of Cuba, with little surrounding civilization.  While Castro had not yet acquired power, his bands of supporters were organizing throughout Cuba at the time, and liberty outside the gate was not authorized.  Fortunately we were in Gitmo only for the day where we took on fuel and left.  It was in the Big Apple where the Wisconsin almost achieved memorial status.  It happened this way:

Like most water traffic, we steamed past Long Island and Brooklyn, then turned north, and moved beyond Wall Street and the Statue of Liberty into the Hudson River.  With the assistance of several tugs, the ship was moved into its designated mooring site.  The ships bow was secured to a mooring buoy in the middle of the river.  As was the custom at the time, the stern of the ship was allowed to swing freely with the tide, the wind, and the river current.  When all was secure, the boilers were shut down, and the big girl was put fully to sleep. The port watch was set, and liberty announced.

During this same time period, the deck crew lowered the ladders along the ships sides, and the tenders were used to ferry the crew ashore.  The captain’s gig was the first into the river.  The captain and his senior officers left immediately for liberty. During the next hour a number of LCVPs were lowered for the crew to use on liberty.  LCVP stands for landing craft vehicle personnel.  They are huge metal bathtub-like structures with diesel power, and are capable of carrying vehicles or personnel.  The bow of each is a ramp, which can be lowered to permit rapid loading or unloading.  The LCVPs were our liberty boats, and were loaded with dozens of sailors and midshipmen for each trip into the shore.  Everything was proceeding exactly as planned.

As it happened, we had entered the harbor and river with the tide.  This moderated the effect of the current, and made the mooring process somewhat easier.  As the tide started moving out, the river current became stronger, exerting an increased force on the ship’s mooring bouy.  The port watch was responsible to make sure the ship was secure, and to take appropriate action in the event of a problem.  For an hour or longer nothing unusual was apparent.  Then it seemed the ship might be moving, but it was difficult to tell as the ship was securely fastened to the buoy.  Then someone on the bridge took a fix on one of the waterfront buildings.  A few minutes later a second fix confirmed that the building had moved north, or the ship had moved south.  How could this possibly be when we were tethered tightly to the mooring buoy?

A few minutes later, it was clear our position had changed once again. Not only was the water moving but the ship was also moving, taking the buoy with us.  The force of the current, the tide, and the ship had overcome the huge chunk of concrete anchoring the buoy to the river bottom.  As the tide was scheduled to continue going out for several hours, there was no reason to believe the ship would suddenly stop, but would continue moving until some of the forces on the ship changed.  It was clearly an emergency situation.  Not only were we moving with the current, the bulk of the current’s force was on the starboard side of the ship, pushing us toward the New Jersey side of the river.  Some emergency measures were needed to prevent the ship from becoming a monument on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.

The ships boilers were fired in preparation for generating our own power.  That process, however, heating water and creating steam, could take up to 30 minutes. Emergency radio calls were sent to all local tugs, and within 15 minutes two tugs had appeared.  By the time they arrived and could exert a force sufficient to stop the migration, the Wisconsin had slipped well into the mud on the New Jersey side of the river.  As we had gone into the mud stern first, the ships four screws were buried, and would be useless for removing us from this predicament. We came to our final resting place about 50 yards from some old warehouses, almost four city blocks down stream from our original position.  With the tugs exerting a constant force against the port side of the ship, the hope was to keep the ship from going deeper into the muddy river bottom.

There is really not much you can do when a 64,000-ton ship requiring water 30 feet deep comes to rest on a muddy river bottom.  The long-term plan was to wait until the tide finished going out, then comes back in again.  As we were in the river current, there was a serious question about how much influence the tide would have on the level of the water.  Hopefully high tide would raise the ship enough to free it from the river bottom, and with the help of tugs, push us back into the channel.  High tide was many hours away, with little more to do than wait till that time.  This was plan A.

While we were waiting for the tide, I took the following picture.  In addition to one of the tugs, a liner similar to the Normandy may be seen in the background.   The Normandy was one of the premiere cruise liners of the era, but was destroyed by fire while being converted to a troop ship during the war.


Plan B was not nearly as pretty.  New York City was only our second port of call, and the training cruise was just two weeks along, with over four weeks to go.  In the event that the tide does not raise the ship enough to free the Wisconsin, the next step is to determine the variation in high tide.  As the tide moves with the moon, the absolute highest tide would occur sometime within the next 26 days.  That could be a long time to wait for the absolute highest tide to arrive.   Had we gone aground at the peak of this period, our chances of getting an additional lift from the tide were slim.  Under this plan the Wisconsin could become a permanent memorial on the New Jersey side of the river, competing with the Statue of Liberty for visitors.

Plan B was also an immediate nightmare with 500 midshipmen on board, and no way to continue the training exercises in port.  Within a day or two alternate training plans would be required, or the midshipmen would need to be sent home. This, in effect, would terminate the cruise for the summer.

The captain was eventually contacted ashore, and returned to his ship, this time in the mud in New Jersey.  He waited, as we all waited, until the tide turned.  The tugs continued to push us relentlessly toward the channel.  Hours later, the tide actually rose about a foot, which was sufficient to dislodge the hull from the mud.  With help from a fleet of tugs by this time, the Wisconsin was pushed clear of the mud, and back into the channel. Her boilers were steaming, and she was ready to move under her own power.  Taking no chances, the tugs were retained to accompany the ship to a new and safer location.

As the Hudson River and its mooring buoys had proven to be unreliable, the Captain elected to remove the ship from the Hudson entirely.  He selected an anchorage about a mile south of Brooklyn, where he dropped anchors from both the bow and stern of the ship to hold it securely in place.  Instead of the Big Apple, Coney Island became the alternate port of call.  The ships LCVPs unloaded the liberty parties 50 yards from the amusement park.  From the captain’s perspective, this was vastly superior to being aground in New Jersey.

With our return to Norfolk, our first summer cruise was over.  We packed our bags and headed back across the country to finish what was left of the summer.

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