What is it about the name Hood?
Britain’s renowned 42,000-ton battlecruiser H.M.S. Hood met a fiery wartime fate in mortal combat with the German battleship BISMARCK and cruiser PRINZ EUGEN in the North Atlantic.
But in Pacific waters just to our north, Australian Navy men witnessed the horrendous destruction of another HOOD – U.S.S. MOUNT HOOD.
With 743 casualties, it was the worst Pacific fleet-base disaster of World War II apart from Pearl Harbour and its significance for Australia and our R.A.N. history was that it occurred in what in those days was Australian Mandated Territory at Seeadler Harbour in the Admiralty Islands north of New Guinea.
R.A.N. men saw the holocaust as their warships lay in the great fleet base at Manus where the battle groups and task forces of the United States fleets were gathering for onslaughts against the Philippines then Japan itself. Several of our R.A.N. warships were badly rocked by the explosion.
None of our R.A.N. men at the time knew the full extent of the devastating explosion but research in U.S. Navy archives in America has revealed the full spectrum of the disaster that obliterated U.S.S. MOUNT HOOD plus 22 small vessels and landing craft sunk, destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
With 45 men killed, another 327 declared missing and never found plus 371 injured, casualties totalled 743.
There was a touch of irony about the fact that U.S.S. MOUNT HOOD, a fleet ammunition ship of 14,000 tons, was named after a volcanic peak in the Cascade Ranges of Oregon, U.S.A. It was ironic, too, that U.S.S. MOUNT HOOD was on her maiden voyage and was struck from the Naval Register only some four months after her first assignment began.
Built by the North Carolina Shipbuilding Co. of Wilmington, U.S.S. MOUNT HOOD was commissioned into the United States Navy on July 1, 1944. The 151 metre ship undertook her shakedown training period in the Chesapeake Bay area.
Deeply laden with ammunition at Norfolk, she departed on August 21 via the Panama Canal for her destination – Manus fleet base in the Admiralty Islands. Arriving there on September 22, U.S.S. MOUNT HOOD commenced dispensing ammunition to ships preparing for the big Philippines offensives.
On the morning of November 18, U.S.S. MOUNT HOOD’s Communications Officer (Lieutenant L.A. Wallace) took a group of 17 men ashore and 25 minutes later, while stretching their legs along the beach, they saw a flash out in the harbour followed by two quick explosions.
Scrambling back into their boat, they headed back to U.S.S. MOUNT HOOD only to find the ship was no longer there – just debris all around. Anchored in 19 fathoms of water, U.S.S. MOUNT HOOD with an estimated 3,500 tons of ammunition aboard, had exploded.
As a key base for the fleet, Seeadler Harbour in those days was extremely busy with warships big and small plus the vast array of back-up and convoy supply ships that serviced the fighting units plus the big shore establishment at Manus.
A number of R.A.N. warships were in the harbour. Of them, the frigate H.M.A.S. HAWKESBURY lay closest to U.S.S. MOUNT HOOD. HAWKESBURY had just arrived back in Manus base after a convoy assignment to the Palau Islands – ironically with another ammunition ship, the ETHIOPIAN VICTORY.
Big signal towers ashore had several decks and a multiplicity of signal projectors, so a visual signal watch was always an earnest period for signalmen on the warships lying out in the fleet anchorage. Two signalmen on the bridge of HAWKESBURY saw the first flash of the big explosion on U.S.S. MOUNT HOOD.
As they activated the ship’s alarm bells, the blast from the explosion began to severely rock the Australian warship. HAWKESBURY quickly despatched its motor cutter towards the scene, being among the first of what became a veritable armada of small boats from all the warships and from ashore that raced to the scene to render help.
Port frequency radio crackled on the bridge as appeals went out for all sorts of aid – even clergymen to tend the dead and dying.
The initial explosion aboard U.S.S. MOUNT HOOD had caused flame and smoke to shoot up from amidships to more than masthead height then, within seconds, the bulk of the cargo of ammunition was set off with a more intense explosion.