On a Med cruise in 1975, a Navy commander steered his destroyer to fight a horrific fire on a nuclear-armed guided-missile cruiser.
Late on the night of 22 November 1975, US military commands received a flash message from the commander of Carrier Striking Force, Atlantic. The cruiser USS Belknap (CG-26) and carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) had collided 70 nautical miles east of Sicily. The admiral’s urgent message was marked with the term “Broken Arrow”, which signified an emergency or accident involving a nuclear weapon.
Kennedy‘s angled flight deck had accidentally torn into Belknap‘s superstructure, and a ruptured JP-5 fuel line on a catwalk spilled aviation gas into the gouge. Broken wiring in the cruiser ignited the fuel. The fire was awful: Belknap‘s superstructure was made of aluminum, and aluminum burned very hot. Both warships carried nuclear weapons, but it was Belknap‘s W45 Terrier missiles that were directly threatened by the blaze and the reason for the admiral’s Broken Arrow alert.
Boat crews launched from other ships in the formation moved bravely around CG-27 to take off wounded despite the hazard of explosions and flying shrapnel. Claude V. Ricketts (DDG-5) also came in on the port side of this floating firestorm to take off the wounded. Meanwhile, the Pharris (FF-1094) had come to help Kennedy.
One of the ships to respond was USS Bordelon (DD-881), skippered by Commander George E. Pierce. He had only been in command of the Gearing-class destroyer for three months. As he recalled of that awful night,
The three-inch magazine was exploding, so there was stuff going everywhere on the other side. [The squadron commander] first told me to go in ‘bow to bow’ to try to render assistance, and I gave a cheery ‘aye aye’. I watched the thing from about 7,500 yards away, and I assumed our job was going to be to search for survivors because this thing was a ball of fire.
Belknap suffered multiple explosions as Bordelon approached, and Commander Pierce
thought the ship was gone. So I went in bow to bow. His bow was about thirty feet higher than mine. There was nothing I could do bow to bow. God bless him, the squadron commander said, ‘Okay, go bow in to the port side’ … there were about thirty to thirty-five knots of wind blowing and pretty good sea state as well. So I gave a cheery ‘aye aye’ and drove the ship up as close as ten feet, my bow and the side of the ship, so I could get my water pumps—I had good water pumps forward—and we put the fire out on the port side. And the guys afterwards said that ‘We didn’t think we were gonna make it until we got the fire out on the port side.’ They said when they saw us come in, ‘We got a chance.’
Getting even close to the cruiser was extraordinary difficult. Bordelon was into the wind, with so much smoke pressed against the bridge that Pierce couldn’t see the Belknap. His yeoman first class stood on the fo’c’sle, the forward part of the ship, with a sound-powered telephone to tell them “how close we were to hitting the Belknap. He’d tell me, ‘Fifteen, twenty feet, thirty feet, fifteen feet, ten feet,’ and I’d give them constant rudder orders trying to hold it there.” His destroyer was in position for more than half an hour.
The fire stopped before it reached Belknap‘s forward magazine and its W45 weapons. Seven men died from the accident with around twenty-three seriously wounded. The fuel fire on Kennedy‘s port side was tackled by firefighters in a matter of minutes, but another blaze remained down below for hours more. Smoke that spewed into the boiler rooms caused an evacuation of those spaces, and CV-67 went dead in the water. With the exception of SH-3D Sea Kings from Helicopter Squadron 11 (HS-11), all of Kennedy’s flights were sent to Sigonella. The carrier would soon resume flight operations with two working catapults while undergoing repairs at sea. There was one fatality from the Kennedy fire: Yeoman 2nd Class David A. Chivalette from Carrier Wing One (CVW-1) had died of smoke inhalation.
At some point, the senior officer afloat called up Commander Pierce and asked, “How long until you can be ready to tow?” Pierce had seen his captain tow something only once on a previous ship. The U.S. Navy issued pamphlets to officers for the procedure, which the commander kept down in his in-port cabin. His chief bosun informed the skipper that they could be ready to tow in about an hour.
Today, Pierce laughed when he remembered the towing order. He went down to his cabin and dug out the proper literature, knowing “there wasn’t anybody that could’ve helped me on this. And I read through the thing and I saw the most sensible, reasonable, the way I saw my CO do it before.” Back on the bridge, he learned that Belknap‘s problems weren’t quite finished. The fire broke out again, which required him to go back and put water on the port side again. Backing off
was a godsend, because like it does every day, in the morning the sun comes up. Don’t forget we’re in the middle of the night trying to do this. So now the sun comes up, so now I can see what I was doing. I never considered myself much of a ship handler, but on the first run, one rudder order or two rudder orders and I came up … and you have to come in on the bow and get yourself in front and forward of them. Usually what you do is you tie it on to the chain which gives you some catenary, which gives you some springing, which gives you some reasonable stuff when you’re gonna tow it. Well, this was just a big chunk of iron. No power whatsoever. No chain, no nothing. I had a seven-inch hawser that the chief dragged out, and we tossed them the line, and they tied it on, and off we went.
Pierce needed his starboard engine to kick the stern over, but to complicate matters, the port engine was down. The engineering casualty was fixed at the last minute, and with thirty knots of wind, Borderlon and Belknap were on their way to Augusta Bay in Sicily at a very slow three knots.
The cruiser’s fire had stopped just short of the three-inch magazine and its W45 Terriers, but the admiral in charge was still worried about the nukes. Talking over a secure line, he asked Borderlon‘s CO, “You think we should off load these on to the ammunition ship?”
“Absolutely not,” the captain replied. In Pierce’s view,
It was a bone-headed even idea! There’s no way! You’ve got no power. I said, ‘What we’ve gotta do, we got to get this close to Augusta Bay where the tug boats can meet us before this line breaks or it goes adrift and we end up with the whole things on the rocks there.’ He didn’t argue with that at all.
USS Belknap did indeed reach safe harbor, was repaired, and put back into service. The cruiser was decommissioned in 1995, struck from the naval register, and disposed of in an exercise in 1998.
In his long naval career, Commander Pierce captained another Gearing-class destroyer, USS Cone (DD-866), was an advisor to riverine forces in Vietnam, and the former commander of Naval Station New York. Today, George and his wife Doris spend time between Florida and Vermont.
Kristensen, Hans M. “Declassified: U.S. Nuclear Weapons At Sea”. Federation of American Scientists. February 3, 2016.
Flash message from CTF Six Zero to NMCC Washington D.C. 22 November 1975. Federation of American Scientists.