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USS Wasp USS Hobson Collision - Worst Peacetime Naval Disaster

The Bow of the USS Wasp

On April 26, 1952 the aircraft USS Wasp (CV-18) was maneuvering 700 miles west of the Azores along with its compliment of support ships including the USS Hobson, a minesweeper-destroyer serving as one of the Wasp's destroyer escorts. A destroyer escort serves as a plane guard and screen for the carrier. Screen duty involves protecting the carrier from attack and whatever other tasks are assigned to the ship.

The USS Hobson

Screen Duty - A Difficult Task for a Destroyer Captain

Carrier screen duty is one of the more nerve wracking tasks for a destroyer captain. It's his job to "keep station," that is maintain a constant position relative to the carrier. If the carrier turns suddenly the message is relayed by radio to the destroyer, but often the turn is almost instantaneous and the destroyer skipper has to be ready to respond. This is especially critical during flight operations because the carrier captain's job is to keep its bow pointed into the wind to launch or retrieve aircraft.

On the night of April 26, 1952 the Wasp launched a training flight of planes at about 8 PM (2000 hours in military time). As the Wasp was preparing to retrieve its aircraft, her commanding officer, Captain Burnham McCaffree planned to turn the ship into the wind to a course of 250 to 260. On the Hobson, the officer of the deck, Lt. William Hoefer, was planning accordingly. The ships were steaming at 24 knots and the Hobson was 3000 yards off the Wasp's starboard quarter (on the right side and behind the Wasp). The Hobson's captain, 32 year old Lt. Commander William Tierney, was new to sea duty.

The plan was for the Hobson to take a new station on the Wasp's port quarter and her sister ship, the destroyer USS Rodman, was to take the Hobson's previous station on the carrier's starboard quarter. In other words, the two escorts were going to switch positions.

The Williamson Turn

Young Captain Tierney had recently received a communication from fleet headquarters that recommended executing rapid turning maneuvers to maximize efficiency. One simple way to accomplish this would have been for each destroyer to slow down and switch positions behind the maneuvering carrier. Tierney instead chose to execute a Williamson turn, also known as the lifeguard turn. The Williamson Turn was named after the man who designed it, a destroyer escort captain in World War II. The maneuver calls for a ship to go through a carefully timed turn with exact rudder positions and the result would be that the ship winds up in the same location where it began its turn. For lifesaving purposes this is an excellent choice. You wind up near the spot where a person fell overboard. But to change stations behind an aircraft carrier, the turn called for the Hobson to cross IN FRONT OF the Wasp, with tragic results. Tierney got into a heated argument with Lt. Hoefer, the officer of the deck, who thought that a fancy turn in front of the carrier would be dangerous. Eyewitness accounts have Lt. Hoefer stormed off the bridge in anger. As he did so, he instinctively turned down the radio receiver volume.

A Gathering of Errors

As the officer of the deck of the Wasp ordered right standard rudder, the glass on the pelorus (a compass repeater) of the Hobson was foggy, making it difficult to get an exact bearing on the Wasp. At the same time the surface radar on the Wasp failed. The wind shifted and the Wasp skipper ordered a ten degree course change. The message was relayed to the Hobson although no one can recall hearing it. Tierney on the Hobson ordered right full rudder, and then 30 seconds later ordered left full rudder. No one knows why he did this. The Hobson crossed directly in front of the 34,000 ton Wasp and was sliced in two.

176 sailors perished in short order and only 61 survived. On the bridge, 11 out of 13 survived. Young Captain Tierney either fell or jumped off the bridge into the water. He couldn't swim and perished.

What perished along with Captain Tierney is the exact explanation of what happened. We will never know. The Naval Board of Inquiry, held in May 1952, lasted nine days. The three admirals on the board concluded that the collision was caused by the young commander of the Hobson, William Tierney.

Because of the gaping hole in its bow, the Wasp steamed backwards to Gravesend Bay, New York at a speed of four knots. Her journey was further complicated because, as was subsequently discovered, she was dragging over 600 feet of anchor chain.

I served on the USS Wasp from 1968 to 1970, assigned to the navigation division. The story of the collision with the Hobson, 16 years earlier, still reverberated on the ship. As I stood watch on the bridge I could imagine the horrifying sight of a destroyer passing directly in front of us.The Wasp was decommissioned in 1970. The collision between the USS Wasp and the USS Hobson was the worst peacetime naval disaster in the history of the United States Navy. The USS Wasp acquired the unenviable nickname throughout the Navy as the "Can Opener."

Parts of this article are based on an article that appeared in Waspirit, the quarterly newsletter for those who served on the USS Wasp (CVS 18) "The USS Hobson's Tragic Date With Destiny" by Kit Bonner.

Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran


Dale Anderson from The High Seas on December 24, 2019:

As a long time sailor who lives aboard their boat, stories like this always grab my immediate attention. It can be a dangerous place out there and everyone on the water needs to be responsible and vigilant.

Judi Barra on October 04, 2019:

My uncle was lost on the USS Hobson. His name was Richard Allen Royce. I never had the chance to know him since I was born in 1953. My mom, his sister, told me that when he was deployed, he told her that he wouldn't make it back.

Roy C Russell on August 17, 2019:

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I was on the USS Rodman at the time of this tragedy, EN3, I had the mid watch, 12 MN 4:00 AM, and was awakened at about 10:30 PM, which was too early to go on watch, so I asked why I was awakened so early & the answer wasn't good news. They used the Captain's gig (motor whale boat) which was the only motorized boat we had, to rescue the survivors. They were all covered with fuel oil from the Hobson, (thick black oil) called bunker c. I always thought there were 95 that survived, I could be wrong about that. We never heard

very much about it for some reason, or i can't remember hearing much about it. We was in Bayonne, NJ for about a month while repairs were being made, We went on to finish the 6 month tour of the Mediterranean Sea area after that. I had no idea this article existed until I was telling my grandson about it & he looked it up & found the article.

darren wheeler on July 26, 2019:



Lawrence Wertan on July 24, 2019:

I grew up in Chas. SC, a great navy town. I was 6 year old in 1952 and our nextdoor neighbor's son was on the Hobson. Don't hold me to this, but I think their name was Brown. They were African-American family and Rev. Brown was a minister. They were the only black family in the neighborhood and what I remember is my mother and father, and everyone else bringing food and sitting and crying. Like I say, I was really too young to understand what a tragic and terrible thing had happened, and pain of losing a child must have been horrible. God bless all of the men and their families who were lost.

Mary Etta Miller on July 24, 2019:

My Dad was a medic on the Wasp when this accident happened. He described the incident as "Horrific".

Lawrence Wertan on April 10, 2019:

I was in the 2nd grade in Charleston, SC when this terrible accident happened. Our nextdoor neighbor's son was on the Hobson and counted among the dead. I remember the entire neighborhood bringing food and sympathy. As a 2nd grader I was really too young to understand both the personal and epic scope of the tragedy. I can remember my mother having Masses said for the son and the families of all of the service men.

miracles88 on January 26, 2019:

My Father's 1st cousin Julian Booker Jr. was on the Hobson when it sank. He did not survive. My Grandmother had a picture of him that hung in her House, that was the only picture I ever saw of Buddy.That is what the family called him. I remember as a child hearing the story that he was on a ship that was sank by a ship The Wasp.

JC Refuge on November 17, 2018:

I had a good friend who was one of the survivors from the Hobson. A few years ago before he passed away he wrote an article for the Fall 2010 issue That link is for the table of contents of the issue. You need to contact the editor of the publication to have a hard copy of the article sent to you if you are interested. Very interesting. I understand that the crew believed Tierney was losing his mind before the incident and he demanded that the Hobson make the fatal turn. Then just before the ships actually collided, he leaped into the space where they were about to collide.

Steve Barnes on November 16, 2018:

My father was a Corpsman aboard the Rodman. At 95 years old he is still alert & active and has told several stories of the rescue attempt. He said one of the ships dropped landing nets in the water for the swimmers to grab onto, but the netting fell on top of some and held them underwater..?

larry schultz on August 15, 2018:

i was a electricans mate aboard the wasp that nite,my memory of the events that happen are pretty nuch the same.

Judi Davis Barra on July 09, 2018:

My uncle, Richard A. Royce was on the USS Hobson. He did not survive. I never had the chance to meet him as the collision happened about a year and a half before I was born. I have seen many pictures of him that my mom had and am saddened that I never had the chance to know him. Does anyone out there remember him? on September 06, 2017:

I have no idea what you're talking about. Do you? This article is derived from factual accounts - are you aware the collision really happened? Too bad reality doesn't play out according to your fantsies.

D. C. Haskin on August 23, 2017:

As a former Combat Information Center watch officer aboard destroyers in the fifties, this description of the incident sounds like a huge fantacy. The part about the two destroyers in plane guard stations is ,most likely accurate. However, a carrier already heading into the wind at 24 knots to either launch or recover aircraft is already committed to its base course and there is no need to have the plane guard destroyers already on assigned stations exchange places, or take other stations, except in preparation for a planned formation change upon completion of the air activities. A destroyer in plane guard station 1, 3,000 yards off the carrier's starboard quarter is considerably behind the carrier. Any maneuver that would bring it across the carrier's bow would require a considerable increase in speed just to catch up to the carrier. It might even needlessly require lighting-off additional boilers to obtain the necessary speed. Any man overboard maneuver would not be used in station keeping, or to take a new station. The only way I can see the destroyer crossing the carrier's bow would be if the carrier executed a base course change without first re-orienting the plane guard stations to a new formation prior to executing a base course change involving the carrier and its escorts. The story, as given, makes no sense.

charles bearish on July 23, 2017:

lt. Hoefer was assigned to the USS Mercury aks 20 his office was next to my barber shop.....

John on June 30, 2017:

My Uncle Bobby (Robert J. Ortlip) drowned on the Hobson when it collided with the Wasp. Would love to speak with anyone else who lost a loved one in this collision so many years ago. -John D. Favata

My email is

Fran on June 19, 2017:

My Uncle Teddy was aboard the Hobson and was lost. My family was devastated. It happened 6 years before I was born. I appreciate the comments on here as I have researched this tragedy and just found general accounts. The fact he was never found still haunts my mother. He was her only sibling. Yesterdays Naval ship accident brings back the Hobson pain to her these many years later.

Paul Edward Wells on May 22, 2017:

USS Wasp Second Class Electrician's Mate.The night of the collision of the USS Hobson and the USS Wasp. I remember playing Blackjack in the AfterGyro room when General Quarter's sounded after the collision. I remember you Nick Ippolito. I live in Fenton, MI.

Nick ippolito on November 24, 2016:

I served in the E division of the USS Wasp. On the night of the collision

I was the duty electrician. Things were quiet. I was sitting on the workbench in the shop when the collision occured . I received a call from the O.D. To send up as many flashlights as I could gather. I put batteries in about 50 flashlights and sent them

Up to the Quarterdeck. When my watch finished at 2300 hrs., I went topside to see what was going on. I saw searchlights scanning the sea, looking for survivors, and the USS Rodman's and Wasp's lifeboats picking up survivors. There were differing accounts as to number of survivors. I understood the number to be 76. As for the toilet paper issue, mentioned in one of the above texts, we understood that all of our paper goods that were stored in the bow section of the Wasp, were destroyed, and that we had to borrow toilet paper from the carrier USS Leyte. The Leyte had to stay on duty in the Med for an extra 6 or 8 weeks while the Wasp was refitted with a bow taken from a mothballed sister ship, the USS Hornet. When we were arriving on station nearing Gibraltar, the Leyte sent two aircraft up and bombed us with toilet paper.

On an interesting side note to the Wasp / Hobson collision, I was working out at a local fitness center two years ago. A retired navy captain saw my navy tshirt on and inquired about my navy duty. I mentioned my Wasp duty. He asked if I were aboard during the Hobson collision. I told him I was on board then. He said that his father-in-law was one of the survivors. Also, the Captain's brother-in-law is a two star Navy Admiral.

I have had the pleasure of having coffee with the Captain and the Admiral on a couple of occasions during the holidays.

rfmoran on March 16, 2016:

It's hard for me to imagine the horror of that night. My years on the Wasp were relatively peaceful, spent paying tag with Russian submarines.

bob tyson on March 16, 2016:

I was an ABN aboard the Wasp on that fatal night & was on duty in the fuel gang. It was just a few minutes after 10pm when we started to turn into the wind to recover the planes that were on night training. At that moment I was in the "head" in our division quarters on the 02 level when all of a sudden there was a tremendous shudder of the ship. Instinctively I remember thinking that we had just "run aground", realized that was impossible as we were in the middle of the Atlantic, & then General Quarters was sounded. I ran to my position which was on the forward hangar deck & saw the sillowette of 1/2 of the Hobson sinking. Horrible sight. The next am during calm seas we sent out a party who measured the destruction to our bow. This info was relayed to Brooklyn Navy Yard where the USS Hornet was being brought out of "moth balls". The proper section that was needed was then cut out & when we finally arrived at the yard was then welded onto our ship, & off we went back to the Med. It was necessary to steam in reverse for quite a while due to high seas & the forward area was constantly being reinforced. It is now 64 years later & I'm reliving it as if it happened last night. I was on vacation a few years ago & ended up in Savanna, GA. While strolling through a park I came upon a memorial for the Hobson. I had no idea of the connection that it had with the city. I paused for a time & said some prayers for my departed shipmates.That toilet paper story is cute but inaccurate. We had plenty of toilet paper.

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on November 19, 2015:

Never heard the toilet paper story!

ABC on November 18, 2015:

I was a crew member aboard USS Coral Sea (CV-43), about three days ahead of USS Wasp, headed for the Mediterranean. When Wasp lost her bow, we learned all the store of ship's toilet paper was destroyed when the storage locker was flooded. We heard the ship's office did a nice business in conserving paper forms...used for other purposes. USS Leyte was about six weeks late being replaced by USS Wasp, new bow and all.

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on June 10, 2015:

Wow. You were there for a part of history, a history I guess you wish you never had.

When I was on the Wasp, from 1968-1970, people were still talking about it. We had yet another collision—with a tanker alongside, collapsing one of our plane elevators. This happened about a year before I reported aboard. My two years were peaceful, I'm happy to say.

R P SWANSON on June 10, 2015:

I was aboard wasp during collision , many of aircraft were in the air , and wasp turned into wind FORWARD , to receive aircraft, about 20 knots , last to land was a banshee jet with 3 minutes fuel, engineering received a commendation for reverse hauling anchor chain up on deck , then we returned to Brooklyn yard where a replacement bow waited , having been cut out of a similar ship. we lost several bulkheads at bow from water pressure , during plane recovery, I listened to sound powered phone conversation , during this , and could hear , losing bulkhead # (something) falling back, shoring up bulkhead # (something) and there was much sound of metal tearing , and hammering . the suvivors were covered with diesel fuel , except one, a chief who had been on forward deck , and when bow half of hobson tilted up , was struck by an antenna of wasp , grabbed it and stepped off on our lower deck , he fell in with survivors muster , and caused disbelief , til he explained.

Neal Hobson on July 25, 2014:

Mr. Moran,

thank you so much for this interesting article. The USS Hobson was named after a direct relative of mine, Constructor Richmond Pearson Hobson (aka "Kissing" Hobson), a hero of the Spanish American War.

I am planning on teaching my 12 year old son about his relative and the USS Hobson and you provided some great insight into this tragic event.

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on April 06, 2014:

It must have been horrifying, Stan. Thank you for your service.

Stanley P. Merker, YN1(SS), US NAVY RETIRED on April 06, 2014:

I was stationed on board the USS CORRY (DD-817) at the time of the collision - all hell broke loose when it happened. We picked up bodies and survivors. One on the factors not mentioned was that we were operating under dark ship conditions. No lights were being used during the time it happened.

Shining Irish Eyes from Upstate, New York on January 19, 2013:

Ahhhh - That seems more like it to me as well.

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on January 19, 2013:

Thanks for dropping by and for your comment. Some reports have it that Tierney committed suicide.

Shining Irish Eyes from Upstate, New York on January 19, 2013:

My Dad was a WWII Navy man. As Dad and I spent many evenings talking about his time on a ship, I sat enthralled as he described the many dangerous and perilous situations he went through.

This was fascinating, tragic and sad but fascinating all the same. I also found it rather ironic that Captain Tierney was on board a ship yet did not know how to swim.

Thanks for providing me an interesting read on my Saturday morning.

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