A Night of Terror aboard USS HANCOCK (CVA-19)

An Emergency Breakaway during an At-Sea Replenishment

Information on this encounter is from a collaboration
between this and the

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HANCOCK was the last carrier in the Pacific to have piston aircraft. All tankers had long since converted their amidships tanks to JP-5. KAWISHIWI however had the correct tank top on her 4 (amidships) centerline tanks and her inert cofferdams were intact; so before deployment we certified and loaded with AVGAS.                 
James Barton LT 75-77 Chief Engineer USS KAWISHIWI AO-146
(more from James Barton Below)

A corpsman striker on the HANCOCK in 1975, during Operation Eagle Pull and Frequent Wind; remembers; "We had a full blown Emergency Breakaway. She had to go into port for awhile to repair her side. We would have had a disaster on our hands if it hadn't been for the great job of whoever was as the wheel during that time. There were two occasions where I could not have fit my foot between the two ships, but we never collided. I was amazed and terrified at the same time. The Hangar decks were covered by Marines, and supplies were everywhere. Marines were laying by or near stuff that would have crushed them like flies had we collided that night. I remember that night and the ones of the operations off the coast of Nam. I was corpsman on duty at an 'unwrap station'.

Well, that is what almost happened. For some reason the other ship started away from us and we had a heck of lot lines, and pipes, nets and all types of stuff connecting us. We also had a bunch of Marines laying all over the ship, under things that would smash them like flies , if the ship hit something and caused these things to fall... Every thing that was connected between the two ships- fuel lines, jet fuel lines, food and supply cables , even the sound power phone --- they all snapped and fuel flew everywhere, cables lashed out, my sound power man on the station I was corpsman at, almost went overboard and would have been squashed by the ships.

I was coated with JP jet fuel. The other ship came back into us and we were less than a man's foot apart and the ship went out and then back and then finally it went out and stayed away. I want you to know that our Quartermaster did a hell of a job! No one died that I was aware of. Our large fuel lines were ripped out of our side and some other damage occurred and we went into port to get fixed up. When  I went down to sick call, covered in oil and jet fuel. The fellows there wanted to know what the heck happened to me and, ...don't get the white floor dirty...."

Bill Shipley HM1, USN-Retired

"This encounter was a little more than an emergency breakaway... it was a full blown collision."

"HANCOCK was steaming in the South China Sea during flight operations, and we were also engaged in taking on stores and fuel during an underway replenishment (UN-REP), from the Fleet Oiler USS KAWISHIWI (AO-146). I was on deck on one of the sponsons with some other Sailors observing this evolution on the starboard side, aft of the island. All of a sudden, we saw all the Sailor's on the main deck of KAWISHIWI start to run like hell from the port side to the starboard side, many of them yelling and pointing, and I heard 'emergency breakaway' called out over the 1-MC. Then it happened! Our rear elevator on the side of the ship I was on, struck KAWISHIWI just aft of her CPO Quarters on their port side. It made a loud scraping noise, and scraped along the deck a ways, wiping out some gear on their main deck. By this time, we had broke-off all hoses and lines between us, and began to pull away from KAWISHIWI. I heard later that KAWISHIWI had temporarily lost power and veered into us. Apparently this must have been what happened, as after the investigation neither commanding officer was relieved, which is usually what occurs when you have a collision at sea. Most of the time it just ruins the hell out of a Skipper's day! We did quite a bit of damage to KAWISHIWI, but just bent some parts of our elevator, and tore off some side screening on it. Luckily, no one was injured."

Corky Johnson NCCM

("The ships did not collide. The starboard elevator may have been damaged by the fueling station striking it or some of the other rigs. A tremendous amount of equipment was lost during that evolution". See Ship's Report below by James Barton - Chief Engineering Officer - Kawishiwi ) 

"I was that "Quartermaster at the helm" during the UNREP with KAWISHIWI in '75. And believe me, it was the most difficult evolution I had ever done! According to our division chief (QMC Steve Brown), the problem was caused by KAWISHIWI losing power to her rudder and the venturi effect pulling the ships together. I had only been on the helm about 10 minutes when things went wrong, in a hurry. For the record, I was one of only six qualified Special Evolution helmsmen on board. As you know, the Special Evolution helmsmen have the responsibility for driving the ship in and out of port, and taking the helm during Flight Ops and UNREPS. We would generally have 2 or 3 Special Evolution helmsmen for each UNREP, rotating every twenty minutes. Here is what happened on the bridge. My compass heading would not hold, no matter what I did on the helm. I reported to the Conning Officer that I was unable to hold my course. But with each correction in the rudder, the lines and hoses between the ships would pull us closer together. Capt Fellows on seeing the danger, relieved the Conning Officer, because we were not gaining distance between ships fast enough. He ordered the Quartermaster of the Watch to sound the Emergency Breakaway signal on the ship's horn and ordered the 1MC announcement on the breakaway. We successfully pulled away, after "All Ahead Flank, Emergency" was ordered. The first and only time I had ever heard that particular command. It's a funny thing, after writing this, I remember it like it was yesterday. Hard to believe it's been 25 years!!! Only by speeding up and literally pulling away, did we get out of harm's way. Our division Leading Petty Officer (QM2 Mende) wanted to relieve me in the middle of the breakaway, but Chief Brown refused to let him on the helm. Mende thought I wasn't turning the rudder fast enough. Capt Fellows was giving me rudder commands every few seconds. And believe me, I had never done so many rudder reversals in my life. My arms felt like lead. The credit really goes to Capt Fellows for recognizing the danger we were in and directing me correctly on the helm. I later received a commendation from him for expert performance on the helm. I'm just glad there were no serious injuries. Even though UNREPs can become routine, you must always be prepared for emergencies. I also want to give credit to Chief Brown for my training and his guidance. It saved the day. Footnote: It should be noted that while I was doing my best to keep up with rudder commands and course changes, my counterpart in after-steering had to match everything I did on the bridge. The after-steering gang really saved everyone, by staying alert and by keeping both steering engines on line.

Fred Shacklett, QM2, N Division 1974-1976 (Last LPO of N-Division)


I was on that deployment as Chief Engineer on KAWISHIWI. I was in Liquid Cargo Central during the incident. Ron Keiser, who at the time was First Lieutenant, did the investigation of the incident. KAWISHIWI had been configured to carry aviation gasoline on that cruise, specifically to support HANCOCK which was the last carrier in the Pacific to have piston aircraft. All tankers had long since converted their amidships tanks to JP-5. We however had the correct tank top on our 4 (amidships) centerline tank and our inert cofferdams were intact; so before deployment we certified and loaded with AVGAS.

KAWISHIWI suffered a gyro repeater failure. The helmsman and conning officer didn't t catch it until we started swinging into HANCOCK. Both CO s did a great job in maneuvering and a collision was avoided but not before we severed fueling lines and ripped the AVGAS station out of the deck of HANCOCK.  It was miraculous that the near miss did not result in a greater disaster.

Due to a conversation at a golf game in Hawaii between CINCPACFLT and COM7THFLT, as the sea story goes, the 7th Fleet admiral complained to CINCPACFLT that the only tankers carrying AVGAS were civilian tankers, from the Military Sealift Command. He wanted to be supported by navy tankers.

Who knows whether this is urban legend or the truth; but one thing led to another and the word came down to the pier in our home port of Pearl Harbor to look into re-configuration. All US Navy tankers had long since converted their amidships tanks to JP-5. All centerline tanks carried aviation fuel. Our wing tanks carried cargo fuel. There were 24 tanks in all. I was not very keen on the idea of re-configuring. PONCHATOULAla and HASSAYAMPA had a bunch of limitations that did not allow them to re-configure quickly. Later, the Chief Engineers of both ships told me they arranged it so they could not re-configure. We weren't as quick on the uptakes I guess and we had the correct tank top on our 4 (amidships) centerline tank (although it had to be re-worked). Plus our inert cofferdams were intact; so before deployment we certified and loaded with AVGAS. To make things worse, some brilliant staff planner also decided to configure us with CONEX refrigerated boxes and their huge electric motors on the O-1 level right above the 4 centerline tank.

AVGAS was bad stuff and loading out with AVGAS was a real pain for us tanker sailors. I imagine it was for you carrier sailors as well.

Every time we came into
Subic Bay for an extended period, we either had to tie up at the fuel pier; or worse, we had to first go to the fuel pier; then go back out to sea to clean and gas free the tank before returning to a naval station pier.  In liberty ports we had to anchor in the explosive anchorages, seemingly a million miles from the port. At sea when transferring, we had to set condition red which meant securing all weather deck doors, securing electric motors and use non-sparking tools. That also meant securing the CONEX boxes for the duration. If we expected a long UNREP, that meant an all-hands working party to download the frozen food so it wouldn't t spoil. Ah, what we did for our HANCOCK mates! I could have killed that staff officer. Anyway, the transfer of the stuff was done with extreme care. The fittings and rigs used in the transfer were all specially suited for AVGAS. The fuel gave off a real noxious odor and the fumes tend to hide in low spots.

There have been many documented disasters with AVGAS. I mentioned USS ASHTABULA. On
November 30, 1952, ASHTABULA was completing an upkeep period alongside repair ship Ajax when tragedy struck. In the early afternoon, gasoline fumes in two of the forward tanks ignited and the force of the explosion caused the 01 deck to curl back to the superstructure. Several storerooms and bulkheads were destroyed. A portion of the port side hull split allowing sea water to rush in and deck equipment was thrown from the deck into the water. Six people lost their lives. Another famous AVGAS incident that worked in our favor occurred in WWII during the Battle of the Philippine Sea when US torpedo planes set off AVGAS vapor explosions on the Japanese carriers TaihM, ShMkaku, and Hiyo which subsequently sank.

So, as Paul Harvey says, so much for the rest of the story. It is amazing I can still recall the events. UNQUOTE

 James Barton LT 75-77 Chief Engineer USS KAWISHIWI AO-146

With what appears as 'conflicting reports' on the Emergency Breakaway evolution between HANCOCK and KAWISHIWI, it seems only fair to include another eye witness' report on this event, so every angle may be reviewed and considered.

A KAWISHIWI shipmate, Doug Covill, wrote Jake of Jake's 'Yankee Station' - USS HANCOCK CV/CVA-19 Memorial, after reading the above comments from both HANCOCK and KAWISHIWI Crew members and wanted to clarify or at least include his own observations on the event...


I don't really remember the exact links or how I took them, but I found the story starting from the HANCOCK site, along with the claim that the "Special K" (the USS KAWISHIWI AO-146) and the HANCOCK had collided. Just browse around there and you'll find it.

The story I gave of what happened on the bridge is factually questionable because of how fast the whole thing was hushed up. Very shortly after we tied up to the pier after that incident they put down liberty call for the crew (unheard of at 10 am!). After that there was never an "official" statement (that we heard, anyway) about what caused it. However, the KAWISHIWI was a fairly small ship (we had a crew of less than 200), there were few real secrets aboard her. I do believe as fact that the "Special K" had gotten 6 degrees off course and the helmsman simply put her back on it without consulting anyone. I know for certain that there were no problems with the engineering plant until All Back Emergency was ordered.

The experience definitely left a lasting impression on me - I'll never forget looking UP to see the HANCOCK's Flight Deck...

Doug Covill

With all due respect to all, Doug's remarks places some question between Command Master Chief Corky Johnson's statements (above) about a "Full-Blown Collision" taking place, and LT James Barton's statement there was not a collision.

In view of the fact that Doug feels that there was some subterfuge involved in how both ships handled the investigation, we'll leave the final analysis up to God and the reader as to what really took place, regarding whether there was an actual collision or whether just some of the connecting rigging caused the damage on both ships, but reason seems to show that Corky's eye-to-eye observation is the report and consideration that should be taken and accepted. Since this is a Public Forum - the Internet - no doubt we'll find other's who'll step forward with their own pesonal experience during these very tenuous moments. So if you wish to include your own remarks on this event, please send E-Mail to Jake, Web Yeoman, USS Hancock CV/CVA-19 Memorial, so that your views may be read. - Jake

"Lt. Barton's version comports best with my memory. He said " Kawishiwi suffered a gyro repeater failure. The helmsman and conning officer didnít catch it until we started swinging into Hancock."

I was on Generator watch & MMFN Midling was on throttles. We got an emergency back full command which requires that the aft throttles be opened at the same time the forward throttles were closed. This is a very tricky maneuver because the steam requirements of the two throttles were different. Changing your steam requirements too quickly could cause the feed water levels in the boilers to change too rapidly and you run the risk of the boilers shutting down, leaving the ship without propulsion or power. You can't run the boilers w/o power and you can't run the generators w/o steam. So to pull this off you've got the BTs watching the feed water levels, Midling spinning two throttle wheels at once and me holding in the trips on the generators so they wouldn't go off line. I really remember the emergency back full, but none of the wheel house guys' stories mention it.

My recollection of the cause given was that during the UnRep, the Hancock was 6 degrees off course going away from us. We corrected but didn't mention it because we thought we had been off. Then the Hancock realized they were off and corrected, bringing them back toward us. Since we had all that AVGAS (which I understood was in the forward tanks) we did an emergency back full which brought the Hancock across our bow. I can't remember now the name of the Deck guy who had to use some kind of shotgun powered cutting tool to sever the forward cable because it wouldn't release and was dragging the Hancock into our bow. I had never heard that any part of the Kawishiwi struck any part of the Hancock. Why nobody ever looked at the UnRep sheet to see what our heading was supposed to be (and thus show who was off course), probably explains why the whole thing was quietly handled.

The whole thing happened quickly and I never heard of any official report. I do know that myself and several other young sailors who were on duty during this incident, who had been demoted a rank for some shit we did in Subic, were quietly given back our Crow's. I still have the Special "K" plaque several of us were given."

Philipp C. Theune MM3 74-75

Some important input from Jim Barton, Chief Engineer aboard KAWISHIWI which I felt should be included on this Page...

Jake -

Thanks for the E-mail. The definitive source on this is going to be from CDR Ron Keiser (USN-ret) who did the JAG investigation and the log books from the respective ships. We can leave it up to God but the logs will show how the official event was recorded at the time. The command histories will portray it as well. There was no hanky panky in the JAG investigation, at least from the Kawishiwi side. Ron did a thorough job.

If we are looking for historical accuracy, I wouldn't trust anyone's memory; mine or the late Master Chief's. Each one of us sees it through the haze as well as from our own perspective during the event. BM1 Shipley and NCCM Johnson disagree. I tend to go with BM1 Shipley. One thing in the Master Chief's version for sure which is incorrect is the cause of the collision. It was not a loss of power. It was a helm gyro repeater failure.

Like the Master Chief, I too was on deck during the event, first in Cargo Central (port side O-1 level) then on the O-1 level itself outside near the amidships station to secure pumping and to get the rigs in. There is no question that this was an extraordinary event. The Master Chief's characterization of the event is just fine: "a full blown collision event." It just depends on what is meant by that. There could have been a scraping on Kawishiwi's superstructure near the CPO quarters as he describes it. He is right that CPO berthing, the mess and the pantry were located on the O-1 level port side (between frames 88-117). I just don't remember it.

There is no question that damage occurred though. Hancock's fueling riser forward of the elevator was literally ripped from the deck as the ships came apart. I watched that happen. The good news is that we had secured pumping AVGAS and only the amount contained in the hose spilled. We lost that entire rig. It swung back and struck Hancock's elevator. It then nailed our port side a few times before we got it under control. We didn't do well amidships or aft either. Number 8 pumping station is located just forward of the after deck house. I know that rig struck us several times in the vicinity of CPO berthing. All of those rigs were destroyed or snaked and useless; not from the ships colliding but from the forces of being rapidly pulled apart. We lost the ability to refuel from the port side until we could re-rig. Through Herculean effort by the Deck Apes, I believe that was the next day. General Quarters was sounded and I delayed going to Main Control (I was Chief Engineer) sending the MPA there in my place until I was sure we were out of trouble with the rigs. Fortunately no lives were lost.

There is no question that this was not simply an emergency breakaway. I agree with the Master Chief on that score. His sea story is very colorful and makes a great read. What is at issue is whether the two ships had skin to skin contact which would constitute a collision.

I think the action taken by the two bridges was extraordinary and their combined skill prevented an even greater disaster. I simply don't see any evidence of a collision by the true definition of that word. My memory of the event doesn't register one and I don't recall there being any damage other than that to the rigs which I described. If the ships hit, where was the damage to Kawishiwi, particularly damage from an elevator?

The bottom line is that Kawishiwi was at fault. I didn't remember it that way until I talked with Ron. The investigation he did showed that the helm gyro repeater failed and the helmsman followed the course drifting to port. For years I remembered it as a helm failure in Hancock until it dawned on me I was remembering another incident on another ship where we did collide.

In the case of Hancock-Kawishiwi, the Conn caught the error (not the Kawishiwi helmsman as reported by one person) and then the two captains executed the emergency maneuvers to keep the ships apart.

I think the log books would confirm it one way or the other. I haven't gotten back to the National Records Center in Suitland yet; but I will. I'll look at the Hancock's log as well. Until that happens, let's just let everyone tell it as he remembers it, ideally over a beer. If the log shows we collided, I stand corrected. Until then I stand by my version of the event.

All the best,

Jim Barton

PS - I have visited your site frequently. I love a good sea story and both sites are full of good ones. The sea stories you have posted are all good reading.

Please send E-Mail to Jake, Web Yeoman, if you have any 'intelligence' on this Emergency Breakaway.

See USS KAWISHIWI AO-146 Report on Hancock Emergency Breakaway