Blasting Their Way to Safety
(from the June 1954 issue of the US Navy's "All Hands" magazine)
One of the more unusual salvage stories of the year is the tale of an LST grounded so fast on a coral reef that frogman had to blast a 1000-foot-long channel to free her.
USS LST 291 was churning her way through the waters of the Great Bahamas after completing two weeks of amphibious training exercises at Vieques, Puerto Rico.
About 1,800 yards off James Point, Eleuthera Island, the crunching of steel and stone shattered the silence of the night. The LST had hit a submerged coral reef. The grounding tore a two-foot hole in the evaporator room and twisted, warped and gashed the heavy steel skin in other parts of the ship's hull.
Water started pouring in through these openings and all of the lower compartments became flooded. Personnel were ordered over the side.
Although the nearest land was less than a mile away, heavy seas and razor-sharp coral played havoc with the small boats. At least three of the landing craft ripped holes in their hulls on submerged reefs in getting ashore. There were no casualties despite the rough going.
GROUNDED on submerged coral reef, USS LST 291 has her cargo off-loaded.
In answer to the LST's radio messages for help, the Navy immediately began diverting other ships to the area.
First to arrive on the scene were the escort vehicles USS Heyliger (DE 510) and USS Osberg (DE 538). They removed all of the shipwrecked and stranded personnel from the island, leaving a volunteer salvage party to stay with the ship and take necessary damage control measures.
Then the salvage operations began. The first step was to begin flooding all compartments on the ship. This was necessary as the heavy seas were slowly driving the LST further aground toward the beach. Each movement was scraping her hull on the sharp coral and was tearing new holes in her bottom.
SALVAGE OFFICER, CDR R.K. Thurman, USN, directs operations
To stabilize the ship and hold her firm on the reef, it was necessary to bring as much weight to bear on her bottom as possible. This could only be accomplished by flooding.
Frogmen from Underwater Demolition Team Two arrived the scene and began surveying the area in an attempt to clear an estimated 300-yard channel through the reef.
In spite of a 25-knot wind and adverse weather conditions the UDT men made one mass underwater swim across the area in their self-contained diving suits. They verified reports of a shallow channel, but revealed that it was obstructed by coral pinnacles ranging up to 100 feet in diameter.
About 400 pounds of explosives were used in an initial blasting effort and more was rushed to the area by sea and air. The channel soon began to take shape, and while UDT frogmen blasted away, the cargo was slowly removed from the LST by utility landing craft from USS Carter Hall (LSD 3) and USS Donner (LSD 20).
Aboard the LST, diving operations were underway but the salvage personnel found rough-going because of large amounts of grease, oil, and gasoline in the water.
FLAGS showing services rendered by USS Tanner (AGS 15) fly during salvage operations
The divers found themselves qualifying as "underwater jeep drivers." During the salvage operations, vehicles in the ship's flooded tank deck had to be removed. A diver, donning his helmet, would seat himself in a submerged vehicle, then steer it to the surface as a heavy crane pulled it out. This went on until all the jeeps were removed.
D.L. Peschke, VM1, USN, 'dives for jeeps' in LST's flooded tank deck.
The biggest hole uncovered in the ship's hull was a two-foot gash in the evaporator room. Other dives to the ship's bottom revealed holes in practically every compartment on the lower deck.
When the frogmen had finished blasting what turned out to be a 1,000-foot channel through the coral rock, the cargo had been salvaged from the LST and transferred to USS Wyandot (AKA 92), holes and gashes in the hull had been patched and water had been removed from flooded compartments in the ship.
After 11 days of tireless efforts, the LST was ready to be filled with compressed air and refloated.
With towline attached to the salvage ships USS Recovery (ARS 43) and USS Opportune (ARS 41), Amphibious Force landing craft began washing heavy streams of water under the LST's stern in an attempt to move her off the ledge which imprisoned her. Five minutes later the ship began to move toward the left of the UDT-made channel.
Instead of tightening from the pull, the tow cable suddenly went limp as it caught on a coral pinnacle.
But Recovery maneuvering desperately, came left of the channel, straightened out her tow line and put a strain back on the cable again. Then the LST floated clear of the reef and turned on her running lights. The operation was completed, thanks to the men of the UDT, the salvage crew and ships that came to the aid of the grounded LST. --Joseph J. Brazan, JO1, USN
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