At 19, Peter Mahoney enlisted in the U.S. Navy and headed for the Mediterranean – and found himself involved in what became the deadliest naval peacetime maneuver accident in U.S. Naval history.
This Thursday marks 67 years since the U.S.S. Hobson destroyer-minesweeper (DD-464/DMS-26) crossed the bow of aircraft carrier U.S.S. Wasp (CV-18) at 10:20 p.m. and was severed in two, sending a surge of black bunker oil into the ocean, and in the enfolding chaos, 176 sailors to their deaths.
Those on deck were instantly swept overboard; those asleep below deck were entombed in the severed ship.
Apprentice seaman Mahoney – asleep on the floor in the bridge room, as someone had taken his rack – was jolted awake by the impact in the darkness. Turning on a flashlight and putting it in his shirt pocket, he escaped above deck, to discover he was “actually walking on the wall of the ship, as it was listing on its side,” as his daughter-in-law Giselle Mahoney explains.
As 3,500 life jackets and “anything that floated” rained down from the Wasp upon the 61 survivors from the Hobson, he recalled, a life raft, still inflating, was also dropped from above It was immediately drenched in oil. Mahoney clambered in, gripping the edge like an inner tube, and dog-paddled.
Despite the confusion, he reflected, “I grew up in Gaspee Point; the water is my friend. I knew the U.S. Navy would rescue me.”
With great difficulty, under a coat of oil, he unwrapped the oars in the raft. Mahoney estimates the starboard side of the vessel sank in two minutes, the port side in about two and a half minutes. In those frantic seconds that transpired, the U.S.S. Hobson was swallowed by the depths.
“Unless you showed your teeth or opened your eyes you wouldn’t know anyone,” Mahoney says – such was the extent of 190,000 gallons of bunker oil spilled on that moonless night.
“I wasn’t injured,” Mahoney said, but he spotted a fellow seaman, Gene St. Martin, in the water, struggling with a broken leg. As the raft drifted away from the Wasp, Mahoney barked, “Keep talking! Keep yelling! Open your eyes!” for the cloak of oily darkness rendered everything invisible. Hauling St. Martin into the lifeboat, he placed a life preserver on his leg as a temporary splint, and threw him another one to wear.
He approached another rubber raft containing about six sailors and they tied the rafts together. Retrieving the life jackets from the water, he tossed them into the second raft, ordering the sailors to don them. But no one moved. Using his deep voice, which seemed to carry authority, he commanded, “Put the lifejackets on.”
Before them, a 40-foot motor launch appeared with an officer and crew, carrying a couple of survivors. Mahoney and his newly formed crew boarded the boat. “We’re O.K.,” Mahoney reported to the skipper.
“Go get those guys,” he urged the skipper. “They’re in the water; they’re screaming!” He stood in the stern as they trolled around to pick up a couple of survivors, he can’t remember exactly. Mahoney recalls, “I looked down to see a sailor with his hands on the muffler, for heaven’s sake; it was so cold. I don’t remember it being cold at all.” Finally he turned to the officer and told him to make for the Wasp.
A huge hook from the Wasp yanked the men from the boat.
“I’m telling everybody what to do, and we get up to the level of the deck.” The Wasp crew threw blankets on the shivering oil-soaked men. “Up until that point I was fine,” Mahoney says, “and I look around, and I don’t see a soul I know. Now there’s nothing for me to do.”
Describing her father-in-law, Giselle Mahoney writes, “He recalls that fateful night with the color of a photograph that does not age, but with the countenance of a man who continues to struggle with the experience … Wave upon oil-slicked wave he re-watches the bow of the Hobson descend into the sea.”
Taken below to sick bay, and after “a half a dozen showers” to remove the oil, “a pill, and a shot of brandy,” most of the men remained in sick bay.
Mahoney escaped without injury, and ended up sleeping in an airdale compartment. Airdales accompanied a pilot and crew that landed on the carrier, and took care of every detail. Now they’d take care of everything for Mahoney. Would he like coffee? There were 10 airdales with coffee.
“At the time, I smoked,” Mahoney explains. “I said, ‘I could use a cigarette.’ ‘What kind?’ ‘King Size Chesterfields,’ and there was a case – not a carton – dropped down right in front of me.”
The next day, Mahoney visited St. Martin in sickbay and stood at the foot of the bed. “This guy’s a chief, 30 years in the Navy.” He recalls little more than a ‘Hi,’ was exchanged between them. The next time he saw St. Martin he was being carried off the Wasp onto the dock.
“Somewhere, he wrote an article thanking me …” but Mahoney’s voice trails off. Even a commendation from his superior officers does not change the facts for Mahoney. “It was just an event,” he emphasizes, after being on the ship for many months, helping a fellow seaman. He credits his training for his spontaneous actions.
A Western Union telegram reached his parents in Providence, informing them their son Peter had survived.
“During the day, I had a brand new pair of dungarees, no hat, because the ship’s store ran out of hats. I had no shoes, but one of the airdales had a pair of brown loafers. Now white hats are not allowed to have civilian clothes onboard, but he had a pair of shoes because we were headed to the Mediterranean. So he let me take the loafers; they were just my size. So now I’ve got white socks, brown loafers, brand new dungarees, and no white hat, and I’m 19 years old and I look like I’m 14. Every day I would tour the ship, the carrier, as we’re steaming, and I’d go back to sick bay where the guys were, and tell them what’s happening, bring them up to date.”
“One day, I was walking across the hangar deck and way across, the master of arms yells. He sees me in no white hat. He screams at me because he’s going to write me up. So he comes over, and the closer he gets, he sees the brown loafers, and the white socks – he went crazy. ‘I don’t have one. The ship’s store is out of hats.’ Finally, he looks at me: ‘Survivor.’”
The coveted Early Chow pass was also courtesy of the airdales.
“Now there’s 5,000 guys on this carrier, so it’s like a small city,” Mahoney explains, “so if you’re going to go to chow, you’d better have the right pass. The airdales took care of me.” As he waited in the early chow line with those on watch, to relieve their shipmates, the master of arms spotted Mahoney. “You know, the police,” he described him. Mahoney presented his early chow pass to the officer. “Come with me,” he instructed Mahoney, escorting him to the mess deck, telling him to have a seat, and calling over a mess cook, ordered, “Get him a tray.” Mahoney chuckled to remember he couldn’t carry the tray.
The telegram, the ID card, and the early chow card are some of the many treasures which rest among the newspaper clippings, photographs, and correspondence he’s amassed over the past 67 years. There is also a small oil stained plastic case, tucked into a small plastic bag. Inside are three small, equally stained religious medals, given to him by his grandmother. They were in his pocket on April 26, 1952, at 10:20 p.m. They were also carried in the pockets of his son, and most recently, his grandson, who also served in the armed forces.
“When we were in dry dock, after all this took place, I had to go to the Court of Inquiry.” Mahoney was one of 27 sailors to attend. On the quarterdeck he saw a white hat and an officer, He saluted and requested permission to go to the Court of Inquiry.
“Now, I’ve got a tailor-made neckerchief on, and the only reason is because they didn’t have any regular ones in the ship’s store, because 61 of us [U.S.S. Hobson survivors] are eating up everything.” Mahoney remained at attention, waiting for the salute to be returned, explaining, “It’s the only one I’ve got. One of the guys let me borrow this one …” The officer looked at him, finally saying, ‘survivor.’ He took me by the arm and walked me all the way up the gangway.”
Giselle Mahoney believes her father-in-law’s story is timeless, its retelling honoring all who serve.
“I survived,” he said, simply. “I’ve been blessed all my life.”
Peter Mahoney enlisted in the U.S. Navy on October 15, 1951. After being discharged in the summer of 1955 he remained in the reserves for the remainder of the required eight years. He married in November of 1952 and had five children. After working in construction for several years, he began his career at Brown and Sharpe, which spanned 34 years. Upon retirement from Brown and Sharpe he was employed by Toray Plastics in Quonset for six years, hanging up his hat in 2004 at age 72. He and his second wife Sharon reside in Warwick.