Friday, August 7, 2015

The USS Turner Disaster

Recently during my summer internship with the Gibson House, archiving a collection of family manuscripts, I was surprised to discover evidence of yet another Gibson family member death at sea, that of Lieutenant Warren Winslow, the twenty-five-year-old son of Rosamond Gibson Winslow (“Little” Ros). (An earlier GHM blog post covered the death of John Gardiner Gibson, Jr. aboard the Lyonnais; see “History Repeats Itself,” January 1, 2015.) Lt. Winslow, a Harvard graduate called to service when he was attending Harvard Law School, was one of the 139 sailors lost when the USS Turner, a naval destroyer, sank to the ocean floor just a few miles northeast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, on January 3, 1944.
A series of explosions aboard ship that morning completely wrecked the vessel and started fires that could not be effectively controlled. While the navy later could not determine the exact cause of the first explosion, an investigation turned up no evidence of enemy action or sabotage. The official report could only suggest that stored ammunition on board had something to do with the incident, as the first explosion occurred in an area containing ammunition meant for transfer later that day.
After a sixteen-day voyage on the Atlantic, the USS Turner had anchored a few miles off of Sandy Hook early on the morning of the third and had begun preparations to sail for Gravesend Bay, New York, to transfer its cargo of ammunition to Fort Lafayette in Brooklyn. The sky was overcast and snow was falling in the area. Nearby were other naval vessels, including the USS Stevenson and USS Thorn, which maintained a continuous underwater sound search. These sonar sweeps detected no enemy craft in the area.

So it came as a complete shock when, at about 6:17 a.m., a violent explosion rocked the USS Turner. 

The explosion blew major holes in both sides of the ship and started an intense fire, which triggered additional explosions over the next two hours. According to a report issued by the navy later that day, “All communications on the ship were disrupted. . . . The bridge buckled and collapsed [and]. . . . Many men were blown overside into the water by the blast.” Robert Freear, a machinist mate and USS Turner survivor, would later recall what he witnessed immediately after the first explosion:

“I heard screams of men who were trapped in the wreckage and were burning to death. I went to the door of the main mess compartment and looked in—nothing but flames, acrid smoke, and screams of agony!”
After a frantic search through smoke and blackness, Freear managed to get topside. “We found ourselves in a howling blizzard. I will never forget the [acute] sensation caused by snow coming into contact with red hot skin.”

Despite being separated from their officers, who were quartered in one area of the ship and unable to escape, the sailors who made it to the top deck did not panic. They maintained their cool and rescued injured sailors before taking measures to get off the ship, all while several more explosions occurred.

Coast Guard vessels in the area came to the aid of the doomed USS Turner, attempting to put out the fires and rescue sailors. At 7:05 a.m., almost an hour after the first explosion, the order was given to abandon ship, and 154 men boarded the vessels and were taken to safety.

The final and most violent explosion occurred at 7:50 a.m. The ship capsized and sank ten minutes later. A crew of divers later found the remains of the USS Turner, broken in two and surrounding a mess of tangled wreckage.

The USS Turner explosions were so massive and violent that they caused damage on land in the New York and New Jersey areas. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported broken windows, and even a toppled chimney, from several miles away.

A few weeks following the disaster, the navy released its final investigative report, which included not only a reconstruction of events but casualty statistics. Of a crew of 293 men, 139 went down with the ship, killed either by the explosions, the fires, or drowning in the icy Atlantic waters. Of the 154 survivors, about 70 were hospitalized for serious injuries in nearby military facilities. Fifteen out of 17 officers were killed as a result of their being quartered in an area cut off from escape routes. (The judge advocates assigned to the investigation consequently recommended that, in future, officers be housed in at least two separate areas of a ship so as to minimize the risk of total officer casualties.)

We can only imagine how Rosamond felt about the death of Warren, her only child. We do know that her brother Charlie was so moved by Warren’s death that he wrote a poem commemorating it, writing to Rosamond that “The terrific drama that attended the tragedy of his loss is calculated to shake our emotions to their foundations, and it has moved me more than I can say.” Warren’s death also inspired a tribute by his cousin, the poet Robert Lowell, whose “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket (for Warren Winslow, Dead at Sea)” has been described as “one of the great elegies of the English language.”

Image: USS Turner, September 6 1943, United States Navy

By Timothy Spezia, Museum Docent
“170 of Crew Saved; Explosions Rock City,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 3, 1944, Brooklyn Public Library database,, accessed July 20, 2015.
Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr. to Rosamond Gibson Winslow, letter, January 10, 1944.

Judge Advocate General, USS Turner Investigation Report, January 23, 1944,, accessed July 20, 2015.

Robert Freear, “A 1944 Survival Story and Deep Gratitude,” www., accessed July 12, 2015.

Abert Gelpi, American Poetry after Modernism: The Power of the Word (New York: Cambridge University Press), 2015, 24; accessed August 7, 2015 through Google Books.


  1. The USS Taylor (DD/DDE-468) Reunion Association believes that Warren Winslow served aboard the USS Taylor just prior to his service on the Turner. He was detached from the Taylor with orders to escort a merchant ship into port making sure that that ship radioed no reports of the upcoming invasion of Africa. We believe that Warren Winslow is one of our "Plank Owners" in that he was a member of our Commissioning crew on 28 Aug 1942.

    USS TATLOR (DD/DDE-468) Reunion Assocation

  2. Warren Winslow was an NROTC student at Harvard University and captain of the Harvard hockey team. Upon graduation he was assigned to the USS Wilkes (DD-441) as the First Lieutenant and the Assistant Damage Control Office. On 18 February 1942 the Wilkes, in poor weather, grounded on the southwest corner of Lawn Head, Newfoundland on its way to Argentia. The USS Pollux (AKS-2) and USS Truxtun (DD-229) also grounded with loss of the ships and significant loss of life but the Wilkes was able to free itself and continue on to Argentia. The Captain of the Wilkes acknowledged the outstanding efforts of ENS Warren Winslow in localizing and controlling damage.

    LTJG Warren Winslow reported aboard USS Taylor (DD-468) on 28 August, 1942 and was one of our plank owners. On the Taylor's way to participate in Operation Torch, the British-American invasion of North Africa, LTJG Winslow was transferred to the S. S. Darro.

    "On 13 November 1942, in company with Task Force 37, escorted the convoy Uncle George Sugar 2 to a point near Casablanca, French Morocco, Africa. At Latitude 31° 06' 30" North, Longitude 13° 17' 00" West, on 29 November, the S.S. DARRO (Spanish Merchantman) was intercepted by TAYLOR and a boarding party was placed aboard. After investigation the Escort Commander ordered the DARRO into Gibraltar with the boarding party, Lieut. (jg) Warren Winslow, U.S.N.R. in charge, to prevent the ship from transmitting information concerning the convoy. Return trip to the United States was without incident. On 11 December Commander Destroyer Squadron TWENTY (provisional) became Commander Destroyer Squadron THIRTY and with Staff transferred from TAYLOR the following day."
    LTJG Winslow never returned to the Taylor. We next see LT Warren Winslow as an officer on the USS Turner (DD-648). LT Winslow was killed when the USS Turner blew up outside New York harbor in 1944, possibly the victim of a German torpedo. His body was never recovered.

    The death of his favorite cousin, Warren Winslow, hit the poet, Robert Lowell, hard. In his honor, Lowell composed the poem "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" and included it in a collection entitled "Lord Weary's Castle" for which he received the 1946 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.