By Winston Jordan

When the cry went up on board the battleship Washington, no one knew who the "man overboard" was. And after they discovered who it was, they puzzled over how it could have happened.

"Man overboard!" The young gunner screamed. Moments before, his hands had tightened on the splinter shield of the gun he was braced against. About 20 feet from the ship, rising on a long, gray swell, was a man face down in the water, being swiftly left astern. In that instant, while the man was, atop the wave, Seaman Second Class M, D. Stanford thought he saw an arm rise in an effort to swim.

"Man overboard!" he called again, running aft, pointing toward the wake. Others took up the cry.

The ship was the USS Washington (BB-56), flagship of Rear Admiral John Walter Wilcox Jr, Commander, Battleships, Atlantic Fleet, and Commander, Task Force 39. It was 1030, Friday, 27 March 1942.

Admiral Wilcox was leading Task Force 39 from. Casco Bay, Maine, to Scapa Flow, where it would operate as part of the British Home Fleet. The 45,000-ton Washington was at the right front of the formation, acting as guide. Splitting the battleship's wake, 1,000 yards astern, was the heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa (CA-37). Approximately 1,500 yards off the Washington's port beam was the Wichita (CA-45), which flew the two-starred flag of Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen, Commander, Cruiser Division Seven. The carrier Warp (CV-7) was 1,000 yards astern of the Wichita . Eight destroyers formed a semicircular screen beginning slightly forward of the Wasp's port beam, and reaching to slightly forward of the Tuscaloosa's starboard beam. They were: the Wainwright (DD-419), Lang (DD-399), Sterett (DD-407), Wilson (DD-408), Plunkett (DD-431), Madison (DD-425), Livermore (DD-429), and Ellyson (DD-454).

The North Atlantic was cold and mean that morning. Task Force 39 had zigzagged all night, smashing its way at 18 knots through a quartering sea state six from the northwest. The water was 36" Fahrenheit. Snow and occasional rain reduced visibility to less than a mile. A chilling 24- to 30-knot wind whipped from the north, northwest, and green water swept across the main deck. In the captain's night order book, on the bridge, Captain H. H, J. Benson left this note: "While seas are coming over the decks keep men off the forecastle; port side main deck; and main deck aft.''

Around 0830, on the morning of the 27th, Captain John L. Hall, Jr., chief of staff and aide to Rear Admiral Wilcox, was in the Washington's flag plot. Captain Benson called to inform Hall that the ship was taking water over the main deck aft and endangering one of the aircraft. He asked permission to change course to starboard for about 30 minutes to secure it. Hall told Admiral Wilcox, suggesting two 20 degree course changes to bring them to 130 degrees. They would remain at 18 knots and, after the plane was secured, resume zigzagging on the base course of 090 degrees. The Admiral approved and at 1013 the task force ceased zigzagging and steadied on 130 degrees.

The deck and aviation divisions set about securing their areas. The order to stay clear of the main deck was lifted while the ship was on 130 degrees.

Admiral Wilcox walked aft to where the plane was being secured. "How are things going?" He asked Lieutenant (junior grade) Thomas Washington.

"Everything's fine, sir," Washington replied. "The plane isn't damaged. Just the spare float." The Admiral nodded and walked forward of turret 3, crossing to the port side.

Chief Boatswain Earl Brown was inspecting the work of the men securing the main deck port side when the Admiral approached.

"Attention on deck!" called Brown, saluting. "Have Your men carry on, bosun, " Wilcox said. "I see you have the ship well lashed down. "Then he looked forward and said, "Is there a ladder leading to the upper deck?"

Brown told the Admiral that the ladder was located on the port side, forward of five-inch gun mount number two. The time was about 1000 or 1015 as Wilcox left Brown and his men.

The officer-of-the-deck for the 8-to-12 forenoon watch was Lieutenant (junior grade) William B. Fargo. Captain Benson was also on the bridge. At 1015, Captain Hall called down and asked Benson how long it would be before he was ready to return to base course. "Less than five minutes," said Benson. Hall informed the Admiral in his cabin by phone. The Admiral said, "Fine."

Hall turned to the flag lieutenant, "Hoist a signal, divisions column left, to true course 110 degrees."

As Hall was talking, the sound-powered talker on the navigation bridge rushed to the officer-of-the-deck. "Man overboard, port side, sir!"

"Break the five flag!" shouted Fargo, "Sound the whistle! Release the life buoys!"

The time was 1031.

In flag plot, Captain Hall heard the call over the communophone. "I was trying to get the Admiral," he would say later, "to tell him we were ready to return to base course, and to inform him of the man overboard. I was unable to raise him. I called ComDesRon 8 over the TBS and directed him to send the nearest destroyer to pick up the man. I then ordered the flag lieutenant to go down to the Admiral's cabin and report to him in person, and to inform him that everything was being done to save the man that could be done under the prevailing conditions."

Lieutenant Fargo had the word passed to muster the crew at quarters, below decks, and for all those who had seen the man in the water to report to the bridge.

On the Washington's main deck aft, Aviation Machinist's Mate Third Class John Sciarra saw the body in the water. It looked as if the Tuscaloosa would run the man down. The cruiser made a quick turn to port followed by a quick turn back to starboard and dropped two buoys that fell very close to the man.

Fargo called for another muster. No one was missing.

On board the Tuscaloosa, Captain N. C. Gillette and his executive officer, Captain P. M. Thornton, saw the man when he was 100 feet from the bow. Only Gillette's quick action kept them from hitting him.

Marine Captain J. M. McMasters and Coxswain J. E. Schmidt saw the man when he was about even with the Tuscaloosa's bridge. They heard him cry out for a buoy or raft, but could not be certain of his words. He was swimming, apparently trying to get away from the ship's side. We was about 15 feet from one of the buoys

The following are excerpts from the Washington's TBS (voice) radio log, with enciphered calls decoded. There is constant static. Some signals are very weak. Many repeats are requested and have been deleted.

No time Noted
Man overboard from WASHINGTON. Direct nearest destroyer to rescue him.
Man is in vicinity of our buoy.
Pick him up.

On board the Washington, the flag lieutenant reported to Captain Hall that he could not find the Admiral. Captain Hall told him to check the bathroom and have others check the sick bay, dental office, and barber shop, The Admiral's entire staff began searching everywhere.

Captain Hall said later, "It began to be most alarming to me that the Admiral could not be found. I directed the commander of the screen to send another destroyer to join in the search and asked Wasp if conditions permitted launching planes to assist. I then called Captain Benson and told him, my belief that it might be the Admiral overboard. The Captain and I discussed the necessity of coding a report to ComCruDiv 7, and decided to send a visual message in plain language to expedite."

Continued from the Washington's TBS radio log:

No time noted
WASP from CTF 39
Would it be practicable some scouts assist ELLYSON in locating buoy?
WASP affirmative
Send another one of your people to assist in the search.
Go ahead
TUSCALOOSA ELLYSON is calling you.
TUSCALOOSA go ahead.
. . . TUSCALOOSA said go ahead
. . . we are in between the two buoys
. . . there is no man
COMCRUDIV 7 to all ships on circuit
COMCRUDIV 7 has tactical command

At 1113, Admiral Giffen reversed the course of the formation by flag hoist, ordering ships right 180 degrees. Speed was slowed to ten knots as the ships passed through the area in which Admiral Wilcox had been lost.

Continued from the Washingron's TBS radio log:

Have man in sight floating face down toward us. Report man in sight.
Go ahead
. . . DIV 7 from LIVERMORE
LIVERMORE from COMDESRON 8. COMCRUDIV 7 told you to go ahead.
Have man in sight face down.
. . . CRUDIV 7
Can you pick up using grapnel?
We have lost sight of man. Will go closer.
Body is within 100 yards of LIVERMORE
Please give our planes AC by light.
Crash in water abeam of WASP.
Crash plane.
Going toward place where plane crashed.
Please coach destroyer in recovery.
You are on spot now.
. . . MADISON see four smoke bombs and yellow object.
. . . nothing else.
Do you think any advantage to further search?
WASP wait.
Are you positive you have observed whole area of crash?
COMDESRON 8 affirm.
... from COMDESRON 8
Reform screen.
Did you recover body?
. . . from LIVERMORE
Body was not recovered.
No signals.

The snow had worsened as Task Force 39 returned to base course 090 degrees, and continued on its way to war. Long gray swells stretched astern, stormy and foreboding. Ahead, the way was dark, cold, and just as grim.

Late on the afternoon of the 27th, on Admiral Giffen's orders, a board of investigation was convened on board the Washington to investigate completely and report upon the circumstances attending Admiral Wilcox's loss at sea. The board met in closed sessions over the next seven days and examined 43 witnesses. Six of the witnesses saw a body in the water, but no one saw anyone fell overboard. All agreed on one thing, The man was bald,

The last person to see the Admiral was his orderly, Marine Private First Class Charles R. Nettle, The time was about five minutes before the alarm sounded. For 15 minutes, Nettle watched from the Passageway as the Admiral paced back and forth in his cabin. When the alarm sounded, Nettle looked into the cabin but did not see the Admiral.

Marine Private First Class Carrol V. Simmons, Jr., told the board:

"I was standing safely watch this morning, 8 to 12, outside mount 9, I saw the Admiral come between the boats and mount 9 walking aft on the superstructure deck. He walked by me and made an attempt to go to the main deck by the ladder, and he changed his mind and started walking back again. In fact he made three attempts to go down the ladder and on the third attempt he did go to the main deck. As he reached the main deck, he stood there for a minute, then walked around the 20mm gun encasement, then walked aft on the main deck. Then he started between the superstructure and turret 3 on the port side. He changed his mind again and started walking aft. At that time, I saw him stop and talk to what I think is one of the pilots. I didn't see him after that."

William Tillett, apprentice seaman, saw the Admiral on the morning of the 27th. "He walked around, and looked like he was sad about something."

Commander Alfred R. Harris, Dental Corps, told the board that the Admiral had visited the dental office the night of the 26th and mentioned that it was important for all hands to be extremely cautious on topside. The dentist made the following additional statement after questioning: "I consider the Admiral a perfectly normal individual; there was no question in my mind but what the Admiral was a perfectly normal individual the last time I saw him. I have known the Admiral for four years, and there was no change in his actions at all."

Commander Lloyd L. Edmisten, Medical Corps, however, made the following statement: "From my professional observations of Admiral Wilcox, I believe he had certain eccentricities not common to officers of his Grade, but to the best of my knowledge and belief he was of sound mind and had no physical impairments,"

If any of these statements had an impact on the board it is not indicated in the record. The board did not interview members of the Admiral's family to see if he suffered from depression or any other personal problems.

The board was faced with a unique problem in an unfamiliar wartime situation. Its members did their job and were not about to ruffle any feathers where a flag officer was concerned. But one thing no one ever brought up was the possibility of seasickness, The Washington had been at sea for only 24 hours, But it had been a very rough 24 hours. Did the Admiral have his sea legs?

During the investigation, Chief Boatswain Brown said, "'My first reaction in greeting the Admiral, was that he seemed quite white and without color in his face." At the end of the examination the board asked Brown if he would like to make any further statement, and he added: "One thing I would like to mention is that the Admiral's appearance at the time of my conversation caused me to think and wonder why he was so pale and white."

Commander Thomas M. Dell, the Washington's first lieutenant and damage control officer, said:

"After the accident, I made an inspection of the life lines on the port side of the main deck, and found them all to be in proper order excepting one short section of the upper life line aft of Number 8 mount which was down. I do not consider the fact that this small section was down created a great hazard. In the vicinity of the 5 inch mounts, the life lines are not continuous, and stop short of the mounts on both sides. In order to make room for the mount to turn, it is necessary that a small space between the life line stanchion and the mount be left, Chains secured to the stanchions with a hook on the other end to snap on the mount are provided, but operating under war conditions as we are, it is manifestly impracticable to keep these small sections of chain snapped into place. Even if they were hooked into place, the first time the mount was trained, they would be carried away, as time is not available for the crew inside to jump out and take them down every time it is necessary to train."

If the Admiral had been suffering from seasickness, could he have rushed to the rail only to find himself plunging into the sea?

On Thursday, 2 April, the board met in final session and rendered the following Finding of Facts:

Item 17. The loss at sea of Rear Admiral Wilcox was not caused in any manner by the intent, fault, negligence, or inefficiency of any person or persons in the naval service or connected therewith.

Item 18. Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox, Junior, USN, was, at the time of his loss at sea on Friday, March 27, 1942, on duty assigned by proper authority. The board from the evidence before it, is of the opinion that John W, Wilcox, Junior, late Rear Admiral, U. S. Navy, died on March 27, 1942, in the line of duty and not as the result of his own misconduct.

Proceedings/ December 1987

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