Stern Room Fire
14 Jun 1960

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On June 14, 1960 a tragedy occurred. During an oxygen-charging evolution a rupture in the charging hose caused a violent fire in the Stern Room. A Board of Investigation published the following findings (edited for space):

14 June 1960

1330 USS SARGO (SSN 583), then moored to Dock S-1-B, SUBASE Pearl Harbor, started receiving oxygen, in a gaseous state, into four banks of oxygen bottles located in the forward torpedo room. The oxygen was supplied from a mobile unit on the dock through a hose made up of three fifty-foot sections. The mobile unit carried liquid oxygen in a 500-gallon tank and had provisions for pumping liquid to a vaporizer on the unit, where it is converted to a gaseous state before delivery to the ship, through the hose.

James E. Smallwood MM3(SS), attached to and serving on SARGO, was in charge of the operations on SARGO while charging oxygen banks in both the forward and after torpedo rooms. He was responsible for the proper connection of the charging hose to the manifold in the SARGO, for all that pertained to the charge from the manifold to the banks in the SARGO, and for observance of proper safety precautions in the torpedo rooms during the charge. He was not assisted or supervised by any other person during the charge.

Hampton W. Boyette MMCA, while on duty and assigned to SUBASE Pearl Harbor, was in charge of the oxygen-charging mobile unit used to charge the SARGO. He was responsible for all that pertained to the charge on the mobile unit, for delivery of the oxygen through the hose up to the point of connection to the manifold in the SARGO, and for the observance of proper safety precautions on the dock and in the vicinity of the charge. During the charge he was not directly supervised by any other person. He was assisted by three other naval enlisted men.

1440 While charging the forward torpedo room banks, the liquid oxygen pump on the mobile unit stopped and could not be restarted again by normal means. Chief Boyette and Warren H. Spivey, ICC(SS), attached to SUBASE Pearl Harbor, examined the pump and determined the trouble was in the pilot circuit. The pump was made operable by by-passing this circuit, eliminating three safety features. The elimination of these safety features did not affect the proper operation of gauges, etc. and did not contributed to the accident.

No one on the SARGO was informed as to the nature of the casualty to the pump and the fact that safety features had been eliminated.

1530 Pumping operations, to the forward torpedo room, resumed and continued without further interruption.
1620 Charging forward oxygen tanks completed. Upon securing the charge forward the mobile unit moved to a place on the dock near the stern room (after torpedo room) hatch.
1645 Charging to the three banks of oxygen bottles in the stern room was started.
1700 The section of hose, that was connected to the mobile unit, was observed to be frosting up. The pump was secured, the control valve on the manifold in the SARGO was secured, pressure was bled off the hose, the section that had frosted up was removed, the two remaining sections were used to establish the connection between the mobile unit and the SARGO.
1710 Charging to the stern room was resumed.
1730 The following events happened almost simultaneously: the pump on the mobile unit was secured; the charging hose ruptured about midway between the mobile unit and the SARGO with flames near the ruptured ends and along some length of the hose; there was a loud explosive noise and a violent whipping of hose; flames and smoke came out of the stern room hatch at the SARGO. The mobile unit was immediately disconnected and moved to safety away from the scene.

The SUBASE Fire Department was at the scene about two minutes after the accident occurred. The duty section and other personnel attached to the SARGO assisted the Fire Department personnel in fighting the fire by discharging water and foam into stern room. Because, as a safety precaution, the stern room had been isolated by dogging the watertight door to the after engine room and securing all bulkhead flappers, the smoke and flames were limited to the stern room, or to escape through the stern room hatch.

The intense heat caused low order detonations of the warheads that were attached to two MK-37 torpedoes in the stern room, the only weapons in the room itself; a third warhead was attached to a torpedo in one of the after tubes and was subsequently reported to be undamaged. The intense heat in the stern room set fire to the paint on the engine room side of the bulkhead separating the engine room from the stern room and made this bulkhead "cherry red" in certain areas. SARGO personnel fought the fire and held down, as much as possible, the heat on the after engine room bulkhead until every CO2 extinguisher on board had been exhausted. Other extinguishers were obtained from nearby sources and the firefighting continued. This was done in a smoke-filled room and with the knowledge that warheads were subject to the intense heat in the adjacent compartment.

Soon after the accident it was recognized that timely control of the fire in the stern room might not be possible by water and foam through hoses into the stern room hatch and a recommendation was made that the room be flooded by submerging the after section with the hatch open.

1750 Preparations for securing the other compartments in the SARGO to permit flooding down without flooding additional spaces were well underway when the Commanding Officer arrived on board. Upon learning of the circumstances connected with the accident, the Commanding Officer made a prompt decision to flood the stern room by submerging it.

As a result of the accident, all hydraulic lines aft were ruptured and the vents to the after ballast tank could not be opened from the control room.

1810 The Commanding Officer and the Engineering Officer then went aft, entered the smoke-filled after engine room and succeeded in manually opening the vent to No. 3 ballast tank. The stern bottomed immediately and the after torpedo room was completely flooded through the hatch. Soon after the bottoming, an attempt to raise the stern by blowing No. 3 and No. 4 ballast tanks failed.
15 June 1960
0138 The stern was raised using a large floating crane to take up on a cradle which had been placed under the ship. A fire hose was inserted into the after torpedo room through the hatch, a suction was taken and the water pumped down almost to deck level.
0400 An officer from the Explosive Ordnance Demolition Unit entered the compartment and found that the torpedo warheads had split open and the explosive material that had spilled into the compartment was hot and smoking. Immediately thereafter the compartment was flooded just sufficiently to cover the torpedoes, using a hose through the hatch.
0900 A five hour period was considered necessary to make certain the explosive was cooled off. At about 0900, the compartment was again pumped down and an inspection was made in which it was determined that the explosive was not dangerous.
The Board of Inquiry went on to determine that:

“As a result of the explosion and fire in the after torpedo room, James Estill Smallwood MM3(SS) was killed. His death was in the line of duty and was not a result of misconduct. As a direct result of the oxygen-charging safety precaution on SARGO, which provided that only one person be in the compartment receiving the charge, and of P.O. Smallwood's conscientious insistence that this precaution be strictly observed, no other personnel casualties or injuries occurred as a result of the accident. Definite proof as to the exact cause of the explosion was not determined, although there is strong evidence to support the opinion of the Board that the explosion was a direct result of a failure in the charging hose.

“The explosion on board the SARGO was not the result of any action or omission by any SUBASE or SARGO personnel, and no one of them is responsible to any extent for the accident.

“The performance of duty of the following men of the USS SARGO was outstanding and in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Navy:

James E. Smallwood MM3(SS);
Rolle E. Stone ETRSN;
Kenneth R. Ashwood IC1(SS);
John Y. Kuapahi ET1(SS);
Richard L. Mooty EM1(SS).

“The Commanding Officer demonstrated outstanding leadership and courage in personally directing the efforts of personnel in SARGO and in entering himself a smoke-filled compartment to effect the necessary manual operation to permit "flooding down". His maturity of judgment evidenced by his prompt decision to flood down probably prevented a major disaster.”

As a result of the Board of Inquiry the Navy Marine Corps Medal was presented posthumously to James E. Smallwood MM3(SS)

ADM John H. Sides, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet presented commendations to LCDR John H. Nicholson, LT Francis L. Wadsworth, and John Kuapahi ET1(SS)

RADM Roy S. Benson, Commander Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet presented commendations to LT Robert B. Connelly, Leo E. Chulos QMC(SS), Robert F. Crowley ENC(SS), Albert W. Drake EMC(SS), Linus W. Day QM1(SS), John D. Howard EM1(SS), Gary E. Tennant ET2(SS) and James L. Baugh ET3(SS)

Courtesy Rufus Reaves Courtesy Rufus Reaves
The Stern Room Submerged.

The Stern Room Submerged.

Courtesy Rufus Reaves Courtesy Rufus Reaves
The Stern Room Submerged.

Raising the Stern Room.

Courtesy Tom Hansen Courtesy Tom Hansen
Fighting the Fire.

Fighting the Fire.

Courtesy Tom Hansen Courtesy Tom Hansen
Fighting the Fire.

Fighting the Fire.

M. Earle Palmer, RM1(SS) (1958 – 1961):

“Regarding the LOX explosion on SARGO. I had the below decks watch that day, and had just turned the watch over to Smallwood, and told him that we had finished filling the forward tanks and had commenced to fill the after tanks. I was up in the officer’s quarters storing film for an upcoming “event”, when suddenly there were two hard bumps, it felt much like the delivery boats in the harbor when they run smack into you, hard. I ran to the control room, still trying to figure out what had happened.

“The control room was full of smoke, ash, paint bits and other debris. (Although we later learned the explosion aft had blown all of this junk up to the control room through open line and/or vents). I scooted up the conning tower hatch and, looking aft, saw red, orange and blue flames shooting high into the air. There was a deafening roar not unlike a freight train. In what seems like rapid succession, the decision was made to sink the after end, trying to contain the oxygen fire, and shortly after, we announced, ‘Abandon ship.’

“Two things came instinctively to mind when I first stuck my head around the conning tower: Smallwood, who had surely perished, and the two torpedoes in the after room. I was told to notify a small chapel about a block away to evacuate (there were many small children in a day-school there). On the way back to the boat, an admiral’s jeep with orderly and driver stopped and chewed me out good for being uncovered, (no hat), failure to salute, and being ‘filthy.’ I had no idea that I looked like a vaudeville ‘darkie’ with all the soot and junk sticking to my sweaty face. Upon learning which boat I was on, the Admiral looked down, shook his head, and then dismissed me. I borrowed a hat, fast. As to the height of the jutting flames, I’d say 100 feet to be about right, even a little conservative.

“I’ve never forgotten Smallwood, who perished, nor will I ever forget that day. Hell of an afternoon, guys.”

Ralph C. Bright, Jr. (son of LT Jay L. Swank):

“Please have patience my hand is not steady but my heart is with all of you. Please forgive me as I am disabled so I need to get some facts together. My Father Jay Lester Swank was an Ensign aboard the Sargo I was eleven years of age. He made the polar run aboard her when the sail was damaged. I remember he joined Sargo at Mare Island prior to LCDR Nicholson relieving CDR Brooks, I liked both of the skippers they were good even when things were not going good. My father made the polar run. I spent many a weekend evening aboard with the crew watching a movie and having dinner. My father showed me that boat from the bilge to the lookout stand atop the sail. I liked the camera system for use under the ice. He was there for the war shots sinking the LST. Then there was the 14th June it was a normal warm day in pearl and the boat was secured to the pier hoses running to the back hatch shore power and I remember we were bringing some things for dad because he had the duty and needed I think uniform and mom well she would always add something for him, anyway the topside watch was close to the brow dad took the things from mom, mom came back as I watched from the backseat of our Plymouth. I can remember asking dad what was that white smoke coming from the area of the hoses and he replied that is not smoke son I remained silent and smiled. That was when mom put me back into the car. Mom returned to the car as the area was secured and we could not stay or linger.

“Mom started the car and we began to move and then it happened. The boat just shook the topside watch I think ended up in the water if not him it was another. I screamed and mom stopped the car she was frozen in complete silence. Then the noise it shook the car the boat was shaking violently and then a funnel from the rear of the boat so high I couldn't see the top. First white then fire and the noise again and again every time my mother sank deeper into the seat looking at me in tears. The truck was gone so fast, hoses left then mom started the car and we left she was strong my mother. We went home and waited, waited I held my sister she was just about two or three at this time. Hours passed and then the phone rang it was the Chaplin telling us dad was OK but fighting the fire that was all he knew. I did not learn of Smallwood for some time I was told they had lost a great crew member but was not told whom it was. Dad told me about the explosion and we spoke of it numerous times especially when I joined became an engine man just like him aboard USS Menhaden SS 377 in ballast point. I understood their efforts trying to plug the holes penetrating the bulkhead of the after torpedo room as the fire tried to defeat them. Then they made the decision to dive the boat at the pier. My father said it was the cool heads of the crew doing their jobs that saved the day. The oxygen manifold began to leak Smallwood closed the hatch on himself and tried to correct the problem but he did not have the time.

“I told you Smallwood was our babysitter from time to time and he was, he was quiet nice and we would watch TV until I collapsed on the couch. I was eleven so there is nothing bad just a good babysitter I have to say. Smallwood was a good sailor we played monopoly or other board games we played catch in the yard even when my sister was being a brat he was cool headed just paid her some attention and when mom and dad came home we were normally asleep. I liked him and when I learned he was lost I cried even though it was two or three years later I cried.”

After reading Ralph Bright’s reminiscences Tom Hansen, YN2(SS)(1959 – 1962) passed along the following correspondence back to Ralph [copied here with Tom’s permission]:

“I read the email ... with much interest and as a result of your comments I started thinking about the stern room fire aboard Sargo. My name is Tom Hansen (stationed aboard Sargo December 1959 to May 1962) and I was the topside watch when the explosion and fire occurred! I did not go into the water as a result of the explosion, I was however knock off my feet, and I really don’t recall that anyone one else that went into the water, contrary to your comments; but that was a long, long time ago and I believe that I have put a great deal of the event out of my mind, as the explosion and fire was a very traumatic event for me as an 18 year old. I do recall seeing the truck speed away, dragging the hoses behind and I seem to remember a car leaving about the time the explosion occurred, that must have been you and your mom. I too saw a huge plume of fire and smoke that rose from the stern room – I was awe struck by what I saw and what was happening!

“Five to ten minutes before the explosion I had been back to the stern of the boat checking the water line as that was part of the protocol for standing the topside watch in 1960 and had spoken to Jim Smallwood as he was standing in the stern room just below the hatch, as I recall we talked about one of the systems that he had responsibility for; I was working at the time on getting qualified on Sargo and getting my dolphins. Until your email I did not realize that Jim Smallwood had closed the hatch between the stern room and the engine room, that action undoubtedly saved Sargo from being damaged more than she was or worse yet being destroyed. Without doubt the closing of the Stern Room Hatch saved the guys that were on watch at the reactor station which was was just forward of the Stern Room. If I remember correctly the reactor was either being taken critical or was already on line when the Stern Room went.

“Another thing just came to mind and that was the arrival of Captain Nicholson shortly after the explosion, as I recall he was out of his car and across the gang way before the car had come to a stop. If I remember correctly he was there before any emergency folks arrived.

“At first I could not remember each of the officers that were on Sargo when I was there, but after thinking about the Wardroom all of Sargo Officers came back into focus, but it took a bit of time, seems as I thought of one event then that one event would move my thoughts forward and that would bring up forgotten memories and they in turn would bring up additional memories as well. I must say again that it has been a long time, close on to 50 years – a long time in the scheme of things in ones lifetime. As I recall all of the officers aboard Sargo were first rate and good guys. There was one officer, a Lt. Brown who was my qualification officer; he made me work really hard to earn my dolphins, hind sight being what it is I believe that he was correct and just, but at the time I think that I had other thoughts that were not as kind.

“I have included some photos of the event that I had put away and only as a result of your email remember that I had. I hope that they are of value to you, and while they are of a sad event I hope that they will bring back good memories of your youth and your dad.”

At the 2009 USS Sargo (SSN 583) Association Reunion in San Antonio, Texas Rolle "Ed" Stone, ETR2(SS) (1960 – 1961) saw Tom Hansen's photos and believes that he is the sailor in the two photos shown putting the hose into the Stern Room hatch as well as the photo below showing an unknown Chief who came back and told him to leave. Ed passed along what he remembered [along with comments from Mike Hacking]:

"I, like everyone onboard that day left the boat when the O.D. passed the word to abandon ship. We went up to the Torpedo Shops and some of us returned to begin fire fighting and damage control below decks. I know Ashwood [Kenneth R. Ashwood, IC1(SS)] and two others [probably John Y. Kuapahi, ET1(SS) and Richard L. Mooty, EM1(SS)] stayed onboard or returned to below decks and fought the fire from the Engine Room with CO2 Extinguishers and damage control plugs, to keep the fire from spreading into the Engine Room. This came out at the Board of Inquiry that I was called to testify at. I was assisting the Base Fire Department by manning a fire hose and trying to get water and foam into the stern room hatch. I then realized it was a futile effort and the only effective thing would be to get a hose through the hatch and directly on the fire. I threw a heaving line to the YTB that was fighting the fire from the other side of the boat, and tied it to a hose and we attempted to feed the hose over and into the hatch. When we realized this wouldn't work, Houston Hamilton [Houston Hamilton, IC3(SS)] tried to get to the stern room hatch, but the heat and flames were too intense. I asked the firemen on the pier and on the YTB to put the hoses on spray and I jumped down on a camel and climbed aboard and made my way to the Stern Room with the spray keeping the fire off of me and was able to force about 10 feet of hose down into the Stern Room. I do remember my eye lashes were singed and the soles of my shoes melted, however I didn't get my feet burned.

Courtesy Rolle Stone   "I was recommended by Captain Nicholson to receive a Letter of Commendation, Ribbon, and Medal. I had been sent back stateside for a school and caught the boat after repairs in Subic Bay and was presented the Navy Commendation Medal with the citation signed by John B. Connally, the Secretary of Navy. I believe that Ashwood [Kenneth R. Ashwood, IC1(SS)], John Kuapahi [John Y. Kuapahi, ET1(SS)] and one more [probably Richard L. Mooty, EM1(SS)] were awarded theirs in Pearl Harbor before the boat left for West Pac. The citation read:

'For Heroism on 14 June 1960 while serving on board the U.S.S. Sargo (SSN 583) at the Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. During a raging fire in the Stern Room on that ship. Through courageos and determined efforts, he materially aided in controlling the fire and in limiting the damage to the Stern Room. His actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.'

"I would close by saying the true Hero was Jimmy Smallwood, by doing and following proper procedure, had the Stern Room secure and prevented the fire from spreading and injury, or death, to people on watch in the Engine Room."

In a note received in July, 2010 Keith L. Bumsted, YN2(SS) (1960 – 1962) shared the following about James Smallwood:

"As I looked through the roster and spotted many crewmembers that I served with, there are stories about a number of them. There was a news article that ran locally last month commemorating the 50th anniversary of Jim Smallwood's death in the oxygen explosion in June, 1960. Jim was a friend of mine and it still saddens me to think of the horrible way he died. He was a great guy that everyone liked. Thankfully, it must have been quick."

The Honolulu Star Bulletin reported the fire on 15 June 1960:


“Sargo Sunk After Blast – An explosion and fire, fed by highly flammable oxygen, rocked the $50 million nuclear submarine Sargo at its berth in Pearl Harbor yesterday evening. The torpedo room hatch was left open deliberately in order to put out the blaze. The giant sub was deliberately submerged with its stern room hatch open to put out the fire.

“THE NAVY Department said at least one man – and possibly two crewmen – aboard the submarine at the time of the blast was missing. A Navy spokesman said the sub’s atomic reactors had been sealed off prior to the explosion and there was no threat of radiation. The spokesman said the 5:30 p.m. explosion was caused by leakage in the connection of a rubber hose which was pumping high pressure oxygen into the sub. The oxygen is used by the crew when the sub is submerged.

“GUARDS AT the Pearl Harbor main gate said they heard five sharp explosions, at 5:43 p.m. Earlier, smoke could be seen coming from the Sargo’s berth at the submarine base. The Sargo had just been released from drydock yesterday. The fire was fought by two Pearl Harbor fire-boats, naval base fire trucks, and equipment from nearby Hickam Air Force Base.

“THE SUB was partially submerged shortly before 6 p.m. to put out the flames in the affected comparments. Later, the Navy began blowing air into the Sargo to clear the water and refloat her. Pumps were being used to drain the sub and allow firefighters to go below decks to see if anyone had been trapped in the blast. The sub’s skipper, Lt Cmdr. John H. Nicholson, 35, was not aboard at the time. He hurried from home, however, and was on the scene directing operations last night.

“ALSO RECALLED from their homes were many Sargo crewmen. The salvage scene at the berth of the stricken Sargo was one of great activity and concentrated effort. Generators hummed to supply a battery of flood lights which lit the scene. Underwater lights threw up an eerie green glow from the bottom, where the Sargo’s stern rested.

“THE SURFACE of the water roiled with the bubbles of divers who worked in two-man shifts of half an hour. Shepherding the whole operation was Roy S. Benson, commander of the Pacific Submarine Force. The admiral strode up and down the pier watching a team of about 100 men trying to surface the damaged submarine. ’This shoud prove how safe the effects of an explosion a nuclear submarine really is.’ he said.”


Newspaper Article
15 June 1960

Courtesy USS Sargo Association
Honolulu Star Bulletin Article
17 June 1960

Honolulu Star Bulletin Article
10 August 1960

Honolulu Star Bulletin Article
01 October 1960

Honolulu Star Bulletin Article
10 October 1960

Honolulu Star Bulletin Article
Fall 1960