Terror on the High Seas
The Atlantic Ocean off the shoreline of the Currituck Banks was calm on the night of April 4, 1929, and the breeze from the southwest was “just a gentle wind” according to court testimony from the Navy.
The destroyers USS Coghlan, Bruce, and Childs were steaming south at 18 knots, headed for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for fleet maneuvers. As the destroyers sped south, the 4-masted schooner A. Ernest Mills was sailing north from the Turks and Caicos Islands with a cargo of salt.
The crew of the Mills consisted of, according to court records, “…Arthur C. Chaney, master. George A. Carver, first mate; and a crew of seven colored men.”
The destroyers were sailing in formation, the Coghlan, taking the lead with the Bruce and Childs flanking the ship at 1200 yards astern.
The Coghlan encountered the Mills first, her lookouts spotting her sails and running lights and the destroyer immediately took evasive action.
“The green light and the loom of the sails of the Mills were seen by Commander Moran and the officer of the deck in sufficient time for the Coghlan to be put under hard left rudder and leave the schooner Mills about 200 yards on the starboard side,” court documents report.
The Coghlan quickly signaled the other destroyers that a sailing vessel was “close at hand…” and turned their spotlight on the Mills. The Childs responded that the message had been received, but continued to sail south at 18 knots.
Just before 9:00 o’clock, Captain Hall of the Childs, was in his quarters writing out the ship’s orders for the night when, “… he felt his ship strike an obstruction with great force,” the Naval Court of Inquiry found.
Racing to the bridge he found his ship had rammed halfway through the Mills. He ordered the destroyer full speed ahead to hold the damaged sailing vessels to the hull of his ship as he evacuated the crew.
On the Mills, there were problems. The lifeboat, according to testimony, had not been properly maintained, and an attempt to launch it failed. Most of the crew, realizing that they could not abandon the ship via the lifeboat, headed to the bow where, evidently, the crew of the Childs was able to bring First Mate George Carver and five of the seaman aboard.
But Captain Chaney, Paul Pogson, and crewman Turner had gone to the stern of the sinking vessel. It is unclear if First Mate Carver knew that was the case, and what happened next is equally murky.
Asked if everyone was off the Mills, a voice answered that was the case, and some of the naval witnesses felt it was First Mate Carver making that assertion. It also appears as though Carver was not aware that the lifeboat had failed to launch successfully and he may have believed Captain Chaney and the two crewmen were in the lifeboat.
Hearing, though, that the crew of the Mills had been successfully rescued, Captain Hall ordered the Childs’ engines reverse full speed.
With a damaged bow and survivors on board, the Childs headed for Norfolk for repairs and to bring the Mills crew to shore.
A Naval Court of Inquiry was impaneled and the Navy exonerated the officers and crew of the Childs.
In a 1932 finding, the Federal District Court in Boston, where the Mills owners were located, did not agree. District Judge Hale noted that in testimony the signalman had received the message from the Coghlan and that he “… shouted it out word for word to the bridge, and acknowledged it to the Coghlan; but the Childs made no change in her course or speed.”
The judge also found the Childs failed to maintain or use proper lookouts. 1929 was before the time of radar and ships sailing at night were required to have lookouts on duty. There were lookouts on the Childs, but they were on the bridge and did not have a clear view in front of the vessel. In finding the Navy at fault, the judge pointed to an earlier appellate decision that read, “The lookout is `both eyes and ears of the ship’; he must be properly stationed on the forward part of the vessel and must be held to a high degree of vigilance in that position.”
He also noted a significant gap in the Navy’s record keeping. Pointing out that law and custom demanded the log of a ship involved in a collision note every important detail, but there is no mention that the Mills lights were out.
“I cannot think that these highly trained men in command of the destroyers would have made so obvious an error as to omit a notation in the log that the… light was “dim” or “out” if such had been the fact,” the judge wrote.
It was the Court of Inquiry that had originally established that the crew of the Childs was well-trained and competent and it was a significant point that the judge seized upon.
“These highly trained navigators must have realized that, unless they observed very strict care they might become a menace to other ships,” he wrote, finally coming to the conclusion, “After a careful consideration of the proofs in all these cases, the court finds that the defendant’s destroyer, the Childs, was solely at fault.”