Monday, July 4, 2022

The Day That Shook the Historic Triangle: The Yorktown Mine Depot Explosion

(Courtesy of Hampton Roads Naval Museum)

Just twenty-five minutes into November 16, 1943, Captain Richard Kirkpatrick, the commanding officer of the Naval Mine Depot (NMD) Yorktown (now Naval Weapons Station Yorktown) was shaken from his sleep. The startled seasoned naval officer grabbed the phone to call the base operator. The voice on the other line relayed the unthinkable: there was an explosion at one of the ordnance production plants.

What was Naval Mine Depot Yorktown?

(Courtesy of Hampton Roads Naval Museum)

After entering into World War I, there was a need to create an east coast base for the creating, loading, storing and the shipment of ordnance needed to support the war effort in Europe.

On August 7, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the construction of a mine depot that would be, “part in the County of Warwick and part in the County of York, both in the state of Virginia.”

With a cost of $3 million (or nearly $54 million today), the base’s construction included plants for power and mine loading, magazines, a railroad line and a pier. There were also facilities for those stationed at the depot, including barracks, galley and administrative offices.

The ordnance pier was connected to inland railroad tracks in order to allow for ease of unloading and reloading of mines and other ordnance onto naval vessels.

As the installation continued to grow, America’s entry into the European theater in World War II reinforced its necessity. It was at NMD Yorktown that the deadly explosive, Torpex, was mixed and loaded into weapons heading to Europe.

What is Torpex?

(Courtesy of Hampton Roads Naval Museum)

Military defensive technology advanced to a point where Trinitrotoluene (TNT) wasn’t enough. The British began experimenting and discovered a compound to create a deadly blow to the Axis — Torpedo Explosive, or “Torpex.”

This new weapon, considered a secondary explosive, comprised of 42 percent Royal Demolition Explosive (RDX), 40 percent TNT, and 18 percent powdered aluminum. Tests of the new explosive proved Torpex to be 50 percent more powerful than TNT.

Within a year of packing experimentation, more than 13 million pounds of Torpex was produced.

At NMD Yorktown, Torpex was mixed and then packed into weapons, such as the Mark XIII aerial torpedoes, at Plant #2 (P-2). At its peak, more than 2.1 million pounds of Torpex was packed into various weapons. Plant workers mixed the explosives, packed weapons and prepared them for shipment around the clock.

When the plant’s overnight shift arrived on November 15, 1943, more than 64,000 pounds of ordnance packed with Torpex sat inside P-2.

November 16, 1943

(Courtesy of Hampton Roads Naval Museum)

At 12:27 a.m., the entirety of the Historic Triangle shook, as if a bomb had been dropped nearby. Windows shattered in buildings at the historic Yorktown Riverfront, walls shook, and as far away as Norfolk, there were reports of a bright flash in the sky.

Over at P-2, there was a blinding fire cascading straight into the sky as civilians, sailors and Marines rushed to retrieve who and what they could while working tirelessly to extinguish the blaze. Their quick thinking under the circumstances calmed the fire down to a handful of brush fires by the time Captain Kirkpatrick arrived.

In the early dawn light, Captain Kirkpatrick found rubble littering the ground and two large craters where P-2 used to be; craters that stretched 150 feet wide, and fell 25 feet deep.

Workers were taken by corpsmen from the scene, including James Seawall, a foreman at a nearby building. He was handing out assignments for that night’s shift when the explosion threw him against a wall, his head struck by a flying refrigerator. He died at around 1 a.m., with his cause of death listed on his official Virginia death certificate as, “fracture of skull.”

By daybreak, there were still six workers unaccounted for: J.F. Remine, who was a supervisor at P-2, and civilian laborers, Robert Taliaferro, Leonard C. Brown, Charlie Lucas and Harold Washington. Not even a scrap of fabric from their clothing was ever found.

What happened that night?

(Courtesy of Hampton Roads Naval Museum)

It took quite some time to figure out what happened at P-2, and to the six missing men.

Due to the sensitive nature of Torpex, civilian federal investigators worked closely with the military in order to assess what happened that night. Rumors ranged from an enemy attack to the six men sabotaging the packing plant.

What was ultimately assumed to be the official reason for the explosion was far less colorful than those rumors would suggest.

Considering the sheer volume of Torpex that sat in that building, the assumption was that some sort of accident occurred, which detonated the ordnance; a blast that was equal to that of 150,000 pounds of TNT. Since no traces of the missing men were ever discovered, it was assumed that, in a blast that strong, they were vaporized.

The aftermath

It was only by partial miracle that more people were not hurt or killed in this deadly explosion. It occurred during the “lunch break” for the night shift, so most workers were not in the building. Additionally, the plant was surrounded by mounds of dirt, which directed the blast upward, instead of out, thus saving the other people and buildings in the surrounding area.

Like most of these things, it was a “live, learn then move on” scenario. The base has preserved the memory of that deadly night and it has been documented extensively by the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, located in Norfolk.

For those who lived on the Peninsula in 1943, they won’t ever forget the night when the walls shook.

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