CHAPTER 3 – LEEWARD TO DISASTER
U.S.S. Wilkes [DD-441] commenced another deployment cruising through calm seas, light winds and early morning haze providing convoy protection for supplies ship, U.S.S.POLLUX [AKS-2] in company with U.S.S.TRUXTUN [DD-229]. Steaming in formation, course set, the duty bound convoy made its way to the North Atlantic Lend-Lease Base at Argentia – Newfoundland.
The ships fearlessly made their way on the open sea, parallel to the coast on yet another deployment to heroic service. Sailors ready for duty and service to country were adept to life on the ocean, they savored brine and a calling wind, and the lure of the open sea. Seas and weather became increasing severe as the convoy passed south of Nova Scotia making passage to its destination.
Sailors standing watch had to contend with biting temperatures, ice spray and poor visibility in heaving sea, snow squalls; ships rolling to and fro in ocean swell. The darkened convoy was steaming in radio silence at standard speed, thirteen knots, zigzag plan 26, base course 069 true.
Each ship in the convoy familiar with the navigational charts, base course, speed and zigzag plan 26, the latter would carry vessels a maximum of one and one-half [1.5] miles either side of base course. There seemed to be much more concern about travel in restricted waters than weather, submarines were reported in the general area the previous day.
Following basic orders the unit was expected to reach Base Roger 1400 18 February, the crews knew from past experiences that allowances would have to be made due to prevailing weather in the vicinity of Newfoundland.
The course set, throttle wide open, the escort commander gave orders for all ships to increase speed, in order to out distance any trailing submarine and reach Base Roger on time. It was prudent to get through the submarine area without delay deference to weather and grievous seas.
Thrusting through heavy swell, patrolling on starboard bow, navigational fixes were obtained during the evening of 16 February and morning of 17 February . Visibility was poor with blinding snow and tumultuous waves, weather was getting progressively worst as the flagship, WILKES in company with POLLUX and TRUXTUN made its way up the coast to Newfoundland.
The flag ship, WILKES, informed TRUXTUN at 1740, 17 February by TBS [voice] that it had stopped patrolling and was conforming to zigzag plan 26, steaming at fifteen  knots. At 2120 TRUXTUN was instructed to take any convenient position in the stormy gale either by trailing POLLUX or by steaming well clear of POLLUX maneuvers while on zigzag plan 26.
WILKES left formation to investigate a suspicious sound contact, the ship returned much later to regain station on starboard bow of POLLUX. WILKES continued to maintain station by means of radar on the starboard bow of POLLUX at a distance of 2000 to 3500 yards, TRUXTUN steaming on the port bow of POLLUX. Soundings taken at 0023 18 February indicated passage of the 50-fathom curse on St. Pierre Bank. The convoy was taking heavy seas over the bow. In the storm, it was impossible to get accurate Radio Direction Finder [RDF] Bearings from Cape Race. The Radio Operator had concerns that bearings taken earlier on Sable Island were suspect. No other RDF bearings could be obtained due to unfavorable atmospheric conditions. Fathometer readings were taken every fifteen  minutes.
There were six  lookouts on the bridge, three on each wing. The signalman on watch served additional duty as lookout. There were no lookouts maintained further forward than the wings of the bridge.
Division Commander, Walter Webb, Commanding Officer, John Kelsey, Navigator, Arthur Barrett and Officer of the Deck William A Smyth studied the position, course, soundings and bearings and agreed that the track followed seem to be a safe one [WILKES]. The ship had ventured through these dangerous waters times before, it was always taxing on the crew. They were not aware a gale force wind had preceded them, not aware of the velocity of the wind that had been blowing from the Southeast. They were not aware an intense weather system, a weather bomb was sneaking upon them from the Gulf Region.
It was mistakenly assumed there were no ocean currents in the area which would dictate adjustments to navigation. Tidal currents were present near the shore. On the open sea, currents were influenced by the winds and stormy weather, over time ocean currents increased in velocity. The wind had been light to moderate from North Northwest early afternoon [17 February] when it shifted to Southeast with force 1 and 2 until 1500, then force 4 until 1800, and force 7 at 2400, it was now gale force and steadily increasing in strength.
WILKES had given permission to each ship in the convoy to change course for any navigational reason to protect ship and crew. In wailing winds, sleet and lashing seas, the darkened ships advanced at standard speed in radio silence, visibility was practically zero at times. Ocean currents were unknowingly pushing the convoy Northward from its intended track.
It was near impossible for those on watch to do their work. Arthur Barrett, Navigator had been in the chart house and on the bridge since  18 February busy following ship’s track. He had expressed concern that R.D.F. [Radio Direction Finder] bearings had not been taken on Cape Race and Gallantry Head -St. Pierre throughout the night [2400, 0200, and 0400]. The officer-of-the-deck explained that bearings had not been taken due to atmospheric conditions, overcast skies and snow static. Radar bearings taken each half hour had been erratic due to icing on the antenna. In reviewing the soundings book and charts the Navigator noticed that soundings did not agree with the ship’s plotted track.
The Navigator had constructed a line of half hourly soundings hoping to match them on the chart, he had little success. Barrett considered it necessary to continue fathometer readings.
The U.S.S. Prairie housed Flag Headquarters at Base Roger, Radio operators at the Naval Air Station Argentia intently monitored all frequencies. The station was a strategic port for fast and slow convoys that rendezvous off Newfoundland and mid ocean meeting points where British escort groups protected merchantmen eastward across the North Atlantic. The base was tasked with convoy protection, coastal patrol and anti-submarine surveillance. Land base crews and ocean going ships were tasked with vigilance and vital service in defense of the United States and its Allies. It was a dreadful night on the open sea, snow drift and howling wind echoed a tyranny. An eerie silence seem to pervade the room as operators went about their work.
Barrett was extremely concerned the ship [WILKES] might be North of its intended track. After further calculations, the Navigator immediately notified the Captain  about his grievous observations, tactful in his deliberations.
Dense snow, fog and heavy swell slowed the duties of the deck crew and lookouts standing watch, it was near impossible in these conditions to see the flag staff on the forecastle.
Captain Kelsie arrived in the chart house to examine the charts. He concluded the ship could be North or South of its intended track. The Northern track would put the convoy terrifying close to land. The commander gave immediate instructions to the Navigator to visit the division commander, Walter Webb in his stateroom to discuss his concerns.
Webb arrived in the chart house a minute after he was notified to caucus and review the charts, he immediately went to the bridge.
Fathometer readings continued to be taken, barometer readings continue to drop as the convoy braved the open sea. J.D. McPherson, radar man was busy at his station. The radar had been installed on Wilkes 31 December 1941 during navy yard availability [Boston].
Force 8 winds from the Southeast and heavy surf continued to crash the starboard beam, sailors standing watch on the port and starboard wings of the bridge couldn’t see beyond the bow of the ship. There was quite a lot of process in the pilot house, chart house and radar house, the convoy was taking a severe beating in the storm. The radar operator observed a number of pips. The operator made the comment there are a lot of ships out there or that is land. Fathometer readings were dropping like an anchor, the ship was now steaming in 15 fathoms of water.
Every attempt was made to alert the convoy by searchlight and radio telephone, dedicated efforts unsuccessful. It seemed like frantic seconds before land appeared out of the blackest night, dead ahead, only moments before collision.
The Captain was standing by the port pelorus on the bridge, the clock in the pilot house read 0409. Immediately Captain Kelsey gave the order, “Full emergency astern”. Seconds later WILKES grounded on a beach shelf, jagged rocks on each side, less than 100 yards from an ominous snow-covered embankment on the Southwest corner of Lawn Point. Signal ‘Emergency Stop’ was sent by the 24 inch searchlight on the starboard side of the after wing of the bridge to warn other vessels. ‘WILKES aground don’t know which side’ was broadcast on TBS, hoping the TBS receiver was working on TRUXTUN.
‘WILKES aground’ was also broadcast on the distress frequency [500 KSC] since previous messages sent by searchlight [blinker] or TBS had not been acknowledged. It took some time to transmit the signal, the antenna was iced up causing much of the signal to be grounded; urgent messages would have to be transmitted via Truxtun.
General Alarm was sounded and sailors proceeded to their stations. All sailors were instructed to wear life jackets, boats and life rafts were made ready for instant lowering, the ship was equipped with sufficient lifesaving facilities. Searchlights were turned on within seconds, the 24 inch trained on snow ahead and the 12 inch trained on the starboard beam. There was heavy snow and drift swirling around and blanketing the ship.
POLLUX did not have TBS [radio telephone], it could only receive visual messages by blinker tube [searchlight]. The last exchange with POLLUX during 0000 to 0400 18 February was around 0130, when the Pollux changed course from 047 degrees to 057 degrees, visibility was dangerously poor at the time. There had been a collision of interest expressed between POLLUX and WILKES about the direction of the convoy.
Sometime after grounding WILKES observed a searchlight on its starboard beam around a point of land, an exchange of signals identified the ship as POLLUX less than a mile eastward. Messages were sent to base roger, radio station NWP Argentia ‘WILKES and POLLUX aground entrance to Placentia Bay’.
It was assumed TRUXTUN was alright, WILKES sent another message by radio telephone ‘stand by us if possible, believe we are near Ferryland Point’. A short time later a message was received from TRUXTUN, ‘We are on the rocks, Dog tanks holed. Both props useless and rudder out of whack’. Both destroyers and supplies ship were now in peril. The WILKES AND TRUXTUN had run aground simultaneously, the POLLUX minutes later.
At the time of grounding TRUXTUN was steaming 12 knots, visibility near zero, heavy sleet was falling. The ship had not been in contact with the convoy for hours. The last contact with POLLUX was a sound contact at 2300 17 February on QC sound apparatus that had an echo ranging effect. It was assumed the ship was steaming on the port bow of the U.S.S.POLLUX. TRUXTUN had changed course by 1 degree to 48 degrees at 0230, the ship had stopped zigzagging before darkness on 17 February.
The ship [TRUXTUN] was darkened, in radio silence, on a dead reckoning course…….