many of my courses in Naval Science, the classes on Naval Warfare were the most
fascinating. With advancing science, the weapons of modern warfare were
becoming technically interesting. The technology used in mines was also
fascinating. Unlike older mines that detonated on contact, newer mines had
sensors that could gauge the size or proximity of ships passing nearby, and
detonate only when the proper signal configuration was achieved. Others mines
might count the ships passing overhead, and detonate only after a predetermined
number of passes had been recorded. These mines were all invisible from the
surface without special detection devices.
wartime, minefields could be laid out along coastal waters, harbors or rivers to
discourage the passage of ships. Blockade of a harbor could be achieved with
mines alone. As passive devices, mines remain submerged well after hostilities
end, and pose serious threats to commerce until they are cleared from the
waterways. Clearing mines was the task of the minesweepers, a small vessel
tailored for the job.
The Hamilton County was a minesweeper
tender designed to provide support for an assortment of minesweepers. By
January 1956 when I reported aboard, the Navy had developed a minesweeper which
had all the bells and whistles needed to sweep mines and avoid being blown up in
the process. The following picture shows three sweepers, the Warbler (MSC-206),
the Widgeon (MSC-208), and a third sweeper alongside the Hamilton County well
prior to our deployment to the Western Pacific. The ships had only been in
service for a few months, and had the latest in minesweeper warfare technology.
Most of the sweepers and the Hamilton County were subsequently home-ported in
Sasebo, where they served the Navy's needs for the next 15 years. They were the
cats whiskers in minesweepers at the time.
sweepers originated the popular notion of wooden ships and iron men. The
ships were designed to present a minimum magnetic signal, compared with metal
hull ships. Their engines and associated equipment were built with nonmagnetic
alloys wherever possible. Degaussing cable was used to neutralize the magnetic
influence that could not be eliminated. For example, consumable goods in tin
cans were stored in permanent places aboard ship. After they were used, the
cans were washed, returned to the original boxes, and placed on the same storage
shelves to avoid altering the ships magnetic characteristics. When the cooks
failed to follow these rather explicit instructions, the result could blow the
ship out of the water. This made the ships cooks extraordinarily attentive.
their dangerous mission, it was essential that the ships, hulls, and all onboard
equipment be tested for the ability to withstand water-born explosions, as may
occur while actually sweeping for mines. As the flagship for minesweepers, the
Hamilton County was to oversee the testing.
To prepare for testing, we loaded a dozen
yellow mines on the main deck, ordered the helicopter to come aboard, and for
the first and only time in a year and a half, the Admiral, Commander Mine Forces
Pacific Fleet, came aboard with his staff to witness the testing. Once
everything and everybody was aboard, we left for a remote island in the Catalina
group off Southern California. As we were steaming into Catalina, the below
picture shows the dozen yellow mines waiting to be used, the HUP-2 helicopter
strapped to the deck, and Catalina Island dead ahead of the ships bow. We were
about to find out exactly how sea worthy these little wooden ships and their
iron men would be.
anchored in a large protected cove to begin preparation for the testing. It was
never quite clear exactly how the one minesweeper (MSC) designated for the
testing was selected from among many. The admiral may well have asked for
volunteers. Had they known that the crew would be aboard the ship as the mines
were detonated, they might have had second thoughts about volunteering. As most
MSC captains were Annapolis graduate JGs, they may have stood in line for the
honor. In any event, one minesweeper and many of its crew were all aboard, at
anchor a considerable distance from the admiral and the rest of us on the
Hamilton County when the fireworks began.
above is a schematic of the minesweeper (MSC) at anchor, while the yellow
circles represent the mines placed at various distances and depths from the
ship. Testing required the better part of a day, beginning early in the
morning. Initially the most distant mine was detonated. Following each
detonation, the crew on the minesweeper would check the ship for damage, making
special note of anything that might be moved by the shock. The initial
explosion may have been 150 yards from the ship and 30 feet below the surface.
the ship was checked, the next nearer mine was detonated, and the routine was
repeated. This went on throughout the day until all twelve mines had been
detonated. The last few charges were designed to provide a lateral shock to the
side (abeam) of the ship, and the final blast was almost below the ships hull,
providing vertical thrust.
large, the remote explosions did little more than produce waves and a rocking
motion commonly experienced by everything that floats. From about 50 yards and
closer, items that were not securely fastened to the ship were moved by the
jolt, but the little wooden ship was amazingly sturdy. The final few jolts were
extraordinary in their impact on both the wooden ship and the iron men, with the
men being the more resilient. On visual during the final explosion, the little
ship appeared to be raised about four feet above its former waterline before
settling back into the water.
was no major damage to the wooden hull of the ship, although the main engines
were reportedly knocked loose from their shipyard alignments. Virtually
everything that could be moved, jostled, or knocked over, was moved, jostled, or
knocked over. After a brief period of adjustment by the iron men, the little
ship returned from the testing site on its own power. Their sea worthiness was
beyond question following this brutal series of tests.
was not without its surprising outcome. The first detonations produced almost
no visible consequences. The last few explosions produced hundreds of stunned
fish in the cove. When the testing was over, the LCVP used to move men and
equipment during the test was used to gather in the fish that had been stunned.
For the better part of a half hour, the crew of the LCVP gathered fish until the
bottom of the boat was covered with fish. Then it returned to the Hamilton
County. The following picture shows the admiral on his only stay aboard the
Hamilton County (left) and Captain Weatherby (right) struggling to hold two of
the larger three fish which were captured in the exercise. The brightly
colored black and orange fish, I was told, is a sheep's head, while the larger
gray-brown fish is a sea bass.
the cooks on the ship reported to me first, they asked if I would like some of
the sea bass to take home. I said a small portion would be fine, enough for two
meals. They filleted about two pounds and froze it for taking home. This was a
fitting and delicious end of our testing. The fish was great and the wooden
ships were amazing, but the iron men had earned their name and their