James Island resident George Oliver remembers the night his ship, the USS Hobson, was cut in two. He was one of the lucky few who got out alive.
Covered by oil and bobbing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Oliver looked around in time for a final glimpse of the destroyer-minesweeper he called home, pulling 176 of his shipmates to their deaths.
'I saw the last 20 or 30 feet of the ship going down,' said Oliver, 79, describing the moments immediately after the Charleston-based Hobson collided with the aircraft carrier Wasp. 'Nobody's prepared for that.'
Survivors of one of the worst peacetime accidents in U.S. Navy history will be in Charleston this weekend for a reunion that, for the first time, brings together crews from both ships involved in the fatal 1952 accident. Those who plan to attend say it will be a last opportunity for closure as age catches up, memories fade and the ranks of the Hobson men, especially, grow scarce.
On the night of April 26, 1952, the Hobson perished when the ship was sliced in half by the much larger Wasp, some 700 miles west of the Azores Islands. The accident occurred during a nighttime airplane recovery exercise when both ships were making long sweeping curves in the seemingly open sea.
The Wasp was turning into the wind to recover some of its planes. But in the dark, the Wasp ran over the Hobson just as the smaller ship was cutting across its bow. Both vessels had been blacked out, except for red aircraft-warning lights.
Sixty-one of the Hobson's crew were rescued, among them Frank B. Williams, 86, of Moncks Corner, who was below deck and toward the stern when the crash took place.
'The weather was bad and I don't think they could see very well,' Williams recalled. 'It happened so fast that you didn't realize what was going on.'
Williams found his way out of the darkened ship by navigating through a rush of incoming seawater, finally ending up on the surface. Almost immediately, life vests began raining down on him from the Wasp above as rescue teams tried to save the surviving Hobson men.
'It was a sad night,' Williams recalled, his voice drifting off. The Hobson sank in four minutes.
Back in Charleston, news of the disaster stunned the Navy town where the men's sacrifice was praised across a wide front, with one chaplain telling his audience 'doing your duty is the secret of success in this nation.'
A board of inquiry later put full blame for the accident on Hobson captain Lt. Cmdr. William Tierney. He was cited for misjudging his position in relation to the carrier, among other findings, including that he had become 'completely confused' in the dark.
Tierney died in the accident. Months later, a stone monument to the Hobson crew was erected in their memory in Charleston's White Point Garden, near The Battery. After the collision, the Wasp sailed on to New York where photographs showed a large 100-foot-deep chunk of her bow missing at the waterline. No one on the Wasp was injured.
While men from both ships have regularly held reunions since the accident, this is the first year they have officially coordinated their events together. Ralph Romano, 79, of Allentown, Pa., who was a machinist's mate on the Wasp that night, said he has met with some of the Hobson men before and that he came away with a much clearer conscience because of what they were able to talk about.
'I did feel some guilt because I was on the Wasp,' he said. 'I did talk to them and did feel better about it.'
Romano had just gotten out of the shower when he felt the Wasp shudder. 'I could hear the screws turning and then they stopped and reversed,' he said. 'I knew something had happened. There was no reason to stop out there except for another ship.'
When he reached the railing of the Wasp, Romano saw men struggling in the water amid a sea of oil and bags of oranges that had floated out of the galley. More of the Hobson crew had retired to their sleeping bunks at the time of the collision than on duty.
Officials aren't sure what the total number of attendees this weekend will be from both ships, but the Hobson's ranks are thinning. Only about 14 survivors are thought to be still alive and most are into their 70s.
Romano said that no matter who attends, the Hobson-Wasp incident remains an important part of Navy history and something worth commemorating.
'I think of those men most days but always on a holiday,' he said. 'They will never see a newborn son or daughter, never be a grandfather, never witness a daughter or son getting married, never be with family for Easter or Christmas.'
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.