USS Tiru and HMAS Vendetta
by Pat Burnett and Sam Sakker. Footnote by Tom De Voil
On the night of Thursday 3 November, 1966 the US Submarine Tiru, on passage north off the east coast of Australia, ran aground at a speed of about 12 knots on the southern edge of Frederick Reef, in the Outer Barrier Reef, about 300 nautical miles east of Mackay.
At the time I had recently assumed command of the Daring class destroyer HMAS Vendetta, which was then carrying out a maintenance period at Garden Island Dockyard in Sydney. On Friday 4 November we were ordered to prepare for sea and to embark several high-ranking USN officers, a clearance diving team and a Caribbean type motor cutter. Then we were to proceed at 24 knots early on the Saturday morning to stand by the scene of the grounding. This prompted the ship’s company wag to comment that we were now the USS Vendetta (usually sails Saturday).
USS Tiru, hard aground on Frederick Reef in a calm sea but appreciable swell.
Clearance diving team
We had an uneventful passage to Frederick Reef in good weather conditions and arrived there the next day to find Tiru firmly aground in a calm sea, but with an appreciable southerly swell breaking over the reef, which is barely covered at low water. We hove-to off the reef and lost no time in sending the clearance diving team over by boat to carry out an underwater survey of the submarine. The swell and the coral rendered boatwork and diving operations rather tricky, but the team did a fine job. They were able to report that, although Tiru had struck the reef at about 12 knots, she had ridden up over the edge of it and had suffered surprisingly little damage, her pressure hull still being intact.
We held a conference on board Vendetta with the diving officer, submarine officers and the specialist salvage experts we had embarked. After much discussion it was decided to attempt to pass a tow and try to refloat the submarine at the approaching high water. This was accordingly done. I found manoeuvring stern-to close to the edge of the reef quite difficult in the swell conditions, but eventually the ship was in the desired position and we succeeded in passing the towing hawser to Tiru by boat.
Once the tow was secured and all was ready, we gradually took up the strain at dead slow speed ahead and then increased the pressure on the tow by slow degrees as far as we considered it safe to do so. However, the submarine remained firmly aground and we were unable to budge her. After a prolonged effort we were obliged to abandon the attempt.
Frederick Reef was steep-to and the adjacent area too deep for anchoring, so after the tow was recovered we steamed at economical speed in the vicinity overnight. We hove-to off the reef again on the Monday morning to check the situation with Tiru and render what services we could to her ship’s company. Later in the forenoon we were relieved on station by the destroyer escort USS Taussig, which was ordered to stand by until another rescue attempt could be made. After further discussion it was decided to send for a salvage tug from Brisbane to attempt to refloat the submarine at a higher high tide, which was shortly due. We transferred our USN personnel to Taussig and were then released to return to Sydney to resume our maintenance period after an unusual experience.
The operation attracted some publicity at the time and I had several radio telephone conversations with an American NBC correspondent who was covering it. We had also embarked an RAN public relations photographer who took some graphic pictures of Tiru aground on the reef. We subsequently learnt that after docking and minor repairs Tiru had been able to continue her passage. I understand that the USN later conducted an enquiry into the grounding and held a court martial, but we did not hear any details of their proceedings.
Three RAN Daring class destroyers were the first prefabricated all-welded ships built in Australia. One of the three, HMAS Vendetta (above), was constructed in Williamstown Naval Dockyard. Commissioned in 1958 and displacing 3600 tons, the destroyer carried a crew of 320 and measured 118.4 x 113.1 x 3.73 metres (388.5 x 43 x 12.25 feet). Her main armament included six 4.5 inch (114 mm) guns, 6 x 40mm Bofors and one 3-barrelled ASW Limbo mortar. Two boilers and two English Electric steam turbines developed 54,000 hp that could drive the ship at 33 knots.
Sam Sakker’s tale:
HMAS Sydney, under the command of CAPT Anthony Synnot RAN, was on a training cruise around the Barrier Reef near the Fitzroy River, and received a signal that the submarine USS Tiru had run aground on Frederick Reef at (contrary to some reports) 2037, Thursday 3 November 1966. Sydney arrived the following day and stood by to render assistance.
The submarine was hard and fast on the reef with huge waves breaking over her. Her watertight integrity had not been breached, but one of her sailors had been tossed by a wave while rigging safety lines. He returned on board, where he developed increasing abdominal pain. He was the biggest man on board, well over 1.96 meters (6 feet 5 inches), so the captain gave up his cabin. Even this was so cramped that a square was cut out of the bulkhead at the foot of the bunk to accommodate the sailor’s feet.
HMAS Vendetta was dispatched from Sydney. She picked up a US salvage team flown out from Hawaii, but no doctor was on board. I transferred to Vendetta on 6 November and Sydney continued her cruise. The seas had only slightly abated.
Wetsuit and flippers
I donned a wetsuit and flippers and was taken by the ship’s cutter to just beyond the line of breakers. A gun line was fired to the Tiru, where a heavier line was fixed while the cutter took the strain at the other end. A sailor and I pulled ourselves hand over hand in an inflatable liferaft, thankfully without going in the drink.
The injured sailor was unwell with a silent abdomen. He had been well looked after by a USN sickbay man, Ralph Mummey, and we formed a great team. We “sucked and dripped” him, keeping careful fluid balance and records in alternating four-hour watches.
The seas remained high. It was not possible for a warship to tow us off the reef. The ocean-going tug Carlock departed Brisbane and arrived early on Monday 7 November. Tiru was towed off on a rising tide at 1240 and proceeded to Brisbane under her own power.
We arrived in Brisbane early on 8 November. The next hurdle was to move this huge man out of the tiny cabin through a maze of dogleg passages and watertight doors. I gave him a very large dose of morphine.
Five strong sailors
Five of the strongest sailors lifted him out of the bunk and out through the door into the passageway, where he was strapped into a flexible stretcher. He was then manhandled to the forward torpedo space, winched out through the torpedo hatch and transferred to an ambulance.
USS Tiru SS-416 was launched on 16 September 1947 as a Balao class submarine and was completed as a Guppy II. Upgraded to a Guppy III between May and December 1959, the post-1959 craft displaced 1975 tons/2450 tons surfaced/submerged and measured 97.4 metres (319.5 feet) long by 8.33 metres (27.33 feet) beam and 5.2 metres (17 feet) draft. The submarine’s three Fairbanks-Morse 10-cylinder opposed piston diesel engines and G. E. electric motors provided 6500/2750 hp, which translated into potential maximum speeds of 17/14 knots or 6 knots snorkelling. Armament included 10 x 533 mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes, six forward and four aft, and the submarine carried a crew of about 85. Tiru was decommissioned 1 July 1975 and was sunk as a target 19 July 1979.
At the Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital, he was assessed, resuscitated and had 22 cm of necrotic small bowel excised. His recovery was swift and he was on his way home within a week.
“Aloha Dr Sam”
Towards the end of 1967, I transferred to HMAS Melbourne, to cross the Pacific and collect Skyhawks, Grumman Trackers and matériel for Vietnam. Our first port of call was Pearl Harbor. To my amazement and the crew’s delight, we were greeted at the submarine wharf by a large banner proclaiming “Aloha Dr Sam” held up by some members of the crew of the USS Tiru. Her XO took me sightseeing in Oahu, and ensured my short stay was both memorable and enjoyable.
To my great surprise, I was awarded the MBE(Mil) in the New Year Honours list 1968: The citation read:
HONOURS AND AWARDS
1 January 1968. Appointed a Member of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire Surgeon Lieutenant Samuel Sakker RAN.
Citation: For exceptionally meritorious service in boarding the stranded United States Submarine in rough seas, and for outstanding devotion to duty in treating a seriously injured man in difficult conditions. On 3 November, 1966, USS Tiru grounded on Frederick Reef in the Coral Sea and HMAS Sydney was sent to assist on 4 November. It was learned that a USN Petty Officer had been flung against equipment in the submarine resulting in serious internal injuries. Rough seas prevented boarding the submarine that night and although there was only a slight moderation by the next morning SURG LEUT Sakker prepared to swim from the destroyer HMAS Vendetta to the submarine. In the event a hazardous boarding was achieved by liferaft.
On board the submarine SURG LEUT Sakker worked to keep the Petty Officer alive throughout the 6th and 7th November and until the early hours of 8th November when, after transferring the patient and a full case history to the General Repatriation Hospital, Greenslopes, Brisbane, he was finally able to rest. SURG LEUT Sakker’s conduct was in keeping with the highest traditions of the medical profession and the RAN.
I was Senior Engineer of Vendetta at the time of this accident. The XO was LCDR Eric Johnson (The Big E) and the MEO was CMDR George Laing-Schofield (who had been a mechanician in the previous Vendetta during WW II).
On Friday 4 November 1966, we were in a self maintenance period (SMP) alongside at Garden Island and doing boiler cleans. One boiler had the external casings removed. That forenoon, the MEO called on Fleet Staff in the old FHQ building “on the Hill” in Garden Island where he was asked why we were raising steam. He replied that we were not and was promptly asked to look out the window from where he could see his ship making smoke from one funnel.
We sailed later that day on one boiler with the other being rapidly reassembled. As I recall we went through Sydney Heads at about 18 knots having been ordered to make “moderate dispatch” to assist USS Tiru. When we were clear of the Heads we had revolutions for 27 knots rung on. We achieved this as soon as the second boiler was connected later that afternoon.
We sailed north with an enormous southerly swell helping us along. In the boiler and engine rooms this was very noticeable. Without changing the firing rate of the boilers the speed of the ship would vary from about 24 knots, and appropriate revolutions, as we climbed the rear face of the swell. It would increase to well over 30 knots as we raced down the front of the swell and propeller revolutions would increase accordingly. The boiler pressure would change in harmony, providing it didn’t get too close to the red line. It was a fascinating scenario, from a technical point of view, to see how closely linked were ship speed, propeller revolutions, turbine stage pressures and boiler pressures.
The following day I recall being on the bridge during the forenoon and watching the pitometer log indicator approach the stop at 40 knots. We were very close to surfing on a couple of occasions. This in a vessel 118.4 metres (388 feet) in length.
The swell abated as we progressed north but nevertheless was still significant when we approached Frederick Reef, as the photograph in the article by Pat Burnett shows. From my perspective the rest of the time was interesting, but routine, in particular making sure that the evaporators produced enough potable water to keep the ship’s company happy in the tropical weather.