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Wreck of the USS Saipan (LHA-2)

Inspired by Gordon Lightfoot's and Paul Gross' Edmund Fitzgerald and 32 down on Robert Mackenzie

There is a legend about the Atlantic, that some call the animal, that says she never gives up her dead when the January winds hit heavy and turn the skies gloomy. The USS Saipan was a “gator freighter” bigger than most and came from some yard near Pascagoula Mississippi. But, it was just a bone to be chewed when those January winds came slashing with a vengeance--

The Saipan left fully loaded for Rota, after picking up the Marines’ air wing and all their equipment off Jacksonville North Carolina. Two days out and the wind could be heard making a humming noise in the wires as the Saipan headed east for Rota and its deployment to the Med. beyond it for a six month deployment.

By the third day waves washed up to the fueling stations in the hull with the Captain knowing that it was those January gales being brought by that north wind that had been felt and heard earlier. And everything had been tied down. 

The next day, the dawn came late and breakfast on the mess decks had to wait. As freezing rains came during the afternoon, and by evening waves rose up to smash themselves upon the catwalk rails, the wind picked up speed to almost hurricane force, hitting the Saipan broadsides at 60-70 mph - pushing the ship east as if it were just a toy.

The messages to the bridge from aft steering were that the rudders weren't responding to the directions given. The wheel on the bridge was useless as the seas and winds played havoc with the helm. At suppertime, the supply officer announced that it was too rough to feed the crew and the Marines the evening meal. 

The waves were causing the radar to go blind just as a hanger deck door was blown in, causing the Captain to radio in that he had water coming in both the hanger and well decks, as well as the magazines and aviation fuel rooms that were being flooded. The pumps couldn't keep up with the amount of water that was coming in. The Saipan was now flying blind with no shelter from the storm out on the open sea.

The men in the engine/boiler rooms and aft steering were caught in what was like a metal cage with flames erupting around them, that seemed to burst from Hell just as one of the shafts snapped. The wrecking of the Saipan happened and took place when the lights went out. 

The searchers and the Navy’s board of inquiry both agreed that if the Captain had headed south, there might have been a chance at flank speed that he could have made Bermuda a hundred miles away - like the Nashville ( LPD-13) and the Spartanburg County (LST-1192) did. They weren't sure if the Saipan broke up, or capsized after the last transmission had been received.

And many ask if God turns his eyes away when the waves and the wind turn the minutes into hours? All that remains are the names of all that were lost, along with the parents, wives, daughters and sons. Back in Norfolk and in Jacksonville the flags were lowered to half-mast as the guns were fired in salute. And in the base chapels the bells were rung for the Sailors and the Marines that were lost when the USS Saipan went down.



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