The USS Wilkes

The USS Wilkes (DD-441) was a destroyer in the United States Navy. It was commissioned on April 22, 1941 and ready for sea the following June. It served in the Atlantic Ocean for much of the following year and often escorted convoys between North American and Icelandic ports. When the United States joined World War Two in December 1941, the Wilkes was one of the Navy's newest and therefore most technologically advanced destroyers. As a result, it often served as flagship when operating in convoy.

On February 17, 1942, the Wilkes was steaming toward Argentia, Newfoundland, where a large air-naval base existed. It was travelling in convoy with two other vessels, the supply ship USS Pollux and the destroyer USS Truxtun. The Pollux was transporting a cargo of bombs, aircraft engines, and other equipment to Argentia and was under the protection of its two destroyer escorts. The Wilkes was the convoy's flagship and therefore set the course the other ships had to follow.

Although the Wilkes had by then made seven trips to Argentia, its crew was a largely inexperienced one. Most of its trained personnel had transferred to other ships two months earlier, while the Wilkes was being outfitted with radar at the Navy shipyard. When the vessel was released for service soon afterwards, it took on a crew of mostly rookie recruits who had recently graduated from boot camp. Only a small group of experienced officers and enlisted men remained onboard to supervise the new sailors. Among these was the ship's captain, Commander John D. Kelsey.

As the convoy neared Newfoundland's south coast, a bitter winter storm developed and pushed all three ships badly off course. Visibility was zero and strong ocean currents pulled the vessels closer to Newfoundland's coast than anyone realized. At about 4:08 on the morning of February 18, 1942, depth readings aboard the Wilkes indicated it was steaming into dangerously shallow waters. Commander Kelsey immediately ordered a change in course, but it was too late to avoid a collision - at 4:09 the Wilkes ran aground on the jagged rocks off Newfoundland's south coast. Both the Truxtun and the Pollux had been following the course set down by the Wilkes and also went aground within the next eight minutes. All three ships were separated from each other by a distance of between one and two miles.

The Wilkes, however, was in the best situation. Only its front portion had gone aground and Commander Kelsey felt that if all portable cargo and personnel were shifted to the rear of the ship, then its forward section would become light enough to break away from the rock shelf. It was a sound plan - at 7:10 in the morning, the Wilkes freed itself and limped toward the Pollux, which was impaled on a rock about a mile to the east at Lawn Point.

Although the Wilkes was operational, there was little it could do to help the Pollux. Violent seas and stormy weather prevented it from venturing too close to the supply ship and thwarted its efforts to send out rescue rafts. All the crew of the Wilkes could do was radio for help, watch from a distance, and hope for the best.

None of the sailors on board the Wilkes died in the disaster, but four of its crewmembers - Commander Walter Webb (senior officer of the convoy), Commander John Kelsey (captain of the Wilkes), Lieutenant Arthur Barrett (navigator of the Wilkes), and Lieutenant William Smyth (officer on deck of the Wilkes) - were brought before a court of inquiry in March 1942. The Navy eventually dropped all charges against these men.