The impetus for my research of the USS Zircon (PY-16) has been the USS YF-415 disaster. Ultimately, had I not learned of my father’s heroics on 11 May 1944, or had he not been involved with the rescue, I probably wouldn’t be typing this today.
I occasionally spend more time attempting to locate relatives of Zircon sailors than the sailors even spent aboard the ship. But as I have discovered, the more I follow the bread-crumb clues to a sailor’s post-war life story, the greater the chance that I might find stories or photographs out there which help to fill in a little more of the Zircon puzzle.
But I keep circling back to the YF-415 disaster to make yet another attempt to locate someone who might be related to the men who were on that ship that day. Sometimes, new records are made available at Ancestry that hadn’t been available a year or even a month earlier. Newspapers.com also adds to its archives every month or so. Other times, I change search terms, such as dropping a middle initial, as I did recently for Ensign Kenneth Brundage Bowen, who was one of the officers aboard the YF-415 that day. (I previously hadn’t found an obituary because almost all obituaries include a person’s middle initial.) According to his testimony before the Court of Inquiry, he had no official role aboard the ship that day… he was essentially aboard as an observer. I finally located his children, although I’ve yet to speak with any of them.
I have to admit that the chain of command on the YF-415 that day has confused me a bit. It has taken re-reading the transcripts for the Court of Inquiry to connect the dots. But it still seems to have been a bit haphazardly organized. So, here’s what I’ve come up with.
The regular crew of YF-415 that day were:
Louis Brunswick Tremblay (Chief Boatswain’s Mate and Captain)
William John Bradley (Motor Machinist’s Mate, First Class)
Joseph Francis Burke (Coxswain)
Frank Emil Federle (Electrician’s Mate, Second Class)
Eugene Lee Hall, Jr. (Machinist’s Mate, First Class)
Yee Ming Jin (Seaman, Second Class)
Donald Brook Neal (Motor Machinist’s Mate, Second Class)
Mike Peschunka (Seaman, Second Class)
Vernon Warren Smith (Boatswain’s Mate, Second Class)
Of the regular crew, only Tremblay, Hall, Neal, and Richardson survived the fire and blasts. Yee was below decks and took to the ship’s shower, hoping to protect himself from the flames. He went down with the ship. Bradley, although one of the fourteen men rescued, suffered third-degree burns over seventy-five percent of his body. It’s my belief that he attempted to get Yee to leave the shower and abandon ship, and in so doing suffered the burns which cost him his life.
Chief Gunner’s Mate, Levi (Lee) Tritle Ridenour was in charge of the dumping operation according to his testimony before the Court of Inquiry. He also was supposed to ensure that the materials were handled safely. His assistant, for want of another word, that day appears to have been Warrant Gunner George Richard Hornak. He was aboard essentially to observe, but also assisted with the dumping of some of the materials.
Lieutenant Robert Vincent Knox was in charge of the work crew, the Black sailors assigned to the ship from Hingham Naval Ammunition Depot. I think that his only responsibility was to ensure that these fifteen men did their assigned work; he didn’t actually supervise the work they did. If that makes sense.
Lieutentant Herman William Doering had transported twenty-four “dangerous fuses” from Cohasset, Massachusetts to be dumped as well. Once these fuses were overboard, he assisted with the dumping of the materials from the depot. He had no official capacity aboard the ship beyond getting rid of those fuses, although he did assume unofficial supervisory duties over the work crew at the request of Ridenour when he and Hornak took a lunch break.
The work crew from Hingham Naval Ammunition Depot:
Adell Braxton (Yeoman, Third Class)
Raymond Navarro Carr (Gunner’s Mate, Third Class)
Truman Sterling Chittick (Seaman, Second Class)
George Mitchel Cook (Gunner’s Mate, Third Class)
James N. Cox, Jr. (Seaman, First Class)
Freddie Edwards, Jr. (Seaman, First Class)
James Stanley Griffin (Seaman, Second Class)
Warren Lee Griggs (Seaman, Second Class)
Charles Reed Harris (Seaman, First Class)
Raymond Lester Henry (Seaman, Second Class)
Julian Jackson (Seaman, Second Class)
Ellis Mosley (Seaman, Second Class)
George Richardson (Gunner’s Mate, Third Class)
Carl Lee Ruffin (Gunner’s Mate, Third Class)
Edward Wilson Sumpter (Gunner’s Mate, Third Class)
James Buster Turner (Seaman, Second Class)
There is very little to find about most of the Black sailors since, well, it was 1944, and beyond listing names, newspapers didn’t provide much information about Black people as a rule. It has been one of the more startling aspects of my research to see newspapers that devoted a few column inches each day to “News For Negroes” or something similar. One exception was Adell Braxton, who was a star athlete in Battle Creek, Michigan before he joined the Navy. It was a weird coincidence, too, to discover that he got married (or at least obtained his marriage license) in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio. It took me some time, but I was finally able to track down Braxton’s widow’s daughter from a third marriage.
A few of the clippings I’ve found regarding the disaster have listed those who died along with next of kin. Many of the Black sailors were from the South, so finding anything about their relatives has been a struggle. Death announcements or obituaries are virtually impossible to find. I found a clipping with Raymond Carr’s photo from before the war, but I’ve not been able to locate family. Another photo of Carr accompanied the article about the disaster in the Louisvile (Kentucky) Courier-Journal.
Frank Federle, also from Louisville had a brother and a sister at the time of his death, but as best as I have been able to find, neither had children. I’ve been in touch with survivor Edward William Sumpter’s son, who forwarded along some information he’d received from Joseph Francis Burke’s son, who was instrumental in having the disaster recognized in the Congressional Record (entered by Senator Edward Kennedy) as well as convincing the Navy to perform a memorial service at sea for those who died.
One of the survivors, Carl Lee Ruffin, appears to have made the military his career as I found clippings indicating that he served in the Air Force, reaching the rank of Technical Sergeant. I’ve located his family, but no one has yet responded to my queries.
I’ve also spoken with a great niece of Truman Chittick, who forwarded along this photograph of her uncle. She had found me via Ancestry while doing a search for information about him.