A hearty welcome from the Florida Keys
USS Sturtevant (DD-240)
Wreck of the USS Sturtevant
The USS Sturtevant (DD-240) was a World War II casualty of the Key West minefield that and has become one of the premier dive spots in the Gulf of Mexico north of Key West. The remains of the Sturtevant lays in about 64 feet of water 16 Nautical miles from Key West and consists of two large sections and an extensive debris field. Some salvage work was done on the ship before she was abandoned, but there are many artifacts still on the site. Remember that this ship still belongs to the US Navy and is further protected from salvage by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the State of Florida.
Launched in July of 1920, The USS Sturtevant (DD-240) was a "four stack" Clemson Class destroyer that was contractded to be built during WWI, but not delivered until after that war was over. She was 314 feet long, had a 31 foot beam and a 9.3 foot draft and named for the WWI aviator Albert D. Sturtevant. With her state of the art geared steam turbines and twin screws, she was capable of almost 34 Knots and carried 122 men. Lt. Comdr. Ewart G. Haas assumed command of Sturtevant on 4 November 1920 and was assigned to duty in Europe.
DD 240 was named for Albert Dillon Sturtevant who was born in Washington, DC on May 2, 1894. After graduating from Yale he enlisted in the Naval Reserve Forces as an ensign in 1917. Then after flight training he was assigned to the Royal Flying Corps station, Felixstowe, England. Ensign Sturtevant flew escort for civilians crossing the North Sea between Holland and England. On the 15th of February 1918 he was flying an escort mission in a Curtiss H-12B/F2A seaplane with a crew of four accompanied by another identical aircraft when they were attacked by a squadron of five German planes. Seeing they were up against impossible odds, the other aircraft escaped to safety but Sturtevant decided to stay and fight the enemy. He was able to bring down two enemy aircraft, but the German squadron called for reinforcements. Soon he found himself fighting 16 planes and was last seen was falling toward the sea. No trace of the aircraft or crew was ever found.
By September of 1939, the world was preparing for yet another war and the Sturtevant was recommissioned for a final time to escort convoys in the North Atlantic. She worked anti-submarine patrol from the Caribbean Sea to the North Atlantic. Soon after the US entered WWII, the Sturtevant went into the yard for maintainence and was assigned a new commanding officer, Lt. C. L. Weigle.
Her first wartime assignment was to escort a convoy across the icy waters of the North Atlantic in January of 1942. While that voyage was relatively uneventful, the mood aboard the ship was much more serious than that in previous missions. With the US as a combatant, the Sturtevant was a target of the submarines and not merely a neutral escort ship. Not only was she a hunter, but also became one of the hunted.
At this time, anti-submarine warefare had not matured and the subs had a distinct advantage. At night, they would stay on the surface under cloak of darkness watching for prey. During the day, they would run at periscope depth, unseen, ready to fire torpedoes at the convoys and the ships guarding them. Thus large ships, such as the Sturtevant were easy targets, but the subs remained undetected stalkers.
After war was declared, the mood aboard the Sturtevant and other ships changed dramatically. While the Sturtevant had firepower such as three inch deck guns, torpedoes, depth charges and anti-aircraft guns, the crew had to first find the enemy. Destroyer class ships were equipped with sonar, but it was only effective to a couple of thousand feet from the ship. When it worked. At the time sonar was new technology and it was very cranky. Often it didn't work at all and when it did work, it sometimes couldn't detect subs. Because of all these factors the crew was extremely watchful perhaps to the point of being on edge.
After a second convoy assignment in the cold North Atlantic winter, the Sturtevant was assigned to accompany a convoy of ships from New York bound for the Panama Canal. After that assignment she was assigned to lone patrol for subs from the Straits of Florida to Peurto Rico. In addition she rescued 38 survivors from the Catahoula, and 39 survivors from the Comol Rico, both American tankers that had been sunk by German submarines. Then there was an incident that caused a problem with the the starboard engine that had to be resolved by being hauled.
She went to the marine railway in Key West where repairs were made and needed maintainence was performed. She was launched and spent some time tied to the dock where 24 hour a day work continued to put the ship back in shape to continue her duties. At night the Miantonomah (CM-10), a mine laying ship, would raft alongside and then put to sea early each morning.
At 3:20 PM on April 26th the Sturtevant was finally ready to get underweigh on her next assignment to escort a convoy out of New Orleans. Since her departure was a day behind schedule, Capt. Weigle ordered the ship to procede directly to New Orleans at 27 Knots as soon as she cleared the sea buoy.
Early in the war at least five of the Sturtevant's sister ships were lost. During a previous stint in the yard for the Sturtevant, the Ruben James (DD245) was standing in on convoy duty and was sunk by a German sub with the loss of 115 men on October 31th 1941. The Truxton (DD229) foundered off Placentia Bay, Newfoundland on February 18th 1942 resulting in the loss of 110 men. The Jacob Jones (DD130) was sunk by a German Sub off Ambrose Light NY leaving only 12 survivors. In the pacific the Peary (DD226) was sunk by Japanese air attacks on February 19th 1942. Then on March 1st the USS Pillsbury (DD227) was sunk in a battle with Japanese ships with the loss of all hands.
Crews aboard ships like the Sturtevant were well aware of these incidents and knew their ships were sitting ducks for submarines. Often subs would sit outside of harbors and await ships leaving port, so the crew of the Sturtevant was at a state of constant vigilance from the very start of the voyage. Soon after clearing the Northwest Channel sea buoy an explosion just astern of the ship lifted her out of the water throwing the crew into the air or against bulkheads.
Since submarine attack was on the mind of the crew, Capt. Weigle ordered General Quarters, lowered the speed of the ship and turned back to engage the enemy. Two depth charges were dropped immediately and two more were dropped soon after. The initial explosion had dammaged all sonar and communications gear so she was hunting blind and unable to call for backup. Another explosion rocked the ship amidships, causing the number 3 stack to collapse. Men coming up on deck to answer the General Quarters found that the ship was now beginning to sink. A third explosion broke the keel of the ship and there was no other option than for the Captain to order Abandon Ship.
The ship sank as men were still coming up from below decks. One of the lifeboats was damaged, but another was deployed and loaded with the most seriously wounded sailors. The liferafts and cork floats were freed and survivors clung to them. The ship broke into three pieces and the mid section settled on the bottom first followed within a few minutes by the stern section leaving the bow afloat for several hours.
Thirteen members of the crew never made it out of the ship. The men in the fire room that was hit in one of the explosions were either killed instantly or died in the maze of twisted steel and inrushing sea. Others in the engineering sections had no time to make it on deck before the midsection sank.
The prospects of the sailors who did make it into the water were not very good. There had been no chance to send a distress call so nobody knew of the fate of the Sturtevant. She had just resupplied, so more than 90,000 gallons of Bunker C fuel was now leaking from tanks and covering the sea, sailors and everything floating on the ocean. The gooey mess made it difficult to hold on to the liferafts and floats. The men all remembered the lessons about what to do should the fuel catch fire and only hoped the technique would actually work. Fortunately, the fuel never ignited.
The large slick did have one great advantage. A Coast Guard patrol plane spotted the slick late in the afternoon and called in a distress message. When the news reached the Key West waterfront rescue ships got underweigh to go to the assistance of yet another sunken ship. It took almost five hours after the sinking for the first rescuers to arrive on the scene. They found 136 men covered in black fuel oil. Some of the survivors were badly injured and four more died within a few days. Others were taken to the Navy base and bathed in mineral spirits to get rid of the thick oil on their skin.
"Did you know you were in a minefield?"
"No, we had no idea." But it wasn't for lack of trying. Capt. Weigle had made every effort to get the latest information, charts and communiques from Operations. He even made a final call from the pier for last minute instructions before departure. It was ironic that the Miantonomah, the vessel that rafted next to the Sturtevant each night, was the very ship laying the mines that sank the destroyer.
"Loose lips sink ships"
Due to the hush-hush atmosphere that arrived with war, the location (or even the existance) of the minefield was considered to be secret information. Sailors aboard the Minelayer never spoke of their work. Charts were issued without the location of the minefield being marked. It was perhaps assumed that navigators would mark their own charts. But in the climate of secrecy how would those navigators find out about such dangers? The Officers in Operations never spoke about the minefield. The captain was not notified even though they knew that he would have to pass through the minefield on his way to New Orleans meet the next convoy.
Lessons Not Learned
For a minefield to be effective friendly craft need a way to safely navigate the area while keeping the enemy at bay. The great failure of the field north of Key West was that allied shipping was not informed about its existance. The Sturtevant was the first allied casualty of the minefield, but soon other friendly shipping interests would be ensnared in its deadly web. The Sturtevant was sunk on April 26th so it would stand to reason that the Navy would be aware that they needed to notify all allied ships traveling through the area about the minefield.
But just a month and a half later the Gunvor, a 278 foot Norwegian Freighter enroute from Mobile, AL to Trinidad with a load of general cargo strayed into the minefield and was sunk. Of course that accident should have alerted the Navy of the need to let friendly shipping know about the dangers of the Key West Minefield. Apparently not. Less than a week later the 322 foot freighter Bosiljka enroute from New Orleans to Key West with a cargo of pharmaceuticals was sunk after straying into the minefield. Then on the second of July 1942 the Edward Lukenbach, a 436 foot American Freighter, enroute from Jamaica to New Orleans was sunk by the Key West minefield. The cargo aboard the Luckenbach included 10,000 tons of tungsten. The tungsten in the cargo was about 15% of the worlds supply and critical to the Allied war effort. Although we lost four allied ships in the Key West minefield, there is no record of any of the enemy’s vessels being sunk or damaged in any the Navy’s defensive minefields.
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The backcountry of the Keys constitutes a veritible maritime nursery that includes mangroves and seagrass beds that are home to a diversity of juvenile fish, invertebrates and other marine life. The Everglades provides an important flow of water into this ecosystem. Many of the species that spend their juvenile years in the Keys backcountry nursery are the same species that spend their adult years living on the nearby coral reef or swimming in the deep ocean environment.