ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
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Nightmare at Sea - photo of ship and map of Pacific Ocean with location designated

by  GEOFF S. FEIN


William Burnette with potted red amarylisIT DOES NOT APPEAR THAT ANYONE REALLY KNEW William Burnette. [ photo at right, 2002] Those who were acquainted with him said he was a loner, never married.

Burnette lived in his Cutten home, with his mother, for more than 20 years. She died in 1989. His father married three times. Burnette, however, didn't keep in touch with most of his relatives.

He did stay in phone contact with Peggy Winstead, a step-niece in Florida. Even though he'd call a few times a month, Burnette never talked about himself other than mentioning the get-rich-quick sweepstakes he was constantly entering, recalled Ed Winstead, Peggy's husband.

Burnette, 77, died in his Cutten home in June. He left his estate to Peggy and Ed's son, Gary. Peggy and Ed came out to California to take care of Burnette's funeral arrangements and to go through his possessions.

Burnette had a lot of possessions. His home was filled with more than 400 video movies, hundreds of photographs, a large collection of tin boxes and vintage whiskey bottles.

Some of Burnette's photos are stored in a 50-gallon drum at the Humboldt County Coroner's office. Coroner Frank Jager said he plans to ship them to the Winsteads. Some of Burnette's belongings were sold at an estate sale.

Steve D'Agati, a Eureka resident, bought two photo albums and a stopwatch belonging to Burnette at the sale. What caught D'Agati's eye was the writing on the outside of the envelope that held the stopwatch.

W. L. Burnette, 3rd Mate, S/S Badger State. Stop watch that was saved when S/S Badger State was abandon (sic) in mid Pacific Ocean Dec. 26-1969 Approx. 1000 +11 zone time following a bomb explosion & fire in #5 hatch. Ship abandon (sic) in storm. 26 men lost -- 14 men saved by Greek MV Khian Star.

stopwatchD'Agati did an Internet search on the SS Badger State. He combed through the scrap books. He learned about the ship, a munitions boat bound for Vietnam; how its crew worked frantically to limit the damage when its deadly cargo came loose in heavy seas; what happened when it started taking on water and tiny lifeboats were lowered into the cold waters of the North Pacific.

"I thought it was a story that should be told," D'Agati said.

A forgotten disaster

But it's a tough story to tell. Burnette's former shipmates, the ones who survived the wreck, could not be found. Some have likely died, perhaps all. The only record that seems to remain of one of the worst wrecks in the U.S. Merchant Marine's shipping history are yellowed newspaper clippings and a 44-page U.S. Coast Guard report.

Burnette's story makes reality TV shows, such as Survivor, look like a holiday. He was one of just 14 out of a crew of 40 aboard the Badger State to survive. Of the 26 who lost their lives, only one body was recovered. The cargo ship was hauling 8,900 bombs (with an estimated value of $10 million in 1969 dollars) from Bangor, Wash., to DaNang, Vietnam, in December 1969. The ship sank in rough seas about 1,600 miles from Hawaii.

It was one of four ammunition ships making the nine-day voyage to Vietnam. All but the Badger State reached their destination.

Those are the stark facts. But they barely hint at the terror and desperation the crew must have felt as, for almost a week, they battled to keep the Badger State afloat in 20-foot waves and to somehow prevent the bombs rolling underneath their feet from exploding.

How Burnette felt about being one of the last men pulled from the ocean on Dec. 26, 1969, is a mystery. The Winsteads said he never talked about it. He evidently never wrote about it either, as no journals are to be found in the possessions he left behind.

In 1969, Burnette was a Merchant Marine. The Merchant Marines serve as support for the military during times of war or national emergency, and with the quagmire that was Vietnam deepening, 1969 was obviously a time of war. The idea was cooked up by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938. He envisioned it as a way to get supplies to Europe during World War II.

Burnette had been with the service for most of his adult life, Ed Winstead said.

"He was dedicated to the Merchant Marines," Winstead said.

One of the benefits of being a Merchant Marine is the opportunity to travel the world. Burnette had done that, Winstead said.

San Francisco Examiner clipping
1970 article from Willie Burnette's scrapbook.
Caption reads: "This photo showing the ammunition ship Badger listing sharply in heavy Pacific seas,
was introduced yesterday in a Coast Guard hearing into the loss of the vessel with 26 lives early this month.
The ship's skipper and the first engineer told the hearing at Seattle that faulty loading
of the cargo caused a number of 2000-pound bombs to roll loose.
An explosion followed but the ship stayed afloat for about 10 days. Fourteen members of the crew survived."

 

Doubts about the cargo

Undoubtedly his most perilous experience began on Dec. 9, 1969, when the SS Badger State took on cargo at the Bangor Naval Ammunition Depot in Washington State. The ship was transporting the equivalent of 2,000 tons of TNT to the U.S. Air Force in South Vietnam.

Bangor, near the Hood Canal, had been the Navy's ammunition depot during World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars. (In 1973 the facility became the home port for the U.S. Navy's ballistic missile submarine fleet.)

The Badger State was chartered by the Military Sea Transportation Service. Commercial ships were often chartered by the MSTS, a division of the U.S. Navy, to carry almost all of the supplies used by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. The Badger State was originally commissioned in 1944 as the USS Starlight, a troop transport ship.

Burnette was one of the crew responsible for making sure the cargo was properly secured. As he would later testify during the Coast Guard investigation, the cargo in his view was solidly packed and shored. However, testimony from other crew members cast doubt on whether longshoremen at Bangor had properly loaded the cargo in the first place; it was also claimed that shoring efforts conducted after the ship hit bad weather were carried out by seamen who were not properly supervised and who lacked special training for such work.

Before the ship left Bangor, Capt. Charles T. Wilson expressed concern that the weight of the cargo -- 5,000 tons -- was too small to give the ship a steady ride. He asked for additional cargo -- at least 4,000 more pounds -- but was advised there was none. The cargo ended up being spread among several holds, and measures were taken to further store and steady the cargo. Although depot personnel and the ship's crew differed on how best to shore up the bombs, it was determined that some measures, such as using metal bracing on the 2,000-pound bombs, were unnecessary.

The cargo consisted of unfused aerial bombs of 500-, 750-, and 2,000-pound size. In addition, the Badger State carried 10,640 barrels of fuel oil, 611 tons of water, nine tons of lubricating oils and 295 tons of lumber to help secure the cargo while at sea.

After five days of loading and inspections, the Badger State set sail the evening of Dec. 14, 1969. The ship's course would take it along a northern route across the Pacific toward the Aleutian Islands. The ship would then turn toward the southwest and head for the Luzon Straits -- between Formosa, now Taiwan -- and the northernmost island in the Philippines.

The bombs come loose

On Dec. 15, the ship encountered heavy seas about 1,500 miles northeast of Hawaii. With 15-foot waves pounding the ship's hull, it became clear that this was going to be an eventful mission.

The crew was told to shore up the cargo to keep the ship from rolling. On Dec. 16, Capt. Wilson ordered a shift in the ship's course southward in a bid to escape the weather. The crew, however, was unable to comply because the ship was rolling so severely -- as much as 45 degrees. To make matters worse, the steering gear began to leak hydraulic fluid. A 90-minute repair was conducted, during which time the ship continued to roll violently. That evening, bombs in the No. 3 hold came loose and began to shift. The crew worked around the clock for two days to stabilize the moving cargo.

On Dec. 19 the ship was slowed to 13 knots to allow the crew to mix cement and use it to patch several small holes in the hull. Although some water was leaking through these holes, the ship was in no danger of sinking. Once the repairs were made, the problem was of no further concern to the crew, according to the Coast Guard investigation.

By the time the ship reached Adak Island (in Alaska's Aleutian Island chain, about halfway between Seattle and Japan), where it was to change course toward the southeast, the crew was working to shore up the cargo in all of the holds.

Bombs of all sizes were now moving about. As the day wore on and the ship's rolling continued, Wilson wanted to take the Badger State in a more southerly route. But Fleet Weather Central, the Navy's Pacific weather office based in Alameda, Calif., told Wilson he should see improved weather conditions if the ship maintained its westerly route.

But the weather didn't improve and the Badger State continued to battle 20- to 40-foot seas. Eventually, the crew could hear the sound of metal banging on metal coming from cargo hold three. However, because earlier efforts at stabilizing the cargo had effectively blocked access to the hold, it was now impossible to get in and inspect it. It wasn't long before all the cargo holds were in need of shoring up, but there was little material left on board to use.

Wilson made the first of several requests to sail to a safe port so that the cargo could be resecured. He was told to head for Pearl Harbor, about 1,600 miles to the southeast. Although the rolling began to subside, Wilson reported bombs were still coming loose. He said an escort ship might be needed should the situation aboard the Badger State deteriorate further.

A black Christmas

Wilson and his crew never made it to Pearl Harbor. In the early morning of Dec. 25, Christmas Day, a storm that was not predicted passed directly over the Badger State. Hurricane-force winds and violent seas began to batter the ship.

The Badger State began to roll heavily, tipping as far as 50 degrees (about the same as tilting your head to get water out of your ear). The bombs in all the holds came loose. Wilson was ordered to divert his course toward Midway Island.

The SS Flying Dragon en route from Japan to Long Beach, was sent to intercept and help out. But by late evening on Dec. 25, strong gale-force winds kept the Badger State from changing course.

Within a few hours a second surprise storm hit the Badger State. The seas were so violent that at times the ship was almost rolled onto its side. The ship was getting hammered. A large wave damaged one lifeboat, rendering it useless. The shoring and bracing that was supposed to keep the bombs in one place began to fail. As they rolled about, the steel noses of the biggest bombs -- the 2,000-pounders -- began to pierce the hull. Lumber used to shore up the bombs began to break and splinter. It was only a matter of time, Wilson thought, before the bombs started going off.

Wilson ordered the crew to use whatever nonflammable material was aboard to keep the bombs stationary: sofa cushions, spare insulation, mattresses, rags, frozen meats, spare life jackets -- all were tossed into the holds. The crews' efforts worked for a short time, but the relentless rolling made it impossible to keep the bombs motionless.

Crew members looking down into the holds could see sparks from the bombs as they rolled across the floor.

"Bombs were all over. It was the most awesome sight I've ever seen in my life; like a pit of deadly snakes. Every time a bomb would hit the side of the ship I'd shudder," crewman James Beatty told Coast Guard investigators.

Wilson saw the situation was hopeless. Because of the violent pitching of the ship and the efforts to secure the bombs, sleep was almost impossible. Wilson himself had been up for four days. He sent out an SOS.

A fatal blow

Wilson's distress call activated an alarm aboard the Khian Star, a Greek freighter headed for Japan. The Greek ship was about 35 to 40 miles away from the Badger State. Captain Evangelos Niros radioed he would assist the Badger State. Still, Wilson altered the ship's course toward Midway Island -- and away from the potential rescue ship -- evidently deciding that the top priority was to make it to a safe port.

The Khian StarWith worsening weather conditions, Wilson ordered the crew off the deck. Ten minutes after one more attempt to shore up the bombs, one of the 2,000-pounders partially detonated.

Because the bomb did not fully explode, it didn't set off a chain reaction that would have blown the ship sky-high. But it was strong enough to blow all the cargo hatches off, send burning debris onto the deck and blow a 12- by 8 -foot hole in the starboard section of the hull.

"I was stunned, waiting for the rest of the explosion. When you're riding on [thousands of bombs] and part of it goes, how is it the rest doesn't go?" wondered Steven Bordash, one of the Badger State's engineers, during the hearing into the accident.

Expert testimony given at the Coast Guard inquiry and contained within the agency's report indicated that, "if the detonation were not of low order, the most probable result would have been the complete destruction of the vessel as the adjacent bombs detonated. Even the explosion of the other 2,000-pound bombs would have resulted in the complete destruction of the vessel's stern section."

Below are some of the messages sent by Captain Wilson of the SS Badger State to State Marine Lines (owner of the ship). The messages were received by the SS Columbia Beaver that was 1,000 miles from the Badger State's location.

"All hope for further survivors now non-existent. "

"Five men that were staying on board with me/ Chief Mate Leonard Cobbs/Second Mate Robert Ziehm/Third Mate William Burnette/Able Seaman Ed Hottendorf/and FWT Sam Keneso assisted launching lifeboat and seeing that all hands were clear. We took to the sea swimming in an attempt to make the rescue ship. Three of us made it -- myself/third Mate and FWT. "

" I do not have the authority to destroy my own ship or and I won't order it sunk now. It's a floating time bomb. "

Abandon ship

Facing continued severe weather and the possibility of additional explosions, Wilson ordered the crew to abandon ship. Bordash shut down the engine room and the crew threw on their life jackets. Thirty-five men climbed into the starboard lifeboat. Fighting high winds and thrashing seas, Wilson, Burnette and three others tried to lower the lifeboat. A 30- to 40-foot wave, however, threw the lifeboat up against the Badger State, causing electrician Konstantinos Mpountalis to be seriously injured. He received a six-inch gash on his leg when he struck the jagged hole created by the explosion.

Incredibly, as the lifeboat dropped closer to the ocean, a 2,000-pound bomb fell through the hole and landed in it. The men dove into the water as the lifeboat capsized. Burnette, Wilson and the three remaining men on the Badger State never saw what happened. They had no idea 35 of their shipmates were adrift in the high seas.

Burnette eventually saw some men in the water on the starboard side of the ship, and threw them life preservers, according to a Coast Guard report.

Attempts to launch inflatable rafts failed as hurricane-strength winds blew the rafts out of reach of the men in the water.

Burnette, Wilson and the others donned life jackets, life preservers and jumped overboard into 20-foot seas and 50-degree water.

Burnette would later testify that had he only taken his life jacket he didn't think he would have survived.

A valiant rescue

When the Khian Star arrived, some men were clinging to the overturned lifeboat, while others were trying to swim toward the rescue ship, or toward any object they could hold on to. Many were simply swept away by the huge waves.

Ioanis Kantzilakis, a crewman from the Khian Star, jumped into the ocean to rescue a Badger State crewman. But the crewman was already dead and Kantzilakis could not bring the body aboard by himself.

A U.S. Air Force rescue airplane arrived on the scene and attempted to drop six lifeboats, packaged food, medicine and radios to the men. High winds swept five of the lifeboats out of reach. But George Henderson, a Badger State crewman, was able to grab hold of the sixth lifeboat and help six men climb into it. Three were eventually saved by the Khian Star.

The men who were in the water suddenly found themselves fighting more than the seas as albatrosses began attacking them. Like dive bombers, the large seabirds swooped in and pecked at the men's eyes and heads. The men used their fists to repel the onslaught. Even their life jackets started turning on them. The agitation of the water was so intense that the jackets rode up the backs of the men who were exhausted or unconscious, pushing their heads down into the water. Many of those who perished were found floating face down.

The Khian Star was able to rescue eight men who were clinging to the capsized lifeboat. Five others were pulled from the water -- Burnette and Wilson among them. One man was found -- alive -- floating five miles from the Badger State. The remaining 25 crewmen were presumed to have drowned (a 26th died after being rescued).

Too dangerous to salvage

The Khian Star, with its own crew and the 14 Badger State survivors, headed for Japan.

The USS Abnaki, a Navy fleet tugboat with an ordnance team aboard, was sent from Pearl Harbor to try to salvage the Badger State and its cargo. Meantime, Air Force and Coast Guard planes methodically searched an 8,000-square-mile area for survivors, but never found any. The SS Flying Dragon arrived on the scene and conducted its own search. The crew eventually recovered the body of Badger State seaman John Kaleiwahea. By Dec. 28, up to seven ships were searching for survivors. Coast Guard pilots told of seeing an orange glow on the Badger State.

By the time the Abnaki got to the ship, its crew was seeing flashes emanating from it. The Navy decided not to make any attempt to recover the ship's cargo. By Jan. 2, the Badger State began to sink. Fearing a large-scale explosion, the Abnaki moved about a mile away from the Badger State, and warned passing ships to steer clear. By Jan. 3, the Abnaki withdrew to seven miles from the Badger State. Two days later, the crew of the Abnaki recovered debris from the Badger State, confirming that the ship, rather than exploding, had sunk.

Within months, an investigation was begun. Burnette, Wilson and 11 other survivors testified about a variety of things, including how the ship's cargo was loaded and stored, the horrendous weather and the bravery of the crew of the Khian Star.

A key issue, of course, was the cargo -- did the bombs come loose because they were improperly loaded in port and then inadequately shored up at sea? Or was the weather so terrible that the bombs would have started rolling around no matter what?

A 44-page report on the disaster based on the Coast Guard investigation as well as one by the National Transportation Safety Board came out almost two years after the disaster. It cited a series of "causal factors": the bombs, loaded on pallets, were buttressed in such a way that if a single wedge or block came loose, a whole row of pallets would be released; the lack of a full load of cargo made the ship more vulnerable to rocking by waves; the unusual severity of the storms of Dec. 25 and 26; the inability of Fleet Weather Central to forecast those storms.

No single individual or group was blamed for the catastrophe. While the report concluded that the disaster may have been averted if Wilson "had returned to port or sought shelter as soon as the cargo started to shift," his decision to continue the voyage after initial shoring efforts proved successful was "reasonable." Throughout the ordeal, his actions, as well as those of his crew, "were in the best traditions of the sea," the report found.

A memorable estate sale

As with any disaster, various lessons can be drawn from this one -- a flippant one being never get on a ship that's carrying bombs. Another lesson, one made clear not by the disaster itself but by D'Agati's purchase, is that you never know what you're going to find at an estate sale.

Burnette may have been the last known survivor of the disaster. When he died seven months ago, the story of the crew's desperate attempts to save the doomed freighter could have faded further into obscurity. But D'Agati appeared on the scene, intrigued by some writing on an envelope that held a stopwatch and a couple of photo albums with their old faded news clips and unmarked photos. And so the harrowing story of the SS Badger State lives again.

Below left, SS Badger Third Mate Willie Burnette demonstrates the use of the lifejacket that saved his life.
In the other photo, Burnette, far left, stands on bridge of Khian Star with some of other survivors of the SS Badger State.

Fourth from the left in photo below, is Capt. Evangelos Niros, M/V Shian Star standing next to
Willie L. Burnette (3rd Officer, SS Badger State)


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