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Deaths in the Line of Duty


NUWC Division Newport honors 32 men who died in service to their country while working at NUWC’s predecessor organizations, the Naval Torpedo Station, Newport; the Naval Underwater Ordnance Station, and the Naval Underwater Weapons Research and Engineering Station.

Employees names are memorialized on a monument located on the Division Newport campus. Each employee died in accidents from 1874 through the late 1960s and most of those killed were involved in four incidents:

• A guncotton fire at the Naval Torpedo Station claimed three lives in 1893;
• during World War I, 15 men died in two separate explosions in 1918, the first claiming 13 men and the second two;

• five men died as a result of a propellant explosion in 1955 at the Naval Underwater Ordnance Station; and
• others died in individual accidents, including a plane crash.

The monument was originally erected in 1930 at Government Landing in downtown Newport under the auspices of the Newport Metal Trades Council. In 1966, the memorial was relocated to its current location.

The Naval Torpedo Station was established on Newport's Goat Island in 1869 with the mission of testing and development of both torpedoes and the parts required for production. One of the components was an explosive called guncotton. Tests conducted in Newport found this substance to be a suitable replacement for gunpowder in torpedo warheads.

A brief background of the incidents follows, as well as information, what could be found, about each man killed:

In 1874, Patrick H. Cremin died in the line of duty. On Aug. 29, 1881, Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Long Edes and Lt. Lyman G. Spalding were killed by the explosion of a torpedo because of mismanagement of an electrical switch.

1893 Explosion

On Nov. 2, 1882, the station was ordered to manufacture guncotton for the Navy. Full scale production was reached in 1884, and 10,000 pounds were produced with a staff of five. The explosive was widely used in torpedoes until 1912. Working with explosives of any kind can be a dangerous undertaking. This was evident on July 3, 1893, when an explosion wiped out the Naval Torpedo Station guncotton factory. The explosion was found to be caused by a fire that originated in the “picked-cotton room” where a machine picked apart raw English cotton. A foreign object in the cotton struck the teeth of the picker resulting in a spark that ignited the cotton. This fire spread through the wire netting in the top half of the door to loose cotton in the hallway. A first-class laborer who was operating the picking machine was alerted to the fire in the hall by a noise that resembled a door flying open and striking something. After discovering the fire, he alerted the other staff to the situation by shouting "fire," and informed factory foreman Jeremiah Harrington. The fire spread to neighboring rooms and ignited a tank of dry guncotton. Thirteen individuals were working a hose attempting to fight the fire on the north end of the building when a resulting explosion injured 10 and killed three men, including Harrington.

Jeremiah Harrington, Frank Loughlin and Michael O’Reagan died in the line of duty.

1918 Explosions

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare policy constituted the main threat to the Navy. Development of effective antisubmarine warfare countermeasures received highest priority. Torpedo research and development virtually ceased; production of depth charges, aerial bombs, and mines soared. The Torpedo Station's mission reflected this program shift. Wartime conditions drastically affected Torpedo Station operations, which were already responding to developments in Europe. An increased production capability requiring a greatly expanded workforce (both active duty and civilian) brought operating problems. Production demands imposed additional training requirements, particularly in regard to handling volatile materials. Physical facilities underwent rapid expansion as plant buildings and quarters sprung up on the island. For the first time, women were added to the station workforce and by November 1918 there were over 3,000 on the payroll.

In January 1918, the station was rocked by an explosion in No. 2 Workroom. Though not the first such incident in the station's history, it was of major proportion: 13 employees died in the blast and five were injured. The affected area contained the daily allotment of detonators to be filled with fulminate of mercury; these in turn were used as torpedo primers. The explosion collapsed the workroom and the victims, badly mutilated, had to be dug out.

Joe C. Andre, who lived off Pearl Street in Newport, was employed but a short time as a general helper and was in Compartment No. 1 at the time of the explosion. He was survived by a wife and several small children.

William G. Caswell, lived at 75 Third St., Newport. He was an ordnance man, the sole support of his mother, and a member of R.I. Lodge of Odd Fellows.

John H. Connolly, who lived off Ayrault Street, was one of Newport's most prominent athletes excelling in basketball, being a member of Rogers championship teams and captaining the 1914-15 championship team. He had been employed in the magazine section only a few days.

Timothy F. Fitzgerald from Fall River, Mass., was a general helper, known by his fellow employees as "Red" because of the color of his hair.

Joseph Frazier of 28 Byrnes St., Newport, was a general helper. He was married only a few months and the son of Capt. Peter Frazier.

George L. Giblin from Fall River, Mass., was one of the young men in Compartment No. 2, where the explosion occurred. He was a general helper.

James Mahoney survived the blast but later died as a result of his injuries.

Joseph G. Moitozo lived at 45 Fenner Ave., Newport, and was a general helper and the father of seven small children. He had been employed at the Torpedo Station only a few days.

John F. Murphy lived at 15 King St., and was a well-known young Newporter who had been employed at the Torpedo Station but a few days.

Horace A. Pelletier from Fall River, Mass., was killed in the collapse of Compartment No. 2. He was a general helper.

George H. Spooner lived at 3 Conrad Court, Newport. It was his first winter of employment at the Torpedo Station after being connected for years with the local street railroad in which capacity he was best known. He was also a gardener at the Auchincloss and Whitehouse estates. He was survived by a wife and three children.

David J. Sullivan lived at 2 Lucas Ave., Newport. He was an ordnance man employed at the Torpedo Station and was known among his many acquaintances as a quiet young man and a conscientious worker. He had a brother who also worked the Station.

Frank E. Wyatt lived at 16 Brinley St., Newport. He was a general helper, employed at the Torpedo Station but a short time and a member of Excelsior Lodge of Odd Fellows.

Two men died in another explosion in May of 1918: Reginal S. King and Patrick F. Shea.

Other deaths

James E. Babcock from Westerly, R.I., died in 1919.

Frank Mazzulla passed away in 1931.

Arthur M. Gardner from Fall River, Mass., died in 1940.

Ralph A. St. Denis from Fall River, Mass., died in 1940.

Alexander C. MacLellan died in the line of duty in 1941.

Fidele Arsenault from Fall River, Mass., died in 1945.
 

1955 Explosion

Tribute was also paid to those who lost their lives in service to their country in an explosion in Building 115 at the Naval Underwater Ordnance Station on April 26, 1955. Eisenhower was president and the nation was deep into a Cold War. The U.S. was in the midst of conducting atomic civil defense testing in Survival City, Nev. Witnesses to the Newport blast seemed to be mindful of this when they described “a tremendous explosion ... with a shattering impact.” A cloud of debris shot a hundred feet into the air with a mushrooming effect which reminded some of an atomic blast in appearance. The April 27, 1955, Providence Journal reported “an earth-shaking explosion … ripped like a matchbox the reinforced concrete building … ” At the time of the accident, the entire naval facility was known as Naval Underwater Ordnance Station, which employed about 800.

The explosion in Building 115 occurred on a Tuesday morning at approximately 11 a.m. in a dynamometer test room at the end of the building at Coddington Cove, overlooking Ferry Landing. The blast is believed to have resulted from a high-pressure airline rupture while testing a high-energy monopropellant fuel, called normal propyl nitrate, in a modified Mark 16 Mod 3 torpedo. Normal propyl nitrate was known to have unstable properties much like nitroglycerine. The dynamometer room, which was at one end of the one-story, 200-foot long concrete block structure, was torn apart and the cement roof was ripped off. About 15 windows were blown out and three wooden doors were ripped from their hinges.

The initial report was four killed, one missing, and five injured. The death toll increased to five later that afternoon.

Peter J. Lada (at right), 37, from New Bedford, Mass., died in the line of duty.

John R. Lavender, 38, of Fall River, Mass., was an experimental machinist who had been employed by the Navy for 15 years. Survivors included a wife and son.

Howard E. Staats Jr., a Newport native, was a 34-year-old machinist who started at the Torpedo Station on Goat Island. He had served in the Navy during World War II. He had worked for the Navy for 14 years and left behind a wife and three children.

Daniel J. Sullivan of Newport, a machinist, toolmaker, and supervisor, had just celebrated his 62nd birthday the previous week. He was known in town as “Mecca Dan” and had worked for the Navy for 45 years. He had recently been cited for “outstanding achievements in accident prevention” by the Navy. He left behind a wife and daughter.

Anthony Zimon, 39, from New Bedford, Mass., died in the line of duty.

 

Randall J. Whitaker - In 1968, Whitaker was nearing the end of a 33-year career, the last years as a mechanical engineer in the Engineering Assurance Branch, Design Approval Department, when the plane carrying him home from an assignment to Washington crashed. Never satisfied with the way things were, always probing, trying to improve himself and his Station, Randy was a most capable, likable, dedicated man whose very presence alone was sufficient to ensure success in many undertakings.

EM1 L.W. Fletcher, USN – no date, died in the line of duty.

Jeff Prater, public affairs officer