Stranding & Loss of USS Memphis, 1916

A rousing good eyewitness sea (or seashore anyway) story involving a lot of professional mariner issues both on deck and, later in other historical comment, in court! Interesting to read alongside our current news and analysis of disasters at sea. From the USNI Archives column (originally published in 1916).

Also a link to an interesting analysis of historical data that suggests that the contemporary generally accepted cause of tsunami was not correct. The author makes a good case for a hurricane passing to the south as the culprit. The captain was court martialed and convicted, but only punished by loss of 20 places in the officer’s list, later reduced to 5 by the Secty. of the Navy! Argument has gone on to the present day about what the ultimate cause actually was.

Interesting that the Skipper of the Memphis (Edward L. Beach, Sr.), beside being a distinguished naval officer, was the author of a series of seafaring books for boys, and the father of a namesake son who went on to an even more illustrious career as a submariner in WW2 and later. Capt. Beach, Jr. was, among other things, the author of “Run Silent, Run Deep”, still probably the best book about the US subs in the Pacific. The junior Capt. Beach also authored a book on the Memphis loss that strongly concluded that the root cause WAS a tsunami, which the second link’s author seems to soundly debunk.

Just some short summer reading!

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Welcome back, haven’t heard from you in a while.
I experienced the same type of surface conditions while steaming west off of Rose Spit at the north end the Queen Charlotte Islands, now Haida Gwaii.
Zero wind, eerily quiet as we battled extremely steep swells as high as the length of our 40’ gillnetter. They were the leftovers from a hurricane strength storm that had hit much farther west in the Gulf of Alaska.
We couldn’t turn around so we had to keep plowing on. Each approaching wall of water looked as if it might topple our underpowered boat if we didn’t meet it just right. More than a few of those broke over us temporarily submerging us. I worried that the wheelhouse windows would break but we made to deeper water without incident where it wasn’t so bad.


My father sailed with CDR (as was) Beach Jr on the maiden voyage of the postwar Trigger (SS-564) with its infamous “pancake” engines. They had to collect the leaking oil, centrifuge it, and put it back in the engine in order to make it home from Rio de Janeiro. CDR Beach’s report about the insufficiency of the engines was not well received, Dad said. At first, anyway.

That spurred me to read this:

Interesting stuff. You don’t happen to know if said report is available somewhere? It should make interesting reading.

Back on topic: That’s an entertaining read in the OP. I’ll get around to your second link eventually, but so far there’s little to suggest that the captain was at fault.

Given the primitive state of weather observation and reporting still prevailing in 1916, I would agree. The skipper obviously knew it was hurricane season and was at an elevated awareness and preparation status because of that. Given what was knowable in that era and at that location, that’s about all that could be expected.

The fact that, in the absence of local wind, everyone post incident assumed that a tsunami must have been the source of the swells, speaks to that. I suppose fishermen and merchant skippers working in the region were probably exchanging information about the heightened number of tropical storms passing through the Caribbean that year (see second link), but a Navy cruiser on extended anchor duty was probably totally unaware of any chatter like that.

Capt, Beach’s reputation undoubtedly did him some good in the court martial, but he did lose a ship while he was skipper, so some penalty HAD to be exacted. The fact that the sentence was relatively minimal, and later reduced by the Sec. of the Navy I think reflects the general acceptance of the fact that nobody at the time really had any idea what had caused the sudden swells!

Of course, the fact that he only had 2 boilers lit, for which he was criticized, was the direct result of being admonished about economy by his Admiral. But according to the time honored, “It runs DOWNHILL ONLY” rule, THAT was never going to come up in the inquiry!

PS: re the “report available elsewhere?” question: on that USNI page where you read the transcription of the original article, there should be a link to a .pdf image file of the actual article, with photos, from the 1916 issue of “Naval Institute Proceedings.” Because I found the story so interesting, I did a little research beyond that, starting with the Wikipedia entry on the “sinking of the USS Memphis.” That Wikipedia entry, and also the biographical one on Edward L. Beach, Sr., has some very interesting and worthwhile reference links, many of which you can follow to other articles on the topic. That’s where I came up with that Greek marine civil engineer’s article where he debunks the tsunami theory and analyzes the weather history of the hurricane season of 1916. Several places I saw reference to a book, “Extreme Waves” by Craig Smith, but I haven’t had time to look into that. Apparently he analyzed the Memphis incident and is quoted several places in support of the “distant, additive swell” theory.


If he had a copy he didn’t leave it with his papers when he died.

The investigating report mentioned this:

The captain of the ship, Captain Edward L. Beach Sr., should have given the order to raise the steam to power the engines earlier; anchored Memphis in a safer anchorage; and taken steps to save the ship and recognized the emergency sooner.

An interesting analysis can be found here

Thus the huge wave must have begun breaking when it reached a depth of 89.6 feet. Had the Memphis been anchored in deeper water, like 120 feet instead of 55 feet, the entire disaster would have been prevented. The ship would not have sustained the earlier flooding of the engine room through the ventilators by the earlier waves and it would have been able to raise steam and sail to deeper water in a timely fashion. Alternatively, if the Memphis had been anchored in 100 or better 120 feet of water - instead of 55 feet - it would have been able to ride all the swells, including the huge 70 foot wave, without a problem.

One wonders why the captain anchored so close to the shore on what seemed to be a rather dangerous location. The anchorage at Santo Domingo City is very restricted, and there is no protection from east to west through south. The westerly current caused the ship to ride, heading east. The anchorage is on a narrow shelf or ledge. This ledge is so narrow that the 10-fathom curve is but a few yards inside of the 100-fathom curve.

The danger of such an anchorage had been fully realized and everything was habitually kept in readiness to get under way upon short notice. Forty-five minutes was the time within which the ship could get wider way with plenty of power available. What was the need to anchor in such a dangerous location?

It never crossed my mind to anchor there. Maybe the rusted remains of an unfortunate ships main engine on the reef on the port side of the channel had something to do with it.

??? Couple hundred sailors on ‘floating jail’, lots of beer and women within smelling distance. in what seemed a no issue anchorage. Nope, I can’t think of a reason why you’d want to be close…

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83 officers, 804 enlisted, 64 marines according to wikipedia.

The answer is in the article:
A great deal of boating was necessary, and it had been found advantageous to anchor as far to the eastward as practicable in order, to get what lee we could from the point on the Duarte side of the Ozama River.

Even in 1916 a lot of ship to shore traffic was by oared boats, The article mentioned a “motor sailer” boat being used for this work, but there would have still been a lot of rowing back and forth in whale boat/gig/launch. Perhaps more influential yet was the mindset of officers who spent most of their careers going ashore under oars, and who likely based their anchoring decision on this mindset.

You try to anchor the ship close to land because a whale boat/gig/launch under oars is damn slow and much more susceptible to wind and current than a boat with a motor (under oars you travel at a blistering two knots). I think that’s the reason “get what lee we could from the point” is mentioned. The lee isn’t to prevent the ship from dragging anchor as much as it is to make the handling of small boats safer.

Note that the first casualties were in the “motor sailer” boat.


I concur with your explanation, that does explain the risky anchoring location. During my nautical school time we received training in handling and rowing lifeboats to obtain a certificate which was a compulsory part of the education. Althoug fun that was heavy stuff as I remember and those boats were probably smaller than those of the Memphis.

We also used to race each other with small boats with sculling, moving a single oar over the stern.

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