Orleans Veterans Honor 50th Anniversary Of Naval Ship Explosion

By: Ryan Bray

Topics: Veterans

From left to right, Jon Fuller, Bob Summersgill and John Murphy gathered at the Orleans Community Center Sunday afternoon to honor the 50th anniversary of the disabling of the USS Warrington (DD-843) by an underwater ordnance. All three men served aboard the Warrington at different times, while Fuller was aboard the ship during the explosion. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

ORLEANS – You should know that the following is not a fairy tale, but rather a sea story.

“A fairy tale begins ‘Once upon a time,’” said Orleans resident Jon Fuller, who in addition to four years of active duty with the US Navy later spent 27 years in the Naval Reserves. “A sea story begins with ‘This ain’t no lie.’”

It’s an apt qualifier for the story of the USS Warrington (DD-843), the decommissioned Naval destroyer that was severely damaged when it struck underwater ordnance off the shores of Vietnam on July 17, 1972.

Fuller, who was aboard the ship at the time of the strike, lived to tell the tale, as did each of his shipmates.

This past Sunday, 50 years to the day of the strike, Fuller joined fellow Orleans residents John Murphy and Bob Summersgill in honoring the anniversary at the Orleans Community Center. The three men at different periods each served aboard the destroyer.

“None of the three of us overlapped at the same time, but then we all ended up living in Orleans,” said Summersgill, who was stationed to serve on the Warrington in 1965. “Fuller and I are about a mile apart from each other, and Murphy of course had the Land Ho! for a long time.”

Fuller recalls receiving notice that he was drafted into the Army just days after graduating from college. Instead, he enlisted to serve four years of active duty with the Navy. In November 1968, he arrived in Chicago for boot camp.

Later, he was stationed at a Naval auxiliary landing field in Monterey, Calif., before transferring to serve aboard the Warrington. In July 1972, the ship was traveling off the coast of Vietnam, where, as Fuller recalls, the crew was charged with intercepting a Chinese freight vessel that was shipping ordnance to North Vietnam.

“We were a little ways off of Haiphong Harbor and all of sudden there were two large explosions that actually lifted the ship out of the water,” he said.

The vibration made by the ship’s propeller caused two 500 pound acoustic bombs sitting underwater to explode. The bombs were meant for areas designated for the offloading of unused ordnance and explosives, but an American aircraft dropped them in the wrong coordinates, Fuller recalled.

A legal yeoman, Fuller had multiple jobs aboard the ship. At the time of the explosion, he was manning the ship’s post office, where he said one of the walls fell down as a result of the blast. He immediately left and went to general quarters on the ship’s bridge.

“In fact, there was $17,000 cash on the floor of the post office,” he said. “I just locked the door and headed there.”

Luckily, no one was killed or injured in the explosion. But damage to the Warrington’s keel caused it to take on more water than the crew could pump out.

“The captain said, and this is a quote, ‘It sounds like we’re sinking.’ And my reply was ‘Yes sir.’”

A salvage ship with a generator was deployed to bring power to the Warrington and tow it 800 miles to the Philippines. There the Warrington crew stayed until September 1972, when Fuller returned home to Orleans.

Murphy had gotten to know Fuller a bit before the latter enlisted in the Navy. During a trip home to Orleans, he told Murphy that he was called to report to the Warrington. Little did he know that Murphy served on the ship from 1959 to 1961.

“I didn’t see him again until he got home from Vietnam, then he told me what happened,” Murphy said.

“I remember feeling dumbstruck that it happened, and just this sort of jolt or horror, even though it had been a long time since I was on the ship,” Summersgill said of his reaction to hearing about the strike from a former shipmate. “I was just really relieved to find that nobody had been killed.”

Summersgill remembers how a tour of a destroyer he took as a child in Bristol, R.I. helped foster his interest in the Navy. Not ready to jump right into graduate school after finishing college, he enlisted and attended officer candidate school in Newport. After completing Navy Supply Corps School in Athens, Ga., he returned to Newport to serve on the Warrington, where at just 22 he was charged with heading the ship’s supply department.

“The first time that we set sail, going somewhere out in the North Atlantic, I felt like that eight-year-old or 10-year-old kid,” he said.

Looking back, the three friends say it’s the bonds and friendships they formed in the Navy, and the things they’ve learned through them, that still resonate the most.

“It’s a different life,” Murphy said. “It’s hard to explain. You’re living with these people 24/7 in a compartment.”

That bond has lived on between Fuller, Summersgill and Murphy for years. Summersgill first met Murphy at the Land Ho!, which Murphy opened at the corner of Main Street and Route 6A in 1969 after some time spent working in Boston.

“He was one of these people who just loved to come over and sit down,” Summersgill said of Murphy. “If you had a table of four and there were just three people sitting there, John would come and sit down and make sure everything was going OK.”

Murphy, who grew up in North Adams, remembers driving his friend to see a Naval recruiter in nearby Pittsfield. When all was said and done, Murphy enlisted to serve, while his friend didn’t.

A quartermaster of navigation, Murphy, an accomplished painter, also spent a lot of time painting on the Warrington at the request of the ship’s captain. When the Warrington was invited to join the crew of its sister ship, the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr (DD-850), to take part in the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in early 1961, Murphy was ordered to paint an emblem on the brow screens bordering the ship’s gangway.

He also was ordered to paint a plaque that was given to the President following the inauguration.
“I thought the plaque was going to hang on our quarterdeck,” he said.

A corner of the Land Ho! is decorated to honor the various branches of the US military. That includes a plaque of the Warrington, through which Fuller and Summersgill came to learn they served aboard the same ship.

“I was talking to [Bob] because we were friends,” Fuller said. “I said ‘Did you see the picture on the wall there?’ He went over and looked at it and said ‘I was on the Warrington too.’ It was strictly by chance that we discovered it, but we were all friends without knowing it.”

Fuller still has numerous mementos to remind him of his time on the Warrington. There’s a newspaper clipping reporting on the strike. He also brought the same hat he was wearing that day back to the Philippines to have the words “Dirty W” embroidered on the front and “July 17, 1972” on the back.

“I have to find it, but I still have it,” he said.

Last Sunday, the three friends gathered together to watch film Fuller had shot documenting the Warrington’s trip from Newport en route to Vietnam, minus a piece of the footage that was used as part of an investigation into what caused the ordnance strike.

“It was a nice presentation,” Murphy said. “I had seen the video many, many years ago when Jon first did it, so it sort of refreshed my memory. It was a sad day.”

But the opportunity to honor the anniversary of the strike held special meaning for the three friends, especially as many of their former shipmates have passed over the years. Among them is Fred Pfannenstiehl, a Brewster summer resident and longtime friend of Summersgill’s who served with him on the Warrington.

Over time, he had also become friends with Fuller and Murphy.

“To have a life like that no longer in play, it’s hard,” Summersgill said.

Fortunately, Fuller, Murphy and Summersgill each have something to remember their friend, and each other, by. Before Pfannenstiehl died, Murphy had renderings of the Warrington plaque in his restaurant made for the four of them, each with their four names on them.

“The ship, it’s really a special place to me,” Murphy said.