The burning quesiton
Many of us remember the devastating explosion which rocked Gibraltar in April 1951 when the British ammunition ship Bedenham exploded on the Gun Wharf. A similar incident nearly occurred in 1918 when US navy cargo ship the USS Ophir returned to Gibraltar on fire carrying a flammable cargo.
The USS Ophir was built by the Dutch Kon. Masts de Schelde in Flushing in 1904. This 8905 ton cargo passenger ship was operated by the Rotterdamsche Lloyd Line on the Pacific run. The ship was seized in Hawaii by customs officials under a Presidential Proclamation of the 20th of March 1918 and was turned over to the US Navy on the 21st of March 1918 and commissioned on the 25th on that month as a NOTS (Navy Overseas Transportation Service) under the command of Lt. Cdr. M P Nash USNRF (US Navy Reserve Force).
The Ophir left port on the 2nd of April heading for New York where she arrived on May 14th. Leaving again in the company of four other ships on the 1st of June. They carried sailors and tugboat men, 500 mail sacks and other cargo, heading for La Pallance in France, to supply the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) there. She arrived on June 7th (GHQ AEF France report dated June 9th) and set sail again for Verdun on the 27th and then returned to New York. The General Headquarters AEF shows the Ophir arriving in New York on July 30th. She continued to operate on this sector and on the 25th of October set out for Gibraltar and onward to the southern French ports. The Ophir arrived in Gibraltar on November 8th. Soon after sailing for Marseille she caught fire and turned back to Gibraltar. In the afternoon of the 10th a telephone call was received by the Senior Naval Officer (SNO) in the Gibraltar Dockyard which stated that the Ophir was on fire and would be arriving about 1500hrs. A berth was prepared on the North Mole. The question of tugs was raised but was informed that the HM Tug Crocodile, which had the necessary pumping equipment, was laid up and only the Marsden and Heroine were available with limited pumping capacity but that the Kings Harbour Master and Commander Remington had the matter in hand. At 1930hrs the ship was reported to be rounding Europa Point. The SNO boarded the vessel on arrival and was informed by the Captain that he thought the fire was in No2 lower hold which held some 500 tons of coal. The Ophir was anchored off North Mole. The fire was kept under control during the night using the ship’s firefighting equipment. At 1930 hrs on the 11th an explosion blew off the hatches of No2 hold and the ship continued burning furiously. The water from the fire hoses had passed from the hold into the boiler room and was in danger of extinguishing the furnaces. The SNO was on board when the Captain requested that the ship be beached. This was agreed and the Pilot, Pelizza, took the ship into the shallows and she was run aground in four and a half fathoms. The fire continued, the boilers were put out of action and the Ophir burned out with all the hold full of water. The 11th of November 1818, being the day that the Armistice was signed which ended the First World War.
Two sailors perished in the fire, they were Guy Alston Comstock, an Engineman, 2nd Class of the USNRF and Oscar Wilson, Engineman 1st Class USNRF. Both these sailors were buried at the North Front Cemetery on the 16th of November. The bodies were repatriated to the United States on the 3rd of June 1919.
Her cargo consisted of drums of Aviation Oil, which in those days was probably of castor oil base and highly flammable. Reports in the US media talk of shell holes but there is no evidence that she carried ammunition. She also carried a number of ambulances, coal and provisions, no doubt for the troops at her original destination.
The Crocodile, obviously now repaired, started to pump out the holds and in a report from the Captain of the Port, dated 18th January 1919, the fore hold was now dry and No 2 hold had three feet of water and the after hold was reduced to about the same level. Tests were being carried out to see if the ship could be pumped dry without damage. The hull seemed watertight but some concern was raised over the after bulkhead. The iron deck aft of the dining saloon on the port side was split right across and it was hoped this was not a structural failure. A US destroyer was anchored just north of the Ophir and keeping an eye on developments. For security reasons, the night patrol was ordered to make several tours around the ship while on patrol. An inventory had been taken of everything on the ship including all brass and copper fittings and orders given that the correct night lights should be on during darkness. Nevertheless by the 4th of December the Captain of the Port reported that fittings had been stolen from the ship. Captain Nash was lodged with the American Consul while the ship was being raised. Captain Asserson USN was in Gibraltar as part of the diplomatic team and was involved in the decision to raise the Ophir, which was reported to the Colonial Secretary on January 18th 1919. The US Navy survivors were repatriated and a team was sent to Gibraltar to refloat and repair the vessel.
No doubt the provisions were spoiled and probably dumped at sea under the sanitary inspector’s control. The vehicles had been under 16ft of water but the five Quad trucks were salvaged and sold to Alexander Ivison of Cadiz under the authority of US Base 9, the Patrol Squadron based in Gibraltar on the 22nd of May 1919. The US media reported that the vessel was under water for five months but this does not appear to be the case as she was pumped dry within weeks.
Only enough work was done to make her able to sail back to the United States. A skeleton crew of six officers and sixty eight men were sent out to bring the ship back
On the 25th of November 1920, she set sail still full of holes and hardly seaworthy. Incredibly, despite her condition, eight wives of enlisted men were permitted to sail with the ship. Only three of her boilers were operational and two days out of the Azores, they broke down and she was given a tow by the USS Bob-O-Link off Bermuda. About 100 miles off Cape Henry, they hit a severe storm and the tow rope parted. For thirty six hours the Ophir drifted in 100 mile an hour wind and heavy seas but finally the storm abated and she was able to get under way on her own, arriving in Norfolk, Virginia on the 9th of January 1920. The Ophir was decommissioned and turned over to the War Department on the 16th of January 1920.
It is curious to note that there is no reference to this incident in the Gibraltar Chronicle, and were it not for the records of the North Front Cemetery and the official Government correspondence, there would be doubt as to whether it ever happened. The fact that it occurred on the 11th of November 1918, the day that the armistice was declared, which ended the First World War, might account for the lack of interest. Research is still going on to establish the details of how the vessel was raised by the US Navy.
WE WISH TO THANK THE DIRECTOR OF THE US NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER WASHINGTON FOR HIS ASSISTANCE IN THE RESEARCH INTO THIS INCIDENT AND THE USE OF THE PHOTOGRAPHS. ALSO THE GIBRALTAR GOVERNMENT ARCHIVES FOR ACCESS TO THE GOVERNMENT PAPERS.