On April 30, 1946, the USS Solar, a U.S. Navy Buckley-class destroyer escort (DE 221), exploded at the Navy Pier in Leonardo, killing seven sailors and injuring 125 others.
The Solar was refitted in 1946 to serve as a sonar test vessel. On April 30, she was berthed at Leonardo Pier I of Naval Ammunition Depot Earle on Raritan Bay, to discharge ammunition, as her new duties required far less munitions than her wartime service. According to reports, the operation went smoothly until, shortly after 11:30 a.m., an anti-submarine depth charge known as a “hedgehog” that was being carried by one of the crew exploded in his arms while he was attempting to pass the charge to a truck. That crewman escaped with minor injuries, but three ensuing explosions blasted the ship near her number two upper handling rooms. Her number two gun was demolished, and the bridge, main battery director, and mast were all blown aft and to starboard. Both sides of the ship were torn open, and her deck was a mass of flames. The order to abandon ship came after the second explosion and was carried out expeditiously. The blast tore away one-third of the 306-foot ship’s forward structure.
Detonation Rocks Monmouth County, Raritan Bay
The concussion radius was 20 to 30 miles, shaking homes from Staten Island to the interior of Monmouth County. According to The New York Times, “the detonation shook the New Jersey coast in and around the Raritan Bay district, where a number of other vessels were preparing to unload ammunition. It was unofficially estimated here that these vessels held, all told, about 25,000 tons of explosives. Tugs dragged these craft out of the danger zone. Burning fragments from the Solar, hurled at tremendous force against freight cars on the pier, started other explosions. One car in a freight string, filled chiefly with depth charges, blew up and all but vanished in dust and smoke, scattering its parts in all directions. Three strings of rail cars were hauled shoreward by their locomotive crews, at great risk.”
Ultimately, seven sailors were killed, and while 125 received injuries, only thirty-five were hospitalized, and of them, only a handful remained overnight for further treatment. Further casualties were prevented through heroic actions taken by USS Solar crew members. Lieut. Comdr. G.R. La Rocque of Kankakee, Ill., the Solar’s 27-year-old skipper, who was burned on his face and hands, spoke of the heroism of his enlisted men: “Those sailors were wonderful,” he said. “God, they were brave men. Believe me, I saw a lot of brave sailors. I couldn’t begin to put into words what those men did. It was wonderful. On the starboard side and on the port side, they went into the teeth of the fire to fight it.”
The rapid mobilization of Red Cross emergency forces also helped to minimize injuries.
Wartime Emergency Planning Saves Lives During Peacetime Disaster
The Disaster Relief Committee of the Monmouth Chapter of the American Red Cross was created during the Second World War in anticipation that the fighting would come to American shores. It was never deployed in wartime. However, within 15 minutes of the USS Solar explosion, two Red Cross nurses and a field director were on the scene at the pier treating wounded sailors. The emergency quickly brought into action 300 more trained Red Cross workers, many of whom worked through the night both at the Naval Ammunition Depot and the chapter headquarters in Shrewsbury. Red Cross cars, trucks, station wagons, ambulances and the chapter’s mobile kitchen shuttled back and forth between Shrewsbury and the depot, carrying blood plasma, relief supplies, food, disaster equipment and personnel.
Later, Earle naval officers expressed astonishment and gratitude for the swift response of rescue units and medical and Red Cross aid. “The Monmouth County Red Cross assembled its membership in record time and got all its rolling stock and other equipment to the station in ample time to be of service. Ambulances and more doctors, nurses and medical attendants than were needed swarmed into the depot from Fort Hancock, Raritan Arsenal and Monmouth County hospitals.”
Ultimately, the experience validated the very purpose and existence of the Earle Navy Pier, three miles long from shore to end. The pier was built to ensure that ammunition stores and the on- and off-loading of arms from ships to shore and vice versa would not injure innocent civilians in the event of an explosion, such as the deadly disaster at the munitions facility at Black Tom Island in New York Harbor in 1916. The deadly disaster also proved the stalwart readiness and capabilities of the Monmouth County Red Cross.
Sources: Berger, Meyer. (1946). Naval Ship Disaster: Warship Blows Up At Munitions Pier In Port, Killing Five. The New York Times, May 1, 1946, P. 1.
Destroyer Escort Sailors Association. Available: https://www.desausa.org/de_photo_library/uss_solar_de_221.htm