A monument recently unveiled at New York City’s Times Square honors six sailors, including one from West Virginia, who lost their lives when the largest U.S. Navy warship to be sunk during World War I went down off the coast of Long Island.
The monument, commissioned by the World War I Centennial Commission, follows two years of research to determine once and for all what caused the explosion that sent the USS San Diego to the ocean floor.
The story began 101 years ago today, on a clear morning in calm seas, as Frazier Oran Thomas, whose hometown was listed as Charleston in Navy casualty reports, was among 1,183 sailors manning the armored cruiser as it steamed westward along Long Island’s south shore.
The 504-foot-long, 13,680-ton warship, recently returned to U.S. waters after escorting a convoy of Allied supply vessels and troopships across the stormy, U-boat-infested North Atlantic, was headed to New York Harbor. There, the crew would take a well-deserved shore leave before escorting another convoy to Europe.
While some members of the crew had donned dress white uniforms in preparation for their New York liberty call, only an hour or two away, Thomas, a machinist’s mate 2nd class, remained at work the cruiser’s engine room.
Since German submarines were known to be prowling close to shore, 17 sailors on the decks above had been posted to lookout duty and were scanning the surrounding waters for possible periscope sightings or the bubbly trails of launched torpedoes. The ship followed a zig-zagging course as it approached New York, in an effort to throw off the aim of any German torpedomen.
Despite the precautions, a huge explosion rocked the heavy vessel about 8 miles southwest of Fire Island, a narrow strip of land just off the Long Island coast. The port side of the cruiser was ruptured below the waterline and the port engine was destroyed by the blast. Moments later, a boiler and a munitions magazine exploded, and the ship began listing to port at a dangerous angle, threatening to roll.
Fifteen minutes after the first explosion, with both engines dead and no chance to beach the cruiser, Capt. Harley Hannibal Christy gave the order to abandon ship. Less than 15 minutes later, the largest U.S. Navy warship to sink due to enemy action in World War I came to rest on the sandy ocean floor 110 feet below. Christy was the last of the crew to depart the ship.
Thanks to crew discipline and established evacuation procedures, all but six of the San Diego’s crew survived the sinking and were quickly picked up by other vessels in the area or managed to row their way to shore in lifeboats.
Thomas was among those trapped below deck when the explosions occurred. His body, and those of the other five shipmates who lost their lives on July 19, 1918, remain entombed in the ship.
Although Thomas’ hometown was listed as Charleston by the Navy, U.S. Census and draft registration records show that he was a native of Alderson and the son of Lockard and Laura Thomas. In 1900, the family lived in the Wolf Creek area of Monroe County, where his father worked as a teamster, according to census files.
Ten years later, the family was living in Ronceverte, Greenbrier County, where Frazier worked as a clerk in an ice cream parlor and his father worked at a coal tipple, according to census data.
When Frazier Thomas registered for the draft in June 1917, he was 22 years old, single, of “medium” height and weight, with brown eyes and black hair, and worked as a well driller for a company based in Princeton.
City directories for Charleston in 1917 and 1918 have no listings for either Lockard or Frazier Thomas. It could be that Charleston was the city in which he enlisted in the Navy.
Exactly what it was that caused the San Diego to sink was not officially determined until last year.
Capt. Christy and a number of other San Diego crew members told Navy investigators they believed a torpedo from a German U-boat was to blame, while others speculated that German saboteurs had planted explosives within the ship, or that one of the ship’s ammunition magazines had somehow accidentally exploded.
In the days following the sinking of the San Diego, six German-made mines were gathered from waters near where the ship went down, which later led to a court of inquiry tentatively attributing the sinking to the cruiser striking a mine.
Two days after the sinking of the San Diego, a tugboat and several barges were sunk by fire from the deck gun of the German submarine U-156 a short distance off the Cape Cod coast at Orleans, Massachusetts. Several of the artillery shells missed their targets and skipped across the ocean’s surface, detonating noisily but harmlessly on the beach, making Orleans the only U.S. town to come under fire during the war.
The following week, the U-156 sank five Canadian freight and fishing vessels off the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia coasts.
According to the Aug. 5, 1918, edition of the Gloucester (Mass.) Times, crewmen from one of the Canadian vessels taken aboard the submarine said U-boat crew members told them that U-156 recently had laid mines off the coast of Long Island, and took credit for the San Diego’s sinking.
But the official cause of the sinking remained undetermined for decades, until a two-year research project to determine the actual cause got underway in 2016.
Experts from the Navy, 10 other federal agencies and the University of Delaware made six trips to the San Diego’s final resting place, where side-scan sonar and laser imagery collected by submersible robots was used to create a 3D image of the wreck. Next, a Navy computer program was used to simulate the flooding of the ship, which was combined with a program that predicts the effects of an explosions on a metal hull.
Using that data and other evidence, the research team concluded last December that the San Diego sank as the result of coming in contact with an underwater mine set by U-156.
U-156 sank 44 ships during the course of the war, but was itself sunk two months after sending the San Diego to the bottom. Ironically, it was a mine laid by the U.S. Navy in the North Sea that claimed the U-boat as it was attempting to reach its home port.