Robert Mowry was barely 17 when he joined the US Navy. Following Basic Training, he was assigned to the escort destroyer USS Turner. Commissioned in April 1943, the ship provided protection to convoys destined for southern Europe and north Africa.
In October of that year, the Turner was operating as the lead escort when an unidentified blip was spotted on her radar. As she approached the radar contact, the conning tower a German submarine came into view. The destroyer immediately opened fire with all of her deck guns. The crew managed at least one hit with the 5-inch gun before the U-boat slipped below the surface. The Turner then launched two depth charges from her port side. Passing over the submerged boat, a third depth charge was fired from her stern. Seconds later, an explosion rose from the depths. The Turner then lost all contact with the sub.
About an hour later, the watch aboard a convoy vessel spotted a U-boat that appeared to be sinking stern first. The Turner however, was not able to confirm its sinking. The escort destroyer would make two more crossings, the last safely accompanying freighters into Norfolk Harbor. As planned, she then headed for the New York Nary Yard where she was to undergo repairs and refitting.
On January 2, 1944, after arriving at a distance off the Ambrose Lightship, she dropped anchor overnight in preparation for entering the harbor. Around 6:00 a.m. of the following morning, some of the crew were having breakfast in the forward part of the ship. Close by, crewmen were defusing the anti-submarine Mark 22 Projector (Hedgehog) ammunition. Fireman 3rd Class Mowry was in an aft compartment, waiting patiently to be relieved so that he could take his turn at the crew’s mess. The delay saved his life.
At about 6:18 a.m., a huge explosion rocked the ship. It came from the area of the No 2 Handling Room and the Anti-Submarine Projector ready storage room. The initial explosion sent the deck guns tumbling like matchsticks through the air! None of the officers on the bridge survived nor did any of the crewmen working below deck in the forward compartments. Fireman 3rd Class Robert Mowry later reported that the blast had knocked him to the floor. Still a bit dazed, he joined other crewmen to fight the spreading fire.
The explosion had blown out a triangular-shaped hole on both sides of the ship and twisted a part of the forward deck like pieces of aluminum foil. The Turner then began to list 4 degrees to starboard.
Despite the snow squall that limited visibility, a lookout at Sandy Hook’s Coast Guard Station witnessed the explosion. He sounded the alarm and a short time later, the station’s 83-foot sub-chaser and a 77-foot launch set off for the crippled destroyer. The sub-chaser was able to secure itself to the burning ship and take aboard the survivors. Others, like Robert Mowry, were plucked from the frigid waters. As the Coast Guard vessels headed back to shore, a second explosion tore up the destroyer. Breaking up in two sections, the Turner sank at anchor. The last blast rattled the windows of homes along the New York and New Jersey shoreline. There was reportedly yet another explosion – underwater — as the vessel settled to the bottom on its starboard side. It lay in 59-feet of water.
The injured were transported to the hospital at Fort Hancock, Sandy Hook, New Jersey. But the onslaught of so many seriously injured soon depleted the supply of plasma. In the middle of a raging snowstorm, a helicopter was used to deliver the supplies. Only five years earlier, the first practical helicopter had taken flight at Stratford, Connecticut. Flying out of Floyd Bennett Field, Coast Guard CDR Frank Erickson landed his aircraft at the Battery to pick up the plasma. Fourteen minutes later, the helicopter descended onto the beach at Sandy Hook. The flight was one of the first real world test of then strange rotary-winged machine.
What had caused the sinking? Some speculated that it could have been a U-boat’s torpedo; there had been a number of attacks in that general area. However, two other US warships that were in the vicinity failed to detect a submarine. It was eventually attributed to a projectile with faulty fuzes.
After having spent a 30-day leave, Robert Mowry was reassigned to the USS Hank. The destroyer saw action off Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Following the war, he returned to his native Pennsylvania where he and his wife raised five children.