Sunday, February 05, 2012

Oil and Water

 By Warren Sparrow

Sparrow in 1952
In the spring of 1952, those of us in the Central High Class of 1954
were about to complete our sophomore year. I was 15, too young to drive.

There was talk about the Korean War. I paid it no mind. I was working
every Saturday night in The Charlotte Observer mail room, inserting the
comics into the Sunday paper. The hours were bad but the pay was good:
Union scale.

USS Hobson

On April 26, 1952, James Laughter, a 22-year-old Winston-Salem sailor was in his bunk below the main deck of the USS Hobson (DMS-26), a

The Hobson and her sister ship USS Rodman
(DMS-21) were part of a Navy battle group operating near the Azores in the Mid-Atlantic.

USS Wasp
The group’s flagship was the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-18). The
Hobson and Rodman were “plane guards” for the Wasp, assigned the task of
picking up downed pilots around the Wasp. It was around 10:25 p.m. when
Seaman Jim Laughter felt the Hobson take a serious hit.

Fortunately, he had his life preserver close at hand. Instinctively, he
did what he was trained to do: He put on his life preserver. Water began to
rise in the compartment. He and other young shipmates scrambled up the
compartment ladder to escape. They were stopped by a jammed hatch.

They heard cries for help but were powerless to do anything. With
the water rising and the seriousness of the situation frighteningly apparent,
a more experienced and stronger sailor forced his way up the ladder and
cracked the hatch. When the hatch opened, Laughter was catapulted free.

Laughter does not remember anything about those fateful seconds,
only that he was carried up by a great rush of water and found himself
beneath the surface of the ocean. Again, his training served him well. He
made it to the top and some top it was. The Hobson was sinking close by.

There was thick oil in the water. He swam away from the sinking ship as
hard as he could, afraid that he would be sucked under.

The Hobson sank, by some accounts, in four minutes. Somehow,
Jim Laughter was alive, adrift in the cold Atlantic and covered with black
oil from the Hobson’s ruptured tanks. More than 170 of his shipmates
perished that night, including the ship’s captain. Laughter had no idea about
what had happened. He had no idea that he, for the moment, had survived
the worst “peace-time” disaster in the history of the United States Navy.

The aircraft carrier Wasp had T-boned the Hobson directly between the
destroyer’s two smoke stacks.

  Oil soaked sailor pulled to safety
Laughter was in the water for about 45 minutes when a life raft
floated near him. He swam to it and climbed aboard. He waited. Other
oil-soaked sailors climbed into the raft. They waited for what seemed an
eternity. Laughter does not remember how long it was until the raft was
alongside the Wasp. The Wasp crew threw a fairly thick rope from its flight
deck which was about 50 feet above the water. Laughter grabbed it and
truly held on “for dear life.”

He tried to pull himself up the rope but believed it was hopeless until
he discovered a knot in the line after a few hand-over-hand pulls. At least
he had something to grip.

 Wasp sailors pulled Laughter aboard. He was in one piece, safe at last. It
had been more than two hours since Laughter had been dumped into the dark

Some of the Hobson survivors were plucked from the Atlantic by the
Rescued Seamen

Rodman and three other destroyers that were escorting the Wasp. They were
the USS Stribling (DD-867), USS O’Hare (DD-849) and USS Corry (DD-
817). Some destroyer men risked their lives by jumping into the ocean to
help the stricken Hobson sailors.

At least one Hobson survivor, according to Seaman Laughter, “did not
get his feet wet.” He was on the bow of the Hobson when the Wasp struck
the Hobson amidships. The force of the hit caused the bow of the Hobson to
heave upward, tossing the Hobson crew member onto the Wasp.

The damaged Wasp
Working from the edge of the flight deck, the
Hobson survivors rode the Wasp back to New York. Speaking
of “back,” the Wasp’s bow was so heavily damaged that the carrier sailed
backwards during its return to the United States. The ship entered a dry
dock in Bayonne, NJ, where the bow of the Wasp was replaced with the
bow from a similar aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet. Laughter and the other
Hobson survivors were given 30 days leave.

Jim Laughter today

The soft spoken Laughter praised the crews of the Rodman and the other three destroyers that took
part in the rescue effort. “They stayed with us,” he said, “and the Wasp crew
threw more than a thousand life jackets into the ocean.” There were also
many small boats and rafts used to pick up survivors.

Today Laughter calls
what happened “a bad deal.”
But, he speaks freely and without bitterness about the fateful night
when he faced death. He blames no one. He married his fiancée Barbara
Jones on May 24, 1952, at Waughtown Baptist Church in Winston-Salem.

In less than four months they will celebrate their 60th anniversary.

About two years ago the U.S.S. Wasp Association decided to honor
the Hobson survivors for the first time by making them lifetime members.

A year ago there was a memorial service held in conjunction with the
Wasp association’s annual meeting. It is important to note that the Wasp
association holds these meeting at various locales throughout the country.
This latest meeting was in Charleston, SC, the Hobson’s home port.

Charleston  Monument
Two years after the Hobson went down a monument inscribed with
the names of all who died that awful April night was dedicated at White
Park Gardens in Charleston’s Battery Park. There are 176 names on this
monument. James Laughter’s is not one of them. He is one of the 61 men
who survived the ultimate “peril on the sea.”

“I wish the Wasp had done this reunion sooner because there are not
many of us left,” Laughter said. Indeed, the November 2011 issue of the
U.S.S. Wasp Association newsletter lists the names and addresses of 14
men. “I always wanted to thank somebody for what they did,” Laughter

Author Sparrow and Laughter
With that, he simply added, “Thank you.” 

Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And, give for wild confusion peace:
Oh, hear us when we cry to thee
For those in peril on the sea.

Eternal Father, Strong to Save, 3d v.
Text: William Whiting, 1825-1878
Tune: John B. Dykes, 1823-1876.


(Editor's Note; Warren Sparrow served as an officer on the USS WASP from 1959 til 1962)