Topics - Stateside Tragedies
Collision of the Thomas Tracy and USS Valcour (AVP-55) - May 14, 1951

 
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Five Lives Lost
Off Cape Henry, Virginia

 

Most recent update to this page: September 25, 2015

Introduction

The Navy seaplane USS Valcour returned to the States from her second Middle East tour in March of 1951.  Two months later, she headed out to sea for ship exercises on May 14.  While passing the coal collier SS Thomas Tracy off Cape Henry, Virginia, the Valcour had a steering and power failure.  The ship veered into the path of the SS Thomas Tracy and sounded warning signals, but it was too late to avoid a collision.  The bow of the Thomas Tracy collided with Valcour's starboard side, rupturing an aviation gasoline fuel tank.  A fire soon broke out aboard the Valcour and spread rapidly due to the ruptured fuel tank.  Water also flooded Valcour's ruptured hull.  In spite of attempts to put out the fire, the "gasoline-fed inferno" caused many of Valcour's crew to leap overboard and the Valcour's captain (Eugene Tatum) to give the order to abandon ship.  There were also fires aboard the Thomas Tracy, but they were largely confined to the forward hold and her crew suffered no injuries.  The Thomas Tracy returned to Newport News, Virginia, with ship and cargo intact.  Rescue ships rushed to the aid of the USS Valcour and succeeded in bringing the blaze under control, but not before casualties and fatalities mounted.  Four crew members were known dead, one was missing, and 16 more were injured.  There were 100-110 walking survivors of the Valcour after the collision.

It should be noted that many news articles that came out immediately after the collision stated that 36 men were missing and/or dead.  These figures were sent out as official news releases from the Navy, but were later recanted when a correct assessment of the casualty figures was completed.  Part of the confusion as to the number of casualties was because the leave records of the Valcour were burned in the fire that ignited as the result of the collision.  The staff of Meyera E. Oberndorf Central Library in Virginia Beach, Virginia researched the Valcour collision for the KWE and sent a news release that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) dated May 16, 1951 (page 21).  The news release stated:

"According to the navy, the erroneous report that 36 crewmen of the naval ship were killed or missing was the result of 'hasty estimates' from rescue ships that combed the wreckage area, picking up survivors.  Most of the Valcour's crew went overboard to escape the fire."

The same article also stated that Seaman Robert Lyle, originally believed to be missing, was found safe aboard another ship, as were others originally listed as missing.

Among the ships that rushed to the scene were: the destroyer Heminger, Coast Guard cutters Cherokee, Marion and Nadrona, destroyer Thuben (picked up 158 "ambulatory" survivors from the water), and the submarine rescue ship Sunbird.

The sixteen injured men were admitted to the Portsmouth Naval Hospital and Norfolk Naval Air Station Dispensary.  Of these, one was on the critical list and three others in a serious condition.  Four suffered from immersion, one with a skull injury, one with a possible broken neck, one with critical undiagnosed injuries, one with facial cuts, and three others in serious condition from unidentified injuries.  Meanwhile, the Valcour was towed to an anchorage off the naval base by salvage vessels.  It remained at anchorage until all ammunition and gasoline were removed.  The ship was then towed to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard at Portsmouth for repairs.

To add information to this page of the Korean War Educator contact Lynnita via e-mail; phone 217-253-4620 (home) or 217-253-5171 (work); 111 E. Houghton St., Tuscola, IL 61953.


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About the Tracy and Valcour

SS Thomas Tracy

The SS Thomas Tracy was a 424-foot. 6,643-ton vessel built in New Orleans in 1945.  The coal collier was operated by the M. and J. Tracy Company of New York.  At the time of the collision she carried a crew of 38 and her skipper was Capt. J.S. Hansen.  The ship was bound for New York from Newport News. 

USS Valcour

The USS Valcour (AVP-55), later AGF-1, was a United States Navy ship in commission as a seaplane tender from 1945 to 1965 and as a flagship from 1965 to 1973.  She was laid down on December 21, 1942 at Houghton, Washington, by the Lake Washington Shipyard and launched on June 05, 1943, sponsored by Mrs. H.C. Davis, the wife of Capt. H.C. Davis, the intelligence officer for the 13th Naval District.  She was not commissioned until July 05, 1946.  She was the last of the 35 Burnegat-class ships to commission. The Valcour saw duty in the Middle East from 1949 to 1951, and the collision with the Thomas Tracy occurred two months after the ship returned to the States.


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Fatalities/Presumed Dead of the USS Valcour

  1. Britt, Chief Ships Serviceman Hoyle J. - known dead.
  2. Caley, Seaman Apprentice Dale Eugene - known dead.  Born November 12, 1932, he was the son of Wallace Levi Caley, Riverton, Wyoming.  He is buried in Mountain View Cemetery, Riverton, Fremont County, Wyoming.
  3. Clemons, Stewardman 2/C Carl Calvin - known dead.  born March 30, 1927.  Buried in Baltimore National Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.
  4. Counce, Aviation-electricianman Clayton - Known dead.  Born March 25, 1925.  Buried in Elim Baptist Cemetery, Columbia County, Florida.
  5. O'Neal, Seaman Apprentice Samuel E.

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Marine Board of Investigation Proceedings

A Marine Board of Investigation Report was sent from the Chief of the Coast Guard Merchant Vessel Inspection Division to the Commandant on September 28, 1951 regarding the collision between the Valcour and the Thomas Tracy.  The text of the findings, conclusions and recommendations can be found here.


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Awards and Medals

Atkinson, John W.

United States Atlantic Fleet Air Force
Post Office Norfolk Naval Base Branch
Norfolk 11, Virginia

Date:  18 December 1951
From:  Commander Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet
To:     Atkinson, John W., 785 08 13 END2, USNR
Via:    (1) Commander Fleet Air Wings, U.S. Atlantic Fleet
         (2) Commanding Officer, U.S.S. Valcour (AVP-55)

Subj:  Commendation

1. It has come to the attention  of Commander Air Force. U.S. Atlantic Fleet, that subsequent to the collision of the U.S.S. Valcour and the S.S. Thomas Tracy on 14 May 1951, you remained aboard with sixteen other enlisted men to fight fires and to control flooding of the ship.  You worked long hours in combating hazardous fires which had enveloped the entire starboard side of the vessel and numerous compartments.  You aided materially in controlling the flooding of the ship caused by hull damage and fire-fighting water.  You worked for several hours under continuous threat of death from explosion of the magazines which were subject to excessive heat from fires in adjoining compartments.  Your commanding officer has recommended that you be commended.

2. It is with pleasure that Commander Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet commends you for your courage and devotion to duty, which were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.

3. Commanding Officer, U.S.S. Valcour is directed to make a copy of this letter a part of your official service record.

(signed) John J. Ballentine

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Landenheim, Jules C. - Navy and Marine Award - serving on USS Valcour

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Stoke, Warren W. - Navy and Marine Award - serving on USS Valcour

[Source: Jax Air News, Volume 10, No. 27, 9 October 1952: "Medal Given to Chief for Heroic Action"]

"Chief Boatswain Warren W. Stoke has been awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal by the Department of the Navy.  The medal was presented to the Chief by Capt. Burnham C. McCaffree, NAS Commanding Officer, during last Saturday's personnel inspection.

Stoke, who is boat division officer of the Operations Department, was granted the award in recognition of heroic action while serving aboard the USS Valcour in 1951.  On May 14 of that year, the Valcour was in a collision with the USS Thomas Tracy off the Virginia Capes.  Risking his life in the raging fires enveloping one side of the Valcour and which threatened to explode gasoline tanks and storage rooms adjacent to depth bomb magazines, Stoke made a bold attempt below decks to locate the extent of the damage.  He was able to initiate protective damage control measures, which greatly minimized the danger of further explosions and contributed to the ultimate salvage of the vessel.

Stoke, who claims to be the only one in the Navy with that name spelling, is from Roanoke, VA.

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Van Winkle, Oscar L. - Navy and Marine Award - serving on USS Valcour


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Montymen Hurt Saving Valcour From Ram Fire

[Source: Tale Hook newsletter, USS Monterey (CVL-26), Vol. 1, No. 9, page 6.  Sent courtesy of John Atkinson of Millsboro, Delaware.]

"Two men transferred in April from the Monterey's A Div were severely burned on a rescue mission aboard the Seaplane Tender Valcour after escaping unhurt from the ship's flaming engine room.  The Valcour burst into flame 5 May off Cape Henry after colliding with a collier.  The new details of the ramming and successful battle to save the Valcour are told in a letter from Francis Affonce, MM3, currently attending school in Norfolk.

According to the letter, the collision resulted from a loss of the load on the Valcour, making the steering gear inoperative.  All but a small firefighting detail was ordered to abandon the ship after it was set ablaze.

Among the men remaining aboard were former Monterey men Tom Coyne END1 and John Atkinson END2.  They explained they 'just couldn't leave the ship with a fire going on.'  They fought the blaze until mid afternoon, bringing it under control.

Coyne and Atkinson then volunteered to reenter the engineroom with an Ensign in a search for bodies.  They found one body.  Then the officer opened a hatch to look for more--and in doing so released a new inferno, writes Affonce.  'Out came a ball of flame, hitting Atkinson and Coyne in the face.  The officer and Coyne and Atkinson dove through the hole in the side of the ship.  They said if it weren't for the hole they wouldn't be here.'

The two ex-Montymen received second and third degree burns around the face and hands, with Atkinson getting the worse of the deal.  Affonce concludes: 'If you get a chance, drop them a line at Ward 3, U.S. Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, VA.  It might cheer them up a little.'"


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In the News

Ship Collision Victims Healed Through Use of New Medication:
Ordinary Milk Chief Component of Treatment Employed on Men Burned in Crash of Tracy and Valcour

[Date and name of publication unknown.  News article sent to the KWE by collision survivor John W. Atkinson of Millsboro, Delaware.]

"Burn victims of the recent collision of the collier Thomas Tracy and the USS Valcour all have left the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, healed without scars.  And it's all because of a new medical discovery which involves nothing more than ordinary milk.

The fiery collision of the Tracy and the Valcour--which was loaded with 70,000 gallons of high octane gasoline--occurred at a time when field tests were being conducted at the hospital of the new medication.  Three months use of the discovery--known as zinax--have shown it to be the most effective burn treatment of all, said the hospital's chief surgeon, Capt. P.E. Spangler, MC, USN.

Dr. Raymond M. Curtis, of Baltimore, has been working with a drug house for 10 years to develop zinax.  It's now being tested in several Eastern civilian hospitals, the Portsmouth hospital and Naval Shipyard, and the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. 

The discovery is nothing but a simple preparation of cow's milk.  It involves the mixing of hydrolyzed milk (the same state as milk partly digested) in a jelly base.  the preparation is applied to gauze which has been impregnated with zinc acetate to make it firm. When a burn victim is admitted to the hospital, his burns immediately are covered with this protective coating before any contamination can reach the injured area.

Milky gauze dressings formerly were used to cover burns.  But they didn't keep out bacteria, had to be changed frequently, and the gauze drained body fluids away from the skin where they are needed.

Zinax, which dries to become pliable and firm like white rubber, keeps the fluids at the burned area where they are needed and does not admit bacteria-ridden air.  It also permits such complete healing that scars are almost entirely eliminated.  And where skin grafting is necessary, the new treatment has cut the time from at least three months to some 30 or 40 days."

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Elmirans Learn Sailor Son Gravely Burns in Collision of Navy Craft Off Norfolk

[Date and name of publication unknown. News article sent to the KWE by collision survivor John W. Atkinson of Millsboro, Delaware.]

"John W. Atkinson, son of Mr. and Mrs. Matthew H. Atkinson of 2007 Grand Central Ave., Elmira Heights, was one of the engine crew badly burned in Monday's collision of the seaplane tender Valcour with the collier Thomas Tracy off Norfolk, Virginia.  He was reported in critical condition last night in the Portsmouth (Virginia) Naval Hospital, suffering from very serious burns of the face and chest.

Mr. Atkinson and several members of the family left here last night by auto for Portsmouth.  Mrs. Rosalie Atkinson, wife of the injured man, and Mrs. Kathryn Cycyk, a sister, flew to Portsmouth yesterday from their home in New Castle, Delaware.

Atkinson has been in the Navy since early in World War II.  His rank could not immediately be determined.  He joined the engine crew of the Valcour only last Saturday. 

Stories of heroism emerged yesterday from the welter of flame, smoke and death that engulfed the seaplane tender after the collision.  Men on rescue ships leaped overboard and saved the Valour's men who had jumped from her flaming decks.  Men on rescue ships boarded the Valcour and helped her remaining crewmen to fight flames that threatened to explode her ammunition.

The fire-ravaged tender, a big hole in her starboard quarter where the collier rammed her Monday 5 miles off Cape Henry, was expected to begin discharging the remainder of her 70,000 gallons of high octane gasoline yesterday afternoon into a barge from the Navy's Craney Island fuel depot in the Elizabeth River.

The body of one of her crew has been recovered.  Four other enlisted men are missing and presumed dead.  The Navy reported that of the 186 officers and men aboard when the fiery crash occurred, all of her 14 officers have been accounted for, 19 men are aboard the Valcour, 130 are at the Norfolk Naval Receiving Station and 18 are in hospitals or dispensaries for treatment of burns and injuries.

After the Valcour's gasoline is discharged, her ammunition will be removed and her fume-filled compartments will be decontaminated.  Then a search will be made of four compartments, not yet entered, in the hope of finding the bodies of the four missing men.  Atlantic Fleet Headquarters explained that its early announcement of 11 known dead was based on 'an estimate' that nine bodies were in the engine room.


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Bios of Fatalities

[KWE Note: To add a biography or photo of one of the fatalities of the USS Valcour, contact Lynnita Brown, 111 E. Houghton St., Tuscola, IL 61953; e-mail lynnita@thekwe.org; phone 217-253-4620.]

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Caley, Dale Eugene

Letter from Jeanette Gasser Tucker, Riverton, Wyoming


Dale Caley
(Click picture for a larger view)

"Dale was a classmate of mine at Riverton High School.  Riverton is a small town in central Wyoming.  74 students were graduated in the Class of 1953.  Dale was older than most of the students in this class, I remember him as a student during our sophomore year 1950-51.  He had asked me about a dance at a neighboring town about 25 miles from Riverton.  I was only fourteen years old at the time and didn't go.  He was a very nice boy, very quiet and not very involved in school activities.

Dale did not return to school that I remember the following year.  We heard that he had joined the Navy before the second semester had begun.  He was eighteen by then and so many young men were being drafted for the Korean War--my brother was one of them.  A lot of these men joined the Navy to avoid the draft.  My husband-to-be did just that and served on the USS Iowa off the coast of Korea during the conflict.

The announcement of Dale's death was broadcast over the RHS PA system.  It was a very traumatic time for our class.  Most of the students attended the burial services.  Dale is buried at Mountain View Cemetery, Section J-Lot 3.  Every Memorial Day and Veterans Day flags are placed on the veterans' graves.  The next fall the graduating class of 1953 dedicated their year book to Dale for his sacrifice defending our country."

Jeanette included the following obituary (Riverton Ranger newspaper) in her letter to the Korean War Educator:

Dale Caley Killed in Navy Ships Collision
Son of Mr. and Mrs. W.L. Caley First Local Dead in Present Emergency

The first war tragedy of the present conflict was felt in Riverton this week with the reported death of Apprentice Seaman Dale Eugene Caley, 18, son of Mr. and Mrs. W.L. Caley.  Young Caley was making his first cruise aboard the USS Seaplane Tender Valcour when it collided with the Collier Tracy off Hampton Roads, Virginia, Monday at 10:45 a.m. and its store of high test gasoline roared into flame, sweeping the decks and spreading below.  Only one body, that of Caley, had been recovered of the 11 believed dead.

The announcement was received here by the Caleys Tuesday morning in a telegram from Washington, D.C. signed by Capt. Stanton B. Dunlop, Chief of Staff Commander Fleet Air Wing, Atlantic Fleet.  Word has also been received that the body is being prepared for shipment here under escort.

Young Caley enlisted in the U.S. Navy and reported at the Great Lakes Station for his "boot" training on January 4.  He completed his initial service and was home on furlough just two weeks ago.  He returned to Great Lakes and was assigned to Hampton Roads for his first duty aboard the Valcour.  The ship was en route for operational exercises in the Atlantic.

Caley came to Riverton with his parents five years ago.  He attended Riverton High School and was employed at the Safeway store when he enlisted.  He was a quiet, diligent, young man of sterling character.  His father is cashier at the First National Bank. The news of the tragic death was a great shock to his parents and friends.

The accident to the Valcour occurred when the ship had passed the Collier and a steering and power failure jammed the rudder.  The tender cut across the bow of the Tracy and was rammed. Fire which followed was brought under control after two hours and the ship towed into Hampton Roads.  Full investigation of the accident and complete search of all compartments cannot be made until the unloading of the remaining 70,000 gallons of high-test gasoline is completed.  The Valcour carried a complement of 199 men and 16 officers.

The following material was supplied by
Marlys A. Bias, Riverton, WY

Record of Funeral - Dale Eugene Caley

Date of Birth: November 12, 1932
Birthplace: Luverne, Minnesota

Name of Father: W.L. Caley [Wallace L. Caley 1896-1967]
Name of Mother: Ruby F. Bailey Caley [1905-1991]

Funeral Service: May 26, 1951
Services at: Methodist Church
Clergyman: Rev. Ray R. Kreps

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Military Services for Caley Saturday
Body of Apprentice Seaman Killed Aboard Ship Arrives Friday
Business Houses Requested to Close for Funeral

Riverton Ranger, May 24, 1951, pg. 1 -

Funeral services for Dale Eugene Caley, apprentice seaman of the United States Navy, who was killed aboard the USS Tender Valcour on May 14, will be held from the Methodist Church Saturday at 2 p.m. with the Rev. Ray R. Kreps in charge.

The directors of the Riverton Chamber of Commerce request that all business in Riverton cease between 1:45 and 3 p.m. Saturday to pay respect to this young man who gave his life in the service of his country--the first in the present emergency.

The Safeway store in Riverton, with whom Dale Caley was connected at the time of his enlistment will close for the funeral in respect and honor for their former employee.

Military services at the graveside will be conducted by the Riverton Posts of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.  Burial will be in Mountain View cemetery.

The body of Apprentice Seaman Caley will arrive at Bonneville, Friday at 10:50 a.m.  It is being escorted here by Apprentice Seaman Thomas Eckstein.

Legion Conducts Military Service for Seaman Caley

Riverton Ranger, May 31, 1951, pg. 1 -

With American Legion Post No. 19 in charge impressive military honors were accorded Dale Eugene Caley, apprentice seaman of the United States Navy who lost his life in the service of his country on May 14.

The ceremony in which Legion veterans served as guard of honor was held at the graveside in Mountain View cemetery last Saturday afternoon with the Rev. Glenn Reddick acting as the Legion post chaplain.  The flag which draped the casket was presented to the Navyman's family, Mr. and Mrs. W.L. Caley, and the playing of taps concluded the service.

Preceding the military rites a service was held in the First Methodist church, with the Rev. R.R. Kreps officiating.

Serving as pallbearers were employees of the local Safeway store with whom the deceased as associated prior to entering U.S. Navy service They were William Piggott, Milford Hedglin, Melwin Round, Francis Barber, Jay White and Silfred Romero.

Apprentice Seaman Thomas Eckstein, who escorted the body of Seaman Caley here revealed that the deceased was not burned during the naval accident in which his ship, the USS Tender Valcour was involved, but that he lost his life by drowning.


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John Atkinson Photo Album

The rare photos in the USS Valcour album on the KWE were provided courtesy of a Valcour/Tracy collision survivor, John W. Atkinson of Millsboro, Delaware.  John was badly injured in the accident.  While he was in the hospital recovering, a shipmate came to the hospital to bring Atkinson photos taken during the aftermath of the collision.  To view the Atkinson photo album, click HERE.

 
 
 

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