Finding the Crew
Being the wreck was from WWII there had to be survivors and former crew still alive. Looking at the history of the ship and what was available online. There had to be some incredible stories. Not just of the night of the collision, but of the battles and secret missions they were involved in. Over the next few years I began a systematic search for as many former crew as I could find. I wanted to here there story and record them on video tape. To date I have recorded over 30 former Murphy crew stories of which I have compiled a video about this pugnacious Tin-Can.
Years ago, Tony Regula ( a local fisherman ) had spoken with an old Merchant Marine veteran on a Florida beach. The conversation lead him to believe that a wreck that they had been fishing for years was in fact the remains of a World War II Liberty ship. The gentleman told him the last time he was in New Jersey was after his ship was sunk by a German torpedo somewhere off the coast. Tony and his son Paul run a local fishing charter boat, Bounty Hunter. Unlike most fishermen both are well versed in history and know many of the wrecks off the coast. T
hey deduced that this site fit the area and size to be a Liberty ship. Paul and I compared a few numbers, and they turned out to be the same. So, with a set of confirmed GPS and LORAN coordinates, Seeker headed out once again on one of her famed Deep Exploration expeditions.
On August 25, 2000 we pulled away from the dock around 11PM and headed out into the blackness of the Atlantic night. Arriving on site just as the sun was peering between the clouds and the horizon, the crew fell out of their bunks and found their way to the bow to toss the grappling hook over. The heavy steel hook plunged into the ocean and plummeted down to the depths 260 feet below, pulling anchor line swiftly from the deck. Within minutes the hook was clanking about on the wreckage, until finally it fetched up. With the anchor line as tight as a guitar string, the signal was given – “We’re in!” After a quick breakfast I suited up along with Mike Yatsky to set the hook. Normally, I’d leave this task to the crew, but I’d been on many trips of discovery before where I stayed on watch and was the last to dive, and this time I wanted to be the first to see what lay below.
Mike and I rolled over the side and descended below the waves down the white anchor line that faded into the deep blue abyss. As you pass through the mid-water depths where the surface has faded from sight and the bottom has yet to come into view your only point of reference is that thin white line leading down a path to another world or up to the reality of the present. The wreckage finally began to materialize as I slid down through the haze. The lines of the hull and the form of the superstructure began to take shape as I dodged the fishing nets that billowed from the wreck in the current. But once again I was beat out of being first, as Mike reached the hull to tie the anchor line to the wreck. Oh well – close enough !
Nets seemed to cover every thing as I surveyed the wreckage. Besides the usual hand rails, ladders, and doorways of a modern vessel, the 20-mm anti aircraft guns were the only thing that would validate the wreck as the aforementioned Liberty ship. From the area that I surveyed I could find nothing but twisted metal covered in nets. Too quickly, this first dive was over for Mike and I, and we made our ascent.
As other divers returned from their inspections it was determined that the wreck was resting on its port side, equipped with small gun-tubs and anti aircraft armament around what appeared to be the main superstructure. The gun tubs and their placement seemed consistent with a Liberty ship. The vessel was obviously broken in half, which also indicated the possibility of being sunk by a torpedo. More than that could not be determined. Over the years, the fishing nets that smothered the wreck had become encrusted with marine camouflage, making it extremely difficult to see what was beneath.
As more divers surfaced from their dives that day they relayed that they had gone forward to the tip of the bow. “This is no Liberty ship!” they exclaimed. The prow was very fine and sharp, and they had also seen at least one 5″ gun, in a turret. Still, none of this precluded our find from being a Liberty ship as I still thought it was. Liberty ships were equipped with guns of that size, and if the vessel’s hull had collapsed sideways over the years, the bow would appear much sharper than when it was intact. Even the one artifact that was recovered, an aluminum port cover, pointed to a Liberty ship, as these had many aluminum parts.
The expedition concluded, and we headed back to port. The wreck had left us with more questions than answers, and now opinions were split even over what type of ship we had discovered. Not sure whether it was a Liberty ship or destroyer, there was nothing to do but dive the wreck further for more information. Though a few of us did some cursory research, at that time no one felt a strong enough conviction to say exactly what it was we had found.
Subsequent attempts to dive the wreck that season were thwarted by foul weather, and further attempts would have to wait until spring. The 2001 season finally came, but the excitement of the first expedition ended when the engine alarm rang out soon after leaving port. A water pump had failed on the starboard engine, and we were forced to turn around. Frustratingly all the other dates of that year would be thwarted by more foul weather, and another year would pass before we could further investigate the net-covered mystery that lay on the bottom 80 miles offshore. Finally, on September 18 2002, SEEKER once again headed out of the Manasquan inlet in the pitch black of a moonless night. We were to complete the quest that had eluded us for two years now.
Splashing into the clear turquoise waters of the Gulf Stream, I made my descent, dropping through the layer of haze between the warm tropical waters above and the cold green bottom of the mid-Atlantic. Drifting down, the wreck began to take shape. The fishing nets again loomed up at me, held up by their floats. Knowing this time which direction the break in the hull was, I turned the other way and swam towards the bow, landing on the sandy bottom just forward of the bridge. Staring back at me was an enclosed turret sporting a 5″ gun, and just forward of that, a second turret. Continuing past these, I finally saw the knife-edged bow for myself. At that point there was no doubt remaining in my mind. This was a destroyer! But which one? While there are several records of Navy ships sunk in the region, I was unaware of any at this specific location.
The feeling was now unanimous that what we had found was without a doubt a warship, and not a freighter. In the weeks to pass before our next attempt to dive the unknown vessel, Naval records would reveal all of the answers to the mystery. At the time Richie Kohler was working in the Baltimore area not far from the National Archives. Taking lessons learned from John Chatterton while researching his discovery of the U-869 and with a little internet insight from Christina Young. Richie, with not too much effort, would soon have the documents that would match a tag on the back of a gauge that he had recovered previously. The tag would confirm what the documents revealed. The wreck we had discovered was the site where 35 men had lost their lives 60 years earlier, and where at least 15 of those sailors were still entombed – within the hull of the USS Murphy – DD-603.
As a US Navy warship, the wreckage continues to be the property of the US Navy. As well, it is a US Naval war grave. Therefore all commercial operations on the wreck have been ceased. Any removal of artifacts is strictly prohibited by law. All future expeditions to the wreck-site will be for image-capturing purposes only.
As for the mysterious Liberty ship that we didn’t find, that wreck is surely out there somewhere, awaiting future discovery and exploration.
A press release was sent out of the discovery which grabbed the attention of several local news papers, magazines and channel 7 news in New York City.
USS Murphy History from DANFS
Length: 347’ 10″
Beam: 36’ 1″
Draft: 13’ 6″
Standard Displacement: 1,620 tons
Full Load Displacement: 2,525 tons
Fuel capacity: 2,912 barrels
4 – 5″/38 caliber guns
2 – 40mm twin anti-aircraft mounts
2 – 21″ quintuple torpedo tubes
2 Bethlehem Turbines:
Top speed: 36.7 knots
Murphy ( DD-603 ) was laid down 19 May 1941 by Bethlehem Steel Corp., Staten Island, N.Y., launched 29 April 1942, sponsored by Miss M. Elsie Murphy, daughter of Acting Lieutenant Murphy; and commissioned 23 July 1942, Comdr. Leonard W. Bailey in command.
Following shakedown to Casco Bay, Maine, and escort duty off Halifax, Nova Scotia, Murphy Joined the Center Attack Group, Western Naval Task Force at Norfolk, sailing in late October for Fedhala, Morocco to participate in operation “Torch,” the invasion of North Africa. Arriving off the landing beaches 7 November, the destroyer regulated the waves of landing craft hitting the beach the next day, then gave fire support off Point Blondin, at which time the ship was hit in the after engine room during a furious exchange of fire with the Sherkhi battery, losing three men killed and 26 wounded. Immediate damage control measures prevented any serious damage, and Murphy’s crew was able to effect repairs in time to join other fire support ships in silencing the Cape Blondin guns. The plucky warship remained off Fedhala, driving off an enemy air attack on 9 November, until sailing for Boston to complete repairs, arriving on the 24th.
The destroyer next escorted convoys between New York and Panama, and Norfolk and Casablanca, until joining the “Dime” attack force screen for the invasion of Gela, Sicily in July 1943. On 10 July, while engaged in patrolling the beachhead, Murphy was straddled by near misses from a night air attack, puncturing her stern and wounding one man. She was again attacked two nights later, being missed by 100 yards by a German dive bomber, but continued her fire support off Sicily into August. Then, while escorting a group of transports to Palermo, she was once again attacked by dive bombers; but this time she splashed two enemy planes.
Murphy returned to the United States following the end of the Sicily invasion next escorting United Kingdom bound convoys. Standing out of New York Harbor 21 October, the destroyer was struck on the port side between the bridge and forward stack by tanker Bulkoil, The forward half of the ship sheared off and slowly sank, taking 38 officers and men with it.
The USS Glennon takes what’s left of the Murphy in tow until relieved by a US Coast Guard tug to finish the trip to Staten Island.
The after section was kept afloat and was towed into New York Navy Yard where, following a 7-month repair job and replacement of the entire bow, the veteran warship rejoined the fleet in time for the Normandy invasion. On 5 June 1944, Murphy departed Portland, England, assigned to the assault area off Vierville, France, better known as Omaha Beach. She remained there, giving fire support and conducting screen duty for the transports through mid-June, engaging in a gun duel with enemy shore batteries on 8 June, and repelling numerous German E-boat and torpedo attacks.
In July, Murphy steamed south to the Mediterranean operating with TF-88, the Aircraft Carrier Force in operation “Dragoon,” the invasion of southern France. She conducted fire support, plane guard, and screening duties during the landings, and then departed for New York for overhaul in early September. The destroyer resumed operations in late 1944, joining cruiser Quincy at Norfolk to escort that ship carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Malta and Great Bitter Lake, Egypt, conferences. Upon arrival at Great Bitter Lake, Murphy was detached and ordered to Jidda, Arabia to transport King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia and his party to the Conference. Transiting the Suez Canal, she anchored off Jidda 11 February, taking on board the royal party the next day. The destroyer got underway immediately with her valuable cargo settled in a tent on her forecastle, and arrived at Great Bitter Lake on the 15th. With her passengers disembarked, the warship then sailed for New York.
The veteran warship departed Boston on 10 July, steamed via the Panama Canal to the west coast, and then on the Okinawa, arriving 9 September. Being assigned to the 5th Fleet on occupation duty in southern Japanese waters, she visited Nagasaki, Yokosuka, Wakayama, and Nagoya until departing Okinawa on 21 November for the United States. She steamed via Saipan, Pearl Harbor, San Diego, and the Panama Canal, arriving at Charleston to prepare for inactivation. She decommissioned there 9 March 1946, and Joined the Charleston Group, Atlantic Reserve Fleet where she remains into 1969.
Murphy received four battle stars for World War II service.