The 136 Missing World War II Sailors Who Died In An Explosion While At Anchor In New York Harbor

USS Turner (DD-648) underway in September 1943
USS Turner (DD-648) underway in September 1943

One of the enduring mysteries of World War II is the whereabouts of  136 crew members of the USS Turner. The ship sank in New York Harbor while at anchor in 1944.  It was so close to the city that the shockwave from the onboard ammunition exploding shattered windows in some buildings.

Recently uncovered documents show that four of the missing sailors were found and buried shortly after the sinking of the Turner. They were buried in separate graves for the unknown in a cemetery for veterans in Long Island.

Ted Darcy, the military historian, believes that more sailors were found and buried in gravesites marked either with “Unknown U.S. Sailor” or “January 3, 1944,” – the date the destroyer sank.

Darcy is upset that the sailors seem to have been buried and forgotten.  He thinks it’s unfair that they have been neglected by the government.

Darcy is turning his research over to the Pentagon. His goal is for the military to exhume the four graves, identify the remains and rebury them with proper honors.

The Pentagon still lists all 136 sailors as missing. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is the federal office in charge of recovering and identifying the country’s missing war dead.

The Turner was a 10-month-old destroyer that was returning from convoy duty in the Atlantic. It was moored a few miles from Sandy Hook, New Jersey.  An explosion on the ship set most of the ship on fire.  A series of explosions eventually broke it in two, and it sank.

The Navy never discovered the cause of the explosion, but there was a report that mentioned anti-submarine munitions being defused in the harbor at the time.

Over 150 men were saved, but 136 were lost. The Navy’s National Archives have no information as to how many bodies were recovered. Darcy believes most of the remains would be intact in the watertight compartments on the ship.

The records at the Long Island veteran’s cemetery from 1944 show four sailors were buried in unmarked graves.

Darcy believes that most or all of the remains from the Turner are in those four graves. He said that co-mingling the remains was common as the Navy became overworked during the war. The Long Island cemetery has multiple graves with more than one body in them.  All 388 crew members from the USS Oklahoma are buried in 45 graves in Hawaii.

Loved ones were only told that the sailors from the Turner were missing. They were never told if the remains were ever recovered.

“I would have liked to have known that,” said 82-year-old Marjory Avery of Corsicana, Texas. Her father is Henry S. Wygant, Jr.  He was the captain of the Turner and is officially listed as missing, Fox News reported.

Relatives of several sailors who survived the Turner disaster but who have since passed away, said that they were never told about the graves. Two of the only living survivors, James Thomas of Leivasy, West Virginia and Robert Mowry, of Irwin, Pennsylvania have also said they never knew about the graves.

“It’s just one of those things that happen in a war,” said Mowry, 91. “It was just us at the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s all.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE