Collision at Sea and in Court

The Saga of USS Chicago and MS Silverpalm, 1933-38

By Thomas C. Hone with William J. Hone

The night of October 23, 1933, started out mostly clear. The Silver Line motorship Silverpalm, a diesel-powered cargo ship displacing 9,766 tons when loaded, finished taking on her cargo in San Francisco just before midnight and headed out of San Francisco Bay, bound south to the Panama Canal and then New Orleans. Earlier that day, four United States Navy cruisers—Chicago (CA-29) and her sisters Northampton (CA-26), Chester (CA-27), and Louisville (CA-28)—left San Pedro, California, for a run north in order to participate in a Navy Day celebration in San Francisco. Chicago was the flagship of Vice Admiral Harris Laning, commanding the cruisers of the U.S. Fleet’s Scouting Force. 

The captain of Silverpalm was Bernard T. Cox, an experienced British mariner and World War I Royal Navy veteran. He had assumed his position in May. After leaving San Francisco Bay, he increased Silverpalm’s speed to 13.5 knots. Approaching him from the south was the line of the four U.S. Navy cruisers, steaming toward him in a line-ahead formation at 12 knots. At about 2:40 am, Captain Cox took direct control of his ship as fog and mist reduced visibility. At about 4:20 am, Cox slowed Silverpalm for about 20 minutes because the fog around his ship grew worse. He increased her speed when visibility improved. 

The four warships kept station on their course north. Chicago and the two cruisers following her towed special spars that kicked up spray visible to the ship that was next in line. The distance between ships was 600 yards. In charge of Chicago was Captain Herbert E. Kays, a 1905 graduate of the Naval Academy and recently the commander of Mine Division Two based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Kays had taken command of Chicago in April. He and his navigating officer, Lieutenant Commander Lloyd R. Gray, spent the evening and early morning hours moving back and forth between Chicago’s pilot house and the adjacent chart house. 

Even in the darkest hours after midnight, there was nothing to indicate that Chicago would collide with Silverpalm a little after 8:00 am, but collide they did….

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