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Survivor reflects on unsolved sinking of USS Turner during World War II

Stephen Huba
| Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, 10:24 p.m.
Robert Mowry of Irwin poses for a portrait in his home on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Mowry was on the USS Turner in 1944, sitting in New York harbor, when an explosion rocked the destroyer. He was only 18 then, but at 91, he still remembers that day and all his fellow seamen who died, many of whose bodies were never recovered.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Robert Mowry of Irwin poses for a portrait in his home on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Mowry was on the USS Turner in 1944, sitting in New York harbor, when an explosion rocked the destroyer. He was only 18 then, but at 91, he still remembers that day and all his fellow seamen who died, many of whose bodies were never recovered.
FILE - This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows Commander Henry S. Wygant Jr., who was captain of the USS Turner when it exploded and sank at the entrance to New York Harbor on Jan. 3, 1944. Nearly 73 years after the disaster, Wygant was among the136 sailors still listed as missing.
U.S. Navy
FILE - This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows Commander Henry S. Wygant Jr., who was captain of the USS Turner when it exploded and sank at the entrance to New York Harbor on Jan. 3, 1944. Nearly 73 years after the disaster, Wygant was among the136 sailors still listed as missing.
In this undated file photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the USS Turner is pictured on the East River in New York City near the Williamsburg Bridge. More than 70 years ago, after 136 American sailors perished when the the ship blew up and sank near New York Harbor, a World War II researcher says the sailors' families were notified that the servicemen were missing, but apparently never told them that the bodies had been recovered and buried in common graves on Long Island.
U.S. Navy
In this undated file photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the USS Turner is pictured on the East River in New York City near the Williamsburg Bridge. More than 70 years ago, after 136 American sailors perished when the the ship blew up and sank near New York Harbor, a World War II researcher says the sailors' families were notified that the servicemen were missing, but apparently never told them that the bodies had been recovered and buried in common graves on Long Island.
Robert Mowry of Irwin poses for a portrait in his home on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Mowry was on the USS Turner in 1944, sitting in New York harbor, when an explosion rocked the destroyer. He was only 18 then, but at 91, he still remembers that day and all his fellow seamen who died, many of whose bodies were never recovered.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Robert Mowry of Irwin poses for a portrait in his home on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Mowry was on the USS Turner in 1944, sitting in New York harbor, when an explosion rocked the destroyer. He was only 18 then, but at 91, he still remembers that day and all his fellow seamen who died, many of whose bodies were never recovered.
Robert Mowry of Irwin poses for a portrait in his home on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Mowry was on the USS Turner in 1944, sitting in New York harbor, when an explosion rocked the destroyer. He was only 18 then, but at 91, he still remembers that day and all his fellow seamen who died, many of whose bodies were never recovered.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Robert Mowry of Irwin poses for a portrait in his home on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Mowry was on the USS Turner in 1944, sitting in New York harbor, when an explosion rocked the destroyer. He was only 18 then, but at 91, he still remembers that day and all his fellow seamen who died, many of whose bodies were never recovered.

Robert Mowry remembers Jan. 3, 1944, as the day when he was late for breakfast.

He had been working as a Fireman 3rd Class in the aft fire room of the USS Turner, a destroyer anchored in the shallow waters outside New York harbor, and was expecting to be relieved by a man named Duffy so that he could go up to the mess hall.

It was 10 minutes before 6 a.m. Duffy was late.

“I heard, ‘Boom!' and was knocked right on my backside,” Mowry said. “The whole front of the ship shook.”

The destroyer that Mowry, 91, of Irwin had spent the last six months aboard was mortally wounded and soon to go down. Mowry collected his wits and climbed a ladder to get up on deck.

“I could see there was bodies laying all around,” he said.

Mowry jumped overboard into the frigid waters “shoes, dungarees and all,” and was rescued by a Coast Guard cutter. But the Turner was a lost cause. A third explosion split the destroyer in half and sent it to the bottom, at rest in only 55 feet of water.

“If (Duffy) had relieved me on time, I'd have been dead,” he said.

Mowry is one of the last remaining survivors of a World War II explosion that remains unsolved. Many of its crew — 136 — were killed and continue to be listed by the Pentagon as missing in action. Most of those seamen who died had been in the mess hall, the officers' quarters above or elsewhere in the forward part of the ship, Mowry said. Another 150 were rescued.

A Virginia-based researcher has found evidence that at least four Turner sailors were buried anonymously in a veterans cemetery on Long Island. Ted Darcy told The Associated Press in November that the government should, once and for all, locate and identify the remains of the 136 sailors and give them a proper memorial.

Sitting at his kitchen table recently, Mowry said he's not sure what happened to the men who went down with the ship, but he doesn't believe their bodies were recovered in the subsequent salvage operation. His memories of that fateful day are otherwise clear.

“I was just 18. I didn't know nothing. I was just a smart-ass kid,” he said.

Mowry grew up in Irwin and dropped out of Norwin High School at age 15. At 17, in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy. He joined the crew of the Turner in time for its shakedown cruise in the Atlantic Ocean. Outfitted with 5-inch guns, the destroyer's primary mission was to protect convoys delivering military supplies to North Africa and southern Europe.

The Turner accompanied three convoys across the Atlantic, docking for a time at a port outside Casablanca, French Morocco. On the third return trip, the crew detected German U-boat activity off the coast of Norfolk, Va., Mowry said.

Back at its home port of New York, the Turner dropped anchor just outside the submarine net, and the men looked forward to some time ashore. “We had just come back from Casablanca. ... Everybody was dressed up and ready to go into New York,” Mowry said.

Although the cause of the explosion was never determined, theories run the gamut from a U-boat attack to defective ammunition, according to the website USSTurner.org. Some crewmen were said to be defusing anti-submarine depth charges at the time of the explosion.

Following his rescue, Mowry was taken to an American Red Cross center in New York, where he was fed and spent the night. He had a 30-day leave and eventually was reassigned to the USS Hank, another destroyer, which participated in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa and other Pacific Ocean campaigns.

“I saw more action in the Pacific (than in the Atlantic),” Mowry said, noting that the Hank had to defend itself against numerous kamikaze attacks.

With the Japanese surrender, Mowry returned stateside via the Philippines. He took a train from San Francisco to Pennsylvania and found a job waiting for him at a local machine shop. He got married, started a family and spent most of his career at Westinghouse Air Brake Co. in Wilmerding.

Mowry still lives in the house that he bought in 1959, where he raised five children. When he thinks about that infamous day in 1944, he's still not sure if it was an accident or an attack, but he's grateful that he was given another chance at life.

“I worried more about getting a job and keeping a job,” he said.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280 or shuba@tribweb.com.

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