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The untold story of the men who died in the USS Saturn inferno — and why the Navy's inquiry remained classified for decades
Waverly Sykes ran up the gangway into the billowing smoke at Pier 5.
"Chief, there are men trapped in that hold!" workmen on the deck of the USS Saturn shouted.
The Norfolk Navy Yard fire chief could hear the cries of the men below as fire hoses were laid on the deck. He grabbed one and descended the ladder behind his assistant chief, battling flames on his way down into the smoke and fume-filled atmosphere of the ship's third hold.
The firefighters knocked down flames overhead and on the bulkhead. A pile of cork about 6 feet high was on fire on the ship's starboard side. The flames there seemed more stubborn than the rest. They doused them with water and kicked the pile over with their boots until the flames were snuffed out.
Sykes made his way over to the port side of the ship where he stumbled against something soft. He switched on his flashlight and held it close to the object. It was a man.
Another fireman rushed over to help, turned on his light and discovered a second victim.
"Great God, chief! There are some more men over this way!"
All available ambulances were summoned from the city of Portsmouth, Cradock, South Norfolk, Portlock and Western Branch. By the time all the shipyard workmen were accounted for, 15 were dead and 20 injured.
They died battling a 60-day deadline to return the Saturn to its service as a World War II supply ship.
A cadre of workers at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard funded and operated a private, undocumented police force equipped with illegally obtained weapons, equipment, and vehicles totaling $21 million for more than a decade, according to an internal investigation conducted by Naval Sea System Command’s inspector general.
One thing holds true above all others in the military: You can choose your branch, but you can’t choose your duty station. Duty assignments are a crapshoot, and there’s nothing anyone can do about a losing dice-roll except complain. So we asked you, our readers, to list off the worst duty stations for your service, and you didn’t disappoint. While 1,300 readers responded on Facebook, one branch was conspicuously mum when it came to shitty bases. Any guesses on which one it was?