Tsunami, Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Volcanic Eruptions, Climate Change and other Natural and Man-Made Hazards and Disasters - Disaster Archaeology,

Tsunami, Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Volcanic Eruptions and other Natural and Man-Made Hazards and Disasters


The Loss of the USS Memphis on 29 August 1916 - Was a Tsunami Responsible?

Analysis of a Naval Disaster

George Pararas-Carayannis

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On August 29, 1916, while anchored off Santo Domingo (Ciudad Trujillo) harbor in the Dominican Republic, the armored cruiser U.S.S. Memphis was struck broadside by numerous storm waves and, finally, by an enormous wave which drove the ship into the rocks on the shore. The damage to its hull and engines was irreparable.   A subsequent Court of Inquiry and the court-martial of the captain, attributed the loss of the ship to a tsunami. The following analysis documents that the loss of the ship was not due to a tsunami as the official Navy records indicate and that it could have been prevented with proper planning and vigilance. Human errors and lack of knowledge of a passing hurricane were primarily responsible for the loss of the Memphis.

The USS Memphis

The USS Memphis was a large 14,500-ton displacement armored cruiser that had been launched on 3 December 1904 and originally named "Tennessee". Her armament included four ten-inch guns in twin turrets, sixteen six-inch guns, and twenty-two three-inch guns. The ship had two steam powered engines and was capable of reaching a speed of 23 knots. 

The USS Memphis' Mission

In 1916, an unstable government and political unrest at San Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) required the dispatch of U.S. Marines to protect U.S. interests on this Caribbean nation on the island of Hispaniola. The USS Memphis was ordered to sail to the harbor of Santo Domingo, the capital, to support the U.S. Marines stationed there. Captain Edward J. Beach, was the ship's commander. Also, the Memphis was the flagship of Rear Admiral Charles F. Pond, the ranking U.S. Navy Commander in the region.or peace-keeping patrol off the rebellion-torn Dominican Republic arrived at Santo Domingo harbor in early August 1929.


The Harbor of Santo Domingo

In July 1916, the Memphis got underway for the West Indies, arriving at San Domingo on 23 July . the ship was anchored at about 55 ft. depth close to the mouth of Ozama river and near the 1177-ton U.S. gunboat "Castine". Anchorage on this southern side of the island was poor, because of its exposure to storms from the south and the southeast.

Weather Conditions at Santo Domingo in August 1916 - Ship Preparations

This Caribbean island of Hispaniola - shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic - lies in the middle of the hurricane belt and is subject to severe storms and hurricanes from June to October. Concerned that it was hurricane season, Captain Beach proposed to keep four boilers of the Memphis going at all times to enable the ship to get out of the harbor quickly if a hurricane approached. However, because of US. Navy economy measures, Admiral Pond advised Captain Beach to keep only two of the ship's boilers going for auxiliary machinery, but to keep the other four boilers ready in case of emergency.

Around August 22, the barometric pressure dropped significantly and the weather begun to deteriorate. Fearing that a storm or a hurricane was approaching, Captain Beach ordered the other four boilers of the ship to be fired and all arrangements to be made to get underway.  The feared hurricane did not occur but the preparedness exercise was useful in demonstrating that the required steam pressure to power the ship's engines could be raised in about 40 minutes. 



Chronology of Events in the afternoon of 29 August 1916 leading to the Loss of USS Memphis

The following chronology of events summarizes entries from the ship's log, from observations by the crew and people on the shore, from findings of a Court of Inquiry, and from testimony at the court martial of the ship's captain, following the loss of the ship.

Satellite photo of the Santo Domingo coast where the USS Memphis perished.

29 August 1916 - The few days after 22 August 1916 were uneventful. Both the Memphis and Castine were riding gently in smooth sea, anchored off Santo Domingo. No storm warnings had been received.  However, in the early afternoon of 29 August, even though there was no wind, suddenly the waves became significantly higher. Both the Memphis and Castine begun to roll considerably at their anchorages. Long period waves could be seen coming into the harbor from the east and breaking on the rocks.

15.30 - Concerned about the increasing wave activity, an order was issued to the engine room of the Memphis to raise steam pressure. However, major difficulties were reported from the engine and boiler rooms. Water spray was entering through the ventilators on the ship's deck which had not been properly secured.  Some of the ventilators on the deck were subsequently shut off, but a lot of water had already entered the engine rooms, creating problems in raising steam pressure. The engine room reported to the bridge that there would be adequate steam pressure from the four boilers to power the engines by 16.35.

15.35 - 15.40 - In the next few minutes the swells in the harbor increased considerably. The Memphis was rolling very heavily and seas were now covering her decks. Spray continued to come down the ventilator funnels.   According to officers on the bridge, the waves were so enormous that the ship's keel bumped the seabed once or twice. Given the fact that the ship was presumably anchored in 55 feet of water,  this meant that the waves must have been about 40 feet in height. 

16.00 - Huge breakers capsized a motor launch returning to the Memphis. There was nothing that could be done to help the crew and passengers struggling in the water. By that time, the gunboat Castine had managed to increase steam pressure, start its engines and raise her anchor. In an effort to rescue those in the water, the gunboat came into the surf.  However, the seas were too rough to lower a boat and the Castine got dangerously close to the rocks. Fearing that Castine may end up on the rocks, the rescue effort was abandoned but life jackets were thrown in the water. Castine's commander ordered to head out. The battered gunboat struggled past the Memphis, but managed to get safely out to deeper water.

16.30 - By that time the swell was even greater. The Memphis kept on rolling 60 and perhaps as much as 70 degrees.  Her decks were being washed over by the waves and repeatedly she was battered into the harbor bottom.

With each wave, the ship appeared to be lifting and dragging towards the rocks on the shore. Captain Beach ordered the drop of a second anchor, but the order was canceled when the engine room informed him that steam pressure would be adequate in five minutes to start the engines. With the ship rolling that much and the seas washing over the decks, attempting to drop the second anchor was impossible.

16.35 - An immense wave estimated to be about 70 feet in height was seen approaching the harbor.

16.38 - The engine room could not generate sufficient steam pressure for the engines. The ship's anchor cable was straining and appeared that it would break. With only 90 lb. of steam pressure, Captain Beach had no choice and could not wait for more steam. In an effort to at least turn the ship's bow into the approaching huge wave, he ordered the starboard engine full astern and the port engine full ahead. It was a futile effort. There was simply not sufficient steam pressure to turn the ship ninety degrees and complete the maneuver.

16.40 - The enormous wave was quickly approaching the Memphis. It could be seen churning sediments of sand and mud from the sea bottom. It appeared that it would hit the ship broadside - the most vulnerable position. The shallower water depth had slowed the wave down a bit but its height had increased. In front of it, a 300 ft long trough had formed. As the wave got closer to the Memphis, its peak begun to break. The top of the breaking crest was now about 30-40 feet above on the ship's bridge. The wave form appeared to consist of three distinct steps,  each separated by a large plateau.

The huge wave broke thunderously upon the Memphis, completely engulfing it.  Two seamen trying to release the second anchor were washed overboard.  The wave's impact injured members of the crew. Other crew members were injured or killed by steam or by steam inhalation when the ship boilers exploded. The ship did not capsize but recovered to an upright position but hit bottom hard, which normally would be about twenty-five feet below her keel. The battering caused great damage on her hull.

16.45 - Slowly, dragging her anchor, the Memphis struck the first rocks at about 16.45. As each succeeding wave pounded her, she was forced a little further ashore until her port side crushed against the rocks, which pierced this side repeatedly. The Memphis was still rolling from side to side,  although now firmly aground.  

17.00 - At about 17.00 the battered ship was given one final push by the waves, thus moving her hard aground on Santo Domingo's rocky coast in water depth ranging from 12-19 feet and only 40 feet from the cliffy shoreline. Large holes in the ship's hull could be seen by observers on the shore.

Securing the Wreck of the Memphis

Actions that followed the grounding of the Memphis are not of direct relevance to the evaluation of causes that caused this disaster and details are omitted since they have been adequately documented in U.S. Navy archives and the literature. It will suffice to say only that, as soon as the Memphis had gone firmly aground, Captain Beach ordered the crew to fully secure the ship with ropes to the shore. This was accomplished with the assistance of U.S. Marines and hundreds of Dominicans on the cliffy shore of the harbor. Then the captain ordered the evacuation of the injured, followed by the evacuation of 850 others. This was done in an orderly and safe fashion, using hawsers on land and ropes.

Death Toll and Injuries - Damage to the Ship

What had started as a normal routine afternoon on board the USS Memphis on 29 August 1916, in a matter of about one hour, turned into a disaster of major proportions. Forty three people lost their lives that fateful afternoon. Twenty five crew members died when the ship's motor launch capsized in huge breakers at about 14.00, as it was attempting to return to the ship. Another eight members of the crew were lost when three boats sent to sea sank or were wrecked attempting to reach shore after dark. Ten more died either by being washed overboard or from burns and steam inhalation when the ship's boilers exploded. The total casualties,numbered 43 dead and 204 injured.

The ship itself sustained irreparable damage. Though she appeared to be nearly normal in appearance above the water, the USS Memphis was a total loss. Her bottom was driven in, her hull structure was badly distorted and her boilers had exploded. Her 23,000 horsepower steam power plant had been destroyed. The Memphis, would never sail again. Although her guns and other components were eventually salvaged, her punctured and twisted hull remained an abandoned wreck on the cliffs of Santo Domingo for 21 years - before being dismantled by ship breakers.

Conclusions of the Court of Inquiry as to What Caused the Loss of the Memphis

The loss of the Memphis was followed by a Court of Inquiry and the court martial of Captain Edward J. Beach, the ship's commander. The court concluded that conditions had deteriorated very rapidly to save the Memphis.  Also, that the heavy rolling of the ship and the flooding from the ventilator funnels was the reason that steam pressure could not be raised in time to fire the engines and head out to sea, as the gunboat Castine had barely managed to do. Complications in the engine room were blamed for the failure. The Court found that Captain Beach was guilty of not keeping up sufficient steam to get underway at short notice and of not properly securing the ship for heavy weather. 

The huge waves that engulfed and wrecked the Memphis and drowned the sailors were attributed to a "tropical disturbance", a "seismic storm", but also to a "tsunami" that originated from a seismic event somewhere in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean or Caribbean Sea.


Photographs of the USS Memphis Wreck taken in 1917 and Later

(U.S. Naval Historical Center Photographs)

Analysis of the Naval Disaster

A Tsunami in the Caribbean Sea was not Responsible for the Loss of USS Memphis

The Navy's conclusion that the loss of the Memphis was due to a 'seismic storm' or a tsunami was erroneous. There is no such thing as a "seismic storm". Furthermore, no tsunami occurred in late August 1916 in the Caribbean Sea or the Atlantic Ocean. The characteristics of the waves observed breaking on the coastline of Santo Domingo in the afternoon of 29 August 1916 were not those of a tsunami.

The Hurricanes of 1916 -Tracks of Hurricanes in 1916 in the Caribbean Sea and the Western Atlantic Ocean

Tsunami waves were not responsible for the loss of the Memphis. Most of the historical tsunamis in the Caribbean region have been generated by tectonic earthquakes. A review of historical catalogs of tsunamis does not show an event specifically occurring on August 29, 1916. The only earthquake and tsunami in the vicinity which could have affected Santo Domingo occurred on April 24, 1916 north of Puerto Rico, probably in the Mona Passage. Another earthquake/tsunami occurred in the vicinity of Guatemala/Nicaragua on January 31, 1916. This event could not generate a tsunami at Santo Domingo. A tsunami was generated on the Pacific side of Central America. The waves that resulted in the loss of the USS Memphis were not caused by a tsunami. There were no earthquakes of significance in the region during the latter part of August 1916. Similarly , there were no volcanic eruptions or major underwater landslides.

The Navy officers who participated in the Court of Inquiry and the court martial of the ship's captain did not appear to have much technical experience or training about storm-generated waves or tsunamis. In 1916, Oceanography and Meteorology had not developed sufficiently as fields of science. Very little was known about tsunamis or the modes of their generation. Also, it appears that very little was known about tropical storms or hurricanes. There was no effective way of tracking hurricanes or reporting vital weather data to the Navy Command. Weather forecasting was at a rudimentary state and there was no effective monitoring system or synoptic observations which could be shared in real time. Finally, communications were not very good in those days. Thus, it appears that the Navy Command did not even have information on the three hurricanes that had passed close to Santo Domingo in the month of August 1916. In fact, on 18 August, one of these hurricanes had made landfall at Corpus Christi, Texas, and had been responsible for widespread destruction. Even if this information was known, it appears that it was not conveyed to the captains of the Memphis or the Castine at Santo Domingo.

The USS Memphis was wrecked by storm waves generated by a passing hurricane

The location at Santo Domingo where the Memphis and the Castine were anchored was very vulnerable to approaching storm waves from the east and southeast. The water depth of 55 feet where the Memphis had dropped anchor was too shallow and within the breaking depth zone of potential significant waves of longer period and wavelength, generated by hurricanes.

As it will be demonstrated, the series of huge breakers and the enormous wave that wrecked the ship on the afternoon of 29 August 1916 were generated by an approaching hurricane.

The most significant of the waves that wrecked the Memphis were generated within this hurricane's zone of maximum winds. Once outside the fetch region of generation, these storm waves had outrun the slower moving hurricane system and raced as swells across the Caribbean and towards the harbor of Santo Domingo.

The following is an account of the hurricanes that passed near the Dominican Republic in August 1916 and an analysis of the storm waves of the particular hurricane that caused the loss of the ship.

The Hurricanes of 1916

This region of the Caribbean is in the middle of the hurricane belt and is subject to severe tropical storms and hurricanes from June to October. As shown by the hurricane tracking diagram, there were numerous hurricanes that traversed the region in 1916. Most of them developed in the Atlantic Ocean as tropical storms but when they reached winds of more than 75 miles per hour, they were classified as hurricanes. Three of these storm systems became hurricanes in August 1916. Two of them crossed the Central Caribbean Sea, south of Santo Domingo, and one headed north.

Track of the unnamed 1916 hurricane that struck Corpus Christi, Texas in 1916

The first of the unnamed hurricanes in August 1916 (8/12 - 8/19) reached Category 3 and made landfall at Corpus Christi, Texas - causing extensive destruction there. The second unnamed hurricane (8/21 - 8/25) reached briefly a Category 2 status as it passed near the island of Hispaniola, but quickly degenerated into a tropical storm. Finally, the third unnamed hurricane in late August (8/27 - 9/2) reached a Category 2 status with sustained winds of over 100 miles per hour. It passed south of Santo Domingo on August 29. It is believed that it was this hurricane that generated the huge waves at Santo Domingo. Because its waves wrecked the USS Memphis, we shall refer to it as "Hurricane Memphis".

The unnamed Hurricane of August 12 - August 19, 1916

As the tracking indicates, this hurricane reached Category 3 status passing south of Santo Domingo on 14-15 of August. It continued in a northwest direction, making landfall at Corpus Christi, Texas on August 18.

There is no information on any unusual wave activity at Santo Domingo around August 14-15 when this hurricane passed about 275 nautical miles to the south. It appears that the directionality of the hurricane's path was the reason that no significant waves struck the coast of Santo Domingo.

However, this hurricane was very destructive in the Corpus Christi, Texas region. In fact it was the strongest storm since the Great Galveston storm of 1900 had struck the area south of Corpus Christi

Although this hurricane caused some damage, it moved very fast over the Texas coastal area, thus resulting in low loss of life. Only 15 people died. However, property damage was significant and was estimated at $1,600,000 (1916 dollars). Most affected were the cities of Bishop, Kingsville and Corpus Christi. In Corpus Christi, all the wharves and most of the waterfront buildings were destroyed. There was hardly any property that was not damaged. Most of the damage resulted from the hurricane surge flooding and the superimposed storm waves.

Evaluation of Hurricane "Memphis" of 8/27 - 9/02, 1916

As the tracking diagram indicates this particular system developed from a tropical storm on 27 August to a Category 2 hurricane on 29 August. It reached sustained winds of over 100 miles an hour and maximum probable wind speeds and gusts of 125 miles per hour.

This was a dynamic storm system which advanced into the Caribbean Basin rapidly. The hurricane's speed of translation eastward is estimated at about 15- 20 nautical miles per hour, since it traversed approximately 400 nautical miles on 29 August. At its closest point, the hurricane center was about 250 nautical miles south of Santo Domingo.

The following is tracking information for hurricane Memphis, followed by an analysis of the storm waves it generated.

Tracking information for Unnamed Hurricane (Hurricane Memphis) Passing South of Santo Domingo on 29 August 1916

Time Lat Lon Wind(mph) Pressure Storm type
6 GMT 8/27/16 14.0N 46.3W 70 -999 Tropical Storm
12 GMT 8/27/16 14.0N 48.5W 70 -999 Tropical Storm
18 GMT 8/27/16 14.3N 51.2W 75 -999 Category 1 Hurricane
0 GMT 8/28/16 14.7N 53.5W 75 -999 Category 1 Hurricane
6 GMT 8/28/16 15.1N 56.0W 80 -999 Category 1 Hurricane
12 GMT 8/28/16 15.3N 58.5W 85 -999 Category 1 Hurricane
18 GMT 8/28/16 15.4N 60.5W 85 -999 Category 1 Hurricane
0 GMT 8/29/16 15.5N 62.8W 90 989 Category 1 Hurricane
6 GMT 8/29/16 15.6N 65.1W 100 -999 Category 2 Hurricane
12 GMT 8/29/16 15.6N 67.6W 100 -999 Category 2 Hurricane
18 GMT 8/29/16 15.7N 69.2W 100 -999 Category 2 Hurricane

0 GMT 8/30/16 15.9N 71.3W 100 -999 Category 2 Hurricane
6 GMT 8/30/16 16.0N 73.1W 100 -999 Category 2 Hurricane
12 GMT 8/30/16 16.2N 75.1W 100 -999 Category 2 Hurricane
18 GMT 8/30/16 16.6N 76.7W 100 -999 Category 2 Hurricane
0 GMT 8/31/16 16.8N 78.2W 100 -999 Category 2 Hurricane
6 GMT 8/31/16 17.0N 79.6W 100 -999 Category 2 Hurricane
12 GMT 8/31/16 17.4N 81.0W 90 -999 Category 1 Hurricane
18 GMT 8/31/16 17.7N 82.0W 90 -999 Category 1 Hurricane
0 GMT 9/ 1/16 18.0N 83.2W 85 -999 Category 1 Hurricane
6 GMT 9/ 1/16 18.1N 84.1W 85 -999 Category 1 Hurricane
12 GMT 9/ 1/16 18.2N 85.3W 80 -999 Category 1 Hurricane
18 GMT 9/ 1/16 18.2N 86.4W 80 -999 Category 1 Hurricane
0 GMT 9/ 2/16 18.1N 87.6W 75 -999 Category 1 Hurricane
6 GMT 9/ 2/16 17.9N 89.3W 65 -999 Tropical Storm
12 GMT 9/ 2/16 17.0N 91.0W 35 -999 Tropical Depression

Hurricane "Memphis" Wind Field - Directionality of Hurricane Fetches, Duration and Significant Storm Waves and Swells

The hurricane's winds blew in a counterclocwise pattern. Soon after the hurricane crossed the Lesser Antilles islands arc, significant storm waves of longer period begun developing within the radius of maximum winds, within fetches of 10 to 20 nautical miles and over a durations of 1 to 2 hours.

As the hurricane progressed westward in the Caribbean in the early morning hours of 29 August, the fetches of maximum winds kept on changing direction in the same counterclockwise pattern. Initially the winds generated huge storm waves from an easterly direction. At the time, the wave field in front and on either side of the hurricane center consisted of locally generated seas and traveling swells from other regions of the storm system. However, in the next few hours, as the hurricane was approaching the longitude of Santo Domingo, additional huge storm waves were generated, not only along the east-west fetches of maximum winds, but along fetches with a southeast - northwest orientation.

The longer period storm waves begun to outrun the moving storm system and sorted out as distinct wave trains traveling as swells towards the southern coasts of the Dominican Republic. Because of the hurricane's eastward movement and orientation of the fetches of maximum winds, the waves that were generated became very directional towards Santo Domingo. The direction of approach of converging swells was from the east, from the east south-east, and from the south east.

Estimate of the Height and Period of the Most Significant Deep Water Storm Wave Generated by Hurricane "Memphis" - The Killer Wave

Based on limited data for this historical hurricane but on certain known parameters of other more recent hurricanes, mathematical modeling can be applied to simulate the near sea surface wind field and to estimate the upper limit of the long period waves generated by this storm system. However, such modeling is a very involved process. For the purpose of the present analysis, an empirical approach is sufficient to roughly evaluate the Rayleigh wave distribution function, and the upper limit of storm wave height variability, as well as the maximum period, wavelength, and deep water height of the most significant of the storm waves. Based on this analysis it can be concluded that it was this significan wave or a very similar long period wave, which combined in resonance with other storm waves, and resulted in the huge breaker that engulfed the USS Memphis at 1640 on 29 August 1916 - wrecking it on the rocks of Santo Domingo.

The significant height (Ho) and period (To) of the most significant wave generated in deep water at a point on the radius (R) of maximum wind of a hurricane can be calculated mathematically, provided that the hurricane's pressure differential from the normal (Dp) is known, as well as the hurricane's forward speed, its maximum gradient wind speed near the water surface (30 feet above), and the Coriolis parameter (f) at that latitude. The mathematical equations for this calculation are ommitted here but the results are presented.

Based on the limited data available for this August 1916 hurricane ("Memphis" - Category 2 hurricane), and assuming that its radius of maximum winds was about 35 nautical miles away from the storm center (a reasonable approximation for a hurricane of this type), the forward speed was 20 knots, and the barometric pressure differential of about 2.3 inches of mercury, the most significant deep water height (Ho) is calculated to be about 58.9 feet. The deep water period of this significant wave is calculated to be about 16.1 seconds - indeed a long period. Once outside the hurricane region this significant wave maintained its wavelength and period, but attenuated somewhat in height during its travel towards Santo Domingo.

Wave Transformation in Shallow Water - Effects of Near Shore Refraction and Resonance

In the meantime, the first of the longer period storm waves - which outrun the hurricane system's eastward progression - begun arriving as swells at Santo Domingo at about 1500 on August 29. Up to that time the sea had been smooth and there were no reports of winds or a drop in barometric pressure. At that time, the hurricane's center was fairly far away at about 15.6 N and 67.6 W, approximately 300 nautical miles southeast of Santo Domingo. However, these initial waves that begun arriving at 1500 had been generated much earlier, mainly from east-west fetches when the hurricane was as far as 600 nautical miles away. The swells had traveled almost twice as fast as the overall storm.

In the next hour, additional storm waves generated closer to Santo Domingo - but coming from a changing east-southeast direction - begun to outrun the moving hurricane and interfere with swells arriving from the east. The direction of the waves approaching Santo Domingo kept on changing, but when the swells reached shallower water, the bottom effects begun to be felt. Near-shore refraction unified the waves' directional approach towards the harbor of Santo Domingo and the location where the Memphis and the Castine were anchored. Some of the waves that had similar periods and wavelengths arrived in resonance, and begun to superimpose on each other - thus augmenting their heights. The longer period waves begun to break in water deeper than the 55 feet where presumably the Memphis was anchored. These breaking waves, some striking broadside, washed over the decks of the Memphis, and thus water went into the ventilator shafts. This in turn caused the problems in raising steam for the engines of the ship. The anchor was still holding, but probably slightly dragging on the sea floor. Apparently not enough scope had been let out on the anchor's chain. Dropping a second anchor would not have helped the Memphis since not enough scope could be released for the anchor to grab and be effective.

The Most Significant of the Waves - According to the crew on the Memphis, a huge wave appeared in the horizon and its height was estimated to have been about 70 feet. This must have been the most significant of the waves generated by the hurricane which was estimated earlier to have a maximum deep water height of 58.9 feet and a period of 16.1 seconds when it left the fetch in the hurricane's region of maximum winds (estimated to have been 125 knots/hour).

As this huge wave got close to the Memphis, crew members observed that it had three distinct steps and two plateaus on its forward face. Also, they reported that its crest was preceded by a trough which was estimated to be 300 ft. long. These observations suggest that this wave's overall wavelength was about 600 feet and that two other waves had superimposed on it when refraction begun to take place in the shallows off Santo Domingo. Since the period of this extreme wave was calculated to be 16.1 seconds in deep water (unchanged by refraction), the deep water wave celerity (speed) can be estimated - based on Airy and Cnoidal wave theories - to have been: C=L/T =600/16.1= 37.27 ft/sec (independent of depth). However in water shallower than one half the wavelength (in this case less than 300 feet) refraction by bathymetry and effects of resonance begun to take place - thus combining this huge wave with two other significant, long period waves approaching from different sources and directions. This explains the three steps and plateaus that were observed on the face of the huge wave.

The transformation of the huge wave had begun about two minutes earlier. When the wave reached water depths ranging much less than 1/2 its wavelength (much less than 300 feet), the refraction effects became more significant. Its speed was reduced considerably. The wave speed was now dependent on the depth of the water and was governed by the shallow water wave equation, which can be simplified as: C = Square Root of gxd - where d=depth of the water, and g= gravitational acceleration for that particular latitude. Based on solitary wave theory, and without knowing the slope profile off Santo Domingo harbor, an estimate of the breaker height can be made based on the relationship between the breaker height (Hb) to the breaking depth (Db). At the breaker depth, all of the wave's potential energy became forward kinetic energy - much to the detriment of Memphis. The relationship from which the depth of the water where the wave will begin to break can be obtained from Hb=Db/1.28. Since the observation was made by members of the crew that the huge wave was about 30 to 40 feet above the bridge of the Memphis - and assuming that the bridge was about 30 feet above sea level, the height of the wave at breaking, Hb, must have been 70 feet. Thus the huge wave must have begun breaking when it reached a depth of 89.6 feet. Had the Memphis been anchored in deeper water, like 120 feet instead of 55 feet, the entire disaster would have been prevented. The ship would not have sustained the earlier flooding of the engine room through the ventilators by the earlier waves and it would have been able to raise steam and sail to deeper water in a timely fashion. Alternatively, if the Memphis had been anchored in 100 or better 120 feet of water - instead of 55 feet - it would have been able to ride all the swells, including the huge 70 foot wave, without a problem.

Unfortunately the Memphis was anchored in too shallow and unsafe water depth. When the huge wave had reached a depth of about 90 feet, its crest peaked and the water particle velocity exceeded the wave's forward velocity (celerity). At that breaking depth, all of the wave's energy became kinetic and a huge volume of water begun to move forward at a speed of 25-30 miles per hour. When this huge breaker struck the Memphis broadside, it engulfed its decks and smokestacks and pushed it onshore with tremendous force. At that point in time, the Memphis was forever doomed. The anchor was of no use. The engines, even if they had more than the 90 lbs of steam pressure, would have not saved the ship. Even if the maneuver of turning the ship's bow into the face of the wave had been completed, it would have been futile within the breaking zone of this huge wave. Neither the engine nor the anchor could have opposed the huge wave force.

Human Errors Contributed to the Loss of the USS Memphis

Human errors were inadequately addressed by the Navy's Court of Inquiry into the disaster and by the court martial of the ship's captain. Complications in the engine room were blamed for the failure. The Court found that the only human errors responsible for the ship's loss was the captain's failure to keep sufficient steam pressure to get underway at short notice and of not properly securing the ship for heavy weather.  However, the Navy's economy measures were the main reason that the boilers of the Memphis were not fired at all times to keep steam pressure up for the engines.

The huge waves that wrecked the Memphis at the harbor of Santo Domingo in the afternoon of 29 August 1916 were inacurrately attributed by the Court of Inquiry to a "tropical disturbance", a "seismic storm", but also to a "tsunami". The offiicial Navy records still show that the loss of the Memphis was caused by a tsunami or a tropical disturbance - but without further explanation. As explained above, the waves that wrecked the Mempis were not those of a tsunami but were generated by a hurricane that passed south of Santo Domingo. What is perplexing is that no one made a connection between this hurricane and the huge waves it generated. It is apparent that storms were not properly monitored in 1916 and that communications on weather information were poor.

The loss of the Memphis was a considerable disaster but, in fact, it was one that could have been prevented with some rudimentary knowledge of storms, storm waves, and with some additional preparation. The most serious of the human errors that resulted in the loss of the ship was the decision to drop anchor in only 55 feet of water. It was an error in judgment, knowing very well that it was hurricqane season. Anchoring in deeper water would have averted the disaster. From the court martial proceedings, it appears that none of the officers in charge had any training or conception of the speed by which a storm would move, or that significant waves of greater heights, wavelengths and periods could be generated by a distant storm, or that the waves could outrun the storm and be immense at distant locations. No one at that time recognized the potential severity of such waves in shallow water, or realized that such waves transform their potential energy into kinetic forward moving energy once a certain depth is reached.  Everyone was aware that it was hurricane season, that the barometric pressure had dropped previously and that there was a possibility of an approaching hurricane and possible waves.  They made preparations by firing the engines on August 22nd and preparing for such an eventuality. However, none considered the most simple and inexpensive solution to this potential problem by simply anchoring the ship at 100-120 feet depth and out of harm's way. Lack of proper training on weather and wave phenomena was the most important human error in the loss of the USS Memphis.

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