Death on Old Shaky

Source:,9171,826771,00.html (2 pages)

Time Magazine
Friday, Jan. 27, 1961

Braced against the roll of his little Navy supply ship T-AKL 17, Skipper Sixto Mangual stared at the soft glow of a radarscope. In the center, a ragged splash of light reflected the "sea return," the radar echo bouncing back from the vicious waves of the gale-roiled Atlantic. Beyond the sea return—twelve miles away by the scale of the scope—a smaller blob of light pinpointed the position where Texas Tower 4,* a man-made Air Force radar island, was riding the storm. Suddenly, silently, the tower echo disappeared. Beyond the sea return there was only the icy Atlantic night. The carrier Wasp was racing into position, a couple of Coast Guard cutters were soon on their way, but TT4 and its 28-man crew were already beyond rescue's reach.

Sway & Shake. Less than four years ago, when it was floated into position on the continental shelf some 80 miles southeast of Manhattan, TT4 was considered an engineering triumph. Its three 310-ft. stiltlike legs had been built and trussed together before being towed to sea. Anchoring them in mud and silt on the ocean floor had been a trying, ticklish business. But by December 1957, TT4 had its legs and its massive triangular platform in place. Powerful radars were installed, and eight officers and 65 enlisted men moved into its cramped quarters. Along with two other towers (TT1 was never built), TT4 became a vital part of the U.S. early warning system against air attack.

During 16-month tours of 45 days aboard and 15-day intervals ashore, TT-4's crews learned to live with its continual sway and shake—for the tower was designed to give with the stress of wind and wave. The men also learned to put up with the constant, ear-banging racket of water slapping against resounding steel plate, the whine of generators, the mournful complaint of one of the largest and loudest foghorns in the world. But the food was good, and there was time for recreation. Men fished for cod, killed time in the tower's hobby shops, and played pool (although the roll of the deck turned the game into something unrecognizable by landlubbering sharks).

Kneel & Pray. But early in its short career, TT4 was already obsolescent. New airborne radars began to make its lonely vigil superfluous. Then, in 1958, Hurricane Daisy caused serious underwater damage. TT4 was evacuated and repaired at a cost of $500,000. Last September Hurricane Donna slammed at the tower again. There was more underwater damage, and once more the crew was evacuated. Only a housekeeping crew of 14 airmen was left aboard. Later 14 civilian repairmen reported for work.

Now there were no more jokes about the tower's rock and roll. Its men called it "Old Shaky," and the gag was grim with fear. All the talk was about getting ashore. In letters home, and in calls via Air Force radio, their growing terror spread to their families. Fortnight ago, Civilian Engineer Eddie Robertson spoke to his wife Margaret in Medford, Mass. TT-4's legs were badly damaged, he told her. "They're trying to take us off." Back of her husband's words, Margaret Robertson heard "a loud crunching," as if the tower were being twisted by a monster wrench. Welder Vincent Brown reported to his wife that the tower had been swaying too much for work. "Air Force boys were forever kneeling and saying their rosaries. The horror of it was awful." Elnor Phelan, wife of TT-4's commanding officer, Captain Gordon Phelan, remembers that her husband called as often as twice a day. He was tense with worry and had, he told her, asked repeatedly to have his men evacuated from the tower.

Search & Salvage. When last week's storm struck, it was too late. Hopefully, Captain Phelan asked T-AKL 17 to stand by through the night; he thought his tower would hold together and that his men could get off on Wasp helicopters in the morning. But in the morning all that could be recovered was the body of Master Sergeant Troy Williams floating in the fast-running sea. Wasp with its destroyer guard searched through a long two days. Divers investigated tapping sounds coming from the twisted underwater wreckage. But there were no survivors. The sounds that might have been made by men hanging on in some submerged air pocket were probably only the grinding of loose metal swinging in the long Atlantic swells. Old Shaky was dead—and so were all aboard.

* Named for its similarity to offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.