The Strange Tale of the USS Murphy

The Destroyer that Sank (but Didn't)

by J. M. Pressley
First published: June 15, 2010

Divers in 2002 uncovered a mystery wreck off the coast of New Jersey. What they found was a ship that officially never sank.

A Sunken Mystery

In 2000, diver Dan Crowell piloted his dive boat, the Seeker, out of Brielle, New Jersey on an expedition. He had heard from local fishermen that there was possibly an unidentified Liberty shipwreck about 75 miles offshore. Some 260 feet down, they discovered that their shipwreck wasn't a Liberty ship at all. In a subsequent dive in 2002, Crowell and his team determined that the wreck was actually a World War II destroyer.

At first, Crowell suspected the missing USS Baldwin (DD-624), which ran aground at Montauk in 1961 and was eventually scuttled in the area, her final resting place unknown. The Baldwin, however, had been sunk by gunfire; this wreck had been utterly obliterated just aft of the ship's superstructure. It seemed that they had a mystery to solve. Using a tag on the back of a gauge recovered from the wreck, the ship was at last positively identified as the destroyer USS Murphy (DD-603).

There was only one minor problem. According to the U.S. Navy, the Murphy never sank.

The Start of a Career

The Murphy was one of 30 Benson-class destroyers, commissioned in July of 1942. She was 348 feet of modern naval firepower, carrying a crew of 260 enlisted men and 15 officers. She first saw action in 1943 as part of Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. The Murphy took a hit in her starboard engine room while providing fire support off Point Blondin, suffering casualties of three dead and 25 wounded. After returning to Boston for repairs, the ship served on coastal escort duty until joining in the invasion of Sicily in July of 1943. At the end of that operation, she returned to the United States to provide escort for convoys en route to Great Britain. That's when her fate took a strange twist off the coast of New Jersey.

Disaster in the Night

On October 21, 1943, the Murphy steamed out of New York Harbor with a convoy bound across the North Atlantic. The moon was waning in its last quarter. As the Murphy cruised along, she received a report of an unidentified radar contact and was sent ahead to investigate. German U-boats had transformed the east coast into an active war zone, and a convoy at night was an appetizing target.

Their target turned out to be one of the convoy's ships, the tanker SS Bulkoil. Aboard the Bulkoil, the captain was equally alarmed by the Murphy's appearance. Fearing that the ship was under a torpedo attack, the Bulkoil turned into the Murphy's path in an evasive maneuver. It put the tanker on a collision course for the destroyer. The Bulkoil struck the Murphy directly between her superstructure and forward stack, slicing completely through the ship. Miraculously, the watertight doors in the stern held and kept it afloat. The bow section sank beneath the chill Atlantic waters, taking with it 38 of the ship's crew.

A Ship Reborn

The Navy wasn't about to lose what was left of the Murphy. The survivors were rescued, and the damaged stern was towed back to New York. Over the course of seven months, the ship was repaired and refitted with a new bow. The Murphy returned to action in time to support the Normandy invasion at Omaha Beach. She served admirably in the European theater through 1945, including a trip in which she transported King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia to meet with President Roosevelt in Egypt. The Murphy ended her career with four battle stars for her service in World War II.

The Murphy was decommissioned in 1946 and remained in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet in Charleston, SC through 1969. In October of 1972, she was sold for scrap. But somewhere, lost beneath the waves, lingered a forgotten piece of history.

The Present: In Memoriam

The original bow section of the USS Murphy still rests on its side under 260 feet of water, decades after the salvaged destroyer was scrapped. The wreck endures as a solemn reminder of 38 men who went down with her on a chilly night in 1943. Divers from the Seeker returned to film an expedition to the Murphy for the Military Channel series Quest for Sunken Warships, leaving behind a commemorative plaque. Today, in a park in Surf City, Long Island, there lies a memorial inscribed with the names of the men who died that night on a ship that sank—but didn't.

Sources

A Ship Found, a Heart Healed: The USS Murphy, USS Murphy Identification, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.