World War II torpedoes reach final target — as museum pieces

It was a historic moment for Keyport’s Naval Undersea Mu-seum, on Wednesday as 13 World War II-era torpedoes, or as Wallace “Dusty” Rhodes calls them “the last 13 in the wild,” were delivered in crates.

Rhodes, a civilian industrial specialist who works on ordinance and electronics at Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Keyport, discovered the Mk-14 torpedoes 11 years ago at the U.S. Army Depot in Hawthorne, Nev., while doing a quantitative assessment of the material stored there. The 13 torpedoes had been in long-term storage since the 1970s.

The Mk-14 torpedoes were first put into service by the U.S. Navy in the late 1930s and were the main weapon used by U.S. submarines during World War II. After several years of inefficient use, the Mk-14’s were updated in trial-and-error fashion, becoming lethal by 1943. In the Pacific theater, U.S. submarines decimated the Japanese shipping fleet by sinking more than 1,300 vessels — approximately 5.3 million tons of shipping — from 1941 to 1945. After that success, the Navy kept the torpedoes in service for the next three decades.

“In 1980 (the torpedoes) were taken out of service,” Bill Galvani, museum director, said. “They’re extremely rare since many have been destroyed. They are very much desired now.”

Rhodes, a retired master chief torpedoman’s mate, knew the significance of preserving the historic torpedoes.

“Our young people need some idea of what we used in the past to keep this country free,” he said. “It’s something that shows the people what we used in World War II.”

But Rhodes also was faced with the challenge of successfully having the warheads demilitarized without destroying the torpedoes.

“Bill and I said there has to be a way we can save these for memorials and museums across the country,” Rhodes said.

After 11 years, that feat has been accomplished.

The process to make the torpedoes safe and inert was a long one. The extensive demilitarization process began in October 2003. A civilian company, Day & Zimmermann, was contracted to demilitarize the torpedoes.

“It was a long process to make them safe without destroying them,” Galvani said. “Dusty is a superb guy, he put together a team and a plan and found a way to save them without blowing them up. Eleven years in the process, who would have believed it?”

By mid-April 2004, Day & Zimmermann had removed the explosives from the warheads which later were sold to commercial companies for demilitarization detonation projects. There was still a chance that explosives remained in the warhead and they then entered a decontamination process. By September 2004, the warheads were cleared of any explosive matter.

Rhodes plans on retiring this August and bringing this project to completion was something he knew he had to do before retirement.

“There were three things I wanted to do before I get to retire and this is the key thing I wanted to do,” he said. “I get to retire with a piece of mind.”

He adds that it took a team effort to accomplish this project. Personnel from several military installations helped in the process.

“It’s been a very large team endeavor,” Rhodes said.

The torpedoes will be loaned to historic naval ships and museums around the country. One of the 13 was manufactured at NUWC Division Keyport during World War II and will be kept on display at the museum. It should be on display within a couple of months, according to Galvani.

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