THOMAS E. ZELLARS, LT, USN
Thomas Zellars '21
Date of birth: August 11, 1898
Date of death: June 12, 1924
From the 1921 Lucky Bag:
LTJG Zellars' assigned battle station position was turret commander in Mississippi's 14 inch, No. 2 turret. Ensign McCrea and Erwin were also assigned to the turret. On June 12, 1924, while the battleship was engaged in gunnery practice off San Pedro, California, an explosion and fire engulfed their turret. LTJG Zellars, Ensign McCrea and Erwin and 45 others were asphyxiated almost immediately but not before LTJG Zellar turned on the flood valve which extinguished a burning powder train—an act which undoubtedly saved the ship and many of his shipmates from destruction.
On June 12, 1924, the Mississippi, along with the battleships USS Tennessee (BB-43) and USS Idaho (BB-42), were engaged in gunnery practice off San Clemente Island. The ships were simulating a chase, firing only their forward turrets at close range. Battleship USS California (BB-44) towed a large target. The gunners on all three battlewagons were competing for a $20 prize that Congress had voted to award the fleet's most proficient naval marksman. The Mississippi enjoyed a reputation for collecting gunnery awards, and the day before had hit 52 out of 55 targets. Several salvos were fired by each ship, but then there was trouble with "Missy's" number two turret. The right gun had just fired and was returned to loading position and the plug opened. The next shell was rammed into the gun and the four powder bags on the spanner tray were rammed into place behind it. As the rammer was withdrawn, there emerged from the breech a small grayish ball of smoke and flame followed by a large flash. Flame and gases immediately filled the gun compartment, passed through the safety doors above the shell table to the other two gun compartments and through the peep doors to the turret officer's booth. Almost instantly, forty-five men and three officers were dead from asphyxiation. It was one of the worst disasters suffered by the Navy during peacetime.
An inquiry found that there had been inadequate air pressure forced through the gun to expel the incandescent gases and other flammable residue after firing. Smoldering material left in the gun had ignited the powder charge of the next shot. The flames and gases had overcome the men so quickly that recovery crews found many of the men still at their positions. One man who was recognized as a hero of the disaster and credited with saving the ship was the turret captain, LTJG Zellars. He had instinctively closed the doors to the ammunition hoist and flooded the magazines. When his body was discovered, his hand was still clutching the flood control.
Funeral services were held June 17, 1924 on Trona Field in San Pedro, California the home of the Pacific Fleet. Forty-seven coffins were arranged on the field. Lieutenant Zellars' body had already been sent to Georgia for burial. Vice Admiral Henry A. Wiley (USNA 1888) and Rear Admiral William V. Pratt (USNA 1889) presided over the ceremony. Naval officers in dress uniforms stood in front as 1200 sailors in dress blues stood on the sides of the coffins. Two hundred sailors of each battleship of Battleship Division 4 were present. Another 2700 sailors observed the services. A seven man Marine rifle squad fired three volleys.
Although investigators concluded that a faulty gas-ejection system prevented one of the gun's breech plugs from closing securely, thereby permitting a jet of flame to spurt back into the powder-filled room when a salvo was fired. Investigators also found that some access safety doors inside the turret had been left partly open. Also, the crew failed to examine one or more of the gun bores and call out "Bore clear!"--another violation of regulations.
LTJG Zellars is also remembered in Dahlgren Hall, at the United States Naval Academy with a plaque from his Naval Academy classmates.
Thomas is buried in Georgia.
The plaque in Dahlgren Hall reads:
His hand was found grasping the flood valve which extinguished a burning powder train and saved his ship. Flaming death was not as swift as his sense of duty and his will to save his comrades at any cost to himself. His was the spirit that makes the service live.
USS Zellars (DD 777) was named for Thomas; the ship was sponsored by his widow.