The rescue of the survivors from the storm beaten Reppard, Priscilla and Abbott, was another skirmish in the eternal war the Coast Guard is waging against the sea, a skirmish in which beach carts, lines and the strength of human endeavor were the chief weapons.
But sometimes, there comes an occasion for the Coast Guard to lay aside these weapons and pick up others of a deadlier nature — the weapons of war.
The Coast Guard was created by the act of January 28, 1915, combining the then existing Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-saving Service, and it was expressly stipulated in that act that the Coast Guard should constitute a part of the armed forces of the United States, to operate in peace time under the Treasury Department, and under the Navy Department in time of war, or when the President shall so direct.
The Revenue Cutter service was founded in 1790, some years before the establishment of the United p60States Navy. Since that time, in coöperation with the navy, it has served with marked distinction in every war in which the United States has been engaged. History is replete with incidents of service rendered in the defense of the country.
In the sea‑going branch of the Coast Guard, the cruising cutters maintain a high degree of efficiency in drills with rapid-fire guns, and thorough naval discipline is maintained at all times. In the Coast Guard stations along the coast are warrant officers and enlisted men long trained in maintaining a careful watch over the seacoast and the movements of vessels. Any unusual occurrences within range of observation are at once transmitted over the Coast Guard communications system to Washington.
Photo U. S. Coast Guard
Cruising Cutter — Built 1937
Displacement, •2,000 tons; length, •327 feet; beam, •41 feet; draft, •12 feet and 6 inches; power, geared turbine; maximum speed, 20 knots; maximum cruising radius, •12,300 miles; guns, two 5‑inch, two 6‑pounders, two 50‑calibre .AA, one 1‑pounder; personnel, 16 officers, 111 men.
All the commissioned officers in the Coast Guard, with the exception of a few staff officers and others who have come up from the ranks through sheer force of ability, are graduates of the United States Coast Guard Academy, an institution devoted exclusively to the training of future officers for the Coast Guard, and in which a course of instruction, very similar to that pursued at the Naval Academy, is given. These men were particularly adapted for the work that was to fall to them during the World War; namely, the handling of vessels designated for escort duty.
In the spring of 1917, when impending trouble with Germany became increasingly apparent, a conference p61between officers of the navy and the Coast Guard was held and a definite plan evolved for the merging of the two related services. Upon notification by despatch of the declaration of war, each unit was to report to the appropriate superior officer, and provision was made for the immediate absorption by the navy department of Coast Guard cutters, stations and personnel. This plan was known as Plan One.
On the morning of April 6, 1917, a despatch was sent to each unit of the Coast Guard, stating simply, "Plan One. Acknowledge."
It was war!
Immediately, the navy was augmented by the addition of 223 commissioned officers, 6,000‑odd enlisted men and 15 cruising cutters, besides smaller vessels. It is an impressive fact that a large proportion of Coast Guard officers was assigned to command posts. Others not assigned command served with distinction aboard transports, cruisers, cutters and patrol vessels. Six officers performed aviation duty, two of them being in command of air stations, one of which was in France. It is interesting to note here that one of the pilots of the famous NC‑4, the hydroplane that made the first trans-Atlantic flight, was Lieutenant Commander E. F. Stone, a Coast Guard officer.a
In August and September, 1917, six Coast Guard cutters, the Ossipee, Seneca, Yamacraw, Algonquin, p62Manning and Tampa sailed for European waters to join the naval forces there. These vessels constituted Squadron 2 of Division 6 of the patrol forces of the Atlantic Fleet. Their base was on the famous Gibraltar, and throughout the war they escorted hundreds of vessels between Gibraltar and the British Isles, and performed other escort duty in the Mediterranean. Other cruising cutters performed important duty in home waters, in the Caribbean Sea, around the Azores Islands, and off the coast of Nova Scotia.
The cutter Tampa, under the command of Captain Charles Satterlee, headed for the port of Milford Haven, Wales, on the evening of September 26, 1918, having completed her mission as an escort for a convoy from Gibraltar to the British Isles. The night was black, and a slight rain was falling, being driven before a heavy wind. At 8:45 P.M., a loud explosion was heard by people aboard other ships of the convoy, and later, when the Tampa failed to arrive at her port of destination, a search by naval destroyers and British patrol vessels was instigated. A few bits of floating wreckage were found, which were identified as being from the Tampa. Two bodies, clad in naval uniforms, both unidentified, were picked up.
There is no definite knowledge as to what happened to the Tampa, but it is generally believed that she was sunk by a German submarine. Later, the U‑53, a German submarine, claimed to have torpedoed p63a United States ship of the Tampa's description, and listening stations along the coast had detected the presence of an enemy submarine in the vicinity of the place where the explosion was heard. There was not one survivor from this disaster — 115 men perished that stormy night, 111 of whom were Coast Guardsmen.
This was, with the exception of the loss of the Cyclops, whose fate has never been determined, the greatest loss of life suffered by any American naval unit. Admiral Sims, the American ranking naval officer in European waters, received numerous letters and messages of sympathy from high officials of the governments of the Allies, chief among which was the letter from the British Admiralty:
"Their Lordships desire to express their deep regret at the loss of the U. S. S. Tampa. Her record since she has been employed in European waters as an ocean escort to convoys has been remarkable. She has acted in the capacity of ocean escort to no less than 18 convoys from Gibraltar comprising 350 vessels with the loss of only two ships through enemy action. The commanders of the convoys have recognized the ability with which the Tampa carried out the duties of ocean escort. Appreciation of the good work done by the U. S. S. Tampa may be some consolidation to those bereft and Their Lordships would be glad if this could be conveyed to those concerned."
p64 Today, when the name of the old Tampa is mentioned, Coast Guardsmen lift their heads a trifle higher, and unconsciously their shoulders are squared. It is a matter of solemn pride to the personnel of the Coast Guard to know that the service rendered by the men of the Tampa in dying for their country will always be remembered in the naval annals of this country.
On April 16th, 1918, the Coast Guard cutter Seneca left Milford Haven, Wales, with a convoy of merchant vessels for Gibraltar. In the evening of the 23rd of April, the danger zone patrol detachment from Gibraltar came out to meet the convoy. This detachment included the British patrol sloop, Cowslip. On the morning of the 28th, about 2:45 A.M., the Seneca heard a loud explosion and the Cowslip began at once to make distress signals. Captain Wheeler, in command of the Seneca, immediately headed his vessel for the Cowslip, despite the fact that the torpedoed vessel signalled frantically, "Stay away. Submarine in sight port quarter." The Coast Guard craft circled the Cowslip to a position on her port quarter and, joined by the destroyer Dale, took up a search for the submarine.
In war time, it is an established doctrine that, when a vessel has been torpedoed, other vessels in the vicinity are not to risk their own destruction by hanging around the scene to pick up survivors. With all justification, therefore, Captain Wheeler might have p65headed away rather than risk his own vessel. But the Coast Guard has a doctrine, also — to save lives whenever and wherever possible. Captain Wheeler meant to do just that.
Three times the Coast Guard officer stopped his vessel out on the rolling water, with an enemy submarine lurking about, and sent small boats across to the sinking ship. The difficulty the men in those small boats encountered is a sea saga in itself. Coming up alongside the Cowslip in the pitch darkness required strong hands and cold nerve. But these men were Coast Guardsmen, trained and particularly adept at this sort of seamanship.
The Seneca rescued all the survivors aboard the Cowslip — the commanding officer, another commissioned officer, and 79 enlisted men. All the wardroom officers, one enlisted man, and a mess attendant, had been killed when the torpedo struck squarely in the wardroom while the officers were at mess.
For his courageous work Captain Wheeler received a commendation from Admiral Sims and from the British Admiral at Gibraltar. The little Seneca became the toast of the fleet.
On the 16th of September, 1918, the Seneca was acting as ocean escort for a convoy bound from the British Isles to Gibraltar, when the Wellington, a British collier and a unit of the convoy, was torpedoed by a German submarine. The explosion tore away the vessel's forefoot, and with her No. 1 hold p66flooded, she was immediately abandoned. From one of her lifeboats, the collier's captain signalled the Seneca that the Wellington would probably float but that his crew refused to go back aboard her, as they believed that the submarine would, in all probability, make a second attack.
On the Seneca's bridge, Lieutenant F. W. Brown, U. S. Coast Guard, the cutter's navigating officer, read the message, and immediately asked and obtained permission from the commanding officer to take a volunteer crew aboard the Wellington and attempt to work her into port.
Practically en masse, the Seneca's crew volunteered for the dangerous duty. Brown went among them, picking his men, until finally, he had a full complement — Machinist William L. Boyce and eighteen enlisted men, most of whom were petty officers. As the crew from the Wellington came alongside and scrambled aboard the Seneca, the volunteers from the cutter dropped into their boat and shoved off for the Wellington.
Once aboard the collier, lookouts and gun crews were assigned and ammunition was broken out. It seemed highly probable that the submarine would return for a second attack, and it was Brown's intention to be well prepared.
Shortly after the Coast Guardsmen came aboard the Wellington, a second boat, bearing the Wellington's p67master, the first and second mates and 11 of the crew came alongside and climbed aboard.
The master told Lieutenant Brown that he could not stand by and see others do his own duty. Brown at once offered the captain the command post, but the Englishman refused, saying that he was content to serve in a lower capacity. He was at once assigned as the ship's first officer.
Lieutenant Brown and his gallant little band were now on their own. The Seneca had been compelled to leave to protect the remainder of the convoy, but she had sent out a call for assistance in code for the Wellington.
Machinist Boyce at once made an inspection of the Wellington's engineroom and shortly afterwards, reported to Lieutenant Brown that there was steam up and that with only a slight repair job on the air pump, the vessel would be ready for sailing within the hour.
At 12:50 P.M., the Wellington started ahead at a slow speed for Brest. The Coast Guardsmen settled down to the precarious task of branding a torpedoed ship and its valuable cargo through a sub‑infested sea. Lieutenant Brown assigned all men who could be spared from necessary duties to making large life rafts and these were placed out on deck so that they would readily float. A man stationed in the number 2 hold with instructions to take regular soundings reported •three and a half feet of water, but added p68that it did not seem to be rising. As long as the sea was moderate, the pumps would in all probability keep ahead of the leak. If the sea kicked up — well, that was the chance Lieutenant Brown and his men must take.
The men were on constant duty. In the engine room the black gang had to be relieved by seamen who had never passed coal before. There was no murmuring, no protest. Their engine room watch over, the men returned to the deck and took their turn at gun watch.
In his official report, Lieutenant Brown comments at length on the behavior of his crew and the diligence they exhibited in the most trying of circumstances. He concludes it with a line: "I consider it an honour to have served with such men."
All went well throughout the afternoon, but at sundown, the wind rose quite suddenly and the sea began to make up. The Wellington was loggy and heavy; considerable difficulty was experienced in keeping her on course. At last it became necessary to stop the vessel, as she had persisted in bringing her head into the sea, thus shipping heavy water through her gaping bow.
Unceasingly alert and resourceful, Lieutenant Brown attempted to swing the stern of the ship around so that he might keep way on her by going stern first. The rapidly increasing wind and sea defeated his purpose, and he at once realized the necessity p69for rigging a sea anchor. The collier, however, was a steel ship, lacking in available material for the construction of a drag that would have pulled the ship's bow around. Brown now thought of cutting the anchor cables, relieving the ship of her anchors and thereby lightening her. But by this time, she had lost all steerage way; heavy seas were sweeping across her decks, making it impossible for anyone to get forward to the chain locker.
It seemed obvious to everyone aboard that little chance remained of getting the collier into port. Indeed, it appeared now a matter of saving themselves, which in itself loomed as an almost hopeless task.
There was only one lifeboat, ready for lowering, but the acute list and the heavy rolling of the collier threatened to throw this craft under the sea. Nevertheless it offered their only chance of abandoning the Wellington. Lieutenant Brown massed all hands abreast of the lifeboat, all except two men at the pumps and the radioman, M. S. Mason, who was at his controls trying to contact the Seneca or some other vessel. Seven men of the collier's original crew, together with a Coast Guardsman especially assigned to unhook the boat falls, were ordered to get into the life boat. The Seneca's men stood by to lower away.
The Wellington's first officer, in charge of the lifeboat, had orders from Lieutenant Brown to work his way back under the rail in order to allow the others p70to abandon ship. Unfortunately, however, one of the Englishmen, fearing that the lifeboat would be crushed against the ship's side by the seas, cut the line and the tiny craft drifted away into the night.
Efforts of the first officer to get back to the Wellington met dismal failure, and the only Coast Guardsman in the boat finally stood up and yelled: "Lieutenant! We can't get back! These men don't know how to row!"
Aboard the Wellington, a few of her own men and the Seneca's volunteers were thus left with nothing to rely on but life rafts which they had constructed earlier. Lieutenant Brown decided to stick to the sinking vessel until the last moment; he knew that the navy destroyer Warrington was proceeding at full speed for his position, which had been previously radioed. He ordered Mason, the radioman, to notify the destroyer that the collier's only life boat was adrift and to request them to pick it up. This was subsequently accomplished, but not without dangerous incident: not only was the lifeboat crushed in the operation, but a boat from the destroyer was broken in two by heavy seas while launching.
Back on the Wellington, all planking and material that would float was collected along the side of the ship, so that the men might have something to cling to, once she was abandoned. The Warrington's lights were in sight now, and Lieutenant Brown signalled with a small flashlight that he was compelled to abandon p71ship immediately and asked the destroyer to work in as close as possible in order to pick up the crew.
Meanwhile, the Seneca's volunteer crew had lowered several life rafts to the water and had made them fast with lines so that there would be no difficulty in finding them in the dark. Brown gave the order to abandon ship, and stood by until the last man had plunged over the side. Then he signalled with his light that his men were in the water. The collier was now settling by the head, was turning over slowly. As Brown sent his last message he was forced to climb over the rail and stand on the inclined side of the doomed vessel. As he stood there, flashing his last appeal, the boilers of the Wellington apparently exploded, the ship seemed to rise from the water and then settled down. Thrown into the sea, Brown swam with the strength of desperation to avoid the tremendous suction.
This was around 4 A.M. in velvet darkness, with a raging gale whipping the sea to fury. Floating wreckage was Brown's salvation — planking on which was draped the figure of a man. At a glance, he realized that such a frail raft would never float with his added weight. Telling the man to compress his lips to keep out the sea water, Brown struck out again.
He saw two calcium lights burning a short distance away, and thinking that they marked rafts, swam toward them. Reaching them, he found nothing but p72the lights and their metal containers; he extinguished the lights so that none of his men might be misled by them. Apparently his thoughts, even in these desperate moments, were for the welfare of the eighteen men under his command.
At long last he found himself alongside the Warrington. A line whipped down to him. He reached out, caught it, lashed it about his person. Later he declared that he had no recollection of that moment, having been on the verge of losing consciousness.
Commanded by the Lieutenant Commander Van der Veer, U. S. Navy, the Warrington was maneuvered with rare ability and persistent courage in and out of the wreckage searching for the survivors. Lighted life rafts and all the available life rings, well lighted, were floated down upon the still visible and slowly sinking Wellington. Even as the men on the destroyer watched, the collier turned keel up, and after a series of explosions, slid gently beneath the waves.
Dawn was breaking now, a muddy, storm-swept dawn, and the wind was bitterly cold. With the first rays of light, men could be seen in the water, clinging to life rafts and pieces of wreckage. The Warrington tried desperately to launch another boat; but, as in the first instance, the life boat was crushed, and the attempt had to be abandoned. By means of bow lines thrown to the survivors in the water, eight men were drawn aboard the destroyer, one of whom died soon after being rescued.
p73 It was at this time that Seaman James O. Osborne, of the Coast Guard, one of the survivors, earned a life-saving medal and a commendation from the Admiral. Osborne swam with a shipmate, Coxswain Peterson, who had been injured and was unconscious, to a life raft, and placing him upon it, held the injured man as well as he could between his feet. The heavy seas washed Osborne and Peterson away several times; but each time, Osborne rescued the injured Coast Guardsman and replaced him on the raft. Finally, Osborne signaled to the Warrington: "I am all right, but he's gone unless you come at once." Both men were rescued.
The survivors from the Wellington numbered fifteen men, nine of whom were Coast Guardsmen. Eleven men were lost, one of whom was Machinist Boyce, besides five men of the Wellington's original crew. Lieutenant Brown, as previously stated, was rescued, but almost succumbed from a severe case of pneumonia, brought on by his hours of exposure in the water.
Although the Coast Guardsmen did not succeed in what they had so bravely set out to do, they upheld to the fullest extent the time-honored traditions of the Navy and Coast Guard.
In fact, the British Admiralty were profuse in their admiration. They said: "Seldom, in the annals of the sea, has there been exhibited such self-abnegation, such cool courage and such unfailing diligence in the p74face of almost unsurmountable difficulties. . . . America is to be congratulated."
While these incidents at sea were carving out an enviable record for the Coast Guard, Coast Guardsmen ashore were not idle. Strenuous patrols along the beach were carried out and a vigilant watch for enemy vessels and submarines maintained.
On the night of October 4th, 1918, a tremendous explosion occurred in the loading plant of the T. A. Gillespie Company, at Morgan, N. J. Tons of T. N. T. had been stored at this plant, ready for loading in ships bound for France. At the first explosion, a company of Coast Guardsmen from Perth Amboy, N. J., started toward the scene of the disaster. They were joined by other Coast Guardsmen under the command of the Captain of the Port of New York, and immediately began the extremely hazardous work of removing the dead and injured from the scene of the disaster.
From time to time, as new explosions lit the sky, these men were subjected to veritable barrages of flying steel. The air was literally filled with pieces of shrapnel, and the earth shook. It was as if the war in France had spread to New Jersey's peaceful shores.
Coast Guardsmen died that night in the performance of their duty. One man, while receiving instructions from the warrant officer in charge of the rescue party, was beheaded by a piece of shell; another was killed while dragging an injured person to safety. p75Apprentice Seaman C. F. Bennett hadn't been in the service long, but he knew its traditions. He was young, almost a boy, and very frightened. Somehow, he found an automobile and drove it time after time through that barrage of steel, narrowly escaping death on each trip, carrying out the dead and wounded and transferring sentries. A door was blown from the machine and the top and body were riddled with shell fragments, but miraculously, Bennett remained unharmed and carried on until there was no more to be done.
Another party of Coast Guardsmen, under the direction of Lieutenant J. E. Stika, was told that a trainload of T. N. T. lay in the center of the Gillespie grounds. By some freak of fate, the T. N. T. had not exploded, but Stika knew that it was only a question of minutes before a direct hit would be scored on these cars, the result of which would be untold damage and death wreaked upon the countryside. It was the Coast Guard's job to move those cars.
When Lieutenant Stika called for volunteers, the entire body stepped forward. Only two of these men — Apprentice Seaman J. Grymes and Bugler N. F. Vaceston — had had previous experience with a locomotive. Grymes agreed to serve as engineer and Vaceston as fireman. But new difficulty arose. The track had been twisted and torn from the road bed. Before the nine cars of T. N. T. could be moved to safety, those rails had to be straightened and reset. p76Though the task seemed hopeless, Lieutenant Stika and his men worked feverishly. Fire was creeping along the track, eating its way toward the box cars.
Somehow, those men accomplished the impossible. The rails were straightened and the track laid. Grymes started the engine and moved slowly along the makeshift track. It would have been a dangerous job with an ordinary load in the boxcars behind, but with T. N. T. as the load, the slightest miscarriage meant death. The cars swayed across the Gillespie grounds, and finally out of the yard and into the safety of the hills. Another job well-done by the Coast Guard.
On the forenoon of July 21, 1918, the war was brought to the front door of the Coast Guard itself. The tug Perth Amboy, with four barges in tow, was moving southward from East Orleans, Mass., when a German submarine popped up on the port bow and opened fire. The tug hoisted distress signals, and a motor lifeboat from the Coast Guard life-saving station No. 40 put out immediately to aid the shelled vessel.
These Coast Guardsmen knew they were risking death. They were unarmed, and it was reasonably certain that the submarine might consider the surf boat fair game for her shells; but the traditions and standards of their service stood foremost — there was a ship flying distress signals; it was their job to go to that ship's assistance.
p77 The surf boat, in command of Keeper Robert F. Pierce, was within a hundred yards of the tug when the shelling ceased and the submarine sounded. The Coast Guardsmen met the crew of the tug, who had taken to small boats, and administered first aid to several of the wounded.
This exploit — unarmed Coast Guardsmen defying enemy guns — excited praise from every section of the country. Newspapers published detailed accounts. Nor was the publicity without a touch of humor — cartoons showed the Coast Guard surf boat proceeding to sea, with boat hooks as weapons, while the submarine was depicted as diving to escape the fury of the Yankee sailors. While this was not quite in accordance with the facts, the case did however, awaken a public realization of the Coast Guard's rigid observance of its primary duty to the nation.
On the afternoon of the 16th of August, 1918, a surfman in the lookout tower of the Coast Guard station at , North Carolina, was watching a steamer beating its way up the coast in the face of a stiff northeaster. With the aid of the powerful telescope, he could make out the name on the bow. She was the Mirlo, an English tanker.
As he watched, the Mirlo suddenly started to zigzag, and within a few seconds, there came a terrific explosion and the stern of the tanker was enveloped in black smoke. The surfman knew instantly what p78had happened. Torpedoed! He sounded the alarm at once, and the Coast Guard crew under the command of Keeper John A. Midgett, prepared to get underway in a power surf boat to the Mirlo's assistance. The steamer was •approximately four miles out, drifting now, with fire shooting up from her stern.
When the surf boat was within •a mile of the burning vessel,b they met one of the Mirlo's boats with six men in it, one of them proving to be the torpedoed vessel's commander. The officer informed Keeper Midgett that two other lifeboats had been launched from the Mirlo, and that one of these had capsized in the vicinity of the fire. The Mirlo's captain said that he was sure that all the occupants of this lifeboat had perished. The gasoline from the tanker was running out over the sea, and as this became ignited, a veritable wall of flame covered the water.
Keeper Midgett directed the officer to make for the beach, but to lay to just outside the breakers, and await the surf boat's return from the Mirlo. They were under no circumstances to attempt to go through the surf, for Keeper Midgett knew that it would take well-trained surfmen to bring that life boat through safely.
The Coast Guard boat then headed for the tanker, which by this time was a mass of flame and low in the water. The sea for a hundred yards around the vessel was covered with burning gasoline, with two great towers of flame about a hundred yards apart.
p79 Dense smoke lay low over the scene, and the surf boat had to proceed cautiously, while the men wrapped cloth around their faces. Entering the flames, one man was assigned to stand on the bow with an oar and strike the water ahead of the boat to open up a path through the swirling flame and floating, burning debris. Then, the smoke lifted a trifle, and a life boat, overturned, was seen between the two pillars of fire, six men hanging desperately to the sides.
The heat was almost unbearable to the Coast Guardsmen, and the smoke, despite the cloth wrapped around their faces, choked them. With eyes red and burning, Keeper Midgett guided the boat through the flames, until they were alongside the overturned craft. The men in the water were quickly lifted up into the surf boat and the journey back was begun. By this time, the rescuers themselves were in bad shape; the man in the bow actually collapsed and had to be replaced.
By careful work, Midgett brought the surf boat out into the open sea, and there rested for a few moments while his men regained their strength and recovered from the choking effects of the smoke. The survivors related their story to the Coast Guardsmen, told how the lifeboat had capsized when an explosion from the ill‑fated steamer sent an avalanche of flame and sea down upon them, sending ten men of the p80original sixteen to a blazing death. The others, hanging to the sides of the life boat, had managed to escape the flame-incrested waves by ducking burning the water. Holding little hope of being saved, these men had debated among themselves the advisability of drowning themselves rather than risking the tortures of being burned alive. They also said that another life boat filled with twenty men was somewhere in the vicinity, and it was believed that they had escaped the burning oil.
Cruising around the edge of the inferno, Keeper Midgett at last found this second lifeboat (she was without oars) drifting rapidly toward the pounding surf. The Coast Guard took this lifeboat and headed for the rendezvous Midgett had set with the Mirlo's captain.
When they were still •two miles from the beach, the fresh northeaster developed into a gale and the sea rose, making the difficult job of tackling the surf doubly dangerous. Keeper Midgett knew that they would be obliged to go in through the surf while there was still light, but it was already growing dark.
The Coast Guardsmen found the Mirlo's life boat, with the steamers captain and six men in her, safely anchored on the edge of the breakers. Taking a safe load of these survivors, Midgett started his first trip through the surf. Riding the breakers with superb skill, he made three trips back and forth, landing in p81all thirty‑six men from the Mirlo, which had long since gone down.
Shortly after the war, another example of the calibre of Coast Guard officers and enlisted men, and of the courage and high degree of seamanship that may be expected of them under adverse conditions, occurred when the squadron under the command of Captain H. G. Hamlet, U. S. C. G., ran into heavy weather off the coast of France.
Early in the morning of April 27th, 1919, the Marietta, with the U. S. S. Teresa, MacDonough and nine other small vessels sailed from Brest, France, for Hampton Roads, Va. These nine small boats, with the exception of the Rambler — a converted yacht of considerable age — had been at one time, small wooden fishing boats.
Captain Hamlet, in command of the Marietta, was the senior officer present, and commanded the entire squadron. The weather, which had been ideal at the moment of sailing, kicked up as the day wore on. Seas began to make up, and the going got rough. It was close to 1 P.M., when the Rambler broke out a signal, "Man overboard!"
The convoy decreased speed, dropped rafts and markers and began circling in an effort to pick up the man. The wind, by this time, had increased to a gale, and heavy seas made the rescue work hazardous for the flimsy vessels. An hour later, one of the mine p82sweepers, the Courtney, reported that she was leaking badly.
Captain Hamlet ordered her to turn and head for Brest, with the McNeil, another mine sweeper, acting as her convoy. But when the weather continued to become worse all of the converted fish boats were ordered to make for Brest, the MacDonough and the Rambler to convoy them, leaving the Marietta and the Teresa to carry on the search for the man lost overboard.
Shortly afterwards, word came from the McNeil that she was in trouble, and one of the fish boats then on the way to Brest was ordered to assist her. Trouble followed trouble. Word flashed from the Courtney that she was sinking and needed immediate help.
The Teresa and the Marietta were forced to abandon the search for the man overboard and proceeded to the Courtney's assistance. The Teresa was directed by Captain Hamlet to get to the windward of the Courtney and make an oil slick, and then drift down upon the stricken vessel and remove the crew. These orders were carried out to a successful conclusion. The Courtney, in a sinking condition was taken in tow by the Teresa and the battered squadron fought the storm toward Brest.
About 9 P.M. that night, a huge wave struck the Douglas, wrecking her bridge and injuring several men at the same time. Her seams had opened and water was pouring into the hold. She immediately p83informed the flagship, Marietta, of her condition and asked for assistance.
It was apparent by this time that the Courtney could not be saved. The Teresa cut her free and proceeded to the Douglas's position. By dint of careful maneuvering and skillful seamanship, the Teresa's captain placed his ship's bow against the Douglas's port side, and held her there in that precarious position while the sailors leaped from the sinking vessel's deck to the Teresa. In this remarkable maneuver, not a single man was lost, and only one was slightly injured.
In the meantime, the Courtney had sunk and the Teresa had managed to take the Douglas in tow. The little squadron was now in dire circumstances, with one ship already lost and another about to go. So far, however, no lives had been lost, except in the case of the man who had been washed overboard from the Rambler's bridge. The storm seemed to be increasing and tremendous seas were running. The Douglas twisted and tugged at her lines behind the Teresa, and finally, the hawsers parted and the sinking vessel was swept away into the night never to be seen again.
Word flashed from the James that she was also in trouble — a flooded engineroom and a stove‑in bow. The Marietta headed for the James's position, and arriving there about 11 P.M. found a tug and two destroyers which had been sent out from Brest to assist the storm-whipped convoy. While the two p84destroyers and the Marietta stood by, laying oil on the water to smooth the huge waves, the tug managed to get a hawser across to the James, and as daylight broke over the troubled sea, started to tow her toward Brest.
To add to the situation, Captain Hamlet's flagship, the Marietta, ran into trouble when one of her tail shafts was broken. At the same time, a plate had become sprung, and water had poured into the engineroom, putting out the fires under one boiler and placing the little gunboat in a precarious condition.
To top it all off, the James parted her lines and broke away from the tug which had had her in tow, and was rolling in the trough of the sea, her superstructure a mass of wreckage.
Her commanding officer informed Captain Hamlet tersely: "Do not believe the James will hold together much longer. Men are exhausted from work at pumps. Would suggest removing crew at once."
Captain Hamlet laid his plans quickly. The destroyers were standing by, ready to offer any assistance of which they were capable. But Captain Hamlet knew from past experience that the deck of a destroyer is no place from which to effect a rescue in heavy seas. A destroyer is too low in the water; it is practically impossible for anyone to remain on the deck while these vessels are underway in rough weather.
The Coast Guardsman ordered the destroyers to move around and form a lee for the crippled James, p85and drift oil down upon her. When this was done, Hamlet brought his ship around and moved toward the James. It was difficult maneuvering with one engine. A slight error in judgment, hesitation for just a fraction of a moment, and the Marietta would be in the trough of the sea, an easy prey for mauling waves.
But the Coast Guardsman made no errors; nor did he hesitate. He brought the Marietta broadship to the James, and just at the right moment, the order was given; and a Lyle throwing‑gun barked. The line went sailing into the rigging of the crippled ship. It was drawn in to the vessel in a few minutes and fastened to a life-raft, which was lowered over the side.
Three men lashed themselves to the life-raft and were drawn through the churning water to the side of the Marietta, where they were hoisted aboard by means of bowlines. Time after time this operation was repeated, while the James settled lower into the water. Finally, three hours later, the last man of the crew of 47 was drawn safely aboard the Marietta. Within a few minutes, the James turned over and sank.
When it is remembered that not a man, except the sailor lost from the Rambler's bridge, died in the sinking of the three ships, despite the fact that a gale of almost hurricane force was blowing, one must realize that here was seamanship seldom equaled and certainly never surpassed. Captain Hamlet supervised the operations from the bridge of the Marietta, and every p86life saved in those trying hours can be credited either directly or indirectly to his ability as a seaman. Perhaps it is not amiss here to mention that Captain Hamlet was afterwards appointed Admiral Commandant of the Coast Guard, after having served several years as the superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy at New London, Conn.
a See the full biography of Commander Elmer Fowler Stone, USCG on the site of the Coast Guard Historian's Office; details of the difficult pioneering flight of the NC‑4, not found on that page, can be read in Turnbull & Lord, History of United States Naval Aviation, pp166‑168.
b An illustration in the book that doesn't fit well anywhere else; nor here really either, since the technology — the reliable use of aviation — is later than the events narrated in this chapter:
Photo U. S. Coast Guard
Coast Guard Plane Rescuing Crew from Burning Boat
Removal of crew at sea.
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