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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Men, Wind and Sea

Riley Brown

published by
Carlyle House, New York 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Coast Guard Academy.

 p211  Chapter Ten

Dots and Dashes

dit dit dit [image ALT: a blank space] dah dah dah [image ALT: a blank space] dit dit dit!

The spine-chilling, quick-breaking series of dots and dashes spins out of the ether, snapping in the ears of hundreds of Coast Guard radio operators. With these signals, a well-rehearsed plan of operation is put into immediate effect by the Coast Guard communications system. It is an SOS, the dreaded call of the sea, that takes precedence over everything — a call for which the Coast Guard radio operator is ever on the alert!

From his first days in the radio school at New London, the Coast Guard operator is taught to regard the efficient handling of distress at sea as his primary duty; his must become the eyes and ears of a service whose job it is to save lives and property on the high seas.

The Coast Guard operator's job is highly specialized.​a He must be able to recognize any signal on the air that might indicate distress, however minor, on a ship far from shore. Throughout the day and night, he sits at his operating desk on board a cutter, or at  p212 a shore radio station, listening to the signals flying back and forth through the air, waiting for the one that will send a cutter or a plane dashing out to render assistance.

The Coast Guard maintains a continuous watch on five hundred kilocycles — the International distress frequency — the operator on watch being required to make an entry in his log of some signal he has heard within the last three minutes. Sometimes, these logs tell the story of death and heartbreak, with incidents of untold suffering and self-sacrifice written between the lines.

Upon the receipt of a distress call on board a Coast Guard cutter, the radio operator presses a button underneath the desk, thus informing the quartermaster of the situation. The latter immediately calls the officer of the deck, and the radio operators off watch, who report to the radio room. One operator takes over the Coast Guard calling frequency, handling all traffic coming in from other units and radio stations; a third takes a station at the radio direction finder, ready to get a bearing on the distressed ship's transmitter signals; the fourth stands by to be of any assistance he can in the radioroom.

Once the position of the ship in distress is determined, this information is forwarded to the district headquarters for dissemination to other cutters which may be within a more effective range of the distressed ship. Often, the Coast Guard's efficiency with the  p213 direction finder means the difference between success and failure in a rescue case. The operators are trained to get a bearing within a minimum of time, and usually such bearings are strikingly accurate.

In the case of the Navy dirigible Akron, however — which departed from Lakehurst, N. J., at 7:30 P.M. on April 3, 1933, for the purpose of calibrating radio direction finder equipment — rescue operations were greatly hampered by static and electrical disturbances. Around 8:45, when the Akron was about thirty miles south of Philadelphia, thunder storms were sighted and the giant ship was headed E. N. E. She arrived over the Jersey shore at about 10 P.M. with lightning flashing around her. In order to avoid the growing storm, her course was changed to west, and she continued in that direction until about midnight. At this time a light was sighted on the ground, possibly Absecon, and again the course was changed to 130 degrees, P. S. C. Around 12:30, the huge craft apparently entered the center of the storm; she began to toss violently. The force of the storm tore the controls away, and with the gallant navy men trying desperately to save her, she started downward like a crippled bird. Nothing could be done. The descent toward the water continued. Then, suddenly, a terrible impact demolished the cabins, trapping men in the wreckage, holding them while the water closed over them, and it was no longer possible to fight.

Meanwhile, the German Tanker Phoebus, bound  p214 for New York, was about 20 miles east of Absecon Light, when she sighted the Akron's descending running lights. Changing her course, the tanker headed toward the airship and at last came upon the huge hulk in the darkness. Boats were lowered in a search for survivors. An attempt to make the Akron fast to the side of the Phoebus was unsuccessful, and the crippled airship drifted away into the darkness. Fortunately, however, the lifeboats managed to pick up the Akron's executive officer and three enlisted men, and despite the gale and heavy seas, the search for the other survivors was continued.

Around 1:30 A.M., the Phoebus tried unsuccessfully to raise the Tuckerton, N. J. radio station. However, the operator, hearing the Montauk radio station, called and raised it. Two minutes later, the message that was to shock the world flashed into the air: WSE WSE DE DDPF Navy Department BT airship Akron afloat off Barnegat lightvessel picked up some cant get them all chief officer three men saved BT Master.

Because of the heavy static existing, the Phoebus experienced considerable difficulty in clearing this message to Montauk. The Coast Guard destroyer, McDougal, anchored at Sandy Hook, managed to copy the original message through the crashing static, but other more distant Coast Guard units were unable to copy it fully.

Montauk Radio, WSE, upon receipt of the message  p215 from the Phoebus, immediately forwarded it to the Mackay Office in New York for further transmission to Navy and Coast Guard. The McDougal, however, cleared the information through the Coast Guard radio station, NMY, at Rockaway, N. Y., and the news of the disaster reached the communications office of the New York Division just seven minutes ahead of the message from the Mackay office.

Rockaway Radio, Coast Guard, broadcast the information on Coast Guard frequencies around 2:03 A.M., by 2:15 A.M., the Coast Guard Destroyers McDougal, Hunt, Cassin, and Tucker, and the cutter Mojave, with several patrol boats, were on the way to assist. The destroyer Tucker, bound for New York, was in the general vicinity of the Akron's position; she changed her course, immediately heading at full speed for the scene of the disaster. At 5:15 A.M., the Tucker took radio bearings on the Phoebus's signals, and despite the fact that the static made these bearings highly doubtful, the Tucker's commander changed his course in accordance with them. Half an hour later, the Tucker sighted a yellow life raft and much floating wreckage — obviously equipment from the Akron. The nature of this wreckage indicated that the airship had struck with terrific force, tearing the cabins and understructure to bits. Circling the wreckage slowly, the Tucker searched for survivors, but none were found. At 6:05 A.M., the Phoebus was sighted, and the Tucker, proceeding close alongside  p216 her, established communications with Lieutenant Commander H. F. Wiley, the Akron's rescued executive officer. From him, the Tucker learned that one of the survivors was critically injured; all needed medical attention.

Despite the heavy seas, the Tucker put a boat over the side and sent a pharmacist's mate over to the Phoebus. Meanwhile at about 6:50 A.M., the Mojave, the McDougal, and the Coast Guard plane Antares arrived on the scene, guided by the bearings taken on the Phoebus's radio signals. The Mojave lowered a surfboat for the purpose of sending a chief pharmacist's mate over to the Phoebus, but before the boat reached the tanker, word was received that the unconscious man, Chief Radioman William Coplin, U. S. N., had died.

The Tucker took on board the body of the radioman, along with Richard E. Deal, BM2c., who was injured, and Moley Erwin, metalsmith. At 7 A.M., Lieutenant Commander Wiley was taken aboard. Then the Tucker got underway at 25 knots for the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she arrived at 12:30 P.M.

While rescue operations in this case were greatly hampered by the prevailing storm, which caused heavy static up and down the coast, the outstanding feature of the Akron disaster was the manner in which the Coast Guardsmen handled communications under the most trying circumstances. At New London,  p217 Conn., the logs at the radio station stated: "Lightning very bad, breaking down across transmitter, noise terrific." It was almost miraculous that the distress message from the Phoebus was copied at all. Certainly, it was a credit to the ability of the radiomen, who stand the long, tedious watches aboard the Coast Guard cutters and stations, that such accurate bearings were taken on the tanker's wavering signals.

On January 15, 1932, the Coast Guard Destroyer Herndon, on patrol approximately 50 miles southwest of Montauk Point, encountered fog at 12:30 P.M., and reduced speed to 15 knots. Fog signals were immediately sounded and were continued until 12:44 P.M. when the Herndon was stopped to ascertain the location of a fog signal which had sounded off the port bow.

Suddenly the fog horn bellowed again, this time close at hand. The officer on watch on the bridge of the destroyer immediately signalled the engine room for full speed astern, and the power­ful engines had just begun to throb when a vessel heading right for the Coast Guard destroyer loomed up in the fog.

Whistles shrilled on the deck of the approach ship; its fog horn blasted frenziedly. Too late! Her great bow crashed into the port side of the Herndon, entering just aft of the wardroom pantry, ripping the plating off the pantry and office and breaking through number one fire room for a distance of about  p218 six feet. At the same time, the side of the bridge just above the pantry was smashed in and the radio direction finder dismantled.

The ship, her identity later established as the Lemuel Burrows bound from Boston to Newport News, Va., backed away from the Herndon, and immediately the Coast Guard destroyer began to fill with water forward of number two fire room. As the Herndon had been standing on number one fire room, the water, reaching the fires, soon rendered the destroyer helpless and placed her in grave danger.

The radioman on watch in the radio room had just finished transmitting a message to Rockaway Radio and had jotted the time on the message blank, when the Burrows crashed into the side of the Herndon. The impact threw the operator out of his chair, broke several tubes in the receivers, rendering this equipment inoperative. The radioman tried to start the transmitters, but the bow of the Burrows had cut all the cables leading from the engine room and the auxiliary power supply to the radioroom.

Immediately after the collision, the chief radioman and the operators off watch entered the radioroom. These men went to work at once to get equipment operating, for word had come up from the engine room that the water was rising rapidly and that assistance must be had at once.

The Burrows, in the meantime, had lowered a boat and was searching in the fog for the Herndon. The  p219 former's radio operator kept sending the question: "What has just collided us?"º The Herndon was, of course, unable to answer, since her transmitters were out of commission. However, the Coast Guard radio station at New London, NOU, heard the Burrows, and immediately placed two men on watch.

Two minutes later, the New London Station of the Radiomarine Corporation, WSA, transmitted the following on 500 kilocycles, the International Distress frequency: "NCU NCU DE WSA BT Following received from WCJS SS Lemuel Burrows quote What ship just collided with WJCS unquote." This was copied by the Coast Guard radio station at New London, and by the Coast Guard patrol boat Marion, at anchor in Old Harbor, Block Island.

Then, just four minutes after the collision, the Burrows came on the air again and broadcast on 500 kilocycles the following: "CQ CQ DE WJCS SS Lemuel Burrows just rammed Coast Guard ship about sixty miles southwest Block Island latitude 40‑10 N longitude 72‑22 W thick fog." Three Coast Guard units recorded this message in its entirety, and at 12:51 P.M., Rockaway Radio transmitted the silence signal on the Coast Guard calling frequency, indicating that a distress call was out and for all Coast Guard ships to remain quiet and listen.

At 1:02 P.M., the Southampton Radio Station called the Coast Guard patrol Boat Marion and asked her if silence was desired on the distress frequency.  p220 The Marion, busily trying to contact the Lemuel Burrows, replied in the affirmative. Accordingly, Southampton Radio, WSL, broadcast the following: "CQ CQ DE WSL WSL CG NRLY wants all traffic silenced QRT (stop sending) DE WSL per NRLY." Eleven Coast Guard units received this message, which served to acquaint them with the situation. Additional men were placed on watch on the Coast Guard vessels. All operators stood by alertly, waiting for any information concerning the distressed Coast Guard ship.

Sometime later, the Marion called the Lemuel Burrows and asked what her condition was, and the name of the Coast Guard vessel the Burrows had rammed. The Burrows' operator answered that due to heavy fog he did not know, but that a boat was trying to locate the rammed Coast Guard vessel. At 1:11 P.M., the Burrows called the Marion and said, obviously in error, that the Coast Guard destroyer was the Hartland. Meanwhile, the radioman aboard the Herndon had been working desperately to get the radio equipment in operating condition. An extension cord was used to connect the gasoline driven Kohler auxiliary power supply to the transmitters, alternating between the low frequency and the high frequency equipment, in order to be able to communicate on both the Coast Guard and distress frequencies.

The Kohler plant on the Herndon had been used  p221 as an auxiliary ship's lighting plant in addition to its primary function as an emergency radio supply; its automatic governor had been disconnected and the machine set for maximum output, which was 120 volts at 90 amperes. Consequently, the load of the transmitters was not enough to hold the generator's output down to 120 volts, and approximately 160 volts were thrown across the radio motor generator.

As the extension cable was not designed to carry such a current, it became very hot, and three fires were started in the radio room in the fuel oil which was sloshing around on the deck. However, this arrangement was used until the cable burned out.

At 1:14 P.M., 29 minutes after the collision, the Herndon came on the air and transmitted a distress message on 500 kilocycles: "SOS SOS DE NRDL NRDL CG destroyer Herndon Montauk 25 degrees fiftyfive miles distant Montauk Point my receiver out of commission answer 2675 kilocycles." Ten Coast Guard units received this message, and five minutes later, when it was transmitted on the Coast Guard calling frequency, 2675 kilocycles, nine more copied it. The Coast Guard cutter Acushnet, at Woods Hole, Mass., got underway immediately for the Herndon's position.

The Burrows called the Marion and asked him to inform the Herndon that a small boat was out searching for the destroyer. Around 3 P.M., the Burrows  p222 found the Herndon settled low in the water and took her in tow.

The Burrows towed the Herndon to a spot just inside of Montauk Point, and at 6 P.M., that night, the Acushnet contacted the two ships and took over the towing of the Herndon into port. No one was fatally injured in the collision, although four members of the Herndon's crew received painful wounds.

This case gives evidence of the initiative which Coast Guard radiomen are sometimes called upon to exert in their daily duties. The fact that the radio equipment on the Herndon was totally disabled by the collision, and yet, within 30 minutes, was operating, testifies that the service radioman is trained for any emergency.

On March 9, 1928, the patrol boat Bonham was on patrol off the northeast coast, when orders were received to seek shelter as a heavy storm was heading up the coast. Steering for Gloucester, the Bonham arrived there at 5:06 P.M., and, secured to a dock, awaited the storm. At 7 P.M., a snow-laden northeast gale was blowing.

At 9:30 P.M., the Bonham received orders to proceed in company with the Active to the assistance of the passenger liner Robert E. Lee, which was aground on Mary Ann Rocks. In ten minutes, the Bonham was underway, heading out into blinding snow and wind which was steadily increasing to whole gale force.  p223 A heavy sea was running, but the staunch little boat kept battling on and at 2:50 A.M. she reached the stranded steamer.

After looking the situation over, Boatswain Brown, in charge of the Bonham, decided to wait until morning before attempting rescue work. In making this decision, he was guided by the fact that the Lee was not in immediate danger, as she was grounded on the lee shore, and any attempt at a rescue would probably be attended by loss of life.

At daybreak, the wind was blowing a whole gale with heavy snow, which blanketed the Robert E. Lee from view. Around 8 A.M., however, the weather cleared, and the stranded ship could be seen well inshore, with heavy seas breaking around her. Boatswain Brown saw at once that the use of a breeches buoy was impossible, for the Robert E. Lee lay too far offshore. Accordingly, he decided to move in closer to investigate and to report conditions to the Tuscarora, the senior ship on patrol.

As the Bonham moved slowly toward the Robert E. Lee, a message was received from the Tuscarora asking if the Bonham could get in alongside the stranded vessel. Brown replied that he would try, adding that he would keep the Tuscarora advised as to his progress.

The Robert E. Lee advised the Bonham through the Tuscarora that the starboard quarter afforded a slight lee, but that there was a large reef just amid­ships.  p224 The Bonham sighted another large reef about a hundred feet off her starboard quarter, and using all precautions, tried to swing around so as to head into the heavy seas and gale in getting alongside the Lee. This operation being unsuccessful, the starboard anchor was dropped, Brown intending to veer cable. Owing to the rocky bottom, the anchor dragged for a considerable distance, bringing the Bonham nearer and nearer to the reefs. Finally, however, the anchor took hold and assisted the engines in swinging the ship around.

The anchor was now hove up. Boatswain Brown maneuvered the Bonham carefully down between the reefs, as heavy seas broke and foamed across the Coast Guard boat. It was ticklish work; one false move, and the Bonham would be thrown against the reefs. In that sea, she would not survive much pounding before becoming a total wreck.

Finally, however, Brown got the Bonham alongside the Lee. While he held the patrol boat's bow against the stranded ship's side, a Coast Guard seaman stood on the pitching deck with a line in his hand. At a signal from the Bonham's skipper, the seaman hurled the line with all his strength toward the Lee's deck high above him.

The coils flew out. The line went straight to its mark, fell across the Lee's rail, hung there for a moment; then it slipped downward as the Bonham was forced toward the reef. The seamen on the Lee fumbled  p225 and missed it, thus allowing the Bonham to drift dangerously close to the hidden rocks.

Signaling for the hawser to be released, Brown at once set about the task of extricating his vessel from its precarious position. Full speed astern was signalled to the engine room. While the passengers watched from the Lee's rails, the Coast Guard vessel backed slowly seaward.

Three times the Coast Guard officer risked his vessel in attempting to get close enough to the Lee to remove the passengers and crew. Each time, he missed success by a matter of inches, finally being compelled to abandon the attempts, as the Bonham's engines lacked the power to buck the surging breakers. The Bonham was anchored just off the Lee's port quarter, close aboard, and the Tuscarora, which had arrived and assumed commanded of operations, was notified of the Bonham's failure to effect the rescue. By this time, two small motor surf boats had arrived from the Wood End and Manomet Point Stations. Boatswain Brown recommended to the senior officer present aboard the Tuscarora that these two motor surf boats — less unwieldy — be utilized in removing the passengers. Accordingly, the Tuscarora advised the Bonham that the two surf boats, together with the CG 176 and the patrol boat Active, were under its command.

Boatswain Brown directed the two surf boats to proceed at once to the Lee's side, start removing the  p226 passengers, and bring them in boat loads to the Bonham and the cutter Redwing, which had since reported on the scene.

After several attempts, a surf boat managed to get under the Lee's rail, and at 10:20 A.M., the first boat load — twenty-seven women and children — was taken from the stranded vessel to the Bonham. At 11 A.M., the second surf boat came alongside the Bonham with twenty‑two more passengers. Boatswain Brown ordered the CG 176 to go around under the Lee's rail, which the patrol boat accomplished, removing sixty-four passengers. Brown decided that the transfer of the passengers from the 176 to the Bonham would be too dangerous, and accordingly directed the patrol boat to proceed to Plymouth to discharge them.

The surf boats, however, again drew alongside the Bonham; and this time, twenty-three passengers were taken aboard. Word was received by the Boatswain Brown that a pulling boat from the Manomet station had capsized close to the beach, and that the men who manned it were in desperate need of assistance.

The two surf boats were dispatched to the scene, where two Coast Guardsmen, almost unconscious and half frozen, were found clinging to the bottom of their capsized craft. The Wood End motor lifeboat, under the command of Boatswain Gracie, ran into the tremendous surf among the rocks, and with careful handling, managed to get close enough to pick up the two men. At all times, there was the possibility of  p227 the surf boat being thrown upon the sharp rocks, but the rescue was effected without accident. From the survivors, Wood, Proctor, and a civilian named Douglas, who had volunteered to go in the boat to make a full crew, the story was learned in detail: The Manomet Point Station crew, under the command of Boatswain's Mate, First Class, W. H. Cashman, had attempted again and again throughout the night to launch their boat through pounding surf in an effort to get to the stranded Robert E. Lee. The passengers were in immediate need of assistance, and it was the Coast Guardsmen's job to effect a rescue. Six times the slashing surf hurled their staunch little craft back on the beach, but the heroes who manned it did not quit.

In the gray dawn another attempt was made, but with similar results. By this time, being worn out with the terrific exertion of battling the surf, the men were obliged to pause and rest.

Around 10 A.M., they again tried to get their life boat into open water. This time, they pulled desperately through the thundering surf, up, over and through the breakers, until clear water was under them. They made their way to the side of the stranded steamer and rendered valuable service in handling lines to and from the rescue vessels. After an hour alongside the Robert E. Lee, the life boat began its hazardous return trip.

As it approached the surf, three huge breakers  p228 came up astern, and broke upon it. Under Cashman's able direction, the craft rode out two of the breakers, but the third roared over them, picking the boat up and smashing it down into the water, bottom side up. Instantly, the Coast Guardsmen were benumbed by the intense cold. One of them, Stark, was struck on the head by an oar, and knocked unconscious. The civilian, Douglas, and a Coast Guardsmen named Wood, went to Stark's assistance and managed to get him to the overturned boat. Together, they pushed him up on the keel and fastened his hands around it, hoping that they would freeze in that position, thereby keeping him from being swept away by the waves.

Then, Douglas and Wood clamped their own hands around the keel, and began the long wait for rescue. The terrible cold ate into their bones; consciousness came and went. Cashman, the man in charge of the boat, had been thrown a considerable distance inshore, and his companions saw him fighting desperately for his life. He struggled through the surf, now making a yard, now losing two. Unable to assist him because of their own benumbed limbs, Douglas and Wood watched helplessly. Finally, Cashman disappeared forever in the maddened seas.

The other man, Griswold, was not seen after the boat capsized. Stark, weakening fast, was washed from the keel of the boat while Wood and Douglas were unconscious, and lost his life.

In the Robert E. Lee case, the Coast Guard rescued  p229 323 passengers and crew, and in doing so lost three men — Cashman, Griswold and Stark. Three men who added glory to the Coast Guard. Three men who would have disliked being called heroes; they did only what they thought they were supposed to do — die, if necessary, to save others.

That spirit epitomizes the men of the Coast Guard — stout-hearted men who live by the sea, and who, all too often, die by the sea. On watch in hundreds of lonely stations, at sea in pitching ships, or tramping miles of desolated beach, their every‑day deeds of valor and self-sacrifice are often unsung. That they give their lives in the pursuit of their duty, is part of the tradition of the United States Coast Guard.

Semper paratus! Always Ready — the Coast Guard!

Thayer's Note:

a The author was a Coast Guard radio operator for several years.

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