By John R Smith
Memories of the loss of the Andrea Doria influence the author into joining the Coast Guard
Ever since I was a "wee lad", I have been obsessed with two things, cars and ocean liners. I am a car collector and automotive journalist for one reason, collecting ships takes more money and space. The neighbor's might be inclined to complain if I tried to dock the S.S. United States (KJEH) in my yard, especially since the yard could easily fit on the forward well deck of most liners.
I was just 8 years old on July 25, 1956, yet I remember that date as if it were yesterday. Actually, I remember July 26, because the front page of the afternoon newspaper carried Harry Trask's famous photo of the abandoned S.S. Andrea Doria (ICEH), only 3 years into her career, listing hideously, starboard gunwale beginning to slide under the calm Atlantic ocean in position 69.50N, 40.29W. I had never heard of the Andrea Doria, yet was struck by her beauty, even though she was mortally injured. I was particularly moved by the image of a thick stream of water cascading down her port side, her pumps trying vainly to compensate for the giant gash in her starboard side.
My father sold cash registers for a living, and one of his fellow salesmen was a fine Italian gentleman the same age as dad. Both WW II Air Force veterans, he and dad even drove the same make, model and color of car. We became close friends with this family and the family of his brother, equally fine folks. We had dinner with the brother's family July 26, and when he saw the photo on the front page of the paper, broke down and wept. Perhaps it was that display of emotion which caused an attachment to the Andrea Doria, which I have been unable to break in the subsequent 40 years.
We were asked to write a term paper during my Sophomore year in high school and the topic for my term paper was, you guessed it, the Andrea Doria disaster. Unfortunately, my liberal English teacher was more interested in poetry, folk music and art than in ships, and I received a "D" on the term paper for using the word "list" and other nautical terminology too often. She thought the paper had probably been copied directly from Alvin Moscow's book, Collision Course, and I didn't even know what "list" meant. In a face-to-face discussion with the teacher, my parents assured her that I did in fact, know what "list" meant, even if she didn't. The "D" miraculously became a "B+". Reading that book and preparing the term paper heightened my interest in the Andrea Doria. Unfortunately, things such as bikinis and driver's licenses tend to put that interest on the "back burner", at least for four years. Don't get me wrong, the interest in bikinis was not unfortunate!
In November, 1966, a man by the name of Johnson suggested I may want to participate in military service, by offering the opportunity to report to Cleveland for an Army physical. Since the Army didn't offer a rate in hot rodding, I really wasn't interested. Hoping to follow in dad's footsteps, the Air Force was my next choice, but advancement was painfully slow. The Navy crossed my mind, but I didn't like gray ships. Ah, but the Coast Guard would offer me the chance to be close to the Andrea Doria, at least in my mind. If I couldn't dive on her, at least I may have the chance to sail over that sacred position in the Atlantic Ocean, so I signed on the "dotted line".
While standing the quarterdeck watch in boot camp very early one morning, the OOD called me to the doorway of his office. I had never spoken freely to a man with so many stripes on his forearm and bicep, but he assured me at this early hour, some of the formality of boot camp could be put aside. Prior to this time, the only insignias I had seen over three red or gold chevrons prior to this encounter were two crossed anchors, but this insignia was a ship's helm. QM1 Curry asked why I joined the Coast Guard, and I explained my interest in the Andrea Doria disaster. His eyes immediately brightened, stating he had been the first diver down on the wreck, the afternoon of July 26, 1956. Obviously, the two hour quarterdeck watch passed quickly.
Even though I was a very poor student in RM-A school, I loved the portion where we practiced Procedure, because the tape we used for practice was the original Andrea Doria distress traffic! Sadly, after graduation, I never heard that spellbinding music again, although the interest continued to be piqued.
After leaving NOJ and reporting aboard the DILIGENCE, I became close friends with BMCS Joseph A. Dechane (deceased), a salty gent from "Mass", with a very heavy New England accent. As always, conversation turned to the Andrea Doria, and he stated that, as a BM1, he was coxswain of the small boat which removed Captain Calamai and senior crew members from the sinking Italian liner. I carried Collision Course with me throughout my enlistment, and he quickly pointed himself out in one of the photos. Well, it was almost like being there!
On October 20, 1996, the National Geographic Explorer TV program once again rekindled that fire by airing a segment about the Andrea Doria disaster. Several years ago, the Discovery Channel aired a late '50s weekly TV series called, "Survival", and one of the episodes was about the Andrea Doria. I recorded it for future use, and a year or so later, National Geographic Explorer did another segment about the Andrea Doria, with Bob Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the Titanic (MGY).
Using much of the same equipment to photograph the Titanic, Ballard's mosaic of the Andrea Doria portrayed a wreck which had been subjected to much more post-sinking devastation than the Titanic. Due to heavy subsurface currents in the area, the bridge and much of the superstructure had been washed away, and much of the hull had become entangled in fishing nets. There was certainly none of the peaceful majesty associated with the Titanics final resting place, at least the forward section.
I almost wish I hadn't seen it.
Courtesy of Don Gardner's anthology entitled, "Coast Guard Stories"
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