USCGC ESCANABA (WPG-64) (WHEC-64) - An Essay

By Jack A. Eckert


This is an essay on the 255's in general and specifically on the CGC Escanaba. It is not a sea story but it is included in this collection to provide an insight to the reader in the workings of this ship class that was ahead of her time as seen through theyes of the author...........


Ensign Jack Eckert reported aboard the ESCANABA in June of 1961 right out of OCS to complete Student Engineering - Part B. He completed the training and was assigned as Assistant Engineer Officer for the remainder of his tour of duty. He was transfered in June of 1963 and assigned on detached duty with the U.S. Navy for the next several years.

Mr. Eckert was a former Engineman who had several years of experience on Diesel ships as an enlisted man. He had no real steam experience at all. This assignment was a real learning experience for him. Not only did he have to learn how to operate and maintain a steam ship, he had to learn how to be an officer.


During this two year period the ESCANABA had two reserve cruises, nine weather patrols, one Bermuda standby, an extensive yard period in which a new air search radar was installed, two Provincetown and Air Force Texas Tower standbys, a goodwill trip to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia for the International dory races and Fleet Training at Guantanamo Bay Cuba. She also had an emergency availability in St. Johns, Newfoundland when she broke down enroute to Ocean Station in late 1961.

The ship was very strict in her routine. Cleanliness and neatness were stressed. Military discipline was somewhat stern. There were several Special Court Martial's at sea when no lawyers were available. Conviction rate was 100% of which most were for missing movement. The Captain was an excellent seaman and well respected for this.

It is from this perspective that the following pages have been written.


In spite of being hastily constructed during wartime there were many features of the machinery plant that were ahead of it's time.

It was a single screw, turbo-electric drive ship employing AC power and automatic excitation control. The Bridge could be given pilot house control but problems had arisen with the boilers because of it. The two top fired 600# boilers had automatic combustion control using a Hagen Board and automatic water level control using Copes Water Regulators. There was a turbo-feed pump but it was only used as a backup because the two electric driven reciprocating feed pumps proved to be so reliable.

These control systems and the automatic features were quite different from other steam ships then in existence. The Pilot House Control feature was not used because the operators on the bridge would change speeds so quickly that either the boiler safeties lifted or the boilers would lose pressure. An annunciator was used and a Machinist Mate throttleman followed the engine orders as they were received and kept the Boiler Operator verbally apprised.

To complete the plant there were two auxiliary turbo generators and a single Maxim Silencer, fluted basket evaporator that required only incidental monitoring. In addition to the usual service pumps, air compressors, etc., the ship had a chilled water air conditioning system that depended upon vacuum drag from the main condenser to operate.

As the ship's missions changed more and more sophisticated electric and electronic equipment was installed. The turbo generator governors were ok for 1940's equipment but not wholly suited to 1960's equipment which was both frequency and voltage sensitive. Initially one operating generator could maintain the entire ships electric load. As time went on and the loads increased, both turbo generators had to be on line at the same time. It was not unusual in times of peak loads to have to begin stripping the board as a matter of routine. The 29 radar installed in 1962 was very sensitive to fluctuations and there was a lot of gnashing of teeth between the operators and the engineers. Not a whole lot could be done about it.

The ESCANABA had an ASW capability. She carried Stern mounted depth charge racks, hedgehogs forward, and several K-Guns on port and starboard sides. If a Starboard side K-Gun was fired the resulting underwater explosion would trip the main plant control circuits, the boiler safeties would lift, the main turbine would trip out and the ship service generators and power would be lost. The ship would go dead in the water with no power. The Machinery Room would fill up with steam and the crew might have to abandon the space. A three cylinder Fairbanks-Morse Diesel Engine Emergency Generator located in the Steering Engine Room would automatically start and provide enough electricity to get one boiler and turbo generator on line. Restarting the entire plant could take a couple of hours even though it was hot.

A method of holding the plant on line was available to the Throttleman which consisted of bypassing the CR4 circuits momentarily when a K-Gun was fired. The main thing was the Throttleman couldn't see what was happening on deck and had to depend on telephone talkers who were prone to mistakes. And mistakes of omission were made once or twice a year.

The plant had no redundancy. If components failed they would have to be repaired or replaced immediately or ship operations would be curtailed. Because of this problem engineering operation was monitored very closely with preventive measures always in place. The Engineering Watch Officer was stationed in the Machinery Space at all times when the ship was underway.

Another problem often appeared when the evaporator salted up because of fluted basket problems although there were other causes too. If the salinity alarm wasn't heeded a feed tank would be poisoned with salt water and the plant would be lost until the boilers were drained and clean feed water pumped in. There were other ways the plant could get salted up. All of these were through the feed water recovery system.

The air conditioning system worked well at sea where an acceptable vacuum could be maintained in the main condenser. In port it would work sporadically from the ships service generator system. It would not work at all when the plant was shut down and the ship was on shore tie. From this standpoint it could be surmised that the 255' was a better Northern ship than a Southern ship. ESCANABA's crew always suffered from the heat when they went into Southern waters. It is probable the 255's home ported in the South paid closer attention to this system.

Import maintenance was usually quite simple. Boiler firesides and watersides were cleaned, main condenser flushed and a few valves packed.

In New Bedford only one electric shore tie was available. The 311' YAKUTAT which usually carried a senior ship's captain laid claim to the shore tie. The ESCANABA would have to run a turbo generator with a light loaded propulsion boiler. This caused a build up of soot on the tubes which would have to be blown off. Large chunks of carbon went up the stack and got all over everything. This caused constant strife between engineers and deck force. The problem couldn't be wished away because the boiler would become a bomb if the buildup became too great. Even if the ESCANABA had the senior Captain, the YAKUTAT always needed shore tie because of the frequency of overhauls of their diesel engine plant. It has often been said that on a steam ship the Chief Engineer has a position. On a diesel ship he has a job.

People man ships to make them run and a little bit should be said about their own mini-culture.

The concept of a single machinery space containing boilers and turbines was different to say the least. Generally the boilers were contained in a separate Fire Room and the turbines in a separate Engine Room. Since the first days of the steam ship Water Tenders (Boiler Technicians) and Machinist Mates didn't like each other professionally. Each group got separate engine orders from the Bridge through their own annunciator systems. Both groups followed the bells independently. Communication between Engineroom and Fireroom usually was "give me more steam" or "you're dragging my boilers." The two ratings were made up of two separate distinct breeds of men. The grimy Water Tenders were always accused of being a few clothes stops short of a full seabag and the Machinist Mates considered themselves as a step up in the hierarchy with their pressed dungarees and clean white hats.

On the ESCANABA there was no physical bulkhead between the two groups. There was a virtual bulkhead with a line actually drawn down the common control panel and across the deck and up the Port skin of the ship. When the groups went to war with each other the Boiler Technicians as they eventually were called would use the scuttle on the Starboard side forward part of the space to get in and out of the "Fire Room" because the Machinist Mates didn't want them crossing through to use the normal access ladder out of the space. Machinist Mates would actually walk around the backside of the turbine rather than cross the catwalk in front of it because they would have to cross the line. The two groups even had separate coffee pots. Many tales could be told about this rivalry.

The movement of Black Gang personnel between the two First District 327's in Boston and the New Bedford based ESCANABA was minimal. When someone was sent from either the BIBB or DUANE to the ESCANABA it was like a prison sentence to them. Within the culture of the steam ship engineering people the 255' was considered a giant step down.

The two groups would only get along well when they were under fire from other shipboard groups. They would drop their differences temporarily and face their adversaries together. When the external pressures abated they would go back to their wars.


If a person liked climbing stairs they would have loved the ESCANABA. Everything was up to the main deck and over except for the midships section over the Main Machinery Space and the Motor Room. Before the space between the two deck houses was filled in and without the watertight door between the Wardroom area and the Mess Deck area it would have required going out into the weather to go forward and aft. In foul weather it was a real chore to go from bow to stern. In fair weather the crew would go forward and aft on the Weather Deck.

The general idea was advanced damage control. Without bulkhead penetrations progressive flooding could be minimized. Excellent concept, difficult to live with.

This up and over configuration always caused delays going to Battle or General Emergency Stations. A traffic cop was almost needed.


From many standpoints the ESCANABA was a good weather ship. She was a ruggedly built ship. The length was good because it took two seas in the North Atlantic. Unlike the 311's the ESCANABA didn't pound through the seaway. When left to drift without power to the screw she tended to put her stern to the seas slightly quartered. On station she was usually run to one edge of station against the weather and allowed to sail back with the weather on her stern quarter.

Noise and vibration levels were very low. Even in the Main Machinery space personnel could talk to each other at conversational levels. She would roll deeply when coming about in sloppy seas. More than once the Wardroom Mess Table, which was installed athwartships, upended on a roll and threw the officers against the bulkhead(s).

The official ships picture framed and mounted on the aft Wardroom bulkhead had a typed note slipped in which said, "Sometimes she rides like she has got square wheels."

On a weather ship the Civilian Weathermen launched weather balloons at Noon, 1800, Midnight, and 0600. These launchings corresponded to meal times. The ship would have to get underway and chase the balloons with the air search radar. Many is the meal that went flying. The two most common things coming over the 1MC (public address system) at noon on station were the eight bells marking the time and "stand-by for heavy rolls as the ship comes about."

ESCANABA burned Navy Special black fuel oil. There was about enough fuel capacity to make a run from Argentia, New Foundland to a northern weather station and return without much in reserve. Fuel conservation measures were always in effect. Storage tanks were put in ballast when they were emptied. This had to be done to maintain vessel stability. On return from a Northern Station the ship had to go into Argentia or St. Johns to refuel. The night before arrival all ballast was emptied and the ship would ride high in the water. This magnified the roll and provided more sail area to be acted on by the wind making her difficult to maneuver. This was scary until the ship entered the harbor.

Costwise the steam ships were more expensive to operate than the diesel driven ships. In later years after the Navy went into a single fuel system and heavy black oil for the bunkers became harder to get, the steam ships became obsolete. There were stability and fuel handling problems that were previously non existent. The days of "sweet steam" passed into antiquity and the day of the combustion turbine was on the horizon.

Another factor contributing to the demise of the ESCANABA and her sisters was standby time. It takes about six to eight hours to bring a steam plant on line from cold iron. About two hours with a diesel engine plant and about ten minutes with a combustion turbine plant. In a multi purpose fleet the long period required to get the steam ship underway was an anathema.

With these going against it the ESCANABA II passed into history with one brief recommissioning before being put to bed forever.


The ESCANABA had a single screw which made her difficult to moor and unmoor. The #2 mooring line was much heavier than the rest of the mooring lines and was used to spring the ship in and out of her moorings. It took a real seaman to moor her without using 100 bells. Maneuverable in close quarters she was not.

Unlike other ships with annunciators which ordered speeds like "Ahead 1/3rd", "Back 2/3rds", "Ahead Standard", etc., Engine orders were given in "buttons." Originally it was intended to use pilot house control and a regular annunciator was not provided. The only calibrations were based on raised dimples adjacent to the speed control lever. When maneuvering in close the conning officer ordered speeds by button such as "Ahead Six," "Back Three," and so forth. Local knowledge of the ship was required to maneuver it. Pilots usually had problems when they were embarked so a ships officer stayed close when mooring and unmooring. The Machinery Space Throttleman responding to the bells answered in screw RPM's. If he were to receive an engine order like "Ahead Three Buttons" he would be dumbfounded. During steady steaming speed was set by RPM.



Living conditions were tight as space was at a premium. About the same number of officers and crewmen were crammed into the 255' ESCANABA as lived comfortably on the 327' DUANE.

The Chiefs and Crew lived in the spaces forward of the mess deck and the Officers lived aft of the Mess Deck. The ships office, log office, and Exec's office, and Officers Pantry were immediately aft of the mess deck.

The Wardroom was the next compartment aft. This compartment was wider than it was long so the Wardroom table was installed athwartships. Often when underway the officers had to tie themselves in to the table and hold on to their food as they were eating it. The ESCANABA rolled like a 180" Bouy Tender. The Chief Engineer and Exec had single staterooms on the Port side of that general space.

The next compartment aft consisted of four two man staterooms where the junior officers and warrant officers lived. This area was known as "sleepy hollow."

The next area aft contained the Damage Control Shop, a general storage area, and two extra two man staterooms. When required the most junior ensigns lived back there and the area was called the "Ensign Locker." These staterooms were very spartan when compared to those in "Sleepy Hollow" which were not posh by any definition. Weathermen usually were assigned to these staterooms.

The rear most compartment contained the steering engine and emergency generator.

Only the living areas immediately forward and aft of the mess deck were air conditioned.

The Machinery Space was very hot in warm waters. Watchstanders would stand under blowers for spot cooling. When it became especially hot a large hatch was opened on the after starboard side of the space into the mess deck. A matching hatch overhead opening to the area between deck houses. These two areas were then cordoned off. The Machinery Space and Mess Deck temperatures would drop sufficiently to minimize the potential heat prostration of the watchstanders.

Fleet Training at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was very arduous for the Machinery Space watchstanders because the ship was forced to operate buttoned down. The Fleet Training Group Engineering "Ship Riders" didn't enjoy riding the ESCANABA and her sisters when they were undergoing training. By the time the period was over and the ship headed home the crew, particularly the engineers were exhausted.

The Crews Quarters forward were particularly cramped. A great deal of internal effort was made to keep these areas clean and neat because of the closeness. Reserve cruises often brought about "hot bunking."

Before the deck houses were enlarged and connected together the area between them was the quarterdeck. Muster was held there as there was adequate space and it was easily accessible for officers and crew. ESCANABA had a canvas cover stretched over the area in import. Foul weather parade was spread through the midships portion of the ship because of space considerations. The fantail was small in area and was not normally used for musters.




The ESCANABA went into the Coast Guard Shipyard at Curtis Bay, Maryland in late 1962 for an extensive conversion to accommodate the installation of the "29" radar. The main mast was removed in its entirety and replaced with a tripod mast to accommodate the much heavier air search radar antenna. The foremast air search antenna was removed and disposed of. Old air search radar equipment was also removed from the ship.

A portion of the Damage Control shop and all of the storage area forward of it was remodeled to accommodate the new 29 radar electronic equipment.

Holes were cut in the side of the ship to allow for the old equipment to be removed and the new to be brought aboard. The ship was in dry dock during much of this activity. When the workmen left the holes were temporarily covered with canvas. Anyone who has ever suffered a winter availability at Curtis Bay will confirm that this is the coldest place in the world.

The ship was receiving all shore services including ship service steam. Unfortunately this did not keep the ship warm as the return condensate lines constantly froze up blocking flow. This was a real winter of misery for those who lived on board. Shore facilities were not provided for the officers and crew most likely because of the costs involved.

It was during this period that President Kennedy declared an alert because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. All of the armed forces were put on immediate alert and all leave was canceled. This included the ESCANABA and her crew. As a practical matter the only way the old girl could get underway was to be towed within the floating dry dock to the scene of any battle. But things weren't practical and everybody pretended they could do some good if the ship were needed.

Prior to the alert several cars with officers and crew would be driven every weekend to New Bedford. Most of the crew was able to go home every second or third weekend. This made the Yard period tolerable. Because of the alert this practice stopped. Needless to say morale dropped to an all time low. The local taverns received an unexpected windfall.

Someway or other the installation was completed and the ship returned to the fleet after the crisis ended.

The major problem with the new radar installation was its sensitivity to electrical fluctuations. 1960's equipment being supplied by a 1940's power plant. The heavier radar installation changed the stability characteristics of the ship but not to the extent that it required a new inclining experiment.




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