USCGC ESCANABA (WPG-77): Lost Yet Not Forgotten

by J. C. Carney

Webmaster's Notes - On Friday, July 31, 1998 at 4 p.m. EDT, The National Coast Guard Memorial Service was held in Grand Haven  Michigan. This is an annual event and is part of a weeklong celebration conducted there each year. This commemorates the loss of the Cutter Escanaba that was homeported there prior to World War II.

Mr. Carney has done an excellent job of chronicling the birth, life and death of the Escanaba I. He offers a convincing argument about the demise of the ship after having done extensive research. Mr. Carney is a former Coast Guardsman who was stationed on the second Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba in the early 1960's.

This is a copyrighted article and is not released to the public domain. You may download it for your own reading pleasure. You may extract small portions to be used in the development of other works. You may NOT download it for re-publication in any form whatsoever without Mr. Carney's express written permission. This article first appeared in the March 1998 issue of Sea Classics.

JAE - 5/5/98

 

USCGC ESCANABA (WPG-77): Lost Yet Not Forgotten

by J. C. Carney

No one knew that the mysterious sinking of this intrepid little cutter would become one of the greatest and longest lasting controversies in Coast Guard history.

The ship's engine stopped and her American Flag was slowly lowered to half-mast as a delegation, consisting of the Captain, officers, and enlisted crew-members of the USCGC Escanaba II (WPG-64) assembled on the fantail for a unique ceremony. A memorial, in which prayers were uttered, a salute fired, and the mournful sound of Taps, carried on the moderate breeze, echoed across the sea. The Escanaba had come to this desolate spot in the North Atlantic to pay respect to her fallen namesake.

Commander John E. Day, who on June 13, 1943, had witnessed the sinking of the USCGC Escanaba I (WPG-77) on this very spot in the wind-swept expanse of ocean known as the Davis Straits, stepped to the taffrail and gently tossed a wreath onto the swirling waters. This solemn observance---initiated to honor the first Escanaba and her brave crew---was concluded and the ship again got underway, while the wreath floated gently on the waves.

The Grand Haven Years

On 10 November 1931, the keel of what was to be the USCGC Escanaba (WPG-77) was laid at the DeFoe Boat and Motor Works of Bay City, Michigan. The vessel, first of six identical Tribal-class ships contracted using PWA funds, rapidly gained form. And it wasn't long before her hull dimensions, measuring 165' in length; 36.1' abeam, with a mean-draft of 13.7' deep, were completed.

The ship was launched on the crisp clear day of 17 September 1932, amid the pageantry accorded all new ships when first taking to the waters. Many well-wishers and yard-workers had gathered for the proceedings. At the words, "I hereby christen you Escanaba," the traditional champagne bottle shattered against her ice-breaking bow. Massive chocks were hammered away. And the hull---sounding like a speeding train---clattered down the runway, sliding "side-to" into the waiting arms of the bay. She rolled to starboard once engulfed in a shower of spray; thereafter gracefully righting herself.

The Cutter Escanaba was commissioned on the 23 November, 1932, while banners festooned about the dock and ship, blew gently under a fickle sky. She was immediately ordered to her first (and only) stateside duty station: Grand Haven, Michigan. The ship, already under the command of her Captain, LCDR Louis W. Perkins, was assigned ice-breaking duties, regatta control, and search and rescue (SAR) on turbulent Lake Michigan. Ironically, Lt (jg) Edwin J. Roland, her first navigator, would in later years, 1962-1966, serve as the Coast Guard Commandant.

Lake Michigan, probably the most vicious of the Great Lakes, had given ship owners "fits" for years. Between raft ice and gale-force winds in winter; the regattas with their occasional boating accidents in summer, the need for a rescue ship---utilized strictly on Lake Michigan---proved eminent: The waters at times were hell! The final straw being the Fall/Winter of 1929, when a number of commercial vessels, among them the car-ferry Milwaukee, freighter Andaste, steamer Wisconsin, and the freight-hauler Senator, were lost. It was then, however, that a resolution by Congressman McLaughlin and Senator Arthur Vandenberg---both of Michigan---was passed calling for a Coast Guard Cutter with ice-breaking capabilities to be built specifically for the big lake. It was at a cost of $500,000 that the Escanaba came into being. A meager sum considering the shipping she would save in the future.

On 9 December 1932, at 10:45, while caught in the teeth of a biting Lake Michigan blizzard, the USCGC Escanaba---appearing more like a moving iceberg than a ship, as she was sheathed in a shimmering coat of solid ice---docked alongside her new home-port pier. At the order "Double-up all lines, Secure the special sea detail," LCDR Perkins, noted there was a huge gathering awaiting the vessel, for it seemed that even the inclement weather couldn't dampen the spirits of the Grand Haven residents. The entire population, the town's 45 member high school band included, along with Commander John Kelly, head of the 10th Coast Guard District, had turned out to welcome her. Moreover, the city schools had canceled classes---not due to the storm---but to greet "their" ship.

A bond was formed. A nexus which has survived even after all these years. The people of Grand Haven idolized the "Esky," as she lovingly came to be called: The crew in turn reciprocated, holding "open-ship" whenever feasible. Through the years many visited the "White Lady, " and as her fame grew, thusly did her number of visitors. She had, literally, become a celebrity.

The USCGC Escanaba was powered by a 1500 horse-power DeLaval double-reduction geared steam turbine. Steam was supplied by two Babcock and Wilcox oil-burning water-tube boilers. The cutter had a cruising range of 3000 miles and could readily maintain a cruising speed of 13.1 knots at full speed [15.5 flank speed]. Also, a large-capacity towing capstan had been installed aft, with which she could supposedly tow a disabled freighter with relative ease.

On 21 December 1932, just twelve days after arriving at Grand Haven, the Escanaba received her first "SOS." The Tuscarora, a fishing tug, had become mired in slush-covered ice off Muskegon, Michigan. The Esky---fighting a head wind that howled like a banshee---passed a towline and hauled the tug to safety while crushing heavy ice with her double-thick bow; thereupon cutting a channel for the tug (and others) to follow. The towing rig, coupled with her ice-breaking bow, had become invaluable assets for this and future rescues. To quote her captain: "The Escanaba was built to safeguard life and property on Lake Michigan, to rescue boats and men in cases of emergency, and to make such inspections as would keep navigation to a high standard. The cutter is a tug, rescue ship, and icebreaker." In the coming years these words would prove all too true.

A rescue ship she surely was. In the wee morning hours of 29 December 1933, the Esky's radio-room received an exigent message: A plane had ditched mid-lake. The Kohler airplane, carrying two men, H.D. Gossett [pilot]; Ben Craycraft [co-pilot] and 4 bags of U.S. Mail, was forced down due to raging winds and icing. The Esky's crew, battling high seas, knew all-to-well that every minute . . . every second . . . counted, as the frigid lake temperatures could numb limbs in minutes. However, finding a small plane amidst towering waves, especially in pitch darkness, was next to impossible, even with the searchlights on. Yet, thanks to flares, sent up by the pilot, find them they did. For, by clinging to the wings for eight hours, the two men managed to keep the plane balanced and afloat until the cutter arrived. Expediency in hauling the men and mail aboard ship had saved their lives, for the plane sank just five minutes after the rescue.

The 1,005 ton Escanaba was soon to garner a new title: that of "mercy ship." On 22 January 1934, during an exceptionally cold winter, the Esky, because of her ice-breaking abilities, was called upon to bring emergency supplies to the starving citizens and livestock of ice-bound Beaver Island, located 32 miles off Charlevoix, Michigan. It was through the diligence of the crew of the cutter that the island's children had milk: Its people and livestock did not starve.

The doggedness of the cutter's crew would again be tested on 30 November 1934. In one of the worst gales ever recorded on Lake Michigan, the whaleback tanker Henry W. Cort---in losing the battle to extreme sea conditions---had been driven up onto a breakwater outside Muskegon's harbor entrance. Riding the vicious storm, the Esky swung into action. The ship's 26 foot motorized whaleboat slammed through mountainous seas; thereupon rescuing 25 members of the tanker's crew---only to lose one of their own. John Diepert, a Coast Guardsman, was swept from the lifeboat to drown in the crashing waves. Yet, even after this tragic loss, the Cort's crew was brought safely to shore from the ice-encrusted breakwater. Diepert had given his life that others might live.

Another duty assigned the Escanaba was more pleasant. She was to patrol the Chicago-Mackinaw Sailboat Regatta each summer. And, because of her presence, many a potential disaster was averted. There was no ice to break, yet the summer storms hovered over the lake quite frequently, causing the crew of the cutter to be on the alert for any signs of trouble. Nevertheless, trouble did exist, for during the summer months millions of dollars worth of shipping and many lives were saved by the observant keen-eyed crew: The radio room was always active. Still it wasn't all work, as the ship's company held many an "Open Ship" during the warm summer months, inviting people aboard to tour the cutter whenever feasible. The town reciprocated by invited the officers, enlisted, and their families to parties held in their honor. Surprisingly, as 60% of the crew were married, there were very few incidences of rowdiness while the crew was on liberty. A genuine respect existed between the crew and their home-port citizens.

 

The Escanaba received a new captain on 8 July 1935, as LCDR Louis B. Olson assumed command. He would command the cutter for one year, only to be relieved by LCDR Raymond J. Mauerman on 11 December 1936. The noteworthy list of rescues and lives saved under these to officers was truly impressive. In 1936, there were six recorded incidents of ships and lives being saved, including the ship C.J. Bos, which had been stuck in ice and had to be broken free. In July1937, the racing yacht Dorello, caught in a 60mph gale, was found disabled and towed to port by CDR Mauerman and the Escanaba. The year also saw 2 persons rescued and 15 ships saved from peril. Whereas, in 1938, the Esky was responsible for the rise in the number of people rescued to 11 with 6 ships aided; 1939 witnessed only two vessels in distress. No lives were lost. The year 1939, also brought with it a new C.O. to the Escanaba, as LCDR John P. Murray, Jr. took command of the vessel on 10 November 1939.

Again, in 1940, the Escanaba set an imposing record with 11 persons saved; 20 ships safeguarded. She had more than paid the cost to build her. In fact---according to Coast Guard files---the value of vessels assisted was by 1940 estimated to be over six-million dollars; cargo value salvaged was well-over one-million dollars.

Escanaba Readies For War

1941. The war in Europe was full-swing. Hitler's U-Boats were slaughtering British merchant ships and sailors by the score, sinking thousands of tons of much needed war material. A secret meeting, however, was held between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill at Argentia, Newfoundland, in which an idea inculcated. Both knew that America would soon be sucked into war's abyss, so an ingenious plan was devised: Make our ships [American] ready for war, yet do so without a declaration as Congress was adamantly against our involvement. President Roosevelt sought (and received) permission from the exiled Danish King, to base our Coast Guard Cutters in Greenland, thereafter forming an impetus---The Greenland Patrol.

In February 1941, the Escanaba put to sea, sailing for the Manitowoc Shipyard of Wisconsin, to be outfitted and altered for possible convoy duty. She returned to Grand Haven four months later, one vastly different ship. For example: a new foremast had been installed abaft the wheelhouse, as the view through the wheelhouse center-ports had---with the old mast in place---been highly restrictive; the main mast was removed entirely. Two anti-aircraft guns had replaced the old six-pounders, machine gun mounts were now visible, and a platform was implanted on the flying bridge to accommodate a high-frequency direction-finder or "Huff-Duff," which picks-up radio signals helping to plot an assailants position. Also, new ammunition handling rooms were created and the ship was provisioned with bases for depth charge racks and a "Y-gun" that would be located astern.

Moreover, living spaces had been reconstructed to accommodate 77 enlisted and 5 more officers. The renovations made the ship look cramped and indeed she was. . . .

Commander Murray still held command, and at least for the time being the altered Esky would continue with her SAR duties. In 1941, her rescue work netted 2 lives saved; 12 ships recovered. And, in early winter 1942, her crew rescued from death's clutches 1 sailor and saved 5 more ships. The total score from 1936 to 1942: 27 persons rescued, 63 vessels aided, and 17 miscellaneous assists. A enviable record indeed for a ship just ten years old.

Even before the Japs invaded Pearl Harbor, the people of Grand Haven harbored an uncomfortable feeling that they might lose their ship. In early 1942, the Esky was ordered to the Fisher Boat Yards in Canada for further refitting and on 19 March, LCDR Carl Uno Peterson, her Executive Officer, assumed command of the ship. She no longer looked the "White Lady," as she now sported a coat of camouflage paint. She, like the warriors of old, was decorated in warpaint.

In the same month, the USCGC Escanaba (WPG-77) quietly took in all lines, silently leaving Grand Haven for the last time. There was not the fuss and fanfare that had greeted the ship upon her arrival ten years before. She mutely slipped away, heading for the battle for the Atlantic. The Lady was off to war.

The Esky was assigned to Greenland Patrol, which, as of 1 November 1941, was placed under Navy jurisdiction. Her duties were roughly the same as when on the Great Lakes: search and rescue, ice-breaking, and weather patrol. After a few months patrolling Greenland's approaches, the Navy re-assigned the Escanaba to convoy duty escorting merchant ships across the harsh, bitter-cold North Atlantic: Here, heavy weather tossed ships around like corks in a bathtub. The warships ordered to this area also fought an elusive, unpredictable enemy that would strike---sinking Allied shipping without warning. The small cutters were well armed, yet were inadvertently equipped with the oldest form of sonar and no radar, whatsoever. They were for the most part sailing blind! The Navy expected the small "buck sixty-fives" to perform the same tasks as their larger [radar-equipped] 327 foot cousins. In retrospect, the 165's worked well as slow convoy escorts, but would never function as destroyers, as they were much to slow.

However, on 15 June 1942, while escorting a convoy bound for Cape Cod from Halifax, Nova Scotia, a definite underwater contact was established on the Esky's "QC" machine. The PA system crackled to life, gongs sounded, and "General Quarters: All hands to battle stations," resounded throughout the ship. Amid the hullabaloo raised by the crew's rush to their assigned billets, the "Old Man" could be heard yelling out orders to the helmsman, while the ship turned to attack. The sound contact was held until within 200 yards from the target. As the Esky closed contact, she dropped eight depth charges, which when exploded, shock the cutter like Jello in a bowl.

Advantageously, the stern lookouts watched the U-Boat: "breakwater, 'turn turtle,' and disappear, stern first, beneath the waves." At 800 yards the Escanaba reversed heading , setting-up for a second run. The ship, however, lost the bearing on the sound of her contact, and shortly after, a lookout noticed air bubbles coming to the surface---soon after which sound contact was regained. A pattern of six depth charges were immediately dropped over the "wounded" submarine. Suddenly, all contact was lost and the U-Boat had apparently been destroyed: The incubus resolved.

A second U-Boat was contacted at 1820 hours. The relative speed indicated to the Esky's sound operator that the sub was slowly moving away. Overtaking the contact, the cutter laid down a fusillade of eight depth charges in an attempt to drive the U-Boat to the surface. No such luck! Therefore, the ship made a second run dropping 5 more deadly "ash cans," after which dense smoke rose to the surface indicating that the U-Boat had been either badly damages---or sunk. To further punctuate this, a large oil slick rapidly spread across the water, accompanied by a mass of brown substance and debris. The Escanaba could not regain contact. And, one hour later, after scouring the surface for survivors, the cutter sailed on. Notwithstanding eye-witness reports, these sinkings were not confirmed by German records uncovered after the war and are not included in the list of "enemy submarines sunk," put out by the Navy in its release of 27 June 1946.

At 2315, the same day, flares and rockets issued from convoy vessels indicating that a U-Boat attack was underway; the USS Cherokee had been torpedoed and sunk. Survivors were milling in the dark unfriendly waters, while a monomoy surfboat with a volunteer crew, was lowered from the Escanaba to attempt a rescue: The order from CDR Peterson being to pick-up first the men swimming alone. The ship herself would attempt to rescue men clustered nearest her leeward side. The seas being heavy; the men numbed by the cold; plus the ever-present threat of attack, made it impossible for the ship to stay in the area too long.

The methods utilized to rescue these men proved tedious and downright dangerous. Yet, in spite of all the danger, they worked! The monomoy returned carrying 11 survivors, while the ship rescued another 11, employing everything from bowlines to fire hoses; thus bringing the total rescued to 22 men. The Escanaba was herself in peril, as she was using searchlights to locate survivors---making herself an easy target for torpedoes. And soon, a destroyer making a sound contact informed the Esky of her own plight. The cutter hoisted her boat, and contrary to her wishes to remain, reluctantly got underway. The Esky then set a zig-zag course for Boston.

Although she had gained fame as a "U-Boat Killer," the Lady was at heart more a savior than a warrior. This fact became evident when the USAT Dorchester was torpedoed on 3 February 1943, while attached to convoy SG-19. The 5,252 ton Army Transport departed St. Johns, Newfoundland enroute Greenland on 29th of January. She carried 751 soldiers---reinforcements for our Greenland Bases. The Dorchester also carried 1,000 tons of supplies, 130 crew members, and an Armed Guard Unit of 23 men. She was in convoy with two other freighters, SS Lutz and SS Biscaya, making a total of three merchant ships and three escorts, USS/USCGC Tampa (WPG-48), USS/USCGC Comanche (WPG-76), and the Escanaba. However, all six of these vessels experienced hostile weather right from the start. And, owing to a reduction in speed caused by heavy icing, the Esky and Comanche had trouble keeping up. They sometimes had to "heave-to" to de-ice using live steam, as the superficial icing had frozen the guns and depth charges, rendering them inoperable until the expulsion of ice was complete. Likewise their sonar proved useless, due to excessive water noise.

Early on 2 February, the weather moderated and the Comanche picked-up the presence of a U-Boat. The Tampa commenced the chase. Yet, while racing at full-speed, ranging 10 miles ahead; 5 miles flank, she never located the submersible. Failing this, she resumed her station.

Suddenly, at 0102, and without any warning---when within 150 miles of Cape Farewell, Greenland---the Dorchester was torpedoed! And, as she was sinking rapidly by the bow, Captain Joseph Greensspun [convoy Commodore] ordered abandon ship. No flares were launched, as there was no time. . . .

In the meantime, the escorts were yet unaware of the drama unfolding on the darkened sea. They apparently didn't even hear the explosions due to the heavy winds. Meanwhile, the "abandon ship" procedures aboard the Dorchester were being poorly executed, as only 2 of 14 lifeboats and a number of liferafts were successfully launched. And, in the final minutes before she sank, four chaplains: Father John P. Washington, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, and Ministers George Lansing Fox and Clark V. Poling, gave-up their life jackets so others might live, thereby giving the full-measure of bravery.

Upon learning of the sinking, the Escanaba and Comanche commenced a fruitless search for U-Boats; thereafter returning to hunt for survivors, while the Tampa rushed the two remaining ships to Greenland. Meanwhile, the Comanche, while screening the Esky against possible attack, had snatched 40 survivors from one of the two Dorchester lifeboats; all total rescuing 93 persons. The Escanaba, for the most part using a new retriever method concocted by Lt. Prause, her "Exec," rescued 133 survivors of which one died aboard ship. Twelve bodies were recovered as well. LCDR Peterson, Lt. Prause, and Ensign Richard Arrighi, who had risked his life numerous times during the rescue, all received medals for their performances. The sad part is, however, they were all to receive them---posthumously. . .

The Loss of the Escanaba

On the 13th of June 1943, the Escanaba, while accompanying convoy GS-24, bound from Marsarssuak, Greenland to St. Johns, Newfoundland, reached position 60 degrees-50' N, by 52 degrees-00' W. The warships in Task Group 24.8.2, besides the Esky were: USS/USCGC Storis (WAGL-38), USS/USCGC Mojave (WPG-47---Flagship), USS/USCGC Tampa, and USS/USCGC Algonquin. They were escorting the USAT Fairfax, the tanker USS Laramie and tugboat USS/USCGC Raritan. The Storis and Algonquin had joined the convoy late, after searching for a U-Boat in a nearby fjord, where nothing was found.

At 0500, Raymond O'Malley (Seaman 1c), who was not actually a member of the regular crew but was assigned to the ship for the return trip, relieved the helmsman on watch. And, at approximately 0510, O'Malley heard what he later described as: "What sounded like four pops of 20mm fire." Adding, "The echo was clearly heard throughout the wheelhouse." Seconds later, O'Malley was literally lifted off his feet by an explosion, and would have slammed into the overhead had he not held the wheel so tightly. The Escanaba had been hit and was going down fast! She slid under the waves at 0513. She sank so quickly that there was no time to send signals or fire a flare and all that was seen by the rest of the convoy was a pale of yellow-black smoke. Angelo Valeriani, a soldier on the transport Fairfax, who happened to be on deck watching the Esky zig-zag, states: "I came up on deck as the weather was nice, and happened to look towards the cutter, which was sailing just outboard of us [port]. When suddenly I heard what sounded like a 'boom' and then the Escanaba just disappeared." Another witness, a sailor aboard one of the other cutters, later described the sinking thusly: "She was there one minute; a couple of minutes later, she was gone. . . ."

The Storis and Raritan were immediately dispatched to investigate, while the convoy, hastily heading away from the scene, steered evasive courses to avoid any U-Boat that might be lurking. At 0715, the two ships returned to convoy, Raritan having rescued seaman O'Malley and Melvin Baldwin, BM2, the only two---out of a crew of 103---to survive. Both men had been found clinging to a wooden strongback, which for all intents had saved their lives. The Raritan also recovered the body of Lt. Prause, Executive Officer of the sunken Escanaba. All that remained of the stout little warship was: an oil slick, some floating cork, a number of unused lifejackets, and the strongback to which the survivors had clung.

The sinking in 1943 was for years accredited to a torpedo. Yet, according to Herr Horst Bredow of the Unterseeboote Archiv in Cuxhaven-Attenbruch, Germany, there were no U-Boats in that area, nor had they laid any mines there at that time. They had all---under orders of Gross Admiral Karl Donitz, issued in May of 1943---been either ordered south [Caribbean] or to the submarine pens in France. The reason being that the Allies were now employing escort carriers, and long-range Liberator Bombers with their large fuel capacity, to cover that area of the North Atlantic. "Happy Time," was over for the U-Boats, as an unusually high number had been destroyed by Allied planes from late March until early June. The nearest U-Boat to that area west of Ivigtut, Greenland, where the Escanaba sank, was 150 miles away and heading south---fast. Admiral Donitz had also issued a standing order that warships were to be avoided, unless a U-Boat was attacked, . "Sink the merchant ships; not warships," was his command. Had it been a U-Boat, why would her captain fire just one torpedo and why at a small warship; thereby disobeying Donitz's order, when just inboard of this little ship was positioned the Fairfax, a large troop transport loaded with soldiers? No self-respecting submarine commander would forego an attack on the bigger prize.

To further augment the mine theory: In early June, while heading to Greenland to pick-up convoy GS-24, the Tampa found a mine floating in the exact route they would take on returning in convoy. They attempted to sink the mine with gunfire, but failed. The mine, according to Mr. Karl Stein, an officer aboard the Tampa, was left intact, as they hurried on their way enroute Greenland. The mine was never recorded in the ship's log; nor, due to radio silence, was it ever reported. Could it be that this "floating disaster" was, on the return trip, the death of the proud little cutter: This Great Lakes mercy ship? Perhaps, we will never know. . . .

- The End -

 

Epilog

On 4 August 1943, the city authorities of Grand Haven, Michigan, along with the Ninth District Coast Guard Commander, John Kelly, participated in a ceremony observing Coast Guard Day, and to honor "their" brave cutter and crew of the USCGC Escanaba. 20,000 people attended, including the families of the men who went down with their ship. This memorial service has become ritual. The proud Esky has thusly been remembered each and every year at Grand Haven. She was lost, but never forgotten.

1997. J.C. Carney  First North American Rights

113 1/2 West 3rd. Street #1 
Park Rapids, MN 56470-1572 

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