The Little Ship That Could

Originally Titled - Iron Ship and Men of Steel
(with apologies to buck and a quarter sailors)

By Al Schreiber



Having completed my tour aboard the USCGC UNIMAK as a Chief Warrant Machinist, I was assigned to the USCGC TRITON (WPG 116) homeported in Corpus Christi, Texas as the engineering officer. The ship was engaged in Gulf of Mexico patrols and rescue.

The  detailer in HQ told me not to get too comfortable, as the TRITON was due to be decommissioned as soon as the new CGC RELIANCE was ready for duty. My family and I arrived in sleepy Corpus Christi, and I was eager to assume my duties as engineer officer. The ship was docked at the Coast Guard Base.

On the appointed day to assume my duties in October 1964, I stepped aboard that venerable old craft. It was like stepping back in time. Everything aboard was antiquated. My senses took in the whole of it and I was unnerved. My primary interest being the machinery plant, I entered the engineroom. Before me were the port and starboard Winton engines. Like a scene from the movie "Das Boot", the engines displayed exposed rocker arms across the top, which required oiling every hour of operation. There were no reduction gears. Just a straight shaft from the rear of the engine through a thrust bearing. To go astern the engines were required to be stopped, then operated in the opposite direction when a backing bell was sounded. A large handwheel at the front of the engine moved the camshaft fore and aft to accomplish this. The engines were air started with 400 lbs of air from the storage air receiver  tanks. A one cylinder air compressor of undetermined origin huffed and puffed the required pressure. Once the engine started a integral air compressor took over. The fuel was injected into the engine at 5000 pps. in a common rail system. An integral reciprocating fuel pump, lube oil pump, and salt water pump were all part of the engine, and any failure of one, required shutting down the engine.

The 110 Volt DC current switchboard was huge, with copper knife switches and cartridge fuses displayed. Two Buda diesel engine generators supplied the direct current power. A Sperry steering engine was located on the overhead above the generators. The steering system was cable operated from there aft to the rudder.

Aft of the engineroom was the galley and mess deck. The galley stove operated on fuel oil as did the boiler located there for heat and hot water. The galley deck was wood. A large refrigerator was also located there. Going aft was a tiny office port and wardroom starboard. The lazarette held the towing cable and small DC shop. Access was from the main deck. Forward of the engineroom was a fresh water tank and a fuel tank, port and starboard.

Next came the Officers staterooms, two port and two starboard, complete with oak beds, cabinet, door, and trim. All this in a space as big as a closet. Well, there was a porthole by the bed. In the passageway was the gyrocompass. The code machine locker was on the after bulkhead. When in use the decoder had it's back to the gyro. This was an extremely hot area. Beneath the deck was the ammunition magazine.

The crews quarters was typical with chain link held steel bunks. A feeble attempt was made for a Chiefs quarters with a canvas divider. A saving grace were the portholes that could be opened in port.

On the main deck forward was the 3"50 Cal mount. The Captains quarters was Spartan, but nicely done in wood bunk bed and cabinets.. Officers head starboard and crews port. The forward stack was supported by an abbreviated fidley which contained the fuel oil day tank and exhaust pipes from the main engines.

The after stack was situated atop the ships store locker port, and the DC locker starboard. The stack contained the exhaust pipes from the generator engines. A pulling boat, with hand operated davits rested on the deck port. Starboard side rested the fiberglass motor launch. The davits and lifting gear, block and tackle were manned to way the boats. The towing hawser when retrieved, was hauled in by all hands.

The afterdeck had a large wooden picnic table which was the focal point of the off duty crew for playing cards, backgammon, etc. Movies were shown here at sea. A canvas canopy keep the area shady and somewhat cool.

The bridge deck was small and compact, the radio room just aft. Think "walk in closet size." All movement fore and aft was on the open deck, which made it hazardous in heavy weather.

I duly relieved the engineer officer and assumed my duties. I was amazed to learn there was no watch, quarter, and station bill. No NBC book, No standing orders book. My first task was to accomplish these items. I was told I was wasting my time as we were about to be decommissioned.

The primary duty of the Triton was the Gulf of Mexico patrol, which took us all the way down to the Yucatan Peninsula. The two weeks at sea was occupied by boarding US shrimp boats for compliance with regulations, keeping them out of Mexican waters, and administering to the sick, maimed, and dead. We fixed their broken engines, towed some to Brownsville. Hunted for their crewmen who fell overboard. There were a lot of shrimp boats, Mexican and US. The Coast Guard Air Station in Corpus Christi flew over the Gulf to Merida, Mexico, where they stayed overnight, then flew back to their Base. Their purpose was to inform us where the US shrimp fleet was congregated so we didn't chase all over the gulf looking for them. After all we operated on 4000 gallons of fuel that we had to husband. We didn't know what emergency we were required to go to. Our water supply was skimpy for the forty some men aboard. A rain squall at sea was welcome to shower in.

At the end of two weeks, the patrol was over and homeport was a welcome sight. This was followed by standbys of B-12, B-6, and the most hated B-2, where a crewman couldn't do anything ashore without a telephone (landline, no cell phones here) at hand.


USCGC Triton (WPC-116) Courtesy of Fred's Place


The RELIANCE arrived, but due to many deficiencies, could not assume her patrols. The TRITON stepped into the breech taking her rotation place. The district assured us it won't be too long while our maintenance money shrunk. The TRITON was hot and humid, cramped and lacking in laundry equipment. Maintaining Bravo Status, the RELIANCE along dockside in Charlie status. Our crew started to refer to her as "our million dollar gangway." We were informed to refrain from using her midship passageway to lay ashore. We let our her cold air conditioned air when opening the doors.

We sighed in relief when the RELIANCE was in the shipyard and had the dock to ourselves. The TRITON was getting a workout with double patrols, and the tired old Wintons churned up a blue oil haze from the exposed rocker arms while policing our patrol area. It was a major event when the air compressor refused to operate. The engineers cobbled old parts together to get back on the line. I would lay awake at night wondering how I would get starting air if the old machine finally died. I fantasized jerry rigging the CO2 bottles to the starting air line, after all only three cylinders had starting air piped to them. Fortunately the old popper kept on going. The most hazardous and onerous was a wiped conn rod bearing which these engines were famous for. At sea with the ship rolling, my intrepid engineers would remove the heavy 50 lb caps. Fit and blue in a new bearing. All the while lying on the floor plates to work. Then after working all day and night got the engine back on the line. On one patrol, the 5000 PSI accumulator developed a pin hole leak, blowing a fine mist of fuel oil in the air. NO SMOKING in the engineroom for the rest of the patrol. It was stopped with a product called Locktite until replaced with a spare from our shore parts locker.

Spare parts were obtained from a dealer in the Pacific Northwest. I suspected most of the parts arriving were used, but welcome just the same.

The patrols kept coming into 1965, the TRITON doing her job, with a new Captain and XO. Then 1966 and she still maintained her place and the RELIANCE's. The steely men of the TRITON, keeping her running, the paint work sparkling, the boats immaculate. All hands out to raise the motor boat, haul in the towing hawser. Proud of their ship and her stamina. Sometimes, alongside the RELIANCE, their morale would flag. The comparisons in creature comforts, working environment would prey on their minds. When returning from patrols they would look apprehensively to the mooring to see if the RELIANCE was gone, and happy if she was.

Then in December, 1966 the port Winton wiped all her bearings. The district was informed and they lamented it would cost an estimated $35,000.00 to repair and the RELIANCE was not ready. I conferred with my engineers and they agreed to tackle the job. We had plenty of spare rod and main bearings. Although they were not the fitted kind, they could be blued, scraped and fitted. After all they had done this individually several times. The Captain and District agreed to let my men try. Working night and day in shifts they accomplished the impossible. These men of steel with mashed, bloody fingers finished there task. Started the engine for dock trials, and ran her in without an incident. District was informed but were noncommital. The TRITON assumed her patrol when crossing 26 degree latitude. The district was elated, and sent a "Well Done" to the engineers.

Finally, in June of 1967, the RELIANCE was operational and dependable. The TRITON was at last retired to the Navy mothball fleet in Orange, Texas. Her last proud run from Corpus Christi at full speed ahead.

EPILOGUE;

The TRITON was sold to Circle Lines in New York. She was re-engined and reconfigured to carry sightseeing passengers around Manhattan Island.

The Captain attained the rank of Admiral.

The "Men Of Steel" all scattered to different units throughout the Coast Guard. I know they were well received wherever they went. I think of them often and wish them the best.

What Became of The Triton - Courtesy of Ken Laessar

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