The Killer Boats

by Jim Gill

 

The Coast Guard was always a "can-do" outfit, but even these boats were to much to do anything with..................

In the early months after Pearl Harbor, the armed forces were mired in deep troubles. Finding the necessary ships for the rapidly expanding Navy, Coast Guard, and Army was one of the foremost difficulties--anything that floated was pressed into service. Fishing boats, yachts, old relics out of the bone yard . . . anything!

Returning from patrol one day in 1942, there, moored at the Coast Guard Base in Ketchikan, were three strange vessels. There was a curious resemblance to a craft I had once seen in an old magazine. Then it dawned on me . . . they were whale-killer boats. Somewhere, in some brackish backwater channel cemetery, the Coast Guard had found these relics of days gone by.

They were named CADDO, CORDOVA, and KODIAK, about 100 feet in length, and their prominent feature being the raised foc'sle head on which the harpoon cannon had been mounted. A catwalk ran from there over the well-deck and aft to the wheelhouse. As whale killers, these ships were manned with a crew of four. The Mate would steer the ship at the direction of the Master right up to the whale, then the Mate would run forward and man the cannon while the Master grabbed the wheel. The harpoon drove deep into the whale, carrying an explosive charge that removed any doubts as to the whale's survival. So much for animal rights.

The Coast Guard now contrived to make a Man-O-War out of these relics. The harpoon cannon was replaced by a 3-inch 23 caliber mount; aft, they sported a single water-cooled .50 caliber machine gun. Actually, I believe the harpoon was a better weapon.

The catwalk was removed and the access door at the front of the pilot house sealed over. The door was the reason for one of the ship's most unusual features. There had been enough room to get in and out of the door, so the wheel was located at the back and the compass behind it. This meant that to steer a course, you faced aft! Very practical for the whale business, but a nightmare for anyone else. How did you see the lubber's line? A mirror, of course.

The whalers were driven by a small triple expansion steam engine powered by a single fire-tube boiler. They had originally been coal-fired but now converted to oil and provided a speed of 8 knots.

As time went on, I became acquainted with some of the crew of these fine vessels. On a visit one day my friend was on watch in the fireroom. I was invited aboard and directed below. As I stepped into the fidley, my guide handed me rain gear. "Put it on, you'll need it."

All the pipes and equipment leaked so badly it was like standing outside in the rain. My friend was busy trying to keep steam pressure up; seeing this was a losing proposition, I left.

What kind of service the Coast Guard expected from these wrecks I haven't a clue. When and if they were capable of getting underway, they were assigned to patrol duty. On only one occasion did I ever see one on a mission.

The CADDO relieved us of a fishing boat we had taken in tow so we could return to our normal patrol. Three hours later CADDO broke down and we had to tow both vessels back to Ketchikan.

 

This story was extracted from Coast Guard Stories by Don Gardner and is being used here with his permission..

 

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