The USCGC McCulloch Disaster of ‘58

by J.C. Carney©2000

"You have got to go out, but you don’t have to come back." No one aboard the USCGC McCULLOCH (WAVP-386), a converted torpedo-boat tender (AGP) acquired from the Navy in 1946, knew how those words from an old aphorism of the Coast Guard’s early days, would come true when they sailed from Boston in December, 1958. Destination: The infamous Ocean Station "Bravo."

CGC McCulloch (WAVP/WHEC-386)

On the bitter cold morning of 23 December 1958, the crew of the 311-foot cutter McCULLOCH, after wishing a fond goodbye to their wives, families, and girlfriends left standing on the pier, took to their mooring stations in preparation for getting underway. The "Shore-Tie" (power from the pier) was disconnected, all lines were singled-up, and the gangway pulled aboard and lashed down. They could hardly await the order to take-in and stow all lines so they could finally "lay below" out of the bone-chilling breeze blowing across the bay. Once the "special sea detail" was set, the ship backed cautiously away from the Atlantic Street dock. Driven by her Fairbanks-Morse Diesel-gear driven power plant, the cutter slowly turned her bow, targeting the harbor entrance. Then, when all lines were stowed and the regular sea watch set, she worked her way out to sea. First objective: Argentia, Newfoundland.

The two-day trip to Argentia was, in reality, uneventful. The seas were moderate with only light swells. The winds were temperate. There was no indication as to what would transpire in a few days: None, whatsoever. . . . Even the weathermen aboard, employees of the National Weather Bureau, who always sailed with the cutters on every weather patrol to take air current and sea samples, hadn’t any inkling of the foul weather that lay in their path. And, after taking on fuel in Argentia; thereby "topping-off" the ship’s fuel tanks, she again proceeded to get underway. Her fuel capacity when loaded [95%] was 166, 430 gallons, which she needed to cruise on station for 23 days and return safely to Argentia; whereupon refueling for the trip home.

Upon exiting Argentia, Commander Anthony F. Wayne, the McCulloch's commanding officer (CO), ordered the course set for Ocean Station "Bravo." When on station a cutter not only became a weather station, but more importantly, a checkpoint for aircraft and ships wishing to obtain the latest weather information and data necessary to determine a fixed position. Moreover, the ship was situated where it could help in any emergency that arose -- especially if a plane had to ditch in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. It was for these purposes that there was a cutter positioned "On Weather Station" (OWS) at all times. Ocean Station "Bravo" was located approximately 150 miles south of Greenland, 1000 miles from either the United States and/or Europe, midway between both. The weather remained moderate. The only noticeable difference was that the wind had, ever so slightly, started to increase in intensity. The "Mighty Mac" [nickname] maintained full-speed across the steel-gray waters. And, on 28 December, McCulloch arrived on Ocean Station Bravo, whereupon she relieved the 327-foot cutter BIBB that had spent the last 23 days on station. The "Mac’s" radio-beacon was then keyed to YBOS, meaning the McCulloch was now Ocean Station Bravo. All aircraft passing overhead and homed-in on the beacon could rest assured that they were on proper course and location. The "Mac’s "crew were somewhat cheered by the fact that the Bob Hope troupe had radioed "Bravo" upon Hope’s return to the States (after having spent Christmas entertaining the troops stationed in Iceland), wishing the cutter a very Merry Holiday Season. The conversation was recorded on the "soundscriber" and later played over the PA system for the crew. Meanwhile, the Bibb sailed for home: Right into the clutches of a vicious two-front storm!

The officers and crew of the McCulloch settled in to their shipboard routine. Watches were set, various drills were enacted, movies were selected to be shown each night, and the different departments initiated maintenance schedules. The ship was also secured for possible storms by the watch standers. All Water-tight doors and hatches, not commonly and continually employed, were dogged, while all department heads made sure that all was secure about the decks. Boats were cradled, their clamps seized up tight, leaving only the ready boat swung out for instant use, and life-lines were rigged in case of really foul weather. (Bravo, because of its locality, was noted for heavy weather). Last but not least, all topside gear that could in a storm become missile hazards [loose gear] was lashed-down. The ship was, supposedly, now ready for whatever Mother Nature threw at her. Little did they know what lie ahead.

Early on New Years Day, 1 January 1959, the seas and swells began to slowly build. The radio-room gang started receiving messages predicting foul weather. The bridge was informed that a major storm was brewing -- and heading right for the "Mac." Cmdr. Wayne, after perusing the reports, ordered the ready boat swung in, as the seas---if as vile as (or-worse-then) forecasted -- could easily damage (or destroy) a small boat hanging out over the side when the ship rolled. Also, all tanks were immediately checked for ballast by the engine room gang to make sure she would ride the ocean on an even keel. Yet, according to Captain Wayne’s report another problem was evident [quote]: "Early in the patrol [enroute Bravo] it was discovered that the increased height of the recently-enlarged balloon shelter encumbered the maneuverability of the vessel in winds above 30 knots." Adding: "The additional ‘mainsail’ area gives pressure abaft the pivot point and delays turning the stern across the wind." This could indeed become a dominant problem if the ship had to turn in high winds, which would later prove true.

Seas began rolling the ship like someone violently rocking a cradle. The skies became darker, leaden, taking on a hue of deep gray. The wind increase dramatically over the night-time hours leading into the 2nd of January. By daylight, the ship was in a full-blown gale, with the wind increasing to 45+ knots, the ocean turning from a gentle chop to combers of 30 feet. A low-pressure area, reported to the bridge via the radio room, remained off the east coast of Canada, intensifying steadily. All hell was starting to break loose!

The barometer started downward on January 1st, and would keep dropping for the next four days. And, as the storm center was supposed to move northward and thereupon stay to the west of McCulloch, the vessel was originally hove-to on an easterly heading. Seas began rolling the ship more intensely, pounding her sides like sledge hammer blows, reverberating down the full-length of the ship’s hull as it bottomed out on the swells, making work (and sleep) difficult, if not impossible. By the morning of the 2nd, the seas were so rough that the order was given by the bridge that no one was to venture out onto the main deck. Seasickness, among those prone, reigned supreme. Moreover, the entire crew, especially those standing watch, found difficulty standing in one spot. Dick Wilkens, RD1, had trouble just keeping his seat whilst watching the surface search radar screen (ANSPS-23), as the ship pitched and rolled excessively. The weather mass indicated on the radar screen was showing great concentration: a formation that seemed to hover directly overhead, with more coming from the east. By midnight, the storm had, again increased, causing the ship to moan and groan like a animal struggling to survive. Still the winds and seas kept building; the now-shrieking wind tormenting the bouncing cutter. Luckily -- and most importantly -- the constant battering kept the vessel from icing. Had she started to take on ice, she would eventually become top-heavy, which could -- if the ice were not removed -- cause the "Mac" to capsize. It is easy to ascertain that a sailor cast into those freezing waters would not last very long.

In the early morning hours of January 3rd, the wind had heightened to 70 knots; the seas rising to 40+ feet with white water capping the swells. At around 11:15 on that Saturday morning, a huge wave crashed over the entire bow, sending the forecastle, the 5"/38 canon, and the O-1 deck under green water, slamming into air castle w/t doors (damaging same), while shaking the entire ship, causing the "Mac" to shutter from bow to stern. Suddenly, a crashing noise was heard just outside the wardroom area. The loud banging was immediately reported to the bridge, as the racket was apparently coming from the O-1 [Hedgehog] deck, located just forward and above the wardroom. Forcing his way out to the bridge wing, the OOD discovered that the port Hedgehog ready box had torn loose from it’s welds on deck and was skidding back and forth across the O-1 deck, affecting a hideous "fingernails scratching a chalkboard" noise. The worst part of the missile hazard effect was the fact that the ready box contained about 50 rounds of live ammo. Here was a potential bomb, as it contained approximately one-ton of TNT and propellant charges: It would definitely have to be secured, post haste!

At approximately 11:40, the call was made over the PA that the Bos’n Mate of the Watch "Lay to the Bridge on the double. . . ." Jack Lewis, SNBM, Edward Widberg, BM2, and Donald Bash, BM1 (senior BM aboard, as the Chief, Leo McGillicudddy, was on leave) rushed to the bridge, only to hear that a ready box had broken loose and was playing havoc with the O-1 deck railings and deck house. According to Widberg, the OD and the three men assessed this preeminent problem. All three agreed that in this case the paramount thing to do was to lash-down the box before it wrecked the Hedgehog mount; deckhouse, and/or the rest of the railing itself. (There was already a gap in the rails, wherein the sliding ready box, coupled with the breaking bow waves -- each now between 40 and 50 feet high -- had broken stanchions and ripped-off rails). Bash ordered a length of heavy 1/2 " manila rope cut and brought to the bridge. Upon arrival of the line Lewis and Widberg were told to secure the wayward ready box. Whereupon, after the ship’s propeller-revolutions were brought to dead-slow; with just enough way on to maintain a heading, the two exited the bridge (neither wearing life jackets as they would prove to be restrictive and could catch on the sharp edges of the box; thereafter dragging the person snagged, into a very bad situation). Forcing their way to the starboard boat deck (via a quick-acting water tight door located just outside the wardroom), they then worked forward to the Hedgehog deck . Ed Widberg recalls the struggle and aftermath thusly, "We pushed and pulled the half-ton box to the face of the Hedgehog mount where a turn of line was taken around the box; then around the mount, in an attempt to secure it to the [weapon’s] mount itself. As Lewis fought to tie off the line that would have secured the box, the ship took a tremendous wave on the bow rolling the ship 50 degrees in a snap-roll to port." Footing was lost. Widberg recalls that: "Lewis lost his grip on the unsecured rope and slid -- then was catapulted over the port side -- into the waiting arms of a deep trough [a crater] formed between two swells many feet below." At the same time, Ed Widberg had rolled under the railing, landing on the main deck just forward of the also damaged "air-castle" door and safety ladder. The vertical ladder was a sort of "lifeline" for a very shaky Widberg, as he managed to grab it; thereby saving himself from also being swept overboard. (Widberg later revealed that at that moment, "he saw the face of God!") He then managed -- all the while being slammed by sea water -- to work his way to the bridge to report a man overboard; immediately notifying the Officer of the Deck (OOD) of the accident.

At the same time, as Don Bash, BM1, attempted to emerge onto the deck via a w/t door, the wind and seas ripped the heavy blast-shield from the Hedgehog Mount, sending it careening into the door that Bash was trying to exit to aid the stricken men, knocking him back inside, uninjured but shaken. Had he been outside, the missile would have cut him in two. By this time "Man Overboard -- Astern" was piped and all hands managed to muster at their appointed stations. The CO was on the bridge and attempted to bring the ship about, but there was no way the vessel could have safely "come about" in those mountainous seas. The winds were using the oversized balloon shelter as a sail. It was later reported that the anemometer cups -- used to indicate wind speed -- blew off at 130 knots. The wind force was that great. Also, Dick Wilkens and the radar room gang were watching on the "23" screen the ship’s struggle to turn. Dick states that, "She couldn’t get her bow to come about. The wind force was too great." The McCulloch -- acting like a cork in a bathtub being agitated by the bather -- was at the mercy of the relentless perturbation.

Meanwhile, one fluorescent life ring was thrown over the side in the hopes that Jack would see it and swim for it. A large five-man rubber liferaft was also heaved overboard in a vain attempt to save the drifting crewman. Yet the last that Ed Widberg remembers seeing of Jack, was a vision of him -- right after he went over -- arms outstretched, floating, apparently unconscious, in the water. The scene on the fantail was shrouded in sea spray and mountainous swells, the decks awash, the fantail awash, all-in-all a dangerous location as the subdued rescuers realized that Jack Lewis was gone. . . . He couldn’t have lasted for long in those cold waters. Shortly afterwards, the order was given to secure rescue stations. Silence permeated the entire ship. The old Coast Guard adage: "You have to go out. . . . ." had, indeed, proven true.

The crew were soon brought out of their state of quiet deliberation by the order from the captain to "appraise all damage." Each department checked for impairment to the ship’s structural safety. According to Cmdr. Wayne’s report; seconded by Lt. Cmdr. Frederick Herzberg, the ship’s XO, when this first assessment was gathered, it was noted with trepidation that the ship was in worst shape than anticipated: The Jack Staff was snapped off in the middle and the top half lost; all forward steel lifelines were loosened and dangling; the 5" gun mount, itself -- due to continual pounding -- had loosen at the base and water was leaking into the handling room below; the chain lockers were flooded; the paint locker half-flooded; deck plates near the smoke-stack buckled, and (the report further reads), "the expansion joint [frame 70] was opening and closing like an accordion." And to top it off, the loose ready box was still not secure. The errant ammo-box -- having worked itself free -- slid down the starboard boat deck, heavily damaging the ladder leading to the bridge, wrecked the large rubber lifeboat rack under the bridge wing -- and with the continual rising of the bow with each new 45+ foot wave -- wandered on its merry way, knocking down ladders and liferails, while rolling astern. It bounced and banged along, nearly shearing off the galley ventilator. The box finally came to rest against the forward boat davit, where it was secured. It is a miracle that the ammo inside the box didn’t arm and explode!

The towering seas were also taking a toll of the human element aboard. A cook was knocked unconscious as he ran from the berthing area to the Mess Deck. His forehead struck the low combing of the water-tight door, an all-to-common occurrence during heavy seas. He was taken to sickbay. Albeit the fact that about half of the crew were seasick, they continued their assigned tasks; some with bucket in hand. The overpowering smell of vomit permeated every working space aboard ship.

The storm was, by the afternoon of 3 January, at its peak. The winds were howling like coyotes, and the waves had increasing to a 50+ foot height. The distance between white-capped crests was short -- perhaps two ship’s lengths -- causing the seas to break heavily. The captain states [quote]: " From the bridge we could look-up at solid water bearing down on the vessel, and often coming aboard." Adding: " It reminded me of the worst storm conditions I had ever seen on the Columbia River Bar, except that the vessel took a beating for hours, instead of minutes as when crossing the bar." During the worst 36 hours, the bow kept raising over wave crests, pounding mightily into the following trough -- frequently getting smashed from above by the breakers of the next crest. All this "thumping"continued wrecking the ship. The captain later recorded that, "With the engines running dead slow (100 rpm’s) the ship just [barely] maintained steerage, making about 2 knots. Occasionally, the ship’s head would slew about 20 degrees and be brought back by extra Rpm’s." He added that, "I questioned how any vessel could endure such punishment without at least opening a seam." By the 4th, even that awful prediction came true.

In the early hours of January 4th, Captain Wayne was informed that the O-1 deck and main deck as well, had suffered cracks along the seams, and was taking on small amounts of water. The pounding and twisting of the hull apparently stressed the plating and caused a buckle on the port bow’s freeboard, near the waterline. this was discovered inside a magazine where frames 46-49 were dished inward. The frames were under heavy compression every time the sea pounded on the main deck . . . every wave a fist hammering the ship. It was also discovered that there appeared to be a crack in a deck seam, running on a weld clear across the superstructure deck just abaft the wheel house; chart room area.

Cmdr. Wayne decided to call ComEastArea [Commander Eastern Area] to appraise him of the situation. He, when doing so, informed ComEastArea of the loss of Jack Hill Lewis, SNBM, and the many damages that had been found. The Mac was assessed to be in really sad shape. Still she endeavored to maintain station. Finally, for possibly the first time in Coast Guard history, ComEastArea ordered the McCulloch to abandon station: to exit Bravo; to sail home. . . .

The wind had abated, making it less than 45+ knots and the seas about 35 feet, but still breaking. A 180 degree turn was ordered attempted, with the bridge crew hoping the attempt to turn in the still-heavy seas would not accentuate the damages; thereupon causing the seams to widen. Nevertheless, the turn was accomplished without rolling beyond 45 degrees. The ship ran at 1/3 speed before the wind for 48 hours and reached the safety of Hamilton Inlet in Labrador on 6 January. That afternoon the storm center moved northward. The barometer finally started rising -- from a minimum reading of 28.35 inches! Yet, according to Ed Widbergs testimony, "After a two-day sail, [the ship] was met by high crashing waves, against the shore and cliffs [of Hamilton Inlet], so the course was set for Argentia, Newfoundland instead, as suggested by the C-130 aircraft, which was now shadowing the injured ship to safety." The aircraft also continually gave ice advisories to the McCulloch, which sluggishly limped home.

Moreover, during this period (4th-7th January), the situation was revealed in messages between the Commander, Eastern Area and McCulloch. According to Widberg, on the 8th, while still fighting heavy seas and erratic winds, the greatly damaged McCulloch -- with the aid of the Air Force C-130 informing the cutter of how close inland it could steam along the Newfoundland coast -- reached Argentia. The North American continent was a welcome sight to all onboard the "Mac." Ed remembers that: "From the ship, huge trucks with tall snowblowers were seen trying to clear roads to the piers." There were times when none of the crew of the "Mac" thought they would ever make it back. And, after hearing that other cutters had been very busy during the storm, with reports, via radio, of the merciless pounding other shipping had sustained during the catastrophe, they felt very lucky indeed!

The Coast Guard reported that the Boston based fishing trawler Winchester, trying to battle its way home through perilous icing conditions, had reported that she had to stop every few minutes to de-ice, as she was in danger of capsizing -- and was doing so with a critically ill man aboard. And, about 200 miles southeast of Fall River, Massachusetts, the CGC HALF MOON rendezvoused with the American Freighter African Dawn, as the latter [Boston Globe quote], "ran before a 50 knot wind in an effort to ease the strain on a 12 foot crack in its main deck." Furthermore, a Gloucester dragger, the St. Nicholas, skippered by a father of six, Captain Thomas Parisi, 43, sailed into a roaring northwester’ coupled with a blinding snowstorm off Canso, Nova Scotia, to rescue four men from the wreck of a Canadian fishing boat, Robert N. Brien. Such were the adventures of the period.

The McCulloch topped-off her fuel tanks, and in the teeth of the second storm, sailed under orders of ComEastArea for Boston for repairs. With the crew now constantly chopping ice from her decks and rigging, in effect de-icing, the ship sailed. The now-tired vessel -- a mangled warrior of old who could hardly hold his shield up, nor swing his sword arm after a hard-won battle -- slowly staggered home. The cutter, COOK INLET, out of Portland, Maine, sailed to take over the Bravo station. The "Mighty Mac" had truly earned her nickname and 3 days later she arrived in home port. She was greeted by the media, friends, and well-wishers as she tied-up. The media were invited aboard to record and photograph the damage, as were friends and family to show them the battered Lady and tell the tales of what they had been through. After several weeks spent in Boston repairing the major damage (saving the non-critical for the CG Yard in Baltimore a few moths later), the "Mac" sailed for "Echo" weather station, as it was decided that the ship must continue her schedule. Semper Paratus (Always Ready) did indeed apply. . . .

Cmdr. Wayne summed it up rather dramatically when he later said, after thinking about the trip for awhile, "I have been through five hurricanes, or near hurricanes on various Coast Guard Cutters, but this was the worst storm I had ever experienced. It was the only time I ever worried about a ship’s ability to survive." Yet survive she did!

-- The End --



According to a long-time friend of his, Bill Hudson, CWO (USCG-Ret.), Jack Hill Lewis, age 19, was a fun loving type, who Bill had talked into joining the Coast Guard. He was proud to hear that Jack had settling down and was striving to become a Boatswains Mate. Hudson was always interested in what happened to Jack, as he knew the entire family.

Although Lewis’s body was never recovered, a Memorial Service was held with full military honors at Lewis’s home town of Saxis, Virginia with an Honor Guard from nearby Base Chinoteague. Lt. William Lipham, presented Jack’s Mother with the American Flag. Months later, when the ship went to the Yard in Curtis Bay, Maryland, a delegation of sailors from the McCulloch, Ed Widberg among them, went to see Jack’s family and offer their condolences. Retired Chief Widberg, has never forgotten that experience, nor has Retired Master Chief Wilkens.

According to Joe Poteat, who was stationed aboard the CGC BIBB (WPG/WHEC-31), which was relieved on Bravo by the McCulloch, she did not get home unscathed. Joe remembers that: "We had lost all four of our lifeboats, life jacket lockers." Some fire hoses, and railings were also lost. According to Poteat: "Captain Cassini (Bibb’s CO), [it was the] worst storm [he had seen] in twenty years at sea." Joe Poteat, himself, likened it to a hurricane, adding, "One guy broke his arm on our ship. [Yet], we rode the seas better then the 311 that relieved us, as we were a 327 footer." The Bibb was used to the seas of "Bravo," as she had sailed as a convoy escort in W.W.. II. Joe goes on to say, "I heard that a Bos’n was lost over the side from the ship that relieved us [McCulloch]. I think they also had a 5" mount loosened and deck(s) cracked. I was an 18 year old seaman apprentice at the time, and stood many wheel watches during the storm." (Joe retired as a Commander in 1989.) The Bibb made it home, but she too was in abominable condition: She too required massive repairs.

James L. Carney, Esq. Second North American Rights 113 1/2 West 3rd Street # 1 4000 words (version 2) Park Rapids, Minnesota 56470-1572  Tel. 1 (218) 237-1346 SS # 027-32-6717 Copyright 2000

Read More About the McCulloch nee Wachaprague - Link to Ken Laesser's Coast Guard Site.

Read About One Mans Experience on the McCulloch in 1950 by Jack A. Eckert

Read More About the Revenue Marine Cutter McCulloch - Link to Ken Laesser's Coast Guard Site. 

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