Oakey L. Alexandria: The Death Of A Great Vessel

By Don Ward

 

In 1947 a hurricane hit the coast of Maine with such devastating force that the aftermath was felt for days. There have been many versions of what took place that morning when the coal collier Oakey L. Alexandria came ashore as a result.

I will never forget that morning and the retired men of the Coast Guard who assisted with saving the 32 men from that vessel. Of all the stories that have been written or told about this disaster, none have mentioned the men who really did the work to save the crew.

I was living with my in-laws in a house located at the top of a hill that led down to the local Coast Guard Station at Dyers Cove, Two Lights, Maine. Most of the men in the families living in the area were retired from the Coast Guard or had some association with the Coast Guard at some time during their life.

Sunday evening, March 2, the winds had reached hurricane force and were battering the coastline. News reports stated that everyone should heed the weather warnings. My father-in-law and I closed everything up and battened down anything that might get blown away. Living on top of the hill was like being on Mt. Washington, N.H.—we had no protection at all.

Around 11 pm we lost electric power, but we had prepared for the worst and went to bed hoping to get a night’s rest. The children slept through the night, but I was in and out of sleep most of the night till my father-in-law called around 4:00 am and said that he heard a ship blowing a distress signal.

I got up and went downstairs to look at the barometer and was shocked to see it down to 29.20”, and seemed to continue dropping. I lit a couple of kerosene lamps so we could see to make some coffee. I could not hear a distress signal because the wind was blowing so strong—gusts were shaking the house on it’s foundation, the windows were rattling so bad I was sure they were going to break.

Putting on my rain gear, I went outside to listen. Sure enough, between wind gusts I heard the SOS whistle sound from a ship. I told my father-in-law but didn’t know which direction the sound was coming from. We went to the cove below the house but could not get all the way down because of flooding, so we returned and went toward the Crescent Beach area. As we approached one of the roads that led to the beach, we could see a ship’s lights off of High Head but could not tell what ship it was or how badly it was damaged. Returning home, we tried to call the Coast Guard, but the lines were busy. So we went back over to High Head and just stood there and watched as the ship came in toward the shore.

We did not know if they had power or could steer the vessel; it was heading for the rocks. The point of impact would be disastrous because they had already lost most of the bow. The seas were 30 to 40 feet high at times.

I had witnessed a couple of wrecks serving in the Coast Guard and had saved a man from drowning when the breaches buoy lanyards got twisted, but this was a sight to see—a ship heading for shore without a bow to help break the blow from the rocks. There were some people at the scene now and more were coming—the news media was there, and the Coast Guard had arrived with their beach apparatus gear, which they were trying to set up.

The vessel had hit the ledge and waves were breaking over the aft stern quarter. You could hear the waves as they hit the stern and watch the ship shake and roll. You could see the men huddled in the wheelhouse looking through binoculars—the look on their faces was filled with panic. I have had the same feeling and felt the fear they were experiencing.

While standing and watching the events unfolding, the former Coast Guardsmen stood in amazement that no one seemed to know what to do with the beach apparatus. The officer in charge was lost and did not know which way to turn or what to do.

The old Chief that had been in charge of the local station at Two Lights arrived, along with more retired Coast Guardsmen. The Chief was Melcher Beale who I had served under a few years before his retirement. I found out later that he was related to my father-in-law. One of the retired Coast Guardsmen, Roscoe “Rocky” Dennison, ex-CMoMM*, grabbed the cannon and asked for a 14-pound shot.

Harry Cochran, ex-CBM**, another retired Coast Guardsman, started setting up the shot line and tying it on to the 14-pound shot. Rocky had put the powder in the cannon and was about to set it off, but a warrant officer was standing directly behind the cannon. Rocky asked if he was going to stand there or was he going to move? Rocky said the cannon would be ending some place up the hill about 100 feet and he should move.

Rocky fired the cannon and the shot went directly over the wheelhouse on the first try. Just before the shot was fired, everyone saw a sight they would never forget—a wave 40 to 45 feet high came in and struck the ship on her port quarter. It lifted the stern up and set the vessel on solid ledge as if the hand of God had reached down and helped.

All went well till the first man was to leave the ship when the Radioman started sending a message to the beach on his blinker light. At first I assumed that someone was reading him, but no one responded. I yelled that the hawser and lanyards were twisted and needed to be straightened before the men could be hauled ashore. The lines were set straight and the rescues began, one man at a time. The first was a young mess cook. One man got a dunking when the ship rolled and the hawser slackened quickly. Only his feelings got hurt for taking a “bath” in front of everyone.

This had been a cold winter day with a mixture of about everything nature could send—snow, sleet, freezing rain, and some hail. The wind kept the ship rolling back and forth. I knew this ship from the many contacts I made with her when I was stationed at Cape Cod on the lightship Chesapeake (LS-116), an examination vessel from which we challenged all ships that plied the waters through the Cape Cod Canal during WWII. I had also made many contacts with the Oakey L. and had seen her come into Portland Harbor many times when I was assigned to pilot boat duty. She was like family to the people from her runs from Norfolk to Portland for many years, hauling coal for the Pocahontas Coal Co.

Over the years I went into teaching driver education, and along the way taught the grandchildren of these men to drive. I told them of the deeds of their grandparents when the ship came aground; they had no idea that their relatives had ever been associated with such heroic acts or that I knew them. I had a great feeling relating the story to them and how our training in the Coast Guard came in handy.

Footnote: During the hurricane, Portland Lightship dragged her anchor more than 500 yards and then lost it when the swivel broke, placing her in danger of going aground until she dropped her second anchor, eventually winding up 4-½ miles off station. One theory has it that the Oakey L came inside her station and hit a ledge called Aldens Rock, where the water is about 2-½ feet at low tide. CGC COWSLIP towed Chesapeake back to Portland for repairs to a broken shaft, which prevented her from getting underway.

Today, when a storm blows up from the NE, some chunks of coal will wash ashore on Crescent Beach from the collier Oakey L. Alexandria.

* CMoMM - Chief Motor Machinist Mate.

**CBM - Chief Boatswains Mate

 

Return to Coast Guard Stories