The Southbank Rescue
From Doak Walkers 255 Site
Eleven hundred miles southwest of Honolulu lie the Line islands -- typical of South Pacific islands. One, Washington island, the second island in the Line chain, has the dubious distinction of having had the 456 foot motor vessel SOUTHBANK split apart off its reef fringed shore.
Washington Island, lying in latitude 4-42N, has an average rain fall of 200 inches, giving the island a green tropical appearance. Tall palm trees, growing almost to the water's edge, furnish the only connection with the outside world -- coconuts. Twice yearly, a ship maneuvers off the lee shore (there is no anchorage or harbor) to receive the cargo of coconuts harvested by the natives of Washington Island with the occasional help of some fellow Gilbertese imported from Fanning Island -- the third island in the Line Island chain.
A small inlet has been blasted through the reef to allow the islanders to work rubber dinghies and thirty-six foot lighters with the larger vessels standing off the Island.
The SOUTHBANK, from Glasgow, Scotland, was doing such work on the 26th of December, 1964 when a "freak" forty foot wave slammed the ship into the reef, leaving her a now decaying mark to the hazards surrounding this tiny sunbaked island.
Post-Christmas and pre-New Year's celebration came to a suddering halt. The crew abandoned ship with the help of the natives. One man, the Second Mate, lost his life when he was pounded to death after his boat was smashed by a second large wave.
During the evening of 27 December, the USCGC WINNEBAGO (WPG-40) was the Bravo-24 vessel at Coast Guard Base Honolulu. CDR P. R. Peak, Commanding Officer, was advised by RCC at the Fourteenth Coast Guard District Headquarters of the SOUTHBANK'S plight, and that medical assistance was required. The Coast Guard RCC had taken OPCON of the incident at the request of the Tarawa RCC, because Tarawa had no ships or aircraft able to assist.
An immediate recall was made of the ship's personnel and plans were readied to sail, if ordered to do so. At 2159 that evening, the WINNEBAGO was ordered to sail and "render assistance as necessary".
Early the net morning an HC-130B aircraft from the Coast Guard Air Station at Barbers Point arrived on-scene at Washington Island, and managed to establish communications with the survivors by parachuting three portable radios (two URC-4s and one PRC-59) to the island.
After having talked to both the plantation's manager, Mr. P. H. Palmer, and the SOUTHBANK'S Master, Captain C. M. Jacobs, the HC130B was able to report that there was no immediate requirement for medical care and that the SOUTHBANK was split at the waterline and unseaworthy.
Since arrangements were being made by the ship's Australian agent to remove the survivors from Washington Island, the WINNEBAGO was ordered to return to Honolulu. Negotiations in both Australia and Honolulu came to a standstill when commercial firms looked at the Coast Pilot description of surf conditions and the distance required to carry the survivors. Then, the SOUTHBANK'S Honolulu representative asked the Coast Guard for assistance, due to limited food supply and uncertain conditions of the survivors.
On the 31st of December, Commander Fourteenth Coast Guard District ordered the WINNEBAGO to make preparations to sail to Washington Island on the 4th of January, 1965 for the evacuation of the sixty-one stranded SOUTHBANK personnel.
Aboard the WINNEBAGO, plans for the evacuation went ahead over the New Year holidays. Two rubber landing craft with outboard motors were brought aboard as well as a fourteen foot skiff. Extra blankets and mattresses were procured. All arrangements for "housekeeping" were made prior to departure. Areas were set aside for the Indian crew, British officers, Captain Jacobs, his wife, the Chief Engineer Mr. J. Harkins and his wife. Water hours and meal hours were decided upon and promulgated. Areas that were off-limits to the SOUTHBANK'S personnel were clearly marked. Arrangements were also make to take two newsmen representing the London Daily Mail/UPI and the London Daily Express/AP.
Fleet Weather Central, Pearl Harbor was requested to furnish special weather reports for the area being transited. The WINNEBAGO'S MOVREP was filed with a speed of advance to place her off Washington Island at first light on the 7th of January.
On the 4th, the WINNEBAGO sailed on her mission of international mercy. The two reporters kept a constant flow of press traffic flowing through Radio Central. The radio watch not only manned their normal guard and working frequencies, but kept almost constant contact with KPH and KFS- RCA commercial radio stations in California. When it was established that a considerable volume of press traffic would be handled, these stations maintained watches on receivers set exclusively for working the WINNEBAGO.
The radio gang handled 99 press messages for a total word count of 22,086. This did not include the normal operational and administrative traffic connected with a week's operations at sea.
Normal at-sea routine was followed on the way to Washington Island. A structural firing test was held on the MK10 "Hedgehog" projector. Communications were established with Fanning Island on the trip south, which permitted relay of current weather and surf conditions from Washington Island.
The SOUTHBANK'S Australian agent was still trying to arrange commercial assistance in evacuating the forty-seven Fanning Island stevedores which were stranded by the grounding of the SOUTHBANK. After all means were exhausted, the agent appealed to the Commander Fourteenth Coast Guard District for assistance in evacuating the stevedores. The Commander ordered the WINNEBAGO by message, in view of the reported food shortage, to evacuate the stevedores and return them to Fanning Island. The personnel to be added by evacuating the stevedores presented no problem as long as the Washington Island evacuation could be completed around noon on the 7th. This would allow time to steam to Fanning Island, some seventy-five miles southeast of Washington Island and disembark the stevedores before sunset.
Morning on the 7th dawned as the WINNEBAGO cautiously approached the western leeward site of Washington Island. A cloud cover gave an air of cold gloom. The SOUTHBANK could be seen, motionless, too close to the beach. One expected to see her realize her error and back away, but a closer inspection revealed that the stern section had broken away and rolled to starboard. The western end of Washington Island contains the Island's only physical connection with the outside world -- a small break dynamited through the Island's protective reef.
Placed one hundred yards off the beach was a buoy, which by means of an eleven inch hawser provided a method of pulling boats to and from the beach. A pounding surf encircled the island and even with manmade break in the reef, landing a small boat was a tricky maneuver. The WINNEBAGO's first small boat to approach the island met Captain Jacobs and Mr. Palmer, the plantation manager who was to have departed with the SOUTHBANK on his first leave from the islands in five years. They came aboard the WINNEBAGO to confer with CDR Peak on evacuation arrangements.
Weather conditions were excellent. The WINNEBAGO's two motor surf boats ferried loads of SOUTHBANK crewmen and islanders from Fanning Island from the buoy to the WINNEBAGO. With the evacuation running ahead of schedule, on WINNEBAGO small boat with portable fathometer took an inspection team to the SOUTHBANK, the port side of the grounded vessel was sounded by the fathometer, while the starboard side, where the surf was breaking, was sounded by leadline.
Inspection revealed the after third of the ship had broken away and rolled some forty degrees to starboard. The engine room was flooded and, while sea conditions were calm, the ship could be felt to shudder in the surge. All survivors and stevedores were aboard and inspection of the SOUTHBANK completed at 1153. The WINNEBAGO then set course for Fanning Island to disembark the forty-seven stevedores.
Fanning Island was reached by 1700 that afternoon. Sea conditions were workable and since Fanning Island had a protected lagoon, so that the WINNEBAGO maneuvered well clear of the entrance, as the natives, using lighters similar to those at Washington Island, and small motor launches, ferried the stevedores to their home island. The sun was just setting when all stevedores had departed.
The WINNEBAGO with a full day's work behind her set a northward course--enroute Honolulu. The story of the SOUTHBANK's disaster unfolded under the professional prodding of the English newsmen and friendly conversation with the officers and crewmen. After perhaps only minutes of wild excitement during the abandoning ship and the tragic death of the Second Mate, life on the island settled into a slow, easy pace which became infectious. Instead of half starved survivors eager to reach home, the SOUTHBANK personnel talked of the friends they had made, the beautiful Gilbertese children, the island's carefree attitude and the desire to return to Washington Island at some later time.
However, as the WINNEBAGO neared Honolulu, the officers seemed to shift their conversation more to home in England or Scotland, and to remember the heat and flies of the "tropical paradise". Competition between the two British newsmen was keen. When one made arrangements to have a commercial helicopter pick up film before arriving in Honolulu, the second quickly followed and another helicopter was scheduled to rendezvous with the WINNEBAGO. London newspapers had been covering front page stories of the rescue. Life Magazine had attempted to fly a buyer to Washington Island, parachute, and purchase the SOUTHBANK's crewmen's film. The mission aborted when the B-17 carrying the correspondent almost crashed before reaching the destination. All Coast Guard personnel's film was collected on arrival in Honolulu and turned over to the District PIO for possible official use.
Sunrise on the 10th saw the WINNEBAGO's small boat in the water again, to pass the pressmen's film to the two helicopters. Both aircraft arrived on scene shortly after sunrise. Packages of film were picked up and hustled to Honolulu International Airport for relay to the processing lab and wire transmission to New York and London. Custom declarations were make and all preparations for arrival were completed. A Coast Guard forty footer brought Coast Guard, Customs, Department of Agriculture and Public Health Service officials to the WINNEBAGO in order to expedite offloading in Honolulu. Newsmen, TV cameras and Admiral T. J. Fabik, Commander Fourteenth Coast Guard District, met the WINNEBAGO on her arrival at Coast Guard Base Honolulu. After the final clearances were granted, CDR Peak, Captain Jacobs, Mr. Palmer, Mr. Harkins and the wives faced a press conference.
Captain Jacobs would not make any statement pending the investigation of the grounding by the SOUTHBANK owners. Bank Line Ltd., the owners of the SOUTHBANK, through their Honolulu representative, arranged to fly the crew to India and the officers to England.
The planning for the evacuation of the SOUTHBANK personnel was the major factor in the successful operation. Preparations had to be thorough, while keeping in mind the hazardous surf conditions and lack of rapid communications with the stranded survivors. Pre-sailing planning covered all details of housekeeping, berthing and in general, handling sixty-one extra persons aboard an already crowded vessel. Boat crews were instructed in operating in the surf in case it was necessary for the WINNEBAGO boats to work from the ship to the beach. When weather conditions at the scene of the evacuation made the surf workable for the native's boats. the ferrying operation was completed ahead of schedule allowing the WINNEBAGO to reach Fanning Island before sunset. The evacuation was planned expecting a spectacular rescue in pounding surf with half starved survivors waiting eagerly to be saved. When, in fact, these conditions did not materialize, the thorough planning nevertheless aided in the rapid and smooth evacuation of the survivors
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