The Coastguardsmen aboard the U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay were relieved that their thirty-six day patrol on Ocean Station Bravo had ended. Bound for their home-port of Portland, Maine, the men would finally receive some much needed down-time and rest on terra firma. As the cutter sliced through the waters heading to Maine from their position in the Labrador Sea their plans for shore-leave would be summarily sidelined by a radio message of S.O.S. from a vessel four hundred and fifty-miles astern of her position. The U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay, like all Coast Guard vessels and her crew were always ready and therefore she and her crew were tradition and duty bound to provide assistance to the nearby vessel. The Coastguardsmen, under the command of Commander Claude W. Bailey, hunkered down to answer the Ambassador’s call for help, in line with the cutter’s rich and storied career at sea.1
The British motor vessel Ambassador was in a terrible situation. The freighter was a 10,270 ton vessel and was bound from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to London, England with a cargo of 9,516 tons of wheat and corn. At 0647 on February 18th, 1964 her radio officer sent out an urgent S.O.S. The Ambassador had suffered significant engine difficulties and she was listing heavily to her port.2 The gale, bashing and battering the freighter, was sending her on a one way voyage to join the helpless lots amidst Davy Jones’ underwater realm. Several vessels, including the S.S. Leonardo da Vinci, the S.S. Carl Trautwein, and the U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay, altered their courses to render aid to their fellow mariners. The S.S. Leonardo da Vinci, only fifty-miles from the distressed freighter, was able to alter her course effectively. The S.S. Carl Trautwein, though attempting to assist, reported that her attempt at a one-hundred and eighty degree turn was unsuccessful. Despite pushing her engines to full speed, she was making little forward progress against the fifty-knot winds and harrowing swells. Though encountering adverse conditions, her skipper and crew fought on to render aid. The U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay, a veteran of the Second World War, had seen and survived worse. Despite the sea and wind conditions, she powered through the storm to offer assistance.
The first vessel to arrive on scene was the S.S. Leonardo da Vinci. The Italian cruise liner radioed that the freighter was approximately six hundred and sixty miles southeast of Halifax and roughly twelve hundred miles east of New York. Though they were within sight of the stricken ship, they were not able to safely offer relief to the stranded seamen. The wind and the seas, forced into a flurry by gale force winds, limited their ability to lower a life-boat.3 The United States Coast Guard and the Canadian Air Force rushed aircraft to the scene. Lieutenant Clyde E. Robbins, aboard a United States Coast Guard C-130 aircraft arrived on scene and took stock of the situation. If a lifeboat or raft couldn’t be lowered by the Italian liner, he and his men would get life-rafts aboard despite the weather conditions. Captain Ricardi and his men watched as three life-rafts plummeted from the sky to the decks of the stricken freighter. Now, they reflected, the thirty-five men aboard the Ambassador would finally have a chance to escape their sinking ship in waves towering from twenty-five to forty-feet in height.
The best laid plans were quickly dashed. Fifteen of the Ambassador’s crew set up one of the life-rafts and boarded. Maneuvering the best they could through the towering walls of water, the raft inched closer and closer to the hull of the Italian liner. Though many aboard the liner attempted to get a line to the men aboard the raft, none were successful. The life-raft and the fifteen men disappeared into the darkness. Another lot of crewmen set out in one of the other life-rafts but the boat capsized. The men, fighting for their lives, were lucky to scramble back aboard the heavily listing Ambassador. The seas hampered the situation and upon the arrival of Fruen, a fifteen thousand ton bulk carrier from Norway, a make-shift breaches buoy was devised. The Fruen maneuvered as close as possible to the wallowing ship and sent a line over with a life-ring. Nine men were ferried through the waves but the Fruen, with no more line available and with darkness falling, could offer no more help. Twelve men remained aboard as the Ambassador continued to take on more and more water. Prayers hung heavily on each man’s tongue as they awaited salvation.
The following morning, after a long and harrowing night, the U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay arrived on scene.4 After taking into consideration the terrible conditions it was clear that the use of the cutter’s small boats would be hazardous and potentially deadly. The Coastguardsmen, utilizing an in-direct method of rescue, shot a line to the stricken ship and sent over a life-raft. A similar situation quickly transpired with the life-raft capsizing and throwing the men into the water. Three of the crewmen were able to scramble back into the raft but two were washed toward the cutter. Coastguardsmen successfully pulled the men clear of the maelstrom with heaving lines. Men still remained and the officers and crew were informed of the rescue conducted by the Fruen. A decision was made that the cutter would make a similar rescue attempt as proven success by the officers and men of the Norwegian bulk carrier. The rescue would be harrowing and dangerous but offered the best chance for survival for the remaining souls aboard the ship.
Coastguardsmen with line-throwing guns stood ready on the bow of the cutter as it was maneuvered toward the bow of the listing ship. When in position, the men pulled the trigger and the line shot through the wind. Once aboard, the line, which had a navy-type life-jacket attached, a crewman put on the life-jacket and then the man was pulled through the water to the cutter. Once the man was pulled safely aboard the cutter, the cutter readied for a second approach. The second line included two life-jackets. One the second pull, one of the crewman’s life-jackets came loose. His mate, grabbing him by his hair, held on with all his might. The Coastguardsmen heaved the line through the water. Rescue swimmers pulled both men aboard the cutter. More men remained. The cutter made seven more approaches, each time pulling more men to safety.5
On the last approach, the captain of the freighter, H.G. Strickland and three of his men needed to be rescued. The men took the last of the line and began to be pulled through the water. The captain, last off the freighter, dipped below the water. Though all four men were plucked from the sea, the captain had succumbed. Efforts to resuscitate him failed. As the survivors were brought below to be provided aid, the Coastguardsmen began a search for the missing life-raft. Their duty was not yet over. A total of twelve men had been pulled from the stricken Ambassador. The search though continued, by the cutter as well as aircraft from both the United States Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Air Force for the other rafts or survivors.
On February 20th, the search for the missing fourteen men was called off. The cutter headed for Halifax with her remaining eleven survivors while the Fruen steamed eastward for Rotterdam with nine survivors. Somewhere, amidst the towering waves and horrific winds, the fourteen men of the Ambassador met their fate. The Ambassador, despite the gale conditions had not sunk. A daring team of twenty-seven Dutch salvagers aboard a commercial ocean-going tug named Elbe arrived on scene and successfully attached a towing hawser. Their goal was to bring the stricken freighter to port in the Azores. If successful, the salvagers would be entitled to roughly a half million dollar salvage reward from Lloyds of London.6 The Ambassador, despite the efforts of the crew of the Elbe, like her former captain, succumbed to the elements and sank beneath the waves while being towed to the safety of port.7
Upon their arrival in Portland, Maine on February 24th, the one hundred and thirty-five Coastguardsmen of the U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay received a hero’s welcome. The eleven souls saved and their intrepid fallen skipper were also welcomed ashore after a harrowing and sad sequence of events. Ultimately, as noted by Commander Bailey to the press, praise was due to the Fruen, the various military assets that assisted aloft, and the various commercial vessels that arrived to offer assistance throughout the two day operation.
The coordinated rescue effort to assist the British officers and seamen aboard the Ambassador on February 19th and 20th, 1964, exemplified the true tenets of rendering aid to those in peril at sea. Commercial assets and military servicemen, including personnel of both the United States and Canada, raced to offer aid in the most dire of “whole gale” conditions. The lives of twenty one men were spared thanks to the cool-headed and professional mariners and military officers and enlisted men who, despite the horrific conditions, offered to save others in a rescue of epic proportions that occurred in our waters.
1 To learn more of the career of service of the U.S.S./U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay, please see this month’s installment of Sentinels and Saviors of the Seas.
2 Seas, it was later learned, had entered through one of the freighter’s cargo hatches contaminating the fuel. With her engines dead, the freighter eventually lost power and the seawater, filling into the cargo holds had also swelled a portion of the cargo of wheat.”
3 Captain Ribari notified his Italian Line office that the “seas were the worst he had ever encountered.” Captain Ribari, to put the statement in perspective, had spent thirty-one years at sea.
4 The Leonardo da Vinci was relieved of her on-scene status based on low fuel and headed for New York. The east bound Italian liner Vulcania arrived and remained on scene for the remainder of the rescue efforts.
5 According to Commander Claude William “Bill” Bailey, in an article titled “The Coast Guard Cutter Coos Bay,” and the Captain of the cutter during the rescue operation, the “entire operation was over three hours later after seven separate approaches and over 500 engine room maneuvering orders. The engineers never let the ship run out of maneuvering air and never missed an order.”
6 The Elbe, which had been assisting a sister tug towing an oil drilling barge from New Orleans to the Netherlands had raced to the scene to render aid and attempt to salvage the Ambassador.
7 The Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, Report of Court, Number 8035, m.v. ‘Ambassador,’ issued on May 31st, 1965 indicated that the “principal cause of the loss of the Ambassador was the breaching in heavy weather, whilst her list was increasing, of her No. 3 hatch which was not fitted with locking bars resulting in the entry of large quantities of sea water into many compartments and that the loss was contributed to by the negligence of her late master and chief officer.”