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U.S. Coast Guard Series. Echoes of a Rescue

September 28, 2016

Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus.

 

Echoes of a Rescue

 

The Japanese Navy submarine I-25 maneuvered into position.1 Her commander, utilizing hushed tones, ordered the forward torpedo tubes flooded and prepared to fire. He watched the silhouette of the tanker through the periscope. His prey was almost in position. He lowered his hand. Within seconds, the first torpedo surged forward from her tube into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Unbeknownst to the commander, the vessel lying off his submarine’s bow was the S.S. Larry Doheny. The hunter and his men awaited the terrific explosion. It did not happen. He cursed under his breath at the failure of his first torpedo. He quickly ordered his helmsman to take another angle of attack. The second torpedo could not miss he thought as he ordered it fired from its tube. It too missed wide of its victim. The third time though would be the charm. The torpedo struck the hull with a dull thud and then was followed by a horrific explosion. The men aboard the S.S. Larry Doheny could not fight back. All they could do was to try and save themselves as the ship’s cargo of sixty-six thousand barrels of crude oil ignited in a fireball. Alerted to the plight, the U.S.S. Coos Bay raced to render aid to the men who were attempting to escape the funeral pyre of gasoline and steel. Forty of the forty-six men aboard the tanker were pulled to safety. Three were missing and three had been confirmed dead by the deadly attack. The Japanese submarine slipped away to fight another day after her third torpedo hit the mark. The survivors were thankful for their rescuers and the ship of salvation, the U.S.S. Coos Bay.  Thirteen years later, in 1955, after being transferred to the United States Coast Guard in 1949, the same ship would find herself in another rescue far from the Pacific Ocean in the waters of the Atlantic as she maintained her dutiful position on Ocean Station Echo.

The U.S.S. Coos Bay had her keel laid on August 15, 1941 and was launched on May 15, 1942. She was three hundred and eleven feet, eight inches in length and was a Barnegat-class small seaplane tender. Commissioned the day following her launching, the U.S.S. Coos Bay steamed for San Diego, California before heading to Hawaii on her way to the Pacific Theatre of Operations. From 1943 to the end of the Second World War, the seaplane tender served in a variety of locales including Espiritu Santo, Cavutu, Tulagi, Green Island, New Georgia, Guadalcanal, and Saipan. She was overhauled in San Pedro, California in late 1944 and returned to Pearl Harbor in March of 1945. Her passage to Ulithi Atoll ended in her needing repairs after colliding with a commercial tugboat. After repairs were completed in Eniwetok, she returned to San Pedro for additional repairs. Again returning to Pearl Harbor, the U.S.S. Coos Bay would celebrate V - J Day in the tranquil waters of Hawaii. Her time in the Pacific though was not yet over. She was ordered to Japan and took up station tender duty until relieved on December 2, 1945. Like many vessels that had been utilized for the war-effort, the U.S.S. Coos Bay was decommissioned and placed in a reserve fleet status. Her reprieve from action would be short-lived.

On January 4, 1949, the United States Navy loaned the ship to the United States Coast Guard.2 After conversion to a weather-reporting vessel, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Coos Bay was ready for service. After her commissioning in May of 1949, the U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay began her second career at sea as a floating jack of all trades. Stationed on an Ocean Station, the cutter would collect meteorological data, gather oceanographic information, conduct law enforcement operations, and serve as a floating beacon for aircraft. Her merit was quickly identified when on February 27, 1953 the U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay successfully rescued the crew of a U.S. Navy patrol aircraft, a P2V2, that crashed while on a routine flight from Bermuda to the Azores. All ten men from the flight were successfully pulled from the clutches of death by the intrepid Coast Guardsmen. Less than two weeks later, on March 1953, the cutter was integral in offering assistance to the commercial tanker Angy when it encountered trouble at sea. Two years later, the cutter would encounter another rescue at sea that would arguably rival the very tenets of the great life-saving rescues of the service involving an aircraft in dire distress. 

On January 26, 1955, a Military Air Transport Service (MATS) C-54 Skymaster, number 45569, the military version of a Douglas DC-4 civilian aircraft, was heading to Bermuda from the Azores. A total of eight men were aboard. The plane was also ferrying cargo of various items. At four minutes past sixteen hundred, the C-54 passed overhead of the U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay. Captain Paul S. Evans, in command of the C-54 asked for a status update on their flight plan. According to Captain Edward T. Cobb, the flight’s navigator, they were ten minutes behind schedule. Captain Evans cursed the forty-two knot winds and pressed on. The sun was fading from the sky. The C-54’s four engines churned rhythmically as he pressed her engines to full speed on the flight to Bermuda. 

A half-hour after passing over the cutter, Lieutenant Bowen, the sole passenger on the cross-Atlantic flight, was walking from the crew compartment to the cabin when he noticed something strange on the port wing. He immediately grabbed the flight attendant and informed him of his observation. The flight attendant, after observing the same situation, immediately notified Captain Evans.  Co-pilot Lt. Jack W. Suggs unbuckled from his seat and went aft to investigate. Suggs clearly made the same observation. The flight crew would have to act fast. 

The aircraft was rapidly losing fuel. Captain Evans ordered the remaining fuel to be transferred immediately. It was a good plan but it didn’t work. Transferring from the Number 2 main tank to the Number 1 main tank saved forty gallons of fuel but three-hundred and sixty gallons had been lost. With the fuel transferred from the second to first tank, the problem should have been solved but the pilot and engineer watched as a vapor trail continued to flow from the wing. The crew checked the Number 2 cut off valves. Though all valves had been closed, the vapor trail of fuel continued to spray into sky. Captain Evans had only one option. He feathered the Number 2 engine. While not an optimal situation, the C-54 was a hearty aircraft and could push on through the heavy forty-plus knot winds. 

Captain Evans also had another plan. Leaving Suggs in command, he raced to the rear of the aircraft and gathered the rest of the crew. To make Bermuda, they would have to lighten their load. In fifteen minutes, the men had jettisoned a ton and a half of cargo into the unforgiving sea. The C-54’s airspeed dials hovered at roughly one hundred and fifty miles per hour. They had a long way to go if they were going to make Bermuda. Captain Evans and his flight crew discussed with the navigator. They could make it as long as nothing else went wrong. Unfortunately, something did.  Flight attendant Braun noticed something spilling out from the flap aft of the Number 3 engine and immediately reported it to the flight engineer. The oil pressure, the flight engineer quickly reported to Captain Evans, was dropping at an alarming rate. Despite transferring oil, the Number 3 engine began to falter. Captain Evans was then forced to feather the Number 3 engine. The aircraft was now down two engines. Taking into consideration their position and situation, the navigator radioed Captain Evans their plight. We “couldn’t make it to Bermuda anyway with this airspeed and our present winds. We don’t have a chance. Sorry, Skipper, that’s the best I can do for you.” 

Captain Evans informed his crew of his plan as he began a long and slow one hundred and eighty-degree turn. They were heading for the U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay on Ocean Station Echo. The flight crew would have an estimated flight time of one hundred and twenty-minutes. As the distance between the ailing aircraft and the cutter decreased, the radios of the cutter began to alight with message traffic. Suddenly, the Coastguardsmen who had been enjoying a film were called to action. “Now Here This – Now Hear This – MATS 45569 Ditching – All Hands to Ditch and Rescue Stations.” Immediately, the men reported to their duty stations to prepare to assist the men aboard the C-54. 

Commander Vaughn, in command of the cutter, ordered full speed ahead to decrease the distance between the cutter and the C-54. Radio operators aboard the cutter provided on-scene weather and a ditching-heading to Captain Evans and his flight crew. Seas were running high – twelve to fifteen feet in height – with a heavy cross wind of over forty-knots. The Coastguardsmen recommended that Captain Evans ditch parallel to the swells. Captain Evans radioed his reply calmly. “Roger.” The ditching lane identified, the Coastguardsmen set out a four-thousand yard sea lane with floating flare pots to assist Captain Evans in landing amidst the darkened sea and sky.  With the flaming lights bobbing in the waves serving as a watery landing zone, the U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay maneuvered to the top of the floating landing strip to await the arrival of the C-54. 

Meanwhile aboard the C-54, Captain Evans ordered his men to prepare all of the survival equipment so that they could immediately escape the aircraft once they touched down. A radio message from Echo was received. The aircraft was six and a half miles out from the ditching lane. Captain Evans and his co-pilot increased flaps as they fought the controls. The C-54, barely able to maintain control with only two barely operating engines remaining, lowered toward the surface of the swells. Captain Evans ordered the crew to ditch the emergency exit hatches. The hatches fell into the water as the C-54 surged forward to its watery destination. The crew checked their gear as the wind swirled throughout the aircraft. The men braced for impact. Echo’s radio officer offered one last message. “God Bless You.” 

Captain Evans eased the aircraft lower and lower. The floating pots in the ditch lane flickered between the waves. The aircraft, under the powerful force of the winds crabbed hard to the right. Captain Evans and co-pilot Suggs worked the controls to maintain their descent. At five minutes past nineteen hundred hours, the C-54 skidded into the water. Despite the terrible sea and wind conditions, Captain Evans and his co-pilot had brought her down without incident. The aircraft wind-milled as its forward momentum stopped. Now it was time to get out of the aircraft before she sank beneath the towering swells. Water began filling into the aircraft. The five men in the rear of the aircraft, four crewmen and one passenger, quickly jettisoned the large life-raft and boarded. Meanwhile, forward, Captain Evans, Lt. Suggs and Sergeant Brooks fought valiantly to get their life-raft clear from the aircraft. It would not fit out of the portal. The three men abandoned their effort and worked their way aft to escape. 

The U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay raced to the scene. The five men in the life raft radioed to the cutter with a hand-held radio and indicated that they had successfully drifted free from the aircraft, though three men remained aboard the aircraft. Through the din, the men reported that the three men were holding on to the top of the aircraft. The swells shifted the plane with each passing wave. Lieutenant Ray Baetsen, aboard the cutter’s surfboat motored into position with his crew. Baetsen watched as the aircraft lashed wildly in the surf. He passed orders to the three men on the airplane’s aft section. It was time to jump in the water. 

One by one, Captain Evans, Lt. Suggs and Sergeant Brooks leapt into the water. Lieutenant Baetsen maneuvered closer and his crew pulled the men from the swirling seas. Then, with a line passed, the raft with the remaining five survivors was taken in tow. Within fourteen minutes of her unplanned ditching in the wild waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Lt. Baetsen and his crew aboard the motor lifeboat had saved all eight members of the C-54. For the men aboard the cutter, the MATS flight crew and passengers offered a mighty thank you. For the Coastguardsmen, it was simply their duty and a break from the sometimes monotonous duty at sea on ocean station. Other rescues would continue to pepper her time on Ocean Station duty but the rescue of the MATS crew would certainly serve as one of the highlights of her service.3 

The celebrated two-service career of the U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay ended on September 1, 1966 when she was moored at Curtis Bay, Maryland for her decommissioning ceremony. The U.S. Navy received their old Barnegat-class seaplane tender the next day and she was struck for perpetuity from her active service to the United States military. On January 9, 1968, the stripped ship sat silently in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean one hundred and twenty nautical miles off the coast of Virginia. Suddenly, a barrage of missiles, bombs, and other ammunition riddled her storied steel superstructure, decks and hull. Her last moments at sea were serving as a target for the U.S.S. Claude Rickets and a fellow U.S. Navy vessel and thirty-five aircraft on strafing runs. The U.S.S./U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay, mortally wounded in her last battle, slipped below the waves to serve on her final patrol as a watery reminder of her rich maritime history. 

The U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay, a veteran of the Second World War with the United States Navy, a dutiful sentinel during the Cold War while serving under the colors of the United States Coast Guard, and finally a target for training future sailors and aviators was a staunch vessel of indisputable service to her nation. Whether her crew needed to offer assistance to a wayward tanker or to serve as a refuge amidst the towering waves for a ditching aircraft, she, like her crew, remained bound by the tenets of her service’s mantra. The U.S.S. Coos Bay, a cutter of distinction, whether it was in the war-torn waters of the Pacific to the wicked waves and weather on Ocean Station Echo as the U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay when she and her crew of Coastguardsmen braved disastrous weather conditions to save the men aboard a ditching C-54, she dutifully and faithfully served throughout her years as a sentinel and savior of the seas. 

 

 

1 The I-25, a B1-type submarine, was three hundred and fifty-four feet in length and was affixed with a forward hanger that accommodated a Yokosuka E14Y reconnaissance floatplane. The I-25 had a storied career during the war and her men sank several vessels, bombarded a U.S. Army battery installation at Battery Russell, and attempted to start a forest-fire near Brookings, Oregon which marked the only time that the continental United States fell under bombardment by an enemy aircraft during the entire Second World War. The I-25 was finally sunk by the U.S.S. Ellet on September 3, 1943. 

2 At total of eighteen Barnegat-class seaplane tenders would be loaned to the United States Coast Guard. After conversion, the vessels were considered Casco-class cutter. 

3 See this month’s In Our Waters Installment for further adventures of the U.S.C.G.C. Coos Bay.

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