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.
A Blue Star Sinking
The navigation lights of the barges in tow glimmered against the black canvas of the early morning sky. Captain Mitchell “Mike” Sullivan took another healthy swig of his coffee, turned from his vantage point on the bridge wing and then stepped back onto the bridge of his charge, the tugboat Nancy Moran. He nodded to his helmsman that all was secure with the barges. The lanky seaman, new to the company, offered a small shrug of his lean shoulders and a heavy roll of his waning eyes. The drudgery of the slow voyage northward toward the approaches to New York Harbor was, as was consistent with most days and nights at sea, a rather mundane and monotonous vocational hazard. Captain Sullivan knew all too well the feeling. Life at sea was like combat in many ways - long stretches of listlessness interrupted by shear mayhem. As the Nancy Moran navigated slowly northward with her barges in tow, the July morning’s warm embrace, coupled with the rhythmic undulating decks of the brutish bully of a tug, almost provided the two men an almost cradle-like feel. Captain Sullivan scanned through the windows toward the horizon even though he knew that the darkness prevailed and dawn was several hours away. The creaking of the tugboat’s decks, the aching strain on the towline aft and the intermittent crackle of normal radio traffic was about to be interrupted with a radio transmission from the fishing boat, Blue Star.
“Mayday…Mayday!” a voice bellowed through the speakers on the bridge. “Mayday, Mayday, this is the fishing boat Blue Star.” Captain Sullivan placed down his coffee mug and grabbed for the mic of the tug’s radio. “Fishing boat Blue Star, fishing boat Blue Star,” he calmly replied, “This is the Nancy Moran. What’s your emergency?” The voice crackled through the speakers. The Blue Star, a forty-two footer had twenty-one anglers aboard and had struck an underwater object. In addition to slowly sinking, the collision had ignited a fire. Horrific flames and choking black smoke had relegated the fishermen and crew with no access to lifejackets. Captain Sullivan inquired as to their position. Fifty-five miles southeast of Ambrose Light the caller reported. The Nancy Moran was heading in the opposite direction but he knew his responsibility. The helmsman, with his laconic attitude of just moments before, shifted to increased intensity and alertness. The sea had come calling and her name was Blue Star
Captain Sullivan checked the frequency that the message had been broadcasted on. Odd, he thought to himself, that the transmission had occurred at 2,738 kilocycles. That channel was normally reserved for the ship-to-hip telephone calls. Despite his initial misgivings, he had no idea of the training of the man aboard the Blue Star. He switched frequencies and hailed the United States Coast Guard. Captain Sullivan passed on the information. The United States Coast Guard began alerting its assets. Though the law of the sea meant that any Good Samaritan should provide assistance, Captain Sullivan was not close enough to render aid in a timely fashion. The fishing boat Blue Star was going down and twenty-one souls were at the mercy of the sea. Suddenly, Captain Sullivan, who had switched back to the original broadcast frequency received more information. A foreign submarine had surfaced and was taking on the fishermen. Then suddenly the voice on the Blue Star offered one last transmission. “I don’t think they’ll let me talk anymore.” The radio went silent. There were no more transmissions from the Blue Star.
The United States Coast Guard Cutters Gentian and Tamaroa steamed out of their home port of Cape May, New Jersey alongside the 95306, a harbor patrol craft, and raced northward to the reported search area. Several small boat assets from the United States Coast Guard stations Little Egg Harbor and Barnegat also trudged through the early morning waters to the search zone. From Floyd Bennett Field, a U.S.C.G. B-17 and two additional amphibious fixed-wing aircraft, lurched skyward and alighted southeast to the area. The mission was clear and the Coastguardsmen knew their duty. They scanned the horizon for flames and for the Blue Star.
Ashore though, the United States Coast Guard had some reservations on the “authenticity” of the incident. Some things were not adding up. No relatives had alerted the service of missing relatives or loved-ones. A review of registered vessels named Blue Star had found six hits. Phone calls to the owners determined that all six were accounted for. Though a significant cast of doubt began to shadow the radio transmissions, the search would continue. Captain Julius F. Jaycot, Chief of Operations of the Third Coast Guard District urged his Coastguardsmen onward. Find the Blue Star.
Several hours into the search, a Coastguardsmen spotted something floating in the water. The cutter maneuvered into position. A life jacket floating amidst the sheen of oil. The latitude and longitude were recorded and the Coastguardsmen continued their search for any signs of life or of the missing Blue Star. By dusk of the first day of the search, July 7, 1955, the United States Coast Guard, despite the interesting find of a lifejacket and oil sheen, ordered the cutters and small boat assets to return to their home ports. At dawn, the aerial assets would alight once again to scan from the heavens. The mysterious Blue Star and her twenty-one fishermen were nowhere to be found.
And there was good reason. The United States Coast Guard, coupled with investigators from the Federal Communications Commission, believed that there was no Blue Star, no missing fishermen, no fire, no flames, and no foreign submarine. Working in conjunction with the Nassau County Police Department, two men were taken in for questioning at the Fourth Precinct in Franklin Place on July 9th. William Herwede, a boat owner had discovered that the cabin of his fishing boat, the St. Joseph docked in Oceanside, New York, had been busted. Nassau County Police Detectives Harold J. Weingartner and Joseph Kelly examined the boat and more specifically, the St. Joseph’s radio equipment. Captain Herwede pointed out that the hand unit had been left off of its cradle. Captain Herwede also informed the detectives of a recently laid off crewman who had working knowledge of the radio equipment. The mystery of the Blue Star would not be solved on the wide expanses of the Atlantic Ocean but rather on terra firma.
On July 9th, twenty-one year old Thomas J. Maldona and George Peter Teen Jr, aged sixteen, were arraigned on charges of third-degree burglary for their breaking into the cabin of the St. Joseph. The two men would also face additional chargers on the federal level including an alleged violation of Section 325a of the Communications Act of 1934. The maximum penalty for the false distress signal charge was one year in prison or a fine of ten thousand dollars, or both. The Nassau County Police Detectives pieced together the story of how the two men had decided to send out the intricate hoax transmissions. After abiding in a few liquid libations, the two men had gotten into an in-depth conversation about radio technology and equipment. Maldona, who had previously worked aboard the St. Joseph indicated that he could show his friend, Teen, a real set of equipment. Breaking into the St. Joseph’s cabin, Teen and Maldona decided to test out the gear. The name Blue Star, according to Maldona, was pulled “out of the air” and the scheme naturally evolved.
On July 13, 1955 the two men stood before United States Commissioner Martin C. Epstein and were charged with operating a radio telephone without a license and broadcasting the false distress signal. Two weeks later, Judge Walter Bruchhausen found Maldona guilty of the charges. Maldona was sent to the Federal Correctional Facility in Ashland, Kentucky to serve out his prison sentence. As George P. Teen, Jr was only sixteen, he was tried on a specific charge of juvenile delinquency. Teen did not argue the charges. Both of the hoaxers were found responsible and would be held accountable. The search for the non-existent Blue Star had cost the United States Coast Guard over fifty-thousand dollars. In addition, the costs and efforts associated in the subsequent investigation and court proceedings were also an unnecessary expense to tax-payers due to the poor judgement and careless decision to send out a false mayday transmission.
The case of the Blue Star is a stark reminder of the dangers of false distress signals and transmissions. While thankfully no one was hurt or injured in the search for the phantom fishing boat, the United States Coast Guard responded as if the distress was real. Harkening back to the service’s infancy, the Coastguardsmen set out to sea to render aid to those in peril. Though in this instance the incident was ultimately determined to be a hoax, the Coastguardsmen did not waiver or question their duty. It was that dedication to their service and their community that ensured a response. Those who attempt to defraud or misrepresent will be held to the highest measure of responsibility if those calls are like the ones transmitted aboard the cabin of the St. Joseph, moored safely in port, in the early morning hours of July 7, 1955.
False distress transmissions remain an issue for the United States Coast Guard and the service’s Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) investigates any and all hoax transmissions. The men and women of today’s United States Coast Guard will always remain ready to spring into action at the first sign of danger or distress but those who decide to send false distresses will also be held accountable by the sentinels and saviors of the seas.