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.
The Eagle Has Landed
The sailors and the Coastguardsmen slowly inched the precious cargo toward the two ad hoc skids fashioned to the port rail of the ship. With lines lashed to the front and back bumpers of the four wheeled contrivance, the men focused on the tasking as they knew that the owner was watching every step of the impromptu landing operation. The automobile began its slow roll down the wooden skids to the sand. On the beach stood Commander Wither aside the master of the ship Lieutenant Ricketts. Commander Wither, a submariner aboard the ship temporarily for transit to New London, Connecticut, leaned over to the young lieutenant and uttered, “Not exactly how I pictured her arrival.” The lieutenant watched as the Chevrolet touring car wheeled off of the skids and onto the hard-packed sand. The lieutenant paused before replying as it was his impression that the commander appeared more concerned with the safety of his personal automobile than of the lieutenant’s vessel. “I was thinking the same about my ship.” In short order, Commander Wither was in the driver’s seat of his auto and despite its sea-water bath while lashed to the aft deck amidst the storm, the engine roared to life. Commander Wither shifted the car into gear and it tramped across the beach to the nearby roadway. Lieutenant Ricketts could only wish that he would be as lucky with his charge.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Lieutenant Ricketts paced the bridge of his ship. The heavy fog coupled with the mounting swells had made the voyage along the south shore of Long Island treacherous. He stepped out onto the port bridge wing and ordered his lookouts to remain vigilant. As he returned from the wing, his radio operator rushed onto the bridge. “Still no luck getting a signal from the Amagansett Radio Compass Beacon sir,” he reported. “I believe,” the radio operator continued, “that our equipment has been damaged.” Lieutenant Ricketts remained outwardly calm despite the frustrating news. “Report to me as soon as you are able to get a signal. Lieutenant Ricketts passed orders to the engine room to slow her speed. Inching forward on his course, Lieutenant Ricketts was also inching closer and closer to the sandbars off of the shoreline of Long Island, New York.
At thirty-minutes past midnight on May 19, 1922, Lieutenant Ricketts’ worst fear became a frightening reality when the steel hull of the ship scrapped along the shallow sandy bottom. Orders boomed on the bridge as the lieutenant and his crew attempted to maneuver free from their situation. Despite their collective efforts, the ship was hard aground. Orders were passed to quickly deploy two anchors astern in an attempt to stem the sea’s shoreward surge against the ship. The engine room reported leaking and extensive damage to the ship’s shafts. The ship’s ability to maneuver had been rendered impossible. The ship’s radio remained inoperable. There was no way the men could radio for assistance. Lieutenant Ricketts turned to his bosun. “Send up the distress rockets.” Eagle Boat #17 had landed.
Moments later, Coast Guardsman Emilo Talma spotted the red flares as they sailed across the fog-laden sky. He immediately roused his fellow lifesavers. The men gathered their gear and readied to begin their investigation to locate the rocket’s origin and effect an impending rescue. After passing word to the nearby Amagansett Station both bands of intrepid lifesavers raced to the beach to determine the cause of the alarm.
Meanwhile, with each crashing wave, the Eagle Boat #17’s hull sank deeper and deeper into the sand. Lieutenant Ricketts conferred with Commander Withers on the bridge. Withers explained that he and two of his men would take a life raft ashore to alert their command and to summon aid. Withers and two of his trusted men donned lifejackets and with the assistance of the ship’s crew they readied a raft. The raft was quickly lowered over the side. Timing their entry into the raft between the sets, Commander Withers and his two submariners leaped aboard and began rowing through the heavy surf toward the beach. As they arrived on the strand, they were met by the Coastguardsmen. With the identity of the ship now known, word was passed that Eagle Boat #17 had been driven ashore by the storm. The United States Coast Guard Seneca and U.S. Navy tugboat Cayuga raised steam and put out from New York Harbor to the scene. The U.S.S. Flusser, a Clemson-Class destroyer, maneuvered closer to shore to render assistance if the situation worsened.
The Coastguardsmen set up their breeches buoy equipment on the beachhead. The lines were rigged to the ship and the Coastguardsmen began taking off the remaining sailors from the stricken ship. One by one the entire crew and the submariner passengers were successfully landed while the storm raged. The sailors, working alongside their sea service brethren, had safely ensured that everyone was safely removed from the ship. The entire operation took roughly four hours to accomplish. Despite the harrowing weather conditions, the rescue operation of over sixty men had been completed without incident or injury.
At dawn the next morning, the Coastguardsmen alongside the sailors and submariners began lightening the ship. First, all of the submariners’ gear was removed and placed onto awaiting trucks for transfer to New London, Connecticut. Once the submariners were on their way to their new unit, the sailors from the Eagle Boat #17 focused on their own gear and various pieces of equipment from the ship. Setting up a tent on the beachhead, donated to the sailors by the Ladies’ Village Improvement Society, Lieutenant Ricketts and twenty of his officers and crew hunkered down while awaiting orders from Washington, D.C. Due to its position high on the beach, the tugboat U.S.S. Cayuga, the destroyer U.S.S. Flusser, and the U.S.C.G.C. Seneca could offer little assistance without endangering their own vessels and crews. The stranded ship quickly became an attraction to the locals as the sailors continued to remove equipment and gear from the ship to their makeshift camp on the bluff.
Representatives from the Scott Wrecking & Towing Company arrived on scene and conferred with Lieutenant Ricketts. The situation, the salvagers explained, was dire. Hopes for a high tide to free her from her sandy entombment seemed unlikely. Despite the challenge, the salvagers coordinated with the U.S. Navy to try and get the Eagle Boat #17 into deeper water. The efforts would be in vain. For the next seven months, the ship continued to sink deeper into the sand as attempt after attempt failed. In January of 1923, the salvagers began to make headway but impending weather halted their progress. When the salvagers returned to the ship after the rough storm they found the ship had turned turtle and much of their salvage equipment had been swallowed by the sea. An inspection of the engine room and lower compartments by the salvagers was equally distressing. The pounding of the swells had cracked her hull in several places and water had flooded many of her compartments. It did not appear that the Eagle Boat #17 would ever again steam upon the open seas. Despite the efforts of Lieutenant Ricketts, his sailors and the salvagers the Eagle Boat #17 remained a fixture on the strand in Amagansett.
The unintended landing of the Eagle Boat #17 on the beaches of Amagansett sealed its fate in her sandy tomb. Though the ship was determined a total loss by the U.S. Navy in October of 1923 the rescue of her entire crew and their submariner shipmates during the early morning hours of May 19, 1922 by the intrepid and determined band of Coastguardsmen from the Georgica and Amagansett stations once again illustrated the branch’s unwavering willingness to ensure their call to action in the finest tradition as true sentinels and saviors of the seas.