THE FIRST YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A VALIANT PATROL CRAFT
By Vice Admiral Thomas R. Sargent, III, USCG (Ret.)
Vice Admiral Sargent, a retired Coast Guard flag officer and World War II veteran, graciously provided the Coast Guard Historian's Office with two important publications. They are his first-person accounts of his experiences during World War II while serving as the executive officer and then commanding officer of the USS PC-469 at the height of the battle of the Atlantic and as the "skipper" of the frigate USS Sandusky (PF-54) which served in the Pacific.
"USS PC-469: The First Year in the Life of a Valiant Patrol Craft," provides a unique insight into what it was like to sail aboard a small escort vessel in the Battle for the Atlantic. Here, he and his shipmates escorted vital Allied shipping along the coast and to ports throughout the Caribbean, hunted for German U-boats, and pulled survivors of torpedoed vessels out of the sea. While some of the ports of call visited by PC-469 sound exotic, Sargent and his men rarely got to enjoy their stay--they were constantly in demand and therefore were constantly at sea. The reader will come away from VADM Sargent's story with a great understanding of what it was like to man a warship with a young and inexperienced but highly motivated crew during a critical phase of the Battle of the Atlantic.
Thank you Admiral!
Vice Admiral Thomas R. Sargent III, USCG (Ret.) graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1938 and served a good portion of his long and distinguished career at sea aboard the cutters Modoc as a line officer and her assistant engineer, Duane (WPG-33) as her chief engineering officer, and Bibb (WPG-31) as her executive officer. He commanded Winnebago (WPG-40) as well as the Navy warships USS PC-469, serving first as her executive officer, and USS Sandusky (PF-54) during World War II. His shore assignments include the Coast Guard Academy as Maintenance Officer, service as the Chief, Civil Engineering Section of the 11th and then the 9th Coast Guard districts; Chief, Civil Engineering Division at Coast Guard Headquarters, where he supervised the development and construction of the LORAN station chain in Thailand and Vietnam; and as Chief, Operations Division of the 11th Coast Guard District. He was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral on 1 July 1967 and served as the Commander of the 11th Coast Guard District and then as the Chief of Staff of the Coast Guard at Coast Guard Headquarters. He was promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral on 26 May 1970 and served as the Assistant Commandant (the title of that office was changed to Vice Commandant on 2 October 1972) and he retired on 1 July 1974. His decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star with combat "V" device.
They were called "PC's" and they came into being during the first year of World War II - small, fast, maneuverable, rough in any sea and unkind to those who manned them. Yet, although not well recognized in Naval history, they performed with distinction in every theater and performed every duty assigned efficiently and well. The Coast Guard manned and operated four of these unusual ships - PC-469, PC-545, PC-556 and the PC-590. All were commissioned in 1942.
A PC underway, courtesy of the author.
Commander William J. Veigele, USNR (Ret) in his book "PC PATROL CRAFT OF WORLD WAR II" has written, with unparalleled detail, a fascinating history of these vessels and the services they performed - this short tome is merely an adjunct to this outstanding work and describes the first year in the life on one of the first to be commissioned.
During May 1942, I was a lieutenant assigned as Executive and Engineer Officer of the USS PC-469 at the George Lawley Shipyard in Neponset, Massachusetts. Three other officers were assigned - Lieutenant Commander Richard Morell as the Commanding Officer with Lieutenant (junior grade) Kenneth Potts and Ensign Richard Young as watch officers. Upon arrival, I became very familiar with the PC design since the ship was in the throes of final outfitting and on the building ways - the keel having been laid on 22 October 1941. The following is a short review of the ship's characteristics: Length 173' 8" with a 23' beam and a full load displacement of 450 tons; maximum speed was 21 knots - twin screw with three bladed props, 6 feet in diameter; propulsion consisted of two Fairbanks Morse, ten cylinders, opposed piston diesels with a total shaft horsepower of 2,280; armament consisted of two 3-inch 50-caliber guns, five 20mm machine guns, two K-guns, and two stern-mounted depth charge racks. A gyrocompass, radio direction finder and sonar gear were installed. Our complement was four officers and 55 enlisted men. Most of the other PC's had five officers but, in our case, only the CO was spared a watch. My duties were four-fold - I was Executive Officer, First Lieutenant. Engineer Officer and Watch Officer. I had little time to spare but the other two officers took care of gunnery, commissary, morale and education and training.
On 10 June 1942, the PC-469 was launched and we started in earnest getting the ship ready to sail. Prior to commissioning, we took her out for sea trials and during a speed calibration run while I was in the engine room I noticed the starboard engine slowing down. While I was checking the cylinder head temperatures, there was a crankcase explosion and I immediately secured the engine. Chief Motor Machinist's Mate Elvyn Kelly and I cleared the engine room of all others while we operated the remaining engine and cleared the white, acrid smoke from the department. Upon return to the shipyard, the No. 1 cylinder liners and the two pistons were replaced and a blockage removed from the oil filter. With that accomplished and tests proving all was well; we placed the ship in commission without ceremony- just started the deck log.
Orders were received to proceed to New York and moor at Staten Island. While in New York, we operated offshore where we tested guns, perfected our anti-submarine organization and replenished our ammunition supplies at Fort Hamilton. We were ordered to Miami, Florida, after the completion of an anti-sub sweep off the entrance of the Harbor. Early in the morning, a very large ship appeared escorted by three destroyers - we identified the ship as the Queen Mary. We were released and sailed to Miami. Even during our short time at sea, it was evident that our Kleinschmidt electric evaporator was of insufficient capacity to allow showers and strict conservation was necessary. As soon as we cast off lines, we imposed "water hours" and, with our assignment to the sub-tropics, the crew and officers became quite "ripe" even after a few days at sea. Ventilation in the sleeping quarters was fair but the living conditions were very crowded. The crew made the best of it and settled down to the established routine with relative ease.
We arrived in Miami about 15 August, moored at the Sub Chaser Training Center and entered our shake down training routine - sailing each day to carry out the various drills necessary to make us an accomplished convoy escort. Machine guns were installed on the bridge wings to complete our armament. During our short in port periods, all officers, deck petty officers and sonar men trained on the anti-sub trainer - all of us did quite well!
On 2 September, we sailed, opened our orders, rendezvoused with a convoy and headed for Key West arriving there shortly after 0800 the following day - mooring at the Naval Operating Base pier 2. On 4 September we had the first opportunity to actually make sonar runs on a submarine in the sub training area off Key West. We found that our two sonar-men, Merrill S. Anderson and Louie Hamilton, were probably the best the Navy sound school instructors had seen. It will be proven that these Instructors were correct!! Training and short convoys continued until 11 September when we were ordered to a convoy assembly area and started our first convoy, which was to end at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Guantanamo Bay, 1943. A painting by Stephen Crane Hill--from the Navy Historical Art Collection
We arrived on the afternoon of 14 September after an uneventful trip and, after fueling, moored alongside the USS PC-474 at Pier B, NOB, Guantanamo. Training continued for the next two days - small arms and anti-sub occupied most of the time. On 17 September, we again sailed as escort for a convoy to Key West. It was an uneventful trip except for one sub contact on my watch on 20 September. I dropped depth charges and fired the two K-guns with no apparent result although contact was not made again. We arrived at Key West in the afternoon and again moored at NOB. Five days later we were again underway with a convoy heading for Guantanamo Bay. The trip was again uneventful and the crew took the heat, the boredom in stride and performed excellently. They even became used to the violent action of the ship in a seaway!! We arrived on 23 September and remained at NOB occupied with training and ship's work until 27 September when we were assigned a convoy heading for Trinidad, BWI, which, we soon discovered, was to be our new homeport.
The rainy season was upon us and keeping station on the convoy during heavy rain- storms was difficult and disconcerting - without radar, extra vigilance was required. We also discovered that submarine contacts were more prevalent so that the crew was deprived of sleep. This resulted in injury to one member of the crew who was too enthusiastic in running to his station. We contacted the USCGC Unalga (WPG-53), one of the other escorts, and the ship's doctor treated him and placed him on light duty for a considerable period.
We arrived in Teteron Bay early afternoon 3 October and moored at the U. S. Navy Section Base transferring our injured crewman, Eugene H Soltys, Yeoman 3/c, to the Naval Hospital for treatment of possible spinal injury. We also granted liberty to one section to expire at 0100, 4 October. LCDR Morell and LT(jg) Potts also went on liberty to Port of Spain leaving ENS Young and me to prepare for departure with a convoy on 6 October.
Since I had been on duty since 0400 on 3 October, I was preparing to retire when a telephone call summoned me to the Operations Office where I was informed that an Army aircraft had bombed a submarine near the Orinoco Delta. A surface vessel was required to possibly determine the status and/or complete the sinking. There was some consternation on the part of the Escort Vessel Administrator when he realized that I was not the CO but I assured him I would sail at midnight even if the commanding officer had not returned from liberty. To arrive at the position at first light made it essential to sail at that time.
SS Alcoa Mariner, sunk on 28 September 1942
At midnight, the two officers had not returned and we were lacking eight of the crew; unfortunately, two gunner's mates, a radioman and a quartermaster were included with the absentees. We sailed at 0010, 4 October, proceeded through the Bocas and increased speed to full - 20 knots. I had ordered the sound gear housed and the sonarmen to get as much rest as possible. At 0800, I slowed to standard speed and started sonar search due to the presence of a large oil slick - no contact was made. At 1215, contact was made with the Army aircraft and we started our sonar search obtaining contacts. From our first contact until 1500, we made many runs, dropping a total of 26 300-pound depth charges. A great amount of debris and oil rose to the surface accompanied by two life jackets - one was stenciled with "U. S. Coast Guard" and the other with "ALCOA MARINER" [the latter was sunk by U-175 on 28 September 1942; all of her crew survived--ed.]. All other debris could not be identified but the oil was a mixture of bunker and diesel oil.
The aircraft departed and we proceeded to identify a ship that turned out to be a freighter of Panamanian registry - the SS Olamala. By flashing light, the master informed us that they had on board 24 survivors from a torpedoed ship - the SS Aneroid. I was just about to return to Trinidad when a message dropped from another Army aircraft stated that a lifeboat, containing survivors, was located at 08 degrees 31 minutes N 64 degrees 23 minutes W. I immediately proceeded at full speed arriving at the boat at 1810.
We discovered that the lifeboat was from the torpedoed SS Caribstar (photo, above) out of New York and contained the Master Fred G. Velez, the first and second Mates, the Chief Engineer and 28 crewmen. The ship had been torpedoed at 0550, 4 October. Twenty-one men were very seriously burned and all were covered with bunker oil. It was at this time I almost made a fatal error - I was so concerned with the condition of the men and the organization necessary to take care of them that I neglected to confirm my position by star sights. It was a very black and moonless night and a cargo light was required so we could see to remove the burned survivors from the lifeboat. All hands turned to except for a crew for the No. 1 gun and a depth charge crew. I held my breath until we could douse the light, but by 1900, all 32 were on board and the crew, under the guidance of Ensign Young and PHM1C Garland, moved those more seriously injured to the mess deck where they were laid out on the tables and in every spare deck area with all available hands working diligently to clean the suffering men. One crewman, the radioman from the Caribstar was so badly burned that we moved him into the wardroom where he could be given special attention. We endeavored to sink the lifeboat by gunfire but failed.
At this juncture, I decided to return to Trinidad at maximum speed. We raised the sound gear and set course 233 degrees true at 21 knots at 1910. Shortly after getting underway, I was informed that the Master, Fred G. Valez was a diabetic and had not had any insulin for almost 24 hours. We had none on board so I broke radio silence to inform the U.S. Navy in Trinidad of the situation. At 0355, the lookout reported masts and a funnel almost dead ahead. I immediately changed course and realized that we were about five miles westward of my intended position. I had noticed this wreck the day before while plotting my course to the rendezvous location. By pure luck, the sunken ship saved us from disaster - and I received an important lesson in navigation -TAKE STAR SIGHTS and ascertain with accuracy your position!
I had been awake since 0300 on 3 October and on the bridge since leaving Trinidad at midnight except for short trips to take care of the necessities of life. All of us subsisted on coffee and sandwiches that the cooks were somehow able to make. At 0400, 5 October, Garland came to the bridge stating that he believed the radioman of the Caribstar had succumbed and he wished me to verify his condition. No pulse was found, he was not breathing. The valiant efforts of Garland and his helpers were in vain. I ordered that the remains be covered and that the wardroom be sealed. I then made a short tour of the ship - the deck aft was occupied by those who were ambulatory but the mess deck was covered by prostrate bodies being treated by the crew. The stench of fuel oil and unwashed bodies permeated the ship and, close to the wardroom, was the stench of death. I went back to the bridge thankful that we had such an exemplary crew.
At 0800, 5 October, we entered the Boca de Navios, Trinidad, and received orders to proceed to the dock at HMS Benbow which, I found, was a pier at the Naval Station. At 0900, we moored. Navy doctors and corpsmen, U. S and British, were waiting with ambulances. The master, Fred Valez, received his insulin shot just in time and the other survivors were taken to the Dockside Hospital. The body of John Suchan was taken care of by the U. S. Navy. At 1000, we departed and at 1125 moored alongside the USS PC-575 at the Section Base, Teteron Bay. At 1400, LCDR Morell and LT(jg) Potts with our eight crewmen reported on board and relieved Ensign Young and me. Cleaning and disinfecting the ship occupied all hands during the remainder of the day and most of the next morning. We did get a little sleep but the ship sailed the next day at 1300, 6 October, as escort for a convoy bound for Guantanamo Bay. Amazingly, no one mentioned the episode or congratulated the crew on their performance and LCDR Morell and I never discussed what had transpired. It was obvious, however, that sleep and any relaxation for anyone were either absent or at a premium on the PC-469!!! My appreciation for the outstanding performance of ENS Richard Young and the crew will be forever lasting.
The convoy to Guantanamo was routine and quiet except for one sub contact on 9 October. We arrived on 11 October and remained until 15 October when we departed with a convoy scheduled for Trinidad. It was routine until we approached the Bocas de Navios when the convoy had to make an emergency turn to avoid a sub contact made by the destroyer, USS Goff (DD-247). There were no results from the attack and we proceeded to anchorage without incident - the date was 20 October 1942.
Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, 1 October 1942. The USS Goff (DD-247)--second from right--tied up to the USS Bainbridge (DD-246)--starboard of Goff--and the destroyer tender USS Altair (AD-11)--on the far right. The USS Spry (PG-64) is at left. (US Navy--National Archives Photo)
For the next few weeks, we trained at sea with the USS R-18 (a diesel submarine) and made a few anti-sub patrols south of Trinidad. However, on 2 November we sailed with a convoy to Guantanamo and at 2102 a convoy straggler, who was two miles astern, was torpedoed. The safety of the convoy precluded any one of the escorts to proceed to assist and we continued on course with the hope that the Coast Guard cutters base at Teteron Bay would arrive in time to rescue the survivors. (The CG ships were the 125-foot cutters, Cuyahoga--WSC-157--and the Yeaton--WSC156--and three 83 footers.) At 0151 on 3 November, we picked up sounds of a torpedo - the sonarman droned off the bearings (which did not change!) and all of us on the bridge held our breath expecting the inevitable until he very calmly stated "Bearing changed 180 degrees." There was a big sigh until the torpedo struck a tanker in the convoy. We followed the original bearing of the torpedo, obtained a contact and dropped depth charges. After searching for about one hour, we had another contact and dropped another pattern of depth charges and, with no further contact, we resumed convoy station. At 0640, two ships on the port side of the convoy, were torpedoed and, shortly thereafter, we got a sound contact and made a run on the contact dropping a pattern of charges. After a period of no further contacts, we resumed station. November 4 was reasonably calm with only one possible sub contact but, at 0310 on 5 November, we lost two more ships. Searching resulted in negative contacts. We arrived at Guantanamo Bay on 8 November with no more casualties - it had been a very sad, unsuccessful and disappointing trip with the escorts on the losing side!! We sailed again for Trinidad on 11 November - fortunately, it was a very routine trip with all ships arriving safely.
Many of the crew was promoted to the next higher rate and Kenneth Potts was promoted to Lieutenant. Our convoys were calm and routine and we performed search and rescue duties when at Trinidad with only a maximum of four days in port. Regardless, the crew responded and completed every duty with little difficulty and trouble. At various times, Navy officers were ordered to the ship for temporary duty for training as deck watch officers and, although this crowded the wardroom and sleeping facilities, it was a rewarding experience. I became very familiar with the Wardroom transom - it was my bunk when there were extra watch officers assigned!
December was a quiet time with routine convoys and patrols. Thanksgiving and Christmas were spent at sea with no turkey but the cooks and stewards did a great job with canned beef and fish. Bananas and other fruit were plentiful in Trinidad and so desserts were always on the menu. With very little recreation or liberty available at either end of our convoy trips, the morale of the crew was remarkable and their response to every emergency was outstanding.
During a convoy from Trinidad to Guantanamo on 3 January 1943, we were asked by a British cruiser, the HMS Phoebe, to take on board a naval officer, Commander John Fuqua, for transportation to Guantanamo Bay where he would take command of the Naval Base. We suggested that he stay on the Phoebe for his comfort but he insisted on the transfer. Unfortunately, the weather worsened and he stayed in my bunk for the next three days. We arrived at Guantanamo Bay on the afternoon of 6 January and CDR Fuqua became our "keeper" on the northern end of our run. On 7 January, we departed for a two-day search for a reported submarine with no results. We again departed with a convoy on 10 January for Trinidad, and, although we lost no ships, we made several attacks on suspected submarines. We moored on 16 January at the Section Base at Teteron Bay. We sailed again on 20 January with our usual convoy.
After an uneventful trip, we moored at the Section Base, Guantanamo Bay on 25 January and the very next day LCDR Morell was transferred to New York and I received orders as Commanding Officer. Dick Morell departed without any change of command ceremony - we had a muster, read our orders, shook hands and he left. Neither one of us mentioned the "missing the ship" episode and we never discussed it at any time when we met later on. It is only since I retired and all the principals have passed away have I made any mention of the episode. At this writing, June 2003, I am the only survivor of the wardroom officers.
The ship had been running continuously since commissioning and we were scheduled for dry-docking and engine maintenance, which, of course, occurred just three hours after Dick Morell, left the ship!!!! Our overhaul was completed late on 28 January and we were once again replenished with ammunition, fuel and commissary supplies so that we could depart with a convoy on 29 January - again sleep was at a premium!!! We sailed at 0542 on 19 January 1943. This convoy was very quiet insofar as submarine activity was concerned but, toward the end of the voyage, we ran into some atrocious weather and we discovered a small crack on the deck close to the after fuel tank. After arrival at Teteron Bay on 4 February, the after fuel tank was emptied and reinforcing plates welded over the crack. Since we were short of berthing space we had two bunks installed on the mess deck. Work was completed on 11 February, we were refueled and the ship's force completed painting the ship - it was the first real opportunity we had in over six months!!
On 12 February 1943, we engaged in target practice off the Bocas and the next day at 0630 we sailed as one of the escorts for a convoy heading for Guantanamo Bay arriving there after a relatively quiet voyage on 19 February. The incidents of submarine activity had reduced considerably and we had additional escorts with each convoy! An additional officer reported to the ship so I allowed Lieutenant Kenneth Potts to depart on 10 days leave. We sailed on 24 February with a convoy to Trinidad - during the in port period, I took advantage of every opportunity of practicing ASW with submarines just outside the Bay. After another convoy to Guantanamo, we arrived at Trinidad without incident during the first week of March and, shortly after arrival, LT Potts returned from leave.
USS R-18, inboard of the USS R-17
(National Archives photo)
It is very unfortunate that the deck logs for the next three months (March, April and May) are missing from the Archives and so what is written below is purely memory. During one in port period, I made a trip on the R-18 to get experience from the submariner's viewpoint. It was very rewarding and helpful and I put the experience to good use on a search for an enemy sub near Tobago. We obtained an outstanding contact and made a run dropping a pattern of 6 - 300 pound depth charges. We came around for a second attack but the good contact had become mushy and appeared to be hidden in the disturbed water from the first attack. However, from my trip on the R-18, this is a desperate tactic taken by a wounded sub. We made a second attack and a large bubble of air came to the surface and our contact was lost. After searching for several hours, we were recalled to Teteron Bay. A few days later a submarine unable to submerge was found on the surface by a destroyer - it may have been our sub.
During another in port period in Trinidad, I had the opportunity of flying to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and returning the same day. I did so to determine whether the Coast Guard District Commander could accommodate a few crew members for temporary duty for possibly a week at a time to relieve them from the cramped quarters on the ship. I failed to get any assistance in that endeavor.
I remained on the PC-469 until late March and then was transferred to the USCGC Duane (WPG-33) as engineer officer. LT Kenneth Potts became the commanding officer. My first command was terminated and I left a ship whose crew responded to every request with efficiency and dedication and a ship that responded without delay to every demand and every occasion. One could not ask for more.
I believe, LT Potts remained as her commanding officer for a few months and then command was given to Richard Young (then a Lieutenant, junior grade) who took the ship to the Panama Sea Frontier. I know the PC-469 participated in the invasion of Okinawa and, after termination of hostilities, became a target ship and salvage training ship in Bayonne, New Jersey. To say the least, she was a valiant ship!
U. S. Coast Guard Cutters & Craft of World War II - Robert L. Scheina
PC Patrol Craft of World War II - William J. Veigele, Ph.D., USNR (Ret.)
Excerpts from Deck Logs - PC-469 - National Archives
Since I retired in 1974, I have heard from a few of the original crewmembers but only one has continued our contacts and friendship. Carroll Lang, CM2C, who has retired from his civilian occupation, corresponds reasonably often and we have renewed our association. He was an outstanding member of the crew as was Garland. I recommended Carroll Lang for Officers Candidate School and he terminated his Coast Guard career as an officer.
Although, I held Captain's Mast for offences by the crew quite often, ninety-nine percent of them were for reporting late for watch. Upon reflection, this was understandable - a review of the deck log reveals that rest and sleep was an absolute minimum for all hands and in port periods were normally four days except for the one or two instances.
The ship was never late for an assignment and required minimum assistance from administrators ashore. Few ships can match that record!