USS Ingham, CG "Shows the Flag"
by Captain John Waters, USCG (Ret.)
This account of the relief of convoy SC-177 was taken from an unpublished book, Bloody Winter -- The Lighter Side, by the late CAPT John M. Waters, Jr., the first President of the Ingham Association, and for whom the Waters Award is named. CAPT Waters wrote two books, Bloody Winter and Rescue at Sea, and many magazine articles. After his retirement from the Coast Guard, CAPT Waters served as Director of Public Safety for the city of Jacksonville, Florida.
After a ten-day leave, the new ensigns from the Coast Guard Academy graduating class of 1942, scattered to ships throughout the world. Some reported to escort and ASW vessels, others to attack transports, but all went to sea.
Ten of the us were ordered to cutters of the modern Hamilton-class operating on the North Atlantic convoy run to England, where an ominous buildup of German U-boat strength presaged the terrible series of battles of 1942-43 which would determine the outcome of World War II.
We new ensigns, together with several more senior officers and 200 army troops, were loaded aboard the USS Gemini, an antiquated freighter, for transport overseas to join our ships. It was our fate to be in a convoy ambushed by a pack of 15 U-boats in mid-Atlantic during which over a third of the convoy ships were lost. It was the most disastrous convoy battle of 1942, and the first of a series of great convoy battles that were to take place that winter of 1942-43. It was to be remembered ever after as The Bloody Winter, which became the title of my book describing the battles.
As in all wars, humor surfaced in the midst of horror, and life continued in a surprisingly normal way in the intervals between actions. These moments are the ones remembered by veterans in later years when the tragedies of war have been long buried.
Due to a negligence by the ship's officers, nearly half of Gemini's passengers had no lifejackets. After the attacks started, the ship's 2 three-inch guns were manned continuously, and the passenger officers stood watches as battery officers with the ship's gun crews. Enroute to relieve a gun watch, I worked my way along the deck: in the darkness toward the aft three-incher. The night was cold and flurries of snow rode the heavy wind gusts. If we were hit, which seemed a distinct possibility, there would be little chance for survival, and none without a lifejacket. Then my hand made contact with a circular object- a life ring mounted on the rail. Cutting it loose, I slung the life ring over my shoulder and continued aft to relieve the battery officer. The gun captain, a regular Navy bosun mate who had survived the sinking of the carrier USS Lexington several months before, looked at me in my steel helmet with the life ring draped ever my shoulder. Laughing, he said, "I'll tell you one thing, sir, they ain't never gonna use a picture of you in a recruiting poster!"
Only moments later there was a loud crash and the ship carrying the Convoy Commodore turned left out of the convoy and passed close astern of us as flames roared high in the air and the crew began abandoned ship, jumping from the bridge into the rough icy seas. Some survivors were picked up by a small Navy tug. One of them was Vice-Admiral E. C. Watson, Royal Navy (ret), the Convoy Commodore. He was led to the bridge, where Ensign Smith, the tug captain said, "What can we do for you, Admiral?"
"A good strong whiskey," was the reply.
"Sorry sir, but our ships are dry."
Undaunted, the Admiral produced a small bottle of whiskey from his parka and passed it among the other survivors. Thinking the skipper might need a drink before the night was over, he left a little in the bottle on the ensign's bunk. He later learned it was thrown over the side.
"Smith was," the Admiral recalled, "a zealous young officer, but still it is extraordinary to send ships to sea in wartime without 'medical' comforts."
During the night, the big Coast Guard cutter Ingham, to which I was ordered, arrived with two destroyers from Iceland and prevented any further attacks. The following morning brought a display of grandeur that I will remember until my dying day, as will many of the survivors who lined the rails of the lumbering merchantmen. Knowing that the convoy crews must be shaken by the four days of slaughter, Commander George McCabe [USCG], the skipper of Ingham, took the big cutter up and down the lanes of the convoy "showing the flag". Running at 20 knots in the heavy seas, her biggest American ensign and signal flag hoists standing out stiff in the breeze, and her crew at battle stations, the sleek blue and grey camouflaged man-of-war was an inspiring sight. As she passed down the long columns, occasionally burying her bow, tough sailors threw their caps in the air and yelled, and tears ran down bearded and weather-beaten faces. The Americans were here! We were saved! The early western settlers must have felt similar emotions when the cavalry rode over the hill to break up a hostile Indian attack. More "cavalry" arrived later in the morning in the form of a Royal Air Force Liberators, and faced with a strengthened escort and air cover, the wolfpack soon broke off its attempts to again close the convoy.
The parallel between the relief of SC-177 and earlier Indian wars was not forgotten by the participants. The mid-Atlantic area where the U-boats lurked safe from Allied air cover was known by many as "Indian Country", and by others as the "Black Pit", and "The Devil's Gorge". Task Group 2 the mid-ocean escort group based on Iceland, was used to beef up the escort groups going through this dangerous area, an assignment aptly described by the sailors as "riding shotgun."