The Sinking of the USCGC Escanaba
By Dr. Robert M. Browning Jr.
On August 4, 1943, the citizens of Grand Haven, Michigan stood somber as a ray of sunlight pierced the blackened sky. The mood changed instantly when a band broke the silence with the tune "Semper Paratus." The crowd of over 6,000 had gathered as they had for many years to celebrate Coast Guard day. This year, however, the crowd assembled for a more important reason; to pay tribute to the cutter Escanaba which had been sunk just six weeks before.
The Escanaba, built in 1932, was one of a class of six cutters designed for light icebreaking, law enforcement, and rescue work. Home ported in Grand Haven, the 165 ft. cutter served in the Great Lakes for eight years. It made annual trips up Lake Michigan to Sault Ste. Marie each spring to break ice in the St. Marys River. Many times this included cutting ore vessels out of the ice. By keeping navigation open and making many rescues the cutter became well known and endeared to all the maritime communities along Lake Michigan.
With the outbreak of World War II in Europe, the United States sent vessels to patrol the icy waters of Greenland. The Escanaba, well suited for such work, contributed greatly to the initial patrol and ice breaking duties. The Escanaba, however, had never been designed as a war vessel. The crew grew from 62 to over 100 to handle additional armament, sound gear, and depth charges--all added to the vessel to make it capable of fighting submarines.
After spending some months on the Greenland patrol, the Navy assigned the Escanaba to convoy merchant ships in the North Atlantic. Duty in this part of the Atlantic could be extremely harsh. Ice readily formed on the ships, which had to be chipped and chopped off and sometimes melted off with live steam. Heavy weather tossed the ships about the waves like toys, and the men and the gear inside. The warships in the North Atlantic fought an illusive enemy that could sink merchant vessels and then disappear without a trace leaving the escort vessels to pick up survivors and drop depth charges with no positive results. The Navy armed a number of Coast Guard cutters and intended for them to perform the same operations as destroyers. But they had various limitations. The Escanaba's particularly short cruising range limited its ability to do certain tasks. These vessels overall worked well as escort ships, yet they could never function as destroyers.
For just over two months during the summer of 1942, the Escanaba performed weather patrol duty in the North Atlantic. In September it went back to breaking ice and escort work. During this difficult duty the Escanaba participated in several major rescues. In June 1942, Escanaba, in a convoy bound from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Cape Cod, rescued 22 men from the torpedoed passenger ship Cherokee. The most famous rescue occurred when the torpedoed Army transport Dorchester sank in February 1943. During this rescue the ship's commanding officer, LCDR Carl U. Peterson, made the first use of rescue swimmers to pull the victims from the icy waters, saving an amazing 132 men.
For the next several months Escanaba escorted vessels from Greenland to Newfoundland and back. On June 10 1943, the cutter formed part of a convoy that sailed from Narsarssuak, Greenland to St. John's Newfoundland. In company with the cutters Mojave, Tampa, Storis, Algonquin, and Raritan, the transport Fairfax, and the tanker Laramie they all steamed out of Narsarssuak in weather considered bad for even for the North Atlantic. Convoy GS-24 proceeded northwest for awhile to skirt an ice field. On the twelfth the ships encountered many bergs and growlers amongst dense fog which made navigation difficult. By the morning of the thirteenth the convoy had successfully avoided the ice by changing direction and steaming west and south. The convoy headed south with Escanaba on station on the left side of the formation. Here the cutter made anti-submarine sweeps 3,000 yards from the center.
Just after 5 am, seaman Raymond O'Malley, who had just relieved the wheel on Escanaba, heard what he thought was the sound gear tracking a torpedo. A moment later a terrific explosion ripped through the cutter. The explosion blew O'Malley to the overhead and only his grasp on the wheel kept him from greater injury. When O'Malley regained his senses he observed that everyone else on the bridge lay seriously wounded. O'Malley made his way to the wing of the bridge, putting on his life preserver as he went. As he got out the door he saw the after deck in splinters and the main mast falling overboard. Moments later he was swept into the bitterly cold water.
Another crewman, BM2 Melvin Baldwin, lay asleep two decks below when the explosion occurred. Blown out of his bunk he headed topside but found it difficult due to the extensive structural damage. Baldwin was one of the few lucky men from below to reach the deck. He reached the main deck but the ship settled so fast that as he headed forward, water struck him from behind and sucked him down with the ship. He managed to swim to the surface and saw a few men on a strongback a hundred yards away. O'Malley, Baldwin, Seaman George Gmeiner, Ensign Daniel Davis, and the commanding officer LCDR Carl Peterson all made it to the floating wreckage.
The explosion and sinking happened within three minutes, so rapidly in fact that the Escanaba never signaled its plight. The Storis, two miles away, heard no explosion but saw a large sheet of flame and dense black and yellow smoke rise from the Escanaba. The Storis, at the back of the convoy, received orders to investigate and the tug Raritan was ordered to pick up survivors. Storis began a sound search for a U-boat as the Raritan steamed to the last known position of Escanaba. The men clinging to the wreckage had been in the water for only minutes when Raritan arrived to pick them up. Baldwin and O'Malley, however, were the only men rescued alive. The rest of the crew died in the explosion or from hypothermia in the 39 degree water. In fact, both Baldwin and O'Malley had passed out before the Raritan could rescue them. It is likely that the sole reason that these two lived is that their clothing froze to the strongback, keeping them from slipping into the water and sure death.
The Storis never made sound contact with a submarine and Escanaba's sinking has never been fully explained. The loss of the cutter was originally attributed to a U-boat's torpedo. No U-boat, however, claimed the kill. It was more likely a drifting mine that sank her. The ship and its crew were gone but never forgotten. The city of Grand Haven felt the loss personally because the cutter had been so loved and such an important part of the community. In order to show their support for the war effort, and to honor the ship and crew, the community raised over a million dollars in bonds to build a second cutter bearing the same name. This special relationship with the cutter has never ended. The city still annually holds a memorial service to honor the ship and the crew lost fifty years ago, far away in the icy North Atlantic.