U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
Coast Guard Cutter Coos
C. William Bailey
In 1948 the Coast Guard was given responsibility for maintaining ocean stations to collect and report weather data for the U. S. Weather Bureau, provide navigational services for passing aircraft and ships, and to always be ready to help those in distress. The Coast Guard arranged for the loan of fifteen ships from the Navy of this class. These former small seaplane tenders were particularly well suited for rugged patrol duty.
In January of 1949 Coos Bay was taken out of the Reserve Fleet at Orange, Texas and towed to Charleston Naval Shipyard by the CG Cutter Acushnet, herself a former Navy seagoing salvage tug. Their reactivation and conversion for Ocean Station Vessel duty was accomplished and she was placed in commission as a Cutter of the Coast Guard on May 4, 1949. Upon completion of shakedown she was assigned to Portland, Maine where she reported on June 23, 1949.
As an Ocean Station Vessel, the Coos Bay along with several other regular Coast Guard Cutters on the East Coast, taking her turn patrolling Ocean Station BRAVO in the Labrador Sea; CHARLIE, 520 miles southeast of Greenland; DELTA in the Newfoundland Basin; and ECHO, 820 miles northeast of Bermuda.
On all stations except ECHO, the cutters were often subjected to fierce weather conditions and heavy seas. They were required to maintain position within a ten mile square regardless of conditions unless the safety of the ship absolutely required abandonment of station. Permission was not readily granted because air navigation relied heavily on the ship’s radiobeacon and aircraft radar. In the days of propeller aircraft transatlantic travel could not safely exist without the Ocean Station Vessels.
While on patrol Coos Bay participated in many rescues, both aircraft and ships, and even medical cases. On one trip enroute to station she was diverted to Halifax, N.S. to pick up an Iron Lung and a doctor to transport to a vessel to help a polio victim.
Throughout her Service life, both Navy and Coast Guard, Coos Bay saved many lives.
In February of 1953 a Navy P2V2 ditched alongside Coos Bay while on Ocean Station ECHO. All Ten men aboard were rescued.... Again on Ocean Station ECHO in January of 1955 a MATS plane ditched alongside and all eight men were rescued.
Ocean Station Vessels generally carried a doctor on board, and on several occasions Coos Bay put him aboard a passing vessel for emergency treatment. Except on Station ECHO, which had so much good weather that the ships always carried extra paint stores aboard to use during their 36-day stint, the good doctor could expect a hair-raising ride in the ship’s boat. Calm weather was generally rare.
In February 1964 Coos Bay was returning from a rough patrol on BRAVO and while skirting the Nova Scotia coast with all hands happily looking forward to their return to Portland, a message was received from the British Motor Ship Ambassador reporting taking on water and heavy listing. She was about a thousand miles east of New York and 300-odd miles from Coos Bay. The messages soon turned into a full SOS. Other Coast Guard cutters were having very heavy weather and one was making one knot astern in mountainous head seas. From her position Coos Bay was able to make full speed but was rolling heavily.
Ambassador's situation was deteriorating rapidly. Coast Guard aircraft dropped life rafts to the vessel, and commercial vessels, including a large passenger ship were standing by, but so far it was too rough for any rescue. Finally 15 of the crewmen abandoned ship in life rafts. One raft drifted down the side of the passenger vessel but no one was able to help and the occupants were never seen again. In the other raft the men refused to get down inside the raft and thus being out of balance they capsized and only a few were able to climb back aboard Ambassador. Finally a Norwegian freighter was able to pass lines aboard Ambassador and pull nine men through the water with a life ring buoy.
Coos Bay arrived on scene shortly after noon the next day, wondering why no further messages had been received, not knowing that the radio officer was lost in the life raft episode. The freighter reported that they had no more line left on board and that twelve men remained on Ambassador.
Fortunately the water temperature was 53 degrees as the vessel was on the edge of the Gulf Stream. It was still too rough to launch the Coos Bay's small boats. She rolled in 8 seconds and the boats being carried on the upper deck could not be quickly lowered. Not knowing at the time about the previous life raft episode, Coos Bay prepared a raft, shot a line aboard, and the crew on the wreck hauled it over. The wreck was listing heavily to port with the rail under water. It drifted so rapidly that five men in the raft were unable to get clear. Because they would not get down low in the raft it capsized and all were thrown in the water. Three of the men were able to scramble back aboard and the other two drifted astern in their work lifejackets.
Coos Bay went to Man Overboard and maneuvered to recover them, one by means of a spear-handed catch of a rescue heaving line that the man caught while drifting alongside the propeller under the ship’s counter.
Coos Bay decided to remove the men from the bow through the water just as the freighter had done before. Making a bow to bow approach and shooting a line aboard with navy-type life jackets with collars (the ship’s jackets were a work type that gave poor support,) the first man was removed. It worked fine so two jackets were sent over next. This time one of the men tied himself on poorly and as the two jumped overboard he came loose. Fortunately his mate reached out, grabbed him by the hair and held on until both men were brought within the grasp of the Coos Bay's swimmers and were recovered. The entire operation was over three hours later after seven separate approaches and over 500 engine room maneuvering orders. The engineers never let the ship run out of maneuvering air and never missed an order. (Coos Bay had large direct reversible engines).
On the last maneuver there were four men left on board Ambassador. When it came to the Captain who wanted to be the last to leave, the other three had used up all the line and he had to grab a bight ahead of them. The bosun warned him not to use a marlinespike hitch as it could slip and tighten up on him but he did anyway. Unfortunately the bosun was right because as the men were hauled close aboard Coos Bay the weight of the three men caused his head to go slack under water. He was hauled aboard promptly hoping that the doctor standing by on deck could resuscitate him
Regrettably he did not survive. With all hands now aboard, Coos Bay commenced a search for the life raft seen drifting alongside the passenger ship, which was previously released, claiming injured passengers from the storm.
Coos Bay later returned to Portland to be greeted by fifty media representatives.
Nine officers and men were awarded decorations and the entire ship’s company was given the Commandants Unit Award. This case happened when the rest of the world was quiet so the Ambassador case drew an unusual amount of media interest. There were several 8 mm movie cameras aboard which provided the opportunity of filming perhaps one of the few, if not the only, rescue in the North Atlantic as it was happening. Coos Bay also provided a running account of the operation to Commander, Eastern Area by radio teletype, said to be the first time it was so used.
In addition to continuing her Ocean Station duty Coos Bay led the parade of Coast Guard and Navy vessels on the spectator barrier patrol at the America’s Cup Races in 1964 and escorted the Eagle and other square-riggers as they raced from Bermuda to New York in Operation Sail, also in 1964.
The personnel allowance for Coos Bay was 10 officers, 2 warrants and 137 enlisted men. Many distinguished officers served in command of this venerable vessel.
Coos Bay was decommissioned on September 1, 1966 and later served as a bombing target for the U.S. Navy.
I hope you find this interesting. I wrote it initially for the Coos Bay Reunion Association for their files.