U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
The Tupelo's Early Years
C. William Bailey
The Tupelo was an "A" Class 180 foot Buoy Tender commissioned in 1943 in the middle of WWII. There is a pretty good chronology of Tupelo's service after the war but nothing mentioned in it of the wartime years. The author has provided some insight into the duties of the ship during the war within the context of this story. A chronology of events is included following the story.
In the spring of 1943 after servicing the sea buoys marking the swept channel 40 miles out to sea from Norfolk, recovering the bodies of Navy flight training students, and breaking ice in Upper Chesapeake Bay, Tupelo was sent to the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore to be refitted as a Navy Damage Control Ship. It was supposed to follow the fleet and help repair ships damaged in battle. We had special diesel water pump engines installed, one in the bow paint locker and two back aft on deck. There were high pressure fire hose monitor nozzles mounted on the bow, on top of the boom A-frame, and on deck aft which could put up a curtain of water to rival the well-known New York fire boats.
Our main hold was loaded with dozens of portable gasoline-operated water pumps and a lot of related fire fighting equipment including dozens of cans of foam, etc. What the Navy forgot was the fact that our top speed was only 13 knots. No way could we travel in company with the fleet.
Later on I remember making a deal at Guam with the Marines to trade some of our portable pumps for heavy duty shoes for the entire crew.
The designation as a Damage Control ship did came in handy to convince the Washington Navy Department office to issue us a movie projector when such items were scarce. They were never issued to the smaller ships. Over lunch, I convinced a cute Navy female employee that we needed to train our crew with those fine and interesting Navy Training Films. Once we had the projector, of course, there was never a problem in getting and exchanging good movies instead of films on "How To Prevent VD."
On our way to the Pacific War we encountered a hurricane off the west coast of Mexico and answered a strange radio signal. Our young radio operators thought it was just static but the senior radioman, who had been in the merchant marine, quickly recognized the sound of an old spark transmitter. It was a newly built Lend-Lease Plan seagoing tug, the Atengo, on her way to Europe from Canada. Supplies were so short that they were using World War I equipment to outfit the ship.
While they were securing our towline a man had his hand mangled and the tug promptly screamed for medical help. It was howling mad weather but our former surfman captain who had a thing about surfboats, decided it was best to use our eight-oared monomoy small boat. Guess who was selected coxswain? Well this was nothing really new. We had used the boat to put men on extinguished lighted sea buoys before so in the finest CG tradition, "Away The Boat" was piped. Bringing the man aboard it was clear that amputation of his thumb was in order, so clearing the wardroom table, our doctor who fortunately was a surgeon, went to work. Small ships do not have elaborate sick bays and our anesthesia equipment was primitive so the patient was well liquored up and I talked soothingly to him in French while the doctor did his duty. Looking at the result I saw a tit of skin bunched at the end and wondered aloud if doctor was doing a neat job. Doctor froze me into minding my own business by severely remarking of the need for a drain. The patient recovered, the weather improved and we towed the ship into the nearby port of Salina Cruz. Liberty was not granted. Captain said we had a war to win, and let's get on with it.