Although most people associate Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers with daring helicopter rescue cases, there are also Cutter Surface Swimmers and divers trained to deploy off cutters. Training people to enter the water is necessary in many of our missions from saving lives to maintaining navigational aids to ensuring maritime security.
This historical account below discusses one of the first Coast Guard rescue swimmers and offers insight into the beginning of the swimmer program. Enjoy!
Story written by
William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Atlantic Area Historian, United States Coast Guard
LT Robert Prause provides a classic example of the Coast Guard’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty. On June 22, 1915, Robert Henry Prause, Jr., was born in Charleston, South Carolina. He spent most of his childhood in Norfolk, Virginia, where he attended Matthew Fontaine Maury High School. He excelled in the technical preparatory curriculum offered by that school and became a member of Maury’s math, science and literary clubs. Based on his academic achievements in high school, Prause received a scholarship at the Norfolk Division of William & Mary College, now known as Old Dominion University, and studied engineering in the Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s division of that school.
After over a year of studies in the Virginia Tech division, Bob Prause decided to follow his passion for technical studies and took the entrance examination for the Coast Guard Academy. In 1935, he passed his examination and received an appointment for the class of 1939. After graduation, Prause served on board the cutter MODOC homeported in Wilmington, North Carolina. He next served as watch officer and navigator on board the cutter ONONDAGA based out of Astoria, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.
In early 1942, LTJG Prause received orders to serve as executive officer on board the cutter ESCANABA, homeported in Grand Haven, Michigan. By June, ESCANABA had changed stations from the Great Lakes to Boston to serve as part of the Coast Guard’s Greenland Patrol. Soon after ESCANABA joined the Greenland Patrol, Prause received a wartime promotion to full lieutenant. Over the course of the next year, ESCANABA served as a workhorse for the Greenland Patrol’s convoy escorts. The cutter escorted cargo vessels and troop transports between U.S. and Canadian ports and on to Greenland in arguably the worst and most forbidding sea and weather conditions in any theater of operations of World War II.
On June 15, 1942, an event took place that made a lasting impression on Prause. During the early evening, while escorting a convoy from Nova Scotia to Greenland, ESCANABA made sonar contact with a U-boat, depth-charged the submarine and likely sank it. Within an hour, ESCANABA attacked a second U-boat, but could not confirm a kill. Around midnight, a U-boat attack on ESCANABA’s convoy sank the transport USS CHEROKEE, sending 173 personnel into the icy waters. Within minutes, the shock of the water’s temperature had incapacitated CHEROKEE’s survivors. Desperate to retrieve as many men as possible, Prause dangled head first over the side of the cutter while his shipmates clutched his legs. In spite of the ever-present threat of submarine attack and a heavy seaway, ESCANABA managed to rescue twenty-two survivors.
The difficulty of retrieving men from the frigid heavy seas of the North Atlantic prompted Prause to work with the ship’s commanding officer, LCDR Carl U. Peterson, to develop a safer and more effective method for recovering debilitated survivors from Greenland’s icy cold waters. Prause relied on his technical background to devise a system of tethered rescue swimmers equipped with rubber exposure suits normally issued to aviators that flew over expanses of cold water. Prause experimented with one of these suits, which trapped water near the swimmer and kept it warm through body heat. Prause worked with three crewmembers that volunteered to serve as retrievers and drilled them and their support crews. They became very proficient in working from ESCANABA’s rolling deck under the blackout conditions required during combat operations.
On February 3rd, 1943, a convoy bound from Newfoundland to Greenland provided the ultimate test of Prause’s experiments and training. Cutters ESCANABA, TAMPA, and COMANCHE escorted a group of three steamers, including the U.S. Army Transport DORCHESTER, which carried 904 passengers and crew. At 01:00 in the morning, a U-boat torpedoed the DORCHESTER, sinking the transport within twenty minutes. Prause’s men were ready, donning their special exposure suits and preparing to put their training to use.
Rescue operations on board ESCANABA and in the water proved far more effective in recovering survivors than any previous attempts. Navy regulations forbade the use of lights on American ships at night; however, life preservers on board DORCHESTER had been equipped with blinking red lights, making it easier to locate the floating survivors in the dark. Wearing their exposure suits, the retrievers swam out to the DORCHESTER’s men to determine whether they were still alive and ESCANABA’s deck crew hauled in those that had survived. Prause supervised this eight-hour evolution in less than ideal conditions. In the end, ESCANABA had saved 133 lives, over six times the number rescued from USS CHEROKEE. Prause’s tethered rescue swimmer system had proven a great success.
Unfortunately, the success of Prause and his system proved short lived. In June, ESCANABA joined cutters STORIS and RARITAN to escort a convoy bound from Greenland to Newfoundland. At 05:00 in the morning of June 13, almost a full year after the CHEROKEE disaster, ESCANABA fell victim to a catastrophic explosion whose cause has remained a mystery to this day. In a matter of just a few minutes, the cutter went up in smoke and sank, taking 100 crewmembers and LCDR Peterson down with it. Ray O’Malley, one of only two survivors of the ESCANABA, later recounted how LT Prause had survived the explosion and struggled to the surface. The crew from Cutter RARITAN threw Prause a line, pulled him on deck and took him below for medical attention; however, Prause lost consciousness and could not be revived. Due to the great distance to land, RARITAN’s commander chose to bury Prause at sea with full military honors.
Despite its success, the systematic use of tethered rescue swimmers developed by LT Prause failed to catch on after the loss of ESCANABA. For his efforts and deeds, Prause received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Purple Heart Medal and several World War II campaign medals. Even though Prause’s system may not be characterized as a prototype for the modern Coast Guard rescue swimmer program, it represents one of the first successful cold-water rescue methods to succeed in the heavy sea and weather conditions of the North Atlantic.