This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Atlantic Area Historian, United States Coast Guard
When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, motor vessel Sightseer XII, a New York tour boat, came to the rescue. The vessel helped ferry thousands of evacuees from lower Manhattan across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Due to the Sightseer and the selfless efforts of its captain and crew, the U.S. Coast Guard recognized the vessel’s owner, Circle Line Sightseeing Tours, with the 9/11 Medal. However, 9/11 was not the first time this sturdy vessel had rescued those in peril. Sightseer performed a number of heroic rescues as the Coast Guard Cutter Argo during World War II.
In 1933, Argo became the first in its class of 165-foot Coast Guard cutters put into service for prohibition enforcement. During the war, the service conscripted the vessel and its sister cutters to escort merchantmen along the East Coast. The cutter carried a crew of 75 men and provided a solid platform for radar and sonar equipment; an armament of 20 millimeter and 3-inch guns; as well as depth charges and anti-submarine weapons. During the last three years of the war, Argo’s fate would be closely linked to that of Charles Eliot Winslow.
In late 1942, Winslow became an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard and served as executive officer on the Coast Guard weather ship Menemsha. He soon received an appointment to anti-submarine warfare school and graduated to become a lieutenant junior grade, senior watch officer and navigation officer aboard Argo. Winslow rose rapidly through the ship’s officer ranks and by April the service promoted him to executive officer and gunnery officer of Argo. After only two months as the executive officer, the Coast Guard promoted Winslow to command the Argo, a position he would hold for the remainder of the war.
On the morning of Jan. 6, 1944, convoy NK-588 steamed south out of New York harbor into a gale with nearly 40-mph winds and wave heights of nearly 20 feet. The convoy consisted of a tanker; the Navy patrol gunboat USS St. Augustine, a converted 300-foot yacht that served as the convoy’s escort command vessel; and the Coast Guard sister cutters Argo and Thetis. That night at 10, the St. Augustine crew encountered a strange vessel 60 miles southeast of Cape May, New Jersey. Unknown to the warship’s crew, the unidentified vessel was the American tanker Camas Meadows, steaming unescorted out of Delaware Bay under blackout conditions. The master of the tanker had taken ill to his cabin leaving the third mate to serve as officer-on-deck, or OOD. The ship had a green crew and no one on the bridge knew how to send or receive blinker signals.
Farther back in the convoy, Argo had also made radar contact with the darkened tanker and the cutter’s OOD reported the contact to Winslow in the captain’s cabin. He ordered the contact’s position transmitted to St. Augustine by the coded talk-between-ship system, TBS. The cutter’s radioman sent the message and received acknowledgment from the lead escort. Meanwhile, Argo’s lookouts made visual contact with the ship and noted that the St. Augustine had left its convoy station, steamed toward the mystery vessel and challenged the ship by blinker and flashing running lights. Out of caution, Argo’s OOD altered course so the cutter would swing wide around the stern of the ship crossing ahead, and he presumed that St. Augustine had executed a similar course change.
The dark silhouettes of the St. Augustine and the tanker appeared to meet miles in the distance; but unknown to Argo’s bridge watch, the St. Augustine had actually altered course in front of the tanker, setting the two vessels on a collision course. Within a few short minutes, Argo’s OOD observed the bow of the 300-foot St. Augustine rise out of the water at an odd angle, fall back into the water, and disappear. Given the state of the stormy seas, he and the bridge watch thought the escort had ridden up a large wave and plummeted down the next trough. The men on Argo’s bridge had actually witnessed the demise of the patrol gunboat as the tanker rammed into St. Augustine amidships, cut deeply into the escort’s hull, and pushed the mortally wounded gunboat briefly before separating with it. St. Augustine quickly flooded and slipped below the waves, vanishing in less than five minutes.
Check back next week to find out what happened to USS St. Augustine and its crew next week and how Coast Guard Cutter Argo one of New York’s tour boats.