The Long Blue Line: Coast Guard’s “Queen of the Fleet” and the Battle of Convoy ON-166, part 1

Coast Guard Cutter Campbell, commissioned in 1936, is considered the “Queen of the Fleet” as the longest-lived and most famous of the 327-foot Secretary class cutters. In this week’s Long Blue Line series we share the first part of Campbell’s history and its brave convey escort through waters infested with Nazi submarines.

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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

1936 commissioning of Campbell with three sister cutters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
1936 commissioning of Campbell with three sister cutters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

“. . . . the 327s battled through the “Bloody Winter” of 1942-43 in the North Atlantic–fighting off German U-boats and rescuing survivors from torpedoed convoy ships.”
 Retired U.S. Coast Guard Capt. John M. Waters, “The Bloody Winter”

In the quote above, retired Coast Guard captain and book author, John Waters, commented on the service’s ocean-going cutters, which formed the backbone of the Navy’s convoy escort fleet in the early years of the Battle of the Atlantic.

The “Treasury,” or 327-foot Coast Guard cutters (sometimes referred to as the “Secretary” class), were designed to meet changing missions of the service as it emerged from Prohibition. To address these needs, naval architects designed the 327s to steam at the impressive speed of 23 mph equipped with ample fuel capacity for high seas cruising. The 327s were all named for former heads of the Department of the Treasury, including Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Ingham, William Duane, Roger Taney, George Bibb and John Spencer, as well as George Campbell.

Campbell (WPG-32) and several sister cutters saw extensive action as convoy escorts during the Battle of the Atlantic. In fact, the 327-foot cutter Hamilton (WPG-34) was the first American warship lost in combat after the entry of the U.S. into World War II. Capable of maintaining high speed in seas that slowed Navy destroyers, the 327s were ideal for protecting shipping in the middle of the North Atlantic. The Campbell was the longest-lived and the most famous of this class. Built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1936, the cutter earned the title “Queen of the Fleet.”

“Queen of the Fleet” cutter Campbell in camouflage paint scheme early in the war. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
“Queen of the Fleet” cutter Campbell in camouflage paint scheme early in the war. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Sailing under Coast Guard Cmdr. James Hirshfield, Campbell was assigned to convoy escort duty early in the war. Equipped with sonar technology and direction finding equipment, Campbell, sister-cutter Spencer and other escorts were assigned anti-submarine duty for Convoy ON-166 returning from the United Kingdom to the U.S. in February 1943. On Sunday, February 21, a “Wolf Pack” of over a dozen German U-boats pounced on the convoy. That day, Campbell steamed through waters infested with Nazi submarines, engaging numerous U-boats sighted on the surface or located underwater by sonar.

Late on the 21st, the convoy command dispatched Campbell to assist a torpedoed tanker left dead in the water by the convoy. When the cutter arrived, Campbell picked-up 50 merchant mariners in lifeboats. Meanwhile, the German submarine U-753 sent a torpedo toward Campbell and the crippled tanker. Campbell chased down the U-boat damaging it so badly that it had to withdraw from the battle. The cutter returned to the tanker and shelled its bridge to ensure destruction of classified documents mistakenly left behind by the crew. Over the course of February 21, Campbell singlehandedly damaged or drove off half a dozen U-boats.

Rare photograph showing the African-American manned three-inch battery, commanded by Louis Etheridge, honored for their gun duel with U-606. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Rare photograph showing the African-American manned three-inch battery, commanded by Louis Etheridge, honored for their gun duel with U-606. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

In the morning darkness of February 22, Campbell tried to close the 40 miles separating it from the convoy still battling the Wolf Pack. En route, the cutter encountered more U-boats, including a submarine later identified as U-606, which had already sunk two ON-166 merchant vessels and damaged a third. The U-boat had been damaged by depth charging and surfaced hoping to attempt a daring surface attack. Hirshfield ordered the cutter to close with U-606 striking a glancing blow to the sub and loosing two depth charges beside it. The explosives lifted the U-boat out of the water; however, the glancing blow had gashed the cutter’s hull below the waterline near the engine room.

Campbell fought on as the engine room took on water. The crew brought to bear their searchlights and heavy weapons on U-606 and fought the Nazi predator on the surface. An all-black gun crew manning Campbell’s three-inch battery, under gun captain Louis Etheridge, focused their fire on the submarine’s deck and conning tower. The gun crewmembers were later recognized for their heroism and Etheridge became the service’s first African-American Bronze Star Medal recipient.

This isn’t the end for Coast Guard Cutter Campbell – find out what happened next after this glancing blow into the cutter’s engine room next week on The Long Blue Line.

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