William H. Thiesen, PhD
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
Coast Guard Cutter Seneca (WMEC-906) is part of the U.S. Coast Guard’s “Famous”- Class of medium-endurance cutters. Many may wonder why the modern Seneca’s namesake became “famous” until they learn of the original Seneca’s heroic 28 year career. Destroying derelict ships, saving lives in World War I, initiating the International Ice Patrol, and capturing rumrunners during Prohibition – these missions were a part of the first Seneca’s story.
Named for one of five Iroquois tribes of western New York, the first Seneca was built by Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company in Virginia and commissioned in 1908. It was designed as a “derelict destroyer” with its principal mission to locate and destroy abandoned wrecks still afloat and a menace to navigation. It had excellent sea-keeping qualities, long cruising range, good towing capability, and ample storage capacity for munitions. On Nov. 29, 1908, it destroyed its first derelict, a wreck off Hog Island, near the Bronx, and then returned to its station at Tompkinsville, New York, on Staten Island. Derelict destruction would remain one of its primary missions in the first part of the cutter’s Coast Guard career.
In March 1913, Seneca was assigned to the International Ice Patrol. The Titanic disaster of 1912 had shocked the public on both sides of the Atlantic, initiating the 1913 Safety of Life at Sea Convention in England and establishment of the International Ice Patrol. Two U.S. Navy scout cruisers performed the patrol during the 1912 ice season, tracking icebergs and reporting their location to ships in the North Atlantic. However after the 1912 season, the Navy could no longer spare warships for patrols, so the Revenue Cutter Service assumed the duty. In 1913, Seneca and sister cutter Miami became the first two cutters to perform this duty steaming out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Seneca conducted further ice patrols through the spring of 1916 after which it began service in World War I. In the spring of 1920, it returned to ice patrol duty and continued to do so well into the 1920s.
With the outbreak of war in Europe, Seneca cooperated with Navy warships to enforce neutrality of the U.S. Later, the cutter joined Ossipee, Yamacraw, Algonquin, Manning and Tampa to form Squadron 2, Division 6, of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet based at Gibraltar. During the war, the cutter escorted hundreds of vessels through the sub-infested waters between Gibraltar and the British Isles and performed patrol and escort duties in the Mediterranean.
During the conflict, Seneca also performed its traditional missions. Early in the morning of March 25, 1918, the British naval sloop Cowslip steamed out of Gibraltar to meet a convoy escorted by Seneca. Cowslip was struck and almost broken in two by a German torpedo. Warned to stay away because of the presence of enemy submarines, Seneca followed the laws of her service, and three times stopped to send off small boats to take on survivors. These boats saved two officers and 79 enlisted men. In late June, Seneca’s crew saved 27 more men from the torpedoed British merchant steamer Queen. And, when the British merchant steamer Wellington was torpedoed in mid-September, a volunteer crew from Seneca attempted to save the vessel. The ship finally foundered on September 17, and 11 Coast Guardsmen lost their lives trying to save it. All 20 of Seneca’s boarding party received the Navy Cross Medal, and one received the Distinguished Service Medal, making this event the most honored combat-related mission in service history.
Late in August 1919, Seneca returned to the Treasury Department and its former station at Tompkinsville. Soon after, the cutter began illegal liquor interdiction and enforcement of laws under Prohibition. On Nov. 15, 1923, Seneca received orders to seize Tamoka and arrest its crew. This vessel belonged to notorious rumrunner Bill McCoy and had peddled liquor off the East Coast between the Canadian border and the Bahamas. In the morning of November 24, Seneca hailed Tomoka and ordered it to heave to and prepare to be boarded. At first, Tomoka raised a British flag and cruised about so Seneca’s boarding party could not overtake it. Seneca called general quarters, cast loose its forward gun, and ordered Tomoka to allow the boarding party aboard. Tomoka appeared to comply and Seneca began steaming for the Ambrose Channel. Instead, Tomoka chased off the boarding party with a machine gun and did not follow the cutter.
Seneca returned, located its boarding party and instructed Tomoka that it would be fired upon unless
it proceeded to New York. The rumrunner started in the cutter’s direction then reversed course and turned toward the open ocean. Seneca gave chase, fired a shot across its bow, then fired three more warning shots. The next shot was fired to hit and landed a few feet from Tomoka. The rumrunner finally stopped its engines and heaved to. Seneca mustered another boarding party, which boarded Tomoka and ordered its crew below deck. No further difficulty was encountered and Seneca turned over Tomoka, its crew and infamous master Bill McCoy to New York authorities.
From the mid- to late-1920s, Seneca continued its derelict destruction, law enforcement and ice patrol missions. In the early 1930s, it changed stations from New York to Puerto Rico and served there and the Gulf Coast until the mid-1930s. In early 1936, the cutter enjoyed one last service highlight when a big freeze came over the Mid-Atlantic coast. The Chesapeake Bay froze solid, stranding many vessels in the ice and Seneca was called to the rescue. In late February, it remained busy breaking ice and assisting ice-bound vessels, freeing five of them.
In the spring of 1936, Seneca was decommissioned at the Coast Guard Depot. However, the cutter returned to Coast Guard service in 1941. In 1942, the cutter was turned over to the state of Pennsylvania and renamed Keystone State for use in training merchant marine cadets from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York. The cutter was finally scrapped in Baltimore in 1950.
Over its long life, Seneca performed the missions of search and rescue, ice operations, law enforcement, humanitarian relief and maritime defense. And, its crew recorded many firsts, including the first cutter designed to carry out the derelict destruction mission and the first to participate in the International Ice Patrol. It also became famous for its honorable World War I service and Prohibition operations. Seneca and the men who sailed it remain a part of the legend and lore of the U.S. Coast Guard.