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.
Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantica Area Historian
The Chesapeake Bay enjoyed a beautiful fall day with clear skies and cool temperatures, Friday, Oct. 20, 1978. That evening, Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga (WIX-157) was underway near Smith Point, where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay. In the dark of night, it collided with the Argentine coal freighter Motor Vessel Santa Cruz II.
Cuyahoga began its career enforcing Prohibition laws and interdicting offshore liquor smugglers. The American Brown Boveri Shipyard built the vessel in 1926 and the Coast Guard placed it in commission a year later. Referred to as a “buck and a quarter,” the ship was 125 feet long, had a beam of 23 feet and a draft of seven feet. It displaced 232 tons and the hull was made of steel. To better chase rumrunners, its two diesel engines and twin-screw propellers gave it a maximum speed of 13 knots and a cruising range of nearly 5,000 miles.
In May 1933, following six years of Prohibition enforcement, Cuyahoga arrived at the Washington Navy Yard to serve as the Navy’s tender for presidential yacht USS Potomac. In May 1941, Cuyahoga was returned to the Coast Guard and recommissioned in late May, assigned to Station Baltimore in Maryland.
In January 1942, after the U.S. entered World War II, Cuyahoga’s permanent station was changed from Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia. It was armed with a 3-inch deck gun and two depth charge racks for wartime duty. While homeported in Norfolk, Cuyahoga served as a convoy escort attached to the Navy’s Eastern Sea Frontier. Later, the ship was transferred to the Caribbean Sea Frontier spending the majority of its time escorting vessels between Guantanamo Bay, Trinidad and Paramaribo. Following the war, Cuyahoga operated once more out of Norfolk. In May of 1946, the vessel was placed in reserve status due to Coast Guard personnel shortages. A year later, it was transferred from Norfolk to the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay, Maryland, and supported the Service’s Field Testing and Development Unit at the yard.
In the late 1950s, Cuyahoga was assigned to the Coast Guard Academy’s Reserve Training Center where it served as the training vessel for the Officer Candidate School. In 1959, the Coast Guard transferred the cutter from the Reserve Training Center in New London, Connecticut, to Yorktown, Virginia. The cutter served as a training platform for officer candidates for the next decade-and-a-half. Cuyahoga celebrated 50 years of commissioned service, March 3, 1977 — the oldest operational commissioned ship in federal service at that time.
The collision between Cuyahoga and the 521-foot Motor Vessel Santa Cruz II occurred over a year later on a nighttime training mission. At about 9 p.m., the bulk carrier hit Cuyahoga on its starboard side between amidships and stern. The impact of the collision was so powerful that Cuyahoga sank in minutes. The Santa Cruz rescued 18 survivors from the water and stayed on the scene until help arrived. The remaining 11 men aboard Cuyahoga were lost.
Four days after the collision, a Coast Guard Marine Board of Inquiry convened in Baltimore to investigate the incident. Accounts indicated that Cuyahoga was dragged backwards and then fell away from the tanker. It rolled on its side and sank in 60 feet of water. After delays due to heavy seas and high winds, two barge-mounted cranes were brought into position and raised the cutter. Cuyahoga was placed on a barge and transported 65 miles to Portsmouth, Virginia, for inspection. After inspection, cutter became an artificial reef and later submerged off the coast of Virginia. Cuyahoga was the last surviving cutter in its class before its loss.
In the aftermath of the Cuyahoga tragedy and the Buoy Tender Blackthorn collision and loss in 1980, the Coast Guard increased safety in afloat operations. The service made improvements in cutter policy, doctrine, training and standardization. These changes included a Prospective Commanding Officer/Executive Officer Afloat Course and mandated that all commanding officers, executive officers, and officers of the day pass the Deck Watch Officer Examination. The service required prospective commanding officers and officers in charge conduct underway familiarization rides and the Coast Guard promulgated Commandant Cutter Navigation Standards. Today, service leaders at all levels are trained to mitigate risk and ensure that Coast Guard operations are performed as safely as possible.
Please pause to remember our lost shipmates of the Cuyahoga and reflect on their service to our nation. They will forever be honored as men of the long blue line:
Seaman Apprentice Michael A. Atkinson
SS1 Ernestino A. Balina
Petty Officer 1st Class William M. Carter
Officer Candidate James W. Clark
Officer Candidate John P. Heistand
Fireman Apprentice James L. Hellyer
Senior Chief Petty Officer David B. Makin
Seaman Apprentice David S. McDowell
Lt. Wiyono Sumalyo, Indonesian Navy
Officer Candidate Edward J. Thomason
Officer Candidate Bruce E. Wood
To memorialize this distinguished cutter and honor the crew, ceremonies for the Cuyahoga are scheduled to be held at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, Friday, Oct. 19, and on the grounds of Training Center Yorktown, Virginia, Saturday, Oct. 20.