Writen by William Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
Coast Guard buoy tender White Alder was the former U.S. Navy lighter YF-417, one of eight YF-257-class Navy lighters acquired by the Coast Guard and converted to buoy tenders. With generous cargo space, an open deck, a large power plant, and a boom for lifting large objects, White Alder proved a capable short-range aids-to-navigation (ATON) buoy tender. From 1947 until 1968, the buoy tender was stationed in New Orleans. During the buoy tender’s more than 20-year career, it’s primary mission was tending river aids-to-navigation, but also performed traditional Coast Guard missions, such as search and rescue, and law enforcement.
On Saturday, December 7, 1968, White Alder was steaming down-bound on the Mississippi River. At approximately 6:30 p.m., it collided with the up-bound motor vessel Helena, a 455-foot Taiwanese freighter. The accident occurred above Head of Passes near White Castle, Louisiana, causing the 133-foot buoy tender to sink in 75 feet of water with three of its crew surviving.
Immediately after the accident, divers located the buoy tender and recovered the bodies of three White Alder crew members. However, sediment from the swift current of the Mississippi River buried the wreck site so quickly that continued recovery and salvage operations proved impossible. 14 White Alder crew members were entombed in the sunken cutter, which to this day remains sealed in the river bottom.
After the White Alder accident, the Coast Guard suffered the loss of Cutter Cuyahoga in 1978, and buoy tender Blackthorn in 1980. Soon after the loss of Blackthorn, the service made sweeping improvements to cutter policy, doctrine, training and standardization. It created the prospective commanding officer (CO)/executive officer (XO) afloat course, mandated that all COs, XOs and officers of the day (OOD) pass the deck watch officer examination, required prospective COs and officers in charge (OINC) to conduct underway familiarization rides, and promulgated commandant cutter navigation standards. All of these steps improved the proficiency and safety of afloat operations and resulted in higher levels of cutter and crew readiness.
A special aid-to-navigation structure and light near White Castle, erected in memory of White Alder’s lost crew members, burns brightly marking the location of the buoy tender. Every year, on December 7, Coast Guard men and women, and surviving family members gather at the site to observe a wreath-laying ceremony.
This year, Marine Safety Unit-Baton Rouge will hold a formal observance ceremony at 11:00 a.m. on Friday, December 7. The ceremony will take place at The Estuary at the Water Campus, 1110 River Road S, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
On December 7, the 50th anniversary of the cutter’s loss, please pause to remember White Alder and its lost crew members:
Seaman Apprentice Walter P. Abbott, III
Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class Michael R. Agnew
Chief Warrant Officer Samuel C. Brown, Jr.
Seaman Frank P. Campisano, III
Fireman Maurice Cason
Quartermaster 2nd Class John R. Cooper, Jr.
Seaman Richard W. Duncan
Seaman Apprentice Larry V. Fregia
Seaman Apprentice Ramon J. Gutierrez
Seaman Roger R. Jacks
Seaman Steven D. Lundquist
Yeoman 2nd Class Joseph A.R. Morin
Commissaryman 2nd Class Charles R. Morrison
Engineman 3rd Class Walton E. O’Quinn, Jr.
Engineman 1st Class John B. Rollinson
Chief Engineman William J. Vitt
Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Guy T. Wood