Written by Petty Officer 1st Class William Bleyer
Fifty years ago this March, Boatswain’s Mate Chief Elias Welch died off of Akutan Island, Alaska, when his cutter’s boat capsized during an attempt to assist a grounded fishing vessel. The tragic story of his death, unknown except to his shipmates, deserves to be remembered, both as a tribute to his service and as a study in operational risk management and leadership.
Welch was stationed aboard U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Staten Island, a 269-foot Wind-class icebreaker that was homeported in Seattle. He had joined the Coast Guard in 1955 and had previously served as a recruit company commander at Recruit Training Center Alameda. Tall and gregarious, he exuded the part of a salty, experienced chief boatswain’s mate. On the Staten Island he acted as the deck division chief.
On March 8, 1969, the Staten Island was underway in the Bering Sea, heading back to Seattle due to problems with one of the ship’s generators. They were diverted to assist the Martindale, a 75-foot fishing boat also homeported in Seattle, which had run aground on Akutan Island.
Akutan Island is very remote and lies east of Unalaska Island (often mistakenly referred to by the name of its main town, Dutch Harbor) in the Aleutian Island chain. Akutan is dominated by Mount Akutan, a 4,275-foot volcano that erupts every few decades. The rest of the craggy, treeless island consists of rugged terrain that slopes down to the sea in rocky cliffs, black sand and gravel beaches. It was on one of these beaches that the Martindale was stuck fast. Heading towards the fishing grounds of the Bering Sea with four crew members aboard, they had transited through the Akun Strait between Akutan and Akun Island, incorrectly estimated their position, and prematurely engaged their autopilot on a course that was not clear of landfall. This miscalculation, combined with a dark night and an unusually high tide had resulted in their running directly into and far up a beach on the eastern side of the island.
The Staten Island arrived off Akutan on March 9 and stood by about a mile offshore as its commanding officer, Capt. Eugene Walsh, considered what to do. Another fishing boat, the Dauntless, was in the vicinity and wanted to pull the Martindale back into deep water. The tide was going out but there was no other reason for urgency; while the Martindale itself was at real risk of being damaged or broken apart by waves, its four-man crew was in no immediate danger and had no urgent medical problems. The weather was good for the Aleutian Islands in early spring but still far from ideal. While clear and calm, the air temperature was below freezing, snow still covered Mount Akutan and the rest of the island except for the black beaches, and the water temperature was a dangerously cold 38 degrees.
Walsh was a highly experienced sailor who had risen from the enlisted ranks and his career had included 16 years of sea service, although he was reportedly rather stubborn. He determined that the best course of action was to use one of the Staten Island’s boats to carry a messenger line from the Dauntless to the Martindale. The crew on the Martindale would then use the lightweight messenger line to pull in the Dauntless’s heavier towline, enabling the Dauntless to tow the Martindale into deeper water before it was irreparably damaged by the waves. The boat that Walsh decided to employ to deliver the messenger line would be the Staten Island’s 26-foot self-bailing motor surf boat. It was an open, single-propeller driven wooden craft, which was one of two World War II-vintage boats, that had come with the ship when the Coast Guard had taken it over from the Navy in 1966. The other boat was a Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (universally called the LCVP), ideal for offloading Marines on a hostile beach but not for salvaging an Alaskan fishing boat.
Lt. Earl Hamilton, who served as the head of Staten Island’s deck division and salvage and diving officer, selected the crew for the surf boat that he believed would be best suited for the mission based on his knowledge of their experience. He picked Ensign John Vitt to be the boat officer and an experienced boatswain’s mate first class petty officer to be surfboat’s coxswain. For crew members he selected an engineman third class, a rating that would later evolve and merge into today’s machinery technician, and a seaman who had experience as a diver. Hamilton briefed the boat crew on the plan, and they donned wetsuits and prepared to launch.
Welch was overseeing the launching of the surf boat when Walsh intervened and ordered him to replace the assigned coxswain. The chief was likely displeased by the sudden crew change; he didn’t like swimming and the idea of driving the surf boat for such an irregular evolution probably troubled him. Additionally, standing 6-foot 4-inches, there wasn’t a wetsuit onboard big enough to fit him. On the other hand, arguing with a mustang captain who had more years of sea time than he had years in the Coast Guard was not appealing, especially one as reputedly obstinate as Walsh. Perhaps he reasoned that as the deck division chief it was his responsibility to handle the tough jobs and live up to the image of a chief, whether he had a wetsuit or not. He got in the boat. Walsh also substituted in a different seaman, who also didn’t have a wetsuit. The only survival equipment the two substitutes would be wearing would be “work” lifejackets, the kind worn by crew members during routine maintenance that were convenient but wouldn’t turn an unconscious person floating in the water face up.
Stay tuned for the second half of this story tomorrow!