Written by Petty Officer 1st Class William Bleyer
In part one of this story, we learned the identities of those involved.
Around 9 a.m., the Staten Island crew launched the surf boat Chief Elias Welch, Ensign John Vitt, the engineman, and the wetsuit-less seaman aboard. They picked up the messenger line, the smaller, lightweight yellow line that would be used to pull the heavier, thicker towline, from the Dauntless, and began heading towards the Martindale. The crewmen on the Dauntless paid out the messenger line and it trailed behind the surf boat in the calm water.
The water grew shallower as they approached the desolate, unsheltered shore of Akutan Island. The quiescent Bering Sea swells, having traveled for hundreds of miles across the deep ocean, began to grow larger and steeper as they rolled up the island’s undersea slope towards the shoreline. Once in sufficiently shallow water the waves began to break, forming a ragged line of crashing white water off the black gravel and sand beach. The name “Alaska” comes from an Aleut phrase that means, “The object to which the action of the sea is directed,” but, more eloquently, “Where the sea breaks its back.” The sea was breaking against Akutan Island.
It can be difficult to judge the height of breaking waves from seaward and as he approached the surf line Welch encountered problems controlling the boat while towing the messenger line. They were still too far from the Martindale to attempt to pass the line – they were being tossed around by the breakers – and then the line slid under the hull and got sucked in by the surf boat’s only propeller. The line wrapped around the propeller drive shaft, immobilizing it. Welch turned the helm in an attempt to maintain control but the boat’s rudder post snapped off. Without propulsion or steerage the breaking waves quickly pushed the boat beam to the surf, causing it to capsize.
When the surf boat rolled over all four crew members were suddenly ejected into the Bering Sea, immediately disoriented and shockingly cold. They struggled in the rolling chaos of white water making it difficult to see anything.
Vitt was less than a year out of the Coast Guard Academy but despite the ejection and debilitating cold he maintained situational awareness. They all needed to get to shore, and fast. Unable to locate their wetsuit-less shipmates, Vitt and the engineman began fighting their way through the breaking waves towards the beach.
Back onboard the Staten Island, the crew reacted quickly to the capsizing. The LCVP was readied for launch and one of the ship’s helicopters was airborne within three minutes. Lt. Earl Hamilton directed the takeoff as flight deck safety officer, his experience diving in cold water making him acutely aware that time was now critical; an average person wearing only a lifejacket in freezing water can be unconscious in less than 15 minutes and dead in less than 30.
Making it through the breaking waves had been grueling but Vitt and the engineman made it ashore, only to have their worst fears confirmed: both of their shipmates were missing. They anxiously searched the whitecaps and saw a figure struggling in the surf. Vitt had been on the Academy swim team and needed every bit of his skill and endurance as he plunged back into the frigid Bering Sea and began fighting towards the swimmer. As he approached, he saw that it was the seaman. Making it back through the waves while pulling a survivor was even harder but he managed.
The helicopter arrived overhead and verified that three crewmen had now made it ashore. But Welch was still missing; apparently he had surfaced and swam seaward out of the surf line. The helicopter flew back to the Staten Island, picked up the public health service doctor who was attached to the ship, and began searching.
The helicopter located Welch floating face down outside the surf line and hoisted him aboard. The doctor made an exceptionally determined effort to save the chief beginning in the helicopter and continuing in the Staten Island’s sickbay. Unfortunately the combination of hypothermia and drowning proved irreversible and he was pronounced dead by the doctor.
Despite the loss of Welch, the crew of the Staten Island still had jobs to do. Vitt and his two surviving crew members were picked up shivering, battered, and shocked but otherwise unharmed by the helicopter and returned to the ship. The helicopter simultaneously dropped off a work party led by Hamilton and Lt. j.g. Harold Millan, the ship’s assistant damage control officer. They examined the surf boat that had since washed ashore and prepared it for retrieval. Then thick fog began arriving, rendering further salvage efforts impossible.
Hamilton was left to spend the night on the Martindale. Over the course of the night, waves severely damaged the fishing boat, making it unseaworthy. The next day the surf boat was righted and recovered by floating a line through the surf using the LCVP. Once the surf boat had been recovered Hamilton and the crew of the Martindale were evacuated by helicopter.
Welch’s remains were offloaded at Dutch Harbor and he was later buried in the Veterans Memorial Cemetery at Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park in Seattle. He was 34 and left behind a wife and two sons. While that tragic day is indelibly etched into the minds of his surviving shipmates, his memory is officially preserved nowhere else, and the debate as to whether Coastguardsmen who died operating cutter boats should be memorialized on the Boat Forces Memorial or planned Cuttermen’s Memorial continues. Vitt, who courageously swam back out to rescue the wetsuit-less seaman, also never received any official recognition.
Mishaps are, by their very definition, unplanned and it is easy to sit in safety and harshly judge the actions and motivations of people who didn’t have the luxury of hindsight, especially when those actions took place 50 years ago in a different organizational culture. The crew of the Staten Island was well-trained and dedicated, as was their highly experienced captain. Their intentions were noble. An official Board of Inquiry, which was held onboard the Staten Island and presided over by its Executive Officer, also apparently assigned no fault to Walsh. Welch’s death in the line of duty reminds us of the dangers of hubris, the importance of personal protective equipment, and that the Coast Guard’s modern doctrine of Operational Risk Management has evolved through decades of tragic incidents and sacrifice.