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 Atlantic Area Historian
On the morning of Jan. 6, 1944, convoy NK-588 steamed south out of New York harbor into a gale with nearly 40 mph winds and wave heights of nearly 20 feet. The convoy consisted of a tanker; the U.S. Navy patrol gunboat USS St. Augustine, a converted 300-foot yacht that served as the convoy’s escort command vessel; and the Coast Guard sister cutters Argo and Thetis. That night at 10:00, the St. Augustine encountered a strange vessel 60 miles southeast of Cape May, New Jersey. Unknown to the warship’s crew, the unidentified vessel was the American tanker Camas Meadows, steaming unescorted out of Delaware Bay under blackout conditions. The master of the tanker had taken ill to his cabin leaving the third mate to serve as officer-on-deck (OOD). The ship had an inexperienced crew and no one on the bridge knew how to send or receive blinker signals.
Farther back in the convoy, Argo also made radar contact with the darkened tanker and the cutter’s OOD reported the contact to the skipper, Lt. Eliot Winslow, in the captain’s cabin. He ordered the contact’s position transmitted to the St. Augustine by the coded talk-between-ship system. The cutter’s radioman sent the message and received acknowledgment from the lead escort. Meanwhile, Argo’s lookouts made visual contact with the ship and noted that the St. Augustine had left its convoy station, steamed toward the mystery vessel and challenged the ship by blinker and flashing running lights. Out of caution, Argo’s OOD altered course so the cutter would swing wide around the stern of the ship crossing ahead and he assumed that St. Augustine had executed a similar course change.
The dark silhouettes of the St. Augustine and the tanker appeared to meet miles in the distance; but unknown to Argo’s bridge watch, the St. Augustine had actually altered course in front of the tanker, setting the two vessels on a collision course. Within a few short minutes, Argo’s OOD observed the bow of the 300-foot St. Augustine rise out of the water at an odd angle, fall back into the water, and disappear. Given the state of the stormy seas, he and the bridge watch thought the escort had ridden up a wave and plummeted down the next trough. Instead, the men on Argo’s bridge had witnessed the death of the patrol gunboat as the tanker rammed the St. Augustine amidships and cut deeply into the escort’s hull. The tanker pushed the mortally wounded gunboat briefly before separating with it. St. Augustine quickly flooded and slipped below the waves, vanishing in less than five minutes.
After the accident, Argo’s OOD asked his radarman if he still had St. Augustine on the screen. The radarman indicated he no longer had a contact for the patrol gunboat. Thetis tried to raise the St. Augustine by voice radio with no success, so Argo’s OOD tried to contact the vessel using the talk-between-ship system. The darkened tanker came to a stop and turned on all its running lights, an act prohibited during wartime in U-boat infested waters. By this time, Argo’s OOD feared the worst, called Winslow for assistance and ordered Argo’s crew to general quarters.
Winslow swung into action as soon as he stepped on the bridge. He ordered a course change straight for the unidentified vessel illuminated in the heavy seas dead ahead. He also ordered the signalman to communicate with the vessel by blinker to find out what had happened. After repeated queries, the tanker blinked back, “Survivors to the left of you.” After several more unanswered signals, the tanker responded that it had rammed the escort and was taking on water.
After pounding through heavy seas for nearly 20 minutes, Argo arrived at the scene of the disaster. The cutter’s crew began sighting groups of survivors on life rafts and individuals floating in the frigid water waving the red lights attached to their life jackets. Winslow ordered Argo’s searchlights activated and began navigating through the wreckage to collect survivors. Winslow focused initial efforts on saving those in life rafts and grouped together in the water before the storm scattered them across the wind-swept seas. Later, Argo located individual survivors and, after that, threw lines over bodies to see if they showed signs of life. If the bodies failed to react, Argo moved on to search for survivors riding the heavy seas.
Argo remained on scene throughout the next day as Winslow and the crew searched for more survivors. Argo had rescued 23 of St. Augustine’s survivors, while Thetis accounted for another seven. In the aftermath, the search effort located another 67 bodies out of the patrol gunboat’s total losses of 106 crew members.
For his role in the St. Augustine episode, Winslow received commendations from Coast Guard Commandant Russell Waesche and Navy Secretary James Forrestal. According to his Navy Commendation, Winslow maneuvered “his ship through heavy winds and debris-littered seas” with “outstanding tactical skill.” In addition, four of Winslow’s crew members received the Navy & Marine Corps Medal for saving victims of the St. Augustine. The wartime search and rescue efforts of the Argo 75 years ago are yet another chapter in the saga of the long blue line.