New Cutter to be Named After Heroic WWII Rescue Swimmer

Cutter Escanaba shown in camouflage paint scheme during its deployment with the Greenland Patrol. (U.S. Coast Guard)

By William Thiesen 02-08-2019 05:18:10

". . . his courageous disregard for his own personal safety in a situation of grave peril was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
- Navy & Marine Corps Medal citation, Officer’s Steward 2/c Warren T. Deyampert

African-American Petty Officer Warren Traveous Deyampert served in the U.S. Coast Guard in early World War II. It was a time when the U.S. military barred African-Americans from the officer ranks and limited them to junior enlisted or food service ratings. Deyampert was a heroic Coast Guardsmen with great loyalty for his cutter and shipmates. This fact seems surprising given the second-class status African-Americans held in the service at the start of the war.

Born in Alabama, Deyampert moved to Pittsburgh while in high school and enlisted in the Coast Guard at age 19, five months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. During his time in the Coast Guard, Deyampert served on only one cutter, the Escanaba. He came aboard in August 1941 and, over the next two years, he advanced rapidly from a third class mess attendant to second class officer’s steward.

With heavy seas and icy water, the North Atlantic seems an impossible place to save lives. Nevertheless, the challenge of rescuing as many men as possible motivated Escanaba’s crew to develop a system of tethered rescue swimmers equipped with parachute harnesses and leash lines as well as rubber dry suits that insulated the swimmers from the cold water. Three of the cutter’s crew volunteered to serve the hazardous duty of rescue swimmer, including Deyampert.

Deyampert and his fellow rescue swimmers drilled frequently, so they and their supporting deck crews could work in heavy seas and blackout conditions. In early February 1943, Deyampert and the others had a chance to put their skills to the test. At the time, Escanaba served as an escort for the three-ship convoy, SG-19, bound from St. Johns, Newfoundland, to southwest Greenland. Weather conditions during the convoy’s first few days proved horrendous as they usually did in the North Atlantic winter. The average air temperature measured well below freezing, the seas were heavy and the wind-driven spray formed layers of ice on Escanaba’s decks and superstructure.

At 1 a.m., Feb. 3, the enemy submarine U-223 torpedoed the convoy vessel and U.S. Army transport, Dorchester, that carried over 900 troops, civilian contractors and crew. Within 20 minutes, the transport slipped beneath the waves sending surviving passengers and crew into lifeboats or the icy water. By the time Escanaba arrived on scene, Dorchester had already begun its descent into the abyss. The seas were smooth due to a heavy oil slick and the wind was light. Dorchester’s life preservers were equipped with blinking red lights to help rescuers locate floating victims at night. These lights dotted the water’s surface into the distant darkness.

During the war, the service required cutters to observe blackout conditions during nighttime operations. Hence, Escanaba’s crew began preparations to deploy the rescue swimmers in advance, to minimize confusion in the dark. As Escanaba steamed to the scene of Dorchester’s sinking, the rescue swimmers donned their exposure suits and the deck crews made lines ready for hauling helpless survivors aboard. Sea ladders and heaving lines were made ready and a cargo net dropped over the side.

Once on scene, Escanaba located its first group of floating survivors, stopped and drifted toward them. Some of the men were clinging to doughnut rafts, while others remained afloat using life preservers. The victims suffered from severe shock and hypothermia and could not climb the sea ladders or the cargo net. In fact, they were incapable of grasping a line used to haul them on board the cutter. Clad in his dry suit and secured to Escanaba by a line, Deyampert swam out to the floating victims and life rafts. He checked for signs of life and secured victims to a line, so the deck crews could pull the survivors up to the cutter. Even though many victims appeared frozen to death, 38 out of 50 that appeared dead were frozen but still alive. The swimmers got the floating victims to the cutter immediately saving time and saving more lives. Thus, Escanaba could reach more victims before exposure froze them to death.

Selflessly, Deyampert remained in the icy water nearly four hours. Pulling rafts in close to the cutter and securing them with lines from Escanaba, the officers’ steward was often in danger of being crushed between life rafts and the cutter’s side. He kept helpless survivors afloat until they could be secured with a line and hauled aboard the cutter. He also swam under the fantail of the maneuvering cutter to keep floating victims away from the suction of Escanaba’s propeller. All the while, he disregarded the danger to himself trying to save as many lives as possible.

In the end, Escanaba’s tethered rescue swimmer system proved more effective in recovering survivors than any other method. After eight hours of rescue operations, the cutter had saved 133 lives. However, the glow of success proved short-lived. In June, Escanaba joined cutters Storis and Raritan to escort a convoy bound from Greenland to Newfoundland. At 5 a.m., Sunday, June 13, Escanaba fell victim to a catastrophic explosion, believed by many the result of a torpedo. The cutter sank in minutes, taking Deyampert and 100 of his shipmates down with it. Only two Coast Guardsmen survived the sinking.

Despite his secondary status in a segregated service, Deyampert placed the needs of others before his own and played a key role in the rescue of well over 100 Dorchester survivors. For his heroic service, Deyampert posthumously received the Navy & Marine Corps Medal and Purple Heart Medal. Soon, the U.S. Coast Guard will name a Fast Response Cutter in his honor. Deyampert was a selfless and courageous Coast Guardsman who embodied the service’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.

Deyampert’s father, Joseph Deyampert, receives the Navy & Marine Corps Medal from a Coast Guard officer near Mobile, Ala. (U.S. Coast Guard)

William Thiessen is the Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.