The Many Rescues of the Coast Guard Cutter Argo

uscg
The Argo (courtesy of the Winslow family / Coast Guard Compass)

By U.S. Coast Guard News 2017-02-02 21:35:02

[By William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.]

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, motor vessel Sightseer XII, a New York tour boat, came to the rescue. The vessel helped ferry thousands of evacuees from lower Manhattan across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Due to the Sightseer and the selfless efforts of its captain and crew, the U.S. Coast Guard recognized the vessel’s owner, Circle Line Sightseeing Tours, with the 9/11 Medal. However, 9/11 was not the first time this sturdy vessel had rescued those in peril. Sightseer performed a number of heroic rescues as the Coast Guard Cutter Argo during World War II.

In 1933, Argo became the first in its class of 165-foot Coast Guard cutters put into service for prohibition enforcement. During the war, the service conscripted the vessel and its sister cutters to escort merchantmen along the East Coast. The cutter carried a crew of 75 men and provided a solid platform for radar and sonar equipment; an armament of 20 millimeter and 3-inch guns; as well as depth charges and anti-submarine weapons. During the last three years of the war, Argo’s fate would be closely linked to that of Charles Eliot Winslow.

In late 1942, Winslow became an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard and served as executive officer on the Coast Guard weather ship Menemsha. He soon received an appointment to anti-submarine warfare school and graduated to become a lieutenant junior grade, senior watch officer and navigation officer aboard Argo. Winslow rose rapidly through the ship’s officer ranks and by April the service promoted him to executive officer and gunnery officer of Argo. After only two months as the executive officer, the Coast Guard promoted Winslow to command the Argo, a position he would hold for the remainder of the war.

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 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, the St. Augustine crew 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, or OOD. The ship had a green crew and no one on the bridge knew how to send or receive blinker signals.

Farther back in the convoy, Argo had also made radar contact with the darkened tanker and the cutter’s OOD reported the contact to Winslow in the captain’s cabin. He ordered the contact’s position transmitted to St. Augustine by the coded talk-between-ship system, TBS. 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 presumed 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 large wave and plummeted down the next trough. The men on Argo’s bridge had actually witnessed the demise of the patrol gunboat as the tanker rammed into St. Augustine amidships, cut deeply into the escort’s hull, and 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.

Miles away from the scene of the disaster, Argo’s officer-of-the-day, 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. Coast Guard Cutter Thetis tried to raise the St. Augustine by voice radio with no success, so Argo’s OOD tried to contact the vessel by their talk-between-ship system. The darkened tanker came to a stop and turned on all of 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 brightly 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. 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.” Argo had rescued 23 of St. Augustine’s survivors, while Thetis accounted for another seven. In addition, the search-and-rescue effort located 76 bodies out of the patrol gunboat’s total losses of 106 crewmembers. Four of Winslow’s crewmembers received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for saving victims of the St. Augustine.

Winslow demonstrated his ship-handling skills a second time during October’s 1944 Cuba-Florida Hurricane. The Category 4 hurricane whirled up from the Equator in mid-October and churned off the Georgia coast by October 19. It caught the Mexican tanker Juan Casiano 90 miles due east of Savannah, severing the vessel into two parts and sending them to the bottom. Only 21 of the ship’s 50 crewmembers found their way to a battered lifeboat. They did their best to cling to the boat as physical exhaustion and the storm’s fury peeled the victims away one by one.

Argo arrived on scene a day after the sinking and, at 2000 hours, the cutter’s crew sighted flares illuminating the darkness over the swamped lifeboat. While the cutter was located some distance from the boat, Winslow skillfully maneuvered the 165-foot cutter through the heavy seas to the survivors. Argo took on board 11 men suffering from shock and exposure. The rest of the original 21 survivors had perished in the hurricane over the course of the previous day. Winslow commenced a box search in the heavy seas to check for the others with no success. In the commendation for the Juan Casiano rescue, Commandant Russell Waesche cited Winslow for his “outstanding ability and devotion to duty.” Between the St. Augustine and Juan Casiano rescues, Winslow, his crew and Argo had saved 34 desperate mariners and given them a second chance at life.

Winslow and Argo went their separate ways after the war. The Coast Guard experienced a dramatic decrease in personnel levels, forcing the service to retire cutters such as Argo. At first, the service mothballed the cutter at Coast Guard Station Cape May; however, by 1948, the service had decommissioned the cutter and sold it in 1955. By 1959, New York City’s Circle Line Sightseeing Tours purchased Argo and the vessel began a second fruitful career as the Sightseer XII.

Winslow had found within himself a natural, almost instinctive, predisposition for command at sea. Yet, after the war ended, he was ready to go home. In a letter to his command, he wrote, “If the Argo . . . is scheduled to fight the wintry blasts alone all winter, my answer is ‘Get me off.’ One winter upside down was enough for me. It took me three weeks to regain the full use of my feet!” Having served the entire war on the high seas, Charles Eliot Winslow moved to Southport, Maine, near his family home. There he established a successful tugboat business and summer cruise line in the Boothbay area and he named his tourboat the Argo.

William H. Thiesen is the Atlantic Area Historian for the United States Coast Guard.

This article appears courtesy of the Coast Guard Compass blog, and may be found in its original two-part format here

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