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The C.G.C. Escanaba in peace and war.


Built to break ice, the Escanaba ably served the sailing community of the Great Lakes for nearly a decade. Then the Coast Guard cutter was called to war, where the crew and the craft showed what they were really made of.

In the early 1930s, Bay City's Defoe Boat and Motor Works was awarded a sizable contract to build a new class of Coast Guard cutters for light ice breaking, rescue, and law enforcement duties. At 165 feet long, the ships would be shielded with ice-breaking plates that were seven-eighths of an inch thick. After 11 months of construction, the first of these boats--the Escanaba--was ready for launch.

On September 17, 1932, workers pulled the key-blocks under the cutter, which collapsed the crib beneath it. A crowd of 2,000 cheered as a high school band played "The Star Spangled Banner" and the Escanaba slid sideways into the Saginaw River.


Its new captain hoped his crew would "conduct themselves aship as to merit the highest public opinion for the Coast Guard." Little did Lieutenant Commander L.W. Perkins realize what his ship and its crews would achieve.

In Service at Grand Haven

The Escanaba arrived at her homeport of Grand Haven, Michigan through northwest gales that blinded thousands of residents at the dock. An air temperature of 12 degrees didn't affect the turnout though. Factory whistles screamed through the howling wind as the areas first cutter took station. Twelve days after arriving, the ship was called out on its first rescue run. The fish-tug Tuscarora was stuck in the ice off Muskegon, and the icebreaker was called out to bring the boat back in. It completed its assignment without incident.


The crew of the Escanaba made headlines that next winter when they plucked two mail pilots from the waters of Lake Michigan. Engine trouble had caused a premature landing in the middle of the lake, and one of the plane's pontoons was damaged in the attempt. The men balanced out the listing aircraft by perching on the opposite wing, hanging on for more than seven stormy hours. The pilots saw the Escanaba's 1-million-candlepower spotlight bouncing off the clouds and sent up a flare. "The cutter's launch was then sent out to recover the pilots and the majority of their mail.

In the fall of 1934, the Escanaba's spotlight shone on a stranded whaleback freighter that had hit Muskegon's north breakwall. The crew of the Henry Cort was seeking shelter from a November gale when 50-mile-per-hour winds pushed the ship into the rocks. The Escanaba rushed to the scene, but could do nothing to help the 25 men aboard. At daybreak, the Muskegon Coast Guard crew lashed themselves together and walked the 3,000-foot breakwall to retrieve the shaken sailors.

Escanaba biographer James Carney writes that the cutter was involved in several rescues from 1935 to 1940. Noting the half-million-dollar cost to build the cutter, Carney remarks that the money was more than repaid to taxpayers. In addition to breaking open the ice on the Straits of Mackinac each spring, Coast Guard records show that the Escanaba saved over $7 million in vessels and cargo by the end of 1940.

Called to War in the North Atlantic

Most of the world's attention was focusing on Nazi invasions during 1940. Earlier that spring, Denmark had fallen to the Germans and the United States signed a defense pact with Greenland. Greenland would be under American "protective custody," which allowed the U.S. to build airfields on its soil. The vital nature of this relationship was apparent. Rich cryolite mines, necessary for the production of aluminum, required protection. The area was also a critical location for weather forecasting, and served as a link for aircraft flying to Europe. Dubbed "the great aircraft carrier of the Arctic," the "Bluie" air bases provided a fueling stop in the mid-Atlantic.


Soon the government was looking for ice-capable cutters to help in what would be called "the Greenland Patrol." The Escanaba was sent to Manitowoc, Wisconsin for conversion to a warship in February 1941.

The cutter received a new skipper three months after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Lieutenant Commander Carl Peterson moved up from first officer and was ordered to take the ship into saltwater. From its base in Boston, the Escanaba headed out in the North Atlantic for what was called "weather patrol" along Greenland's coastline. The crew would later be assigned to convoy escort, guarding freighters and troop ships traveling to the new Bluie bases.

The First U-Boat Is Sighted

On June 15, 1942, the Escanaba detected a U-boat with its sonar equipment. Eight depth charges were dropped on the target, and crew members saw a German submarine rise to the surface and turn over. The men of the Escanaba turned the ship around for another run and noticed air bubbles rising up to the surface. They then dropped six more explosives and all contact stopped. It was assumed the sub was destroyed.

Contact was made with another submarine several hours later, causing the cutter to drop 13 more depth charges until oil and debris rose to the surface. Nazi records never recorded either loss, and U.S. Navy records did not include the sinkings in its official 1946 tally.



Later that night, the crew of the Escanaba witnessed flares from the passenger ship Cherokee. A German torpedo had crippled that transport, sending 173 men into the water. The Escanaba's commander dispatched its lifeboat; 11 survivors climbed aboard. An equal number was picked up by the cutter's crew, using everything from bowlines to fire hoses in the rescue.

The executive officer, Lieutenant Robert Prause, noted that the extremely cold water kept the survivors from helping themselves in rescue. Prause was aware of full-body rubber suits--normally issued to aviators in case of coldwater ditching--and he started working on ways to use them in the rescue of shipwrecked sailors. This "retriever method" would be put into practice later during the Escanaba's service in the North Atlantic.

The Sinking of the Dorchester

Early on February 3, 1943, the Escanaba was underway as one of three cutters assigned to escort the troop ship Dorchester and the freighters Lutz and Biscaya from Newfoundland to Greenland. The passengers on the Dorchester had already suffered a horrible ride from New York. "It was terrible," Army Air Corps Administrator Ben Epstein remembers. "The weather was the worst on record, and the ship was too old--it didn't belong on the North Atlantic." Epstein also noted that the captain of the Dorchester knew they were in danger of U-boat attack. "The night before, [the skipper] spoke through the audio system. 'We are 90 miles to Greenland,' he said. 'If we make it through the night, air support from Greenland will escort us in. Sleep in all clothing. Life preservers, shoes, wear it. And ... good luck.'"


At one in the morning, an explosion woke the Dorchester's sailors. The lights went out as water rushed into the engine room and doused the generators. Epstein felt his way through the darkness to his assigned lifeboat, but it had already been launched as men panicked to get away from the listing ship. He shimmied down a steel line, then was thrown into the freezing water when the boat overturned. Another lifeboat came alongside and a crewman grabbed Epstein and pulled him to safety.

The crew on board the cutter Comanche saw the flash, but orders kept them from rushing in to the rescue. In the book "No Greater Glory," author Dan Kurzman writes that convoy commander Captain Joseph Greenspun ordered a search for the attacking submarine rather than an immediate rescue of the survivors. The Escanaba was finally sent in some 40 minutes after the torpedo exploded. More than 900 crew and passengers went into the North Atlantic that early morning, and only 230 would survive. Epstein recalls: "I saw the last lurch of the Dorchester into the ocean. It looked like a Christmas tree. Every life jacket had a red light attached. Each represented a soldier going down with the ship. It's something that will live with me forever."

One hundred and thirty-three survivors would be brought aboard the Escanaba that morning, many of them rescued by Prause's rubber-suited retrievers. Still frozen from his ordeal in the water, Epstein would require assistance to climb aboard. He was put on a table and given a shot of whiskey by the ship's surgeon, Dr. Ralph Nix. "Five crewmen [worked] on my body. [Nix] told them to rub, don't you dare stop. Finally I felt some tingling and he bent down and hugged me. It brought tears to my eyes."

A Wedding While in Dry Dock

There was no fanfare when the Escanaba returned to Bluie West One with the survivors. Crewman Melvin Baldwin said that many of the survivors were stacked on top of each other to make room on the cutter. Baldwin was a well-seasoned boatswain's mate who had joined the ship when it was in Grand Haven. A month after the Dorchester rescue, it was announced the Escanaba would return to Boston for dry-dock repairs. Baldwin and several crewmen planned for a mass wedding when they got ashore. His fiancee caught a train from Minnesota and the couple was married on March 10.

The honeymoon was short-lived as the Escanaba returned to convoy duty within a week, bound for Argentia, Newfoundland. Joining the cutter was Seaman Raymond O'Malley, who had missed his ship in Boston and reported aboard the Escanaba as helmsman.

On June 10, 1943, the cutter set sail on what would be her final voyage. Assigned to convoy G.S. 24, they joined three other Coast Guard ships in escorting the transport Fairfax from Bluie West One to St. John's, Newfoundland. Most convoys were kept secret, but the Fairfax's trip seemed to be world news. Nazi broadcasts revealed the ship's location and Germany's intent to sink it. Dorchester survivor Ben Epstein remembers listening to Berlin-based broadcasts (soldiers felt they played better music than Allied stations) while he worked on the airbase. "We were [building] the airport in Greenland, and Lord Haw Haw [propagandist William Joyce] would say, 'You're doing a fine job. Finish it and we'll come and take it.'"

O'Malley said the threat was taken seriously, especially after an Army plane spotted a submarine in Brede Fjord: "Orders came out for all ships to form an arc all around the Fairfax, sonar going, you know."

An Explosive Morning

Thick ice pushed the convoy to the northwest, and by June 13 the group was outside of Ivigtuk. O'Malley was called to the bridge for duty, and he remembers the Arctic sun shone bright when he took the helm at 5 a.m. He soon felt an explosion that sent him to the ceiling. Ordered to the gun outside, the wheelhouse door fell off when he pushed it open. The next thing he knew, he was in the 33-degree water with another crewman. "There was this guy next to me in a lifejacket and he said 'Help me,' so I grabbed the collar of his lifejacket and swam to the strong-back [a large pole used to secure the lifeboat]. I pulled the jacket up and there was no one in it."


Mel Baldwin was knocked out of his bunk by the explosion. He struggled to the main deck past several dead crewmen: "I noticed both the lifeboats were gone and the rafts were torn up, and the ship all the way aft was just in splinters." Baldwin told investigators that he was directed by the commanding officer to swim for a floating strong-back. Four others joined him, including O'Malley. Baldwin then passed out, but was saved from drowning because he froze to the floating pole.

In a strange twist of fate, another Defoe-built ship--the Raritan--pulled the survivors from the water. According to that ship's logbook, O'Malley and Baldwin were in the water for 50 minutes before being rescued. Executive Officer Robert Prause was picked up at 6:20 a.m., and crewmen worked for hours to revive him before declaring him dead at 10:30. Prause was buried at sea the next day.

Historians disagree over the source of the explosion, noting that Nazi records never took credit for the cutter's demise. One researcher believed it could have been a flee-floating Allied mine, but Ray O'Malley discounts this: "How could a mine split a ship right in two? A mine would put a hole in it. But the Escanaba broke right in two. I don't believe it was a mine. It was a torpedo."

Post-War for the Survivors

After they recovered from the Escanaba's sinking, the two survivors were ordered back to the states to help with the war bond drive and toured extensively around the Midwest. Baldwin was then stationed on the cutter Tahoma in Grand Haven and later joined the Air Force as a technical sergeant in air/sea rescue operations.

After the war, O'Malley had a long career with the Chicago Police Department, retiring as assistant deputy superintendent. In August 1943, he joined more than 20,000 people in Grand Haven as they honored the 101 men lost on the Escanaba. That memorial continues today.

"Merit the highest opinion of the public" is what the Escanaba's first commander asked of his crew. History records that they did that to the last man.


When more than 12,000 air rescues were carried out by the U.S. Coast Guard during Hurricane Katrina, few thought much beyond the bravery of the rescue crews. Wet-suited heroes like these are based at air stations all around the country, but the first rescue swimmers jumped from the deck of the Michigan-built Escanaba during World War II.

After watching shipwrecked sailors who were too cold to pull themselves to safety following the sinking of the troop ship Cherokee-an event that only 22 people survived--the Escanaba's Lieutenant Robert Prause was galvanized into action. Back at the base, he developed a team of tethered rescue swimmers--then called "retrievers'--equipped with rubber exposure suits normally issued to aviators that flew over expanses of cold water. The team became proficient in operating in the suits and in working from the Escanaba's rolling deck under the blackout conditions required during combat operations.

On February 3, 1943, a German U-boat torpedoed the troop ship Dorchester, sinking the transport within 20 minutes. But Prause's team was ready to assist, donning their special exposure suits and preparing to put their training to use.

The retrievers swam out to the Dorchester's men to determine whether they were still alive, and the Escanaba's deck crew hauled in those who had survived. Prause supervised this eight-hour evolution in less than ideal conditions. By the end, the crews on and off the ship combined to save 133 lives: more than six times the number rescued from the Cherokee.

Diver and documentarian Ric Mixter has interviewed dozens of shipwreck survivors for programs on PBS. For his work in highlighting the underwater resources of the Great Lakes, Mixter received the 2009 Award for Historic Interpretation from the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History.
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Title Annotation:Coast Guard Cutter
Author:Mixter, Ric
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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