Dangerous Duty in the North Atlantic

By Michael G. Walling

On 5 September, as Bibb and Campbell raced toward their rendezvous, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had declared a Neutrality Zone along the East Coast of the United States. Initially it was a 300-mile-wide strip of ocean bounded on the north by Canadian territorial waters then running south through the Caribbean. The U.S. Navy was to patrol this expanse to report on belligerent activity and prevent British, French, and German warships from attacking merchant ships within the zone's boundaries. The Navy, however, did not have enough ships to watch the vast area effectively and immediately asked for Coast Guard assistance.

The Coast Guard assigned numerous vessels, including six of the seven Secretary - (or Treasury -) class cutters—the Bibb , Campbell , Duane (WPG-33), Alexander Hamilton (WPG-34), Ingham (WPG-35), and Spencer (WPG-36)—to the force. (The seventh, the Taney [WPG-37], would spend most of World War II in the Pacific.) Named after secretaries of the Treasury, the ships were roomy but relatively slow (19.5 knots maximum speed). After the Coast Guard commissioned them in 1936 and '37, one of their main prewar roles had been high-seas search and rescue, and at one time each housed a floatplane in a main-deck hangar.

Beginning in the fall of 1939, the large white-hulled cutters were assigned the outer limits of the Neutrality Zone. As well as other tasks, most of the ships served on weather station patrols, monitoring conditions in specific areas of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, medium-size Coast Guard cutters and U.S. Navy destroyers covered waters closer inshore. To prevent anyone mistaking their identity at night, the cutters steamed with all lights on and each flew a large American flag illuminated by a spotlight.

In 1941, as U-boat attacks on British and Canadian convoys in the central Atlantic increased, the United States was drawn into a more active role in the conflict. Early that summer, President Roosevelt agreed to protect Iceland, and U.S. Marines replaced a British occupying force on the island. Several months later, the President also ordered the U.S. Navy to help escort Allied convoys.

Faced with a shortage of escort ships, the Navy requested on 31 October that all Coast Guard cutters be transferred to its control. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau argued that turning over just the ships would result in logistical and administrative chaos. Consequently, later that day, Roosevelt signed an order transferring the entire Coast Guard to the Navy. With that change came the order to paint the gleaming white cutter hulls regulation Navy haze gray. In addition, the Coast Guard ships' commissioning pennants were replaced with the Navy flags. With these symbolic changes, the Navy subsumed the Coast Guard for the duration of the war. Less than six weeks after the transfer, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States formally entered World War II.

"327s" Become Escorts 

The Alexander Hamilton was one of the first cutters actively engaged in convoy escort duty. Following a tumultuous eastbound Atlantic crossing as part of the escort group for Convoy HX-170, she was detached to take in tow the Navy storeship Yukon (AF-9), which was disabled 600 miles southeast of Iceland. For six days the ships battled heavy seas. As they neared Reykjavik on 29 January 1942, the Hamilton turned the tow over to a British tug. Shortly thereafter, at 1313, a torpedo fired by U-132 ripped into the cutter's starboard side, exploding between the boiler and engine rooms and rupturing steam pipes. Twenty of the 21 men in those spaces were instantly killed. The next day the Alexander Hamilton capsized and was sunk by destroyer gunfire, the only Secretary -class cutter lost during the war.

By February, organization of the ocean escorts had been formalized into American, British, and Canadian groups. The Royal Navy primarily covered the western approaches to England, the U.S. Navy protected the mid-Atlantic from its bases in Newfoundland and Iceland, while the Royal Canadian Navy protected the convoys as they departed or arrived off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

Also in early 1942, Secretary cutters began running a convoy shuttle as part of U.S. Navy Task Force 24. Based at Hvalfjordur, Iceland, the Bibb , Duane , and Ingham covered small convoys out from Reykjavik that were joining westbound ON convoys. The cutters would then usually escort fully loaded ships from either an SC or HX convoy back to Iceland.

The Campbell and Spencer , meanwhile, worked out of Argentia, Newfoundland. They would pick up an eastbound convoy from a Canadian escort group, protect it through storms and U-boats, and then turn it over to a British escort group off Ireland. The American ships then headed to Londonderry, Northern Ireland, for supplies, training, and, hopefully, liberty. From there, they picked up an outbound convoy and battered their way west to Newfoundland.

By the autumn of 1942, the main U-boat menace had moved from the U.S. East Coast back to the North Atlantic. Allied long-range shore-based aircraft extended their patrols as far as 600 miles, but there remained a significant gap in their coverage. This area—known as the Devil's Gorge, the Black Hole, or Torpedo Junction—was a prime hunting ground for U-boats. By December, at least six convoys were simultaneously in the North Atlantic, and the available escort ships were not enough to stop the U-boats' slaughter.

The Ingham Records a Kill

On 17 December, the Ingham was on the western edge of the air gap, sweeping ahead of eastbound Convoy SC-112. Two days earlier, while helping escort eight ships from Iceland to a rendezvous with westbound ONS-152, the cutter had dropped a single 600-pound depth charge on a sound contact. On the night of the 17th, the Ingham 's sonar was turned off and her sonarman, Mike Sasso, was listening for screw noise with the hydrophones. The ship's CO, Commander George McCabe, knew from hard experience that the sonar's pinging could be heard by a U-boat beyond the range an escort could detect the sub.

Suddenly, at 2315, Sasso heard the screw beats of a U-boat only 1,200 yards ahead. "The contact was fast; there was a lot of motion, a lot of movement," he recalled. As the cutter neared the target, however, Sasso lost the contact. The officer of the deck, Lieutenant Ed Osborne nevertheless ordered a depth charge dropped. "It was a shallow charge, and as that thing exploded, the ship quivered, really quivered," Sasso said. Two more depth charges were quickly dropped, and at full speed the Ingham turned and headed back to make another attack.

With the active sonar switch on, Sasso again picked up the U-boat: "It was beautiful, a metallic sound, real clear." But suddenly, there was no movement from the boat, and the Ingham passed over her without dropping any charges. But on her third pass, the cutter again attacked, dropping 5,000 pounds worth of explosives. A subsequent sonar sweep failed to find a contact, and with the convoy approaching the area, McCabe broke off the search.

While Commander McCabe was certain he had sunk a U-boat, the Navy was not convinced. But after a postwar examination of German records, the Navy and British Admiralty credited the Ingham's single 15 December depth charge with sinking U-626. The Coast Guard, however, maintains that the cutter's attacks two days later destroyed the same U-boat.

The Campbell's Night Encounter

The winter of 1942-43 would be the Battle of the Atlantic's most bitterly fought season. The mid-ocean U.S. escort groups were built around either the Campbell or Spencer , supported by a few U.S. Navy destroyers and corvettes from the Canadian, Free Polish, and/or Free French navies. The Bibb , Duane , and Ingham were also still operating from Iceland.

On 21 February, the Campbell was on her way to rejoin Convoy ON-166 after rescuing 50 survivors of the torpedoed Norwegian freighter Nielson Alonso . At 1955 her radar picked up the convoy about 16,000 yards ahead. Fifteen minutes later, however, the radarman reported a contact at only 4,600 yards on a bearing well clear of the convoy. It soon became clear that it was traveling in the opposite direction of the convoy. Commander James A. Hirschfield, the cutter's skipper, believed the target might be a submarine that had run between ON-166's columns of merchant ships, firing torpedoes at the vessels, and was now making her escape on the surface. In fact, U-606 had torpedoed three of the convoy's ships, but the Polish destroyer Berza counterattacked with depth charges, driving her down to dangerous depths, more than 750 feet, and causing extensive external and internal damage. Shortly after the U-boat surfaced, the Campbell 's radar found her.

The night was overcast with the seas running six to eight feet as the Campbell went to general quarters. By the time her gun crews saw U-606 to starboard, the submarine was so close the 5-inch guns could not be depressed enough to fire at her. The ship's 20-mm guns and aft starboard 3-incher, however, took her in their sights and opened up. Full right rudder was ordered, and the cutter closed to ram the submarine. Instead, she struck a glancing blow and the U-boat's hydroplane opened a large gash in the Campbell 's hull. As U-606 cleared her stern, the cutter dropped two depth charges set at 50 feet. Their detonations practically lifted the U-boat out of the water and badly shook the cutter, which was rapidly losing speed.

While the vessels drifted clear of each other, the Campbell 's 20-mm and 3-inch guns raked the U-boat's conning tower and deck. The gunfire continued for about 10 minutes until a German sailor flashed a distress signal. Twelve members of the U-boat's 47-man crew were rescued by the Campbell and Burza . At 0420 the next day, the wrecked and scuttled U-606 disappeared beneath the waves. The disabled cutter, meanwhile, was towed to Newfoundland for repairs.

The Spencer's Lopsided Fight

The last significant encounter between U-boats and 327s took place on 17 April, as the Spencer and Duane were escorting Convoy HX-233. Just before 1100, one of the Spencer 's sonarmen detected a U-boat attempting to slip past the convoy's escort screen. Commander Harold S. Berdine, the cutter's commanding officer, ordered a barrage of 11 depth charges set to explode at only 50 to 100 feet. U-175 was 65 feet deep when the explosions cracked and twisted her pressure hull. The boat began an uncontrolled dive, and when her skipper, Lieutenant Heinrich Bruns, and crew were able to bring her under control, another barrage of Spencer depth charges caused further damage. Battery containers were smashed, releasing toxic chlorine gas, and two of the bow torpedoes began hot runs but could not be fired because of the sub's depth. Without waiting for Bruns' order, the U-boat's engineer gave the command to surface.

At 1138, U-175 popped up 2,500 yards from the Spencer , and the cutter's gunners opened fire. Lieutenant Bruns was one of the first killed as the U-boat crew began climbing out of the sub and attempted to abandon ship. None of the Germans hoisted a white flag, and the one-sided close-range battle continued. Earl Skinner, a crewman in the Spencer, observed a 5-inch shell hit the conning tower of the surfaced U-boat as survivors jumped into the water. "The periscope had probably been knocked off," he recalled. "The tower was a mass of twisted steel."

The Duane soon joined in, firing all her gun batteries. Simultaneously, Armed Guard gunners on merchant vessels in the rear columns of the convoy also opened fire. A member of the Duane 's crew, Victor Bogard, remembered that "Whenever a shell exploded on the German submarine, many crew members would shout and cheer. . . . When thinking about it at a later date, you wonder how a human can cheer at the sight of another person being killed. But the rules of warfare are: Kill or be killed."

After seven minutes, the ships ceased firing and a Coast Guard boarding party from the Spencer headed for the smoking U-boat. By the time it reached the submarine, she was quickly sinking and boarding her was too dangerous. Instead, the party began picking up German survivors. Along with the Duane , the Spencer rescued 41 of U-175 's 54-man crew.

In April, the British and Canadians assumed full responsibility for escorting the North Atlantic convoys, while the U.S. Navy took control of the transatlantic route between the United States and the Mediterranean. Also at this time, long-awaited American destroyer escorts (DEs) and patrol frigates (PFs) appeared in significant numbers, augmenting or replacing older cutters and destroyers. The Coast Guard would man 30 DEs, organized in five escort divisions, and 74 PFs, primarily assigned to weather-station duty.

The valuable wartime contributions of the Bibb , Campbell , Duane , Ingham , and Spencer , however, did not end when they were relieved of North Atlantic convoy duty. The 327s were later converted to amphibious-force flagships and served in the Pacific theater. After the war, the ships reverted to Coast Guard control and were reconfigured as peacetime cutters.

 


Sources:

Arnold Hague, The Allied Convoy System 1939-1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000).

Reg Ingraham, First Fleet (Cornwall, NY: Bobbs-Merill Company, 1944).

Arch A. Mercey and Lee Grove, eds., Sea, Surf and Hell (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1946).

Jurgen Rohwer and Gerhard Hummelchen, The Chronology of the War at Sea, 1939-1945 , rev. ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992).

Robert L. Scheina, U.S. Coast Guard Cutters & Craft of World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982).

U.S. Coast Guard Public Information Division, The Coast Guard at War: Transports and Escorts V, Vol. 1 (Washington, DC, 1949).

Dan Van der Vat, The Atlantic Campaign (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

CAPT John M. Waters, USCG (Ret.), Bloody Winter , rev. ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987).

Ships' logs, war diaries, and after-action reports for the Coast Guard cutters: USS Bibb , Campbell , Duane , Alexander Hamilton , Ingham , and Spencer ; National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereinafter cited as NARA).

Commander-in-Chief, U.S.; Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic; and Eastern Sea Frontier Operations logs, message logs, and after-action reports; NARA.

Mr. Walling served as a commissioned and a senior petty officer in the Coast Guard and is the author of Bloodstained Sea: The U.S. Coast Guard in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1941-1944 (New York: International Marine/McGraw-Hill, 2004).

The Campbell's Saltiest Dog

Sinbad was 24 pounds of attitude who never failed to bring a smile to Coast Guardsmen—or bar patrons. The dog had been smuggled aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Campbell late one night in 1937, when he was six weeks old. Before Sinbad was caught, the ship sailed into the North Atlantic on international ice patrol. Ten years, one war, and thousands of sea miles later, he would leave the Campbell for the last time as the Coast Guard's most famous mascot.
Sinbad was well known for carousing while on shore leave, and he was a popular patron in bars and saloons from the New York docks to Boston's Sculley Square (he favored boilermakers). In fact, his shipmates' only complaint was that he never paid for his drinks.
During one memorable shore leave in Greenland, he headed for the hills, where he encountered sheep for the first time and had great fun chasing and scattering their flocks. After several days of the entertainment, a number of sheep had died from exhaustion, others were too nervous to eat, and local residents were demanding that the Campbell's captain hand over the dog so that they could ensure he paid the ultimate penalty for his crime. Instead, the skipper held a captain's mast, where Sinbad was found guilty of "conduct unbecoming a member of the Campbell crew." Though his life was spared, Sinbad was forever banned from going ashore in Greenland.
During his checkered career, Sinbad was the subject of magazine and newspaper articles, was featured in a War Bonds advertisement, had a book written about his exploits, and appeared in a short feature film. More important, he provided a touch of humor and sanity in an often bloody and insane world. Hundreds of men served with Sinbad and each carries fond memories of him. Not just a member of the crew, Sinbad was the heart and soul of the Campbell.

—Michael G. Walling
 


 

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

Defense Forum Washington 2014

Thu, 2014-12-04

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

Defense Forum Washington will take place December 4, 2014 at the Newseum - Knight Conference Center in Washington, DC.

2015 WEST Conference

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership