When 19-year-old Charlie Stamey joined the Navy in the fall of 1941, he did not envision himself chasing U-boats through the Gulf of Mexico in a borrowed 50-foot yacht. Though armed with four depth charges and a World War I-era machine gun, the Coast Guard Auxiliary vessel Gray Mist (CG-46034) stood little chance of damaging an enemy submarine. “It would have been like attacking a battleship in a rowboat," Stamey admitted. “They weren’t going to waste a torpedo on that little old thing; they’d take the deck gun and target practice on you, most likely.” Stamey and the other members of the six-man crew, however, completed their mission while surviving vicious Gulf storms, frequent boredom, and one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the Texas coast.
A few months after he joined the Navy, Stamey took a medical exam that showed that he was missing one kidney and, to his intense disappointment, was discharged. When he discovered that the Coast Guard offered a way to fight the enemy, the young would-be Sailor jumped at the chance, as did many others. “I became aware of this Coast Guard Auxiliary from an advertisement in the Houston Post in the fall of 1941,” said Charlie, “so I called them, gave them a short background, and they said, ‘Hey, man, come on down.’” With no age limits, physical requirements, or experience necessary, joining was a breeze. “Man, I couldn’t believe it, but if you were alive and breathing, you were in.”
U-boats had entered the Gulf of Mexico in late April 1942, the first being Korvettenkapitän Harro Schacht’s U-507, which torpedoed and sank the freighter Norlindo while Galvestonians, oblivious to the war, were celebrating “Splash Day” on 4 May.1 In January, the first five U-boats hit shipping along the East Coast with devastating results, and additional subs arrived to cut off the great quantity of petroleum products flowing from Texas ports. Ten more underwater predators followed Schacht in May and June. During their patrols in the warm southern waters, the U-boat crews destroyed 21 ships and damaged 6 others, principally vessels plying between Galveston and New Orleans; the submarines had their greatest successes in the deep waters near the Mississippi River Delta. With no one deterring them, the U-boats worked on the surface and easily targeted tankers, which exploded into towering infernos and quickly sank. The U.S. Navy could locate the subs’ positions by detecting their radio signals with radio direction finders, but it had few ships or Sailors to combat the carnage.2
Before the assault in the Gulf, Congress had realized that the United States was pitifully under-armed and on 17 October 1940 passed the Coast Guard Auxiliary and Reserve Act. Civilians with large yachts would help the Navy patrol the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. Initially there was a misconception that ownership of a large craft could provide a way to avoid combat, and a number of wealthy men purchased expensive boats for their sons and sent them into the auxiliary.3 This myth was soon dispelled when the Navy changed the rule regarding boat ownership and made it possible for citizens to loan their vessels. Additionally, anyone who could not meet physical requirements for the regular service had a chance to sign up as a volunteer.4
The “Ship" and Crew
Assigned to the small naval section base on Pelican Island at Galveston, Charlie soon found his “ship,” the motor yacht Gray Mist, which had been loaned to the Coast Guard by James Marion “Silver Dollar Jim” West Jr., a well-known Houston oilman. The base consisted of one barracks, a dock with fuel facilities, and a weather station. Charlie and five mates lived on their vessel. “The Navy took the boat and made a subchaser out of it," he said. “They installed an antiquated .50-caliber machine gun on the bow—water-cooled. You saw this container sitting behind the gun, and you thought, ‘man, that’s got to be full of bullets.’ But no, it wasn’t. It was full of water.” Charlie explained that the gun had to be hand cranked to keep water flowing through the barrel for cooling.
The four “ash cans” on the stern, two on each side, were mounted on angle irons. “They had a brass wrench, and there was an indicator on the side of the depth charge. You could set it for whatever depth you wanted just by twisting that thing around; then you took your foot and you just kicked the ash can off the end of the boat—and hoped and prayed.” Charlie had to admit that he didn’t think they could have worked up enough speed to get away from the massive explosion, but no one worried too much about it.
The Grey Mist’s men were young, inexperienced, and ready for action. One, a farm boy, had never been on a boat in his life, and a second from Tennessee was a true mountaineer. “We had a real young kid from Louisiana,” recalled Stamey, “who was a signalman. He knew how to do the Morse code with a signal lamp, and he was about 17 or 18 years old.” One more crew member rounded out the group, their mascot, “Soogie” (Navy lingo for “mop bucket”), a stray dog that one of the men had adopted.
In the beginning, the new patrollers were given khaki uniforms that Charlie compared to those of buck privates in the Army, the only difference being that the auxiliary shirts had a Coast Guard shield on the left sleeve and a rating patch on the right. “We had campaign caps, those funny looking things that sit on top of your head. Didn’t look like a Sailor at all, and people would say, ‘Hey, what branch of the service is that for?’ If you tried to explain it, they would just laugh at you.” Later, in early 1942, the men were sworn into the regular Coast Guard and given sailor uniforms, along with military benefits. They were assigned to the U.S. Navy Eighth Naval District, headquartered in New Orleans, and ordered to patrol the Texas coast from Sabine Pass to Matagorda Bay.
“Beats the Hell Out of Me”
“Fortunately for us, we never came face-to-face with a German U-boat,” Charlie said. “The Gulf is pretty shallow 60 miles out, and it didn’t take the merchant ships very long to realize that the only way to keep away from those subs was to run real close to land. You could see them just offshore in water just deep enough that they wouldn’t hit bottom, and instead of running straight across the Gulf, they went the long way around, hugging the coast. When they got over there to New Orleans, that’s where the hell broke loose.” Throughout the Gulf, in fact, chaos reigned. But the U-boat captains preferred to operate in deep waters, so they worked around the Florida Straits and the Yucatan Channel, as well as the Mississippi Delta. If the German commanders had encountered any of the small, armed auxiliary patrol boats, they doubtless would have used them for gunnery practice.
Cruising about 50 miles offshore, the Gray Mist crew had a terrible time determining their location. Charlie’s boat had merely a compass inside a binnacle, no depth recorder or any other navigating equipment. To determine the depth, they used a lead line—a long piece of cord with a hunk of lead at one end. “You dropped it off the boat and let it go all the way, and when it hit bottom, you’d measure how deep it was.” To contact headquarters they had a ship-to-shore radio, and when asked where they were, the boat’s 55-year-old skipper would say, “Beats the hell out of me.”
Along with Gray Mist, there was originally one other vessel in the “fleet.” It resembled a shrimp boat, with high prow and a single Caterpillar diesel engine. “The boat didn’t have a name,” Charlie recalled, “and the skipper was an old salt from Galveston named Guidry, who had run power boats for the Maceos (Galveston gambling kingpins) during Prohibition, bringing in booze from offshore boats. Somehow one of the boats blew up, and he lost all the fingers on both hands, so they gave him the rank of chief bosun’s mate.” Charlie admired Guidry’s intricate knowledge of the Gulf of Mexico and considered him an expert seaman. “He could handle that boat better than anyone I’ve ever seen. He had thumbs, and he’d hook those thumbs on to the wheel and steer, and I guarantee you he knew what he was doing.” Guidry’s craft was smaller than Gray Mist and carried a crew of four.
About a year later two more sailing vessels entered the auxiliary. “The biggest one,” recalled Charlie, “was a 70-ton schooner called the Osprey. Another was the Gulfstream— smaller and fancier, like a racing boat.”
Galvestonian William Daigle explained that he was assigned to a two-masted, 96-foot schooner named Bemisa: “There was the captain, an engineer, a cook, and three seamen. We were given pictures of German U-boats, so we knew what one looked like. For three or four days at a time we would be out in the Gulf scanning the horizon with binoculars.”5
Saboteurs and “Northers”
On 1 June 1942 orders came for lights to be dimmed along the Texas and Louisiana coasts to prevent U-boat commanders from seeing ships silhouetted against the shore. Furthermore, rumors began to circulate about possible German saboteurs. Later that month, eight German infiltrators in two groups of four landed on a Florida beach and on the Long Island shore with equipment to dynamite utilities and factories. One gave himself up and turned in the others; all were quickly tried, and six were executed that August. The publicity given their discovery stirred up intense concern for coastal industries, and the coast artillery command set up foot patrols on Galveston’s West Beach. “They had guys out walking the beach with rifles and dogs to catch suspicious people,” explained Stamey.
Charlie’s yacht was given the job of patrolling the coast to Freeport to see whether the Dow Chemical Company was visible from sea, as the company had been told to keep totally blacked out. “Dow Chemical was the manufacturing facility on the coast, and Dow was converting sea water into magnesium, which was a high priority in the war effort.”
Gray Mist was to take the commander of the coast artillery and his adjutant offshore to monitor the blackout. Just after the sturdy craft picked up her two passengers in Freeport, a fierce “norther” blew in, with powerful winds and frigid temperatures. As the boat started out between the Freeport jetties, the wind was blowing hard diagonally, with waves of 15 feet. “Man, that old boat would go straight up and it’d come right down and just bury the nose,” Charlie recalled. “You couldn’t stand up or do anything, and those poor guys—to preserve their fancy uniforms and so forth, they stayed down below in the cabin, but of course, we didn’t. We rode it out on the topside. We knew better.” The colonel and his adjutant became violently seasick, rolling around inside the cabin. “They got sick as dogs and just threw up all over everything.”
There was no way to go back to Freeport until daylight, the jetties were narrowly spaced, the water extremely rough, and there was no light. “We had no choice but to ride it out in the Gulf. I guess the nice part about it was that we were never invited to go back down there and do that again.” The blackout was deemed a success, but the auxiliary boys kept an eye on Freeport anyway.
“Just Missed That Durn Barge”
While patrolling the waters off Freeport on another occasion, Gray Mist received orders to return to Galveston, as another norther was blowing in. “The weather was so horrible that we said, ‘Hey, we can’t get there [from the Gulf], so we went in the Intracoastal Canal. Everything was peachy until we got to the old Galveston railroad drawbridge.” It was night, the rain was coming down in torrents, and visibility was practically nil. Somehow they made it under the bridge, and once on the other side, “Here came a huge tug pushing a barge that looked like the Queen Mary. That thing would have run over us and never even slowed down, so I jerked the wheel to the right, gunned the engines, and just missed that durn barge.”
Charlie remembered that he pulled Gray Mist too far out of the channel. “I ran it up on an oyster shell reef. Stuck.” When waves hit the boat, there was a slight lifting, which pushed her farther onto the reef. At that point Stamey called the base, which sent out a Coast Guard boat to pull them free. “Well, what they sent out there was a small, harbor- type craft that they used to rescue people. But when we tied on and the guy gave it all he had, he couldn’t budge our big old boat.” The crew spent the night on the reef and was greeted next morning by a larger Coast Guard vessel, which succeeded in getting Gray Mist out of her predicament. “It bent the propeller on the right-hand side and caused bad vibrating, so we took it to Platzer Shipyard to have it fixed.”
The northers turned out to be minor practice storms for the auxiliary crews.
“That Damned 50-Foot Boat”
On 26 July the Navy weather station picked up a message that there was a disturbance in the Gulf, and as the weather began to rapidly deteriorate, Gray Mist was instructed to tie up at the Navy base dock. Then the Navy informed the Coast Guard crews that the disturbance had become a hurricane. Because of government regulations, no advisory went out to residents along the Texas coast, the thought being that warnings might be picked up by German subs and used to their advantage. It was an idea that backfired, 19 people were killed and 4,000 left homeless in Galveston County.6
As the wind and rain began to increase, Charlie’s crew decided they would move Gray Mist from her vulnerable position at the Navy dock in Galveston Harbor to the Galveston Yacht Club behind the John Sealy Hospital complex. “That way we’d have the hospital as a buffer between us and the Gulf of Mexico.”
“There were four of us in the boat at that time,” Charlie recalled, “two were on liberty. So man, here that thing came. The disturbance had grown into a full-blown hurricane. I have never in my life been terrified like the time I rode out that storm on that damned 50-foot boat.” As the wind screamed and whined and blinding sheets of rain battered them, the men could see nearby Platzer Shipyard blowing completely away. “While it was in the process of disintegrating, the sheet iron blew off of it, and it flew out and cut the mast off our boat. Just like a power saw. It had our ship-to-shore radio antenna on it.”
“The wind broke our windows out, and we were being pounded up against the pilings at the yacht club. The pounding broke holes in the boat hull, and we were taking on water. Fortunately, I had connected two bilge pumps to the diesel engines up front, and they worked real good if the engines were running.” Charlie let both engines go wide open throughout the hurricane, and the pumps worked as fast as possible, chugging water out of the boat. “The only thing that saved us was that those General Motors diesels had air intakes up on top, and the water rose up just to the bottom of those intakes, but it didn’t get in there. It was terrifying—the noise, the destruction all around, and the fear of dying.”
As Gray Mist surged up onto the pilings, the vessel would hang, and the crew thought, “How will we get it back down?” Then another tidal surge would rush in and lower the boat, where it rocked and thrashed endlessly. “We were the only small boat that didn’t sink at the Galveston Yacht Club,” said Stamey. “The only one. I don’t know what the wind speed was, but the wind gauge at the Navy base went up to 125 miles an hour and blew the thing off. We never did find it.”
When the storm finally ended, Charlie decided to try to make it to shore. He jumped overboard and swam toward the hospital, a short distance from the boat, and at the hospital grounds his feet finally touched bottom. Then he walked the few blocks to a boarding house where his wife was huddled with other terrified boarders.
“We had to patch up the boat, then we started patrolling again, and we patrolled for all of 1943.” During that year the German sub attacks slowed considerably, and in each month there was only one U-boat roaming the Gulf, but by now ships traveled in convoys and were harder to catch.
Charlie and his friends might not have deterred any enemy warships, but they provided the U.S. Navy with excellent intelligence simply by their presence in the Gulf. When William Daigle, one of Stamey's comrades, was asked what he would have done if his schooner had encountered a U-boat, he said simply, “We would have attacked immediately, that was our goal. I’m sure we would have done that, we would have fired depth charges. What would have happened after that, I have no idea.”7
“In retrospect,” Stamey mused, “youth had its blessings. In those days there were no safety regulations, so when you were told to do something, you just did it. Many times I’ve seen salt water freeze so thick on that boat that you wondered if it was going to sink. And I’ve experienced ‘sea legs’ so bad that you couldn’t stand up on dry land after you had been out in the Gulf for four or five days. But I’m glad I did what I had to do some 60 years go and mighty happy that I’ve lived long enough to pass along some fond remembrances.”
1. “Splash Day,” originally called the “Bathing Girl Revue,” originated in 1920 with an elaborate pageant on the beach celebrating the opening of the local swimming season. See Vertical File, “Splash Day,” Galveston, TX, Historical Center, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.
2. M. Wiggins, Torpedoes in the Gulf (College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press, 1995), £37, 238.
3. The Coast Guard at War: Auxiliary, XIX, Historical Section, Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 1 May 1948, 7.
4. Interview with Charles M. Stamey, Areola, TX, 5 February 2000.
5. Interview with William Daigle, Galveston, TX, 19 May 2002
6.National Hurricane Center, Historical Archives, Miami, FL.
7. Interview with William Daigle, Galveston, TX, 19 May 2002.