On graduation from USCG basic I was assigned to the Escanaba.
She was described to us as a 255 foot cutter, a gunship, coming out of the Coast Guard shipyard at Curtis Bay, Maryland.
Volunteers, sort of, were needed to crew her. They carefully concealed the fact that she was a rusty hulk mothballed for ten years! I arrived by train in Baltimore. It was about two in the morning. I was dog tired and confused.
I thought my ticket said “Curtis Bay”! I was told “Best if you just take a cab”. I lugged my seabag to the curb and asked a cabby, “How much to Curtis Bay”? I mentioned that I only had five bucks left.
He said, “Not to worry, get in”. Away we went with the meter off. He dropped me at the gate and told me to just give him the fiver I had. What a nice guy! That night, I told the story of the helpful cabby who only charged me five bucks. The first comment, ahead of the laughter, was, “You idiot, it’s only $2.00 for that ride”! Thus continued the learning experience of this small town boy who was a lot more comfortable in the swamp than in any city. We spent several months chipping rust, painting and cleaning the ship to make her seaworthy.
This ship was actually the second Escanaba.
The first one was sunk in WW2. The second Escanaba was to be 355 feet in length. WW2 ended and according to rumor, they took the blueprints, cut them up and built a ship 255 feet long, sailed her from the west coast to Maryland and mothballed her. Your tax dollars at work!
We started for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge several times only to find we could not stop. GE engineers could not get her to go in reverse. We had to drop anchor and call a tug to get us back to Curtis Bay. We eventually made it under the bridge with Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as our destination for underway training with aerial, surface and submarine targets. We had WW2 armament that needed removal and old ammunition to be disposed of.
It was 1957. Fidel Castro was trying to overthrow the Cuban government. While anchored in Gitmo Harbor we watched very old single engine fighter planes dropping jelly bombs on Castro’s troops in the jungle. We know how that turned out.
As sort of a member of the original crew, I can talk about my old ship with some degree of impunity. Many of my fondest memories are of mishaps due to learning curves for a largely green crew.
There were four “K” guns located amidships.
They were scheduled for removal but the ammo had to be used up first.
Their purpose was to attack submarines with depth charges. Archaic things that looked like pot-bellied stoves with an oil drum sitting on top which was actually a 300 Lb TNT depth charge.
One opened the metal door and inserted a huge canister of powder. The charge was fired by pulling on a metal lanyard about twenty feet long.
The Captain gave instructions over the intercom. The depth charges were set for fifty feet so the crew could observe each explosion. The firing order would be one charge at a time giving the ship time to move out of harm’s way.
Our best speed was about 13 knots if aided by a following sea. The Escanaba at 255 feet in length and 55 feet wide at the beam was like a great white whale! Moving out of the way of anything was a challenge!
General quarters was sounded for battle stations. The command to fire nr. one was given. All four depth charges went over the side! Twelve hundred pounds of TNT exploded at fifty feet depth. The blast threw me up in the air about two or three feet. It knocked a plate loose on the hull.
We started taking on water.
The damage control guys were hustling to get the pumps going to prevent flooding and it was off to Gitmo for repairs. The deck crew though it was the funniest thing ever. The captain however, had no sense of humor! Thus the first day of training ended. In all fairness to the old girl, after I left the Escanaba she served about nine more years in the North Atlantic, providing a great service to our country. She is credited with saving the lives of literally hundreds of people. Most of them from one sinking ship but many came from singular efforts to provide aid or evacuation for individuals on cargo vessels, trawlers, pleasure boats, etc.
More to follow.
Roy Hubbard is a retired Green Beret and longtime local fly in the ointment.