History: Remembering the Cuyahoga

CGC Cuyahoga ready to depart from the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay, M.D., Feb. 11, 1945. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga ready to depart from the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay, Md., Feb. 11, 1945. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The profession that is the Coast Guard is an inherently dangerous one. Through this understanding, the Service continuously makes every effort to ensure the safety of its members. Every loss of a shipmate is felt and resonated throughout the Service. It’s during these tragic moments that the service reflects on the things that could have gone differently, implementing lessons that are learned so that future misfortunes of the same nature can be avoided.

As we approach the national day of recognition for America’s veterans, the Coast Guard honors those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice.

Thirty-three years ago today, 11 shipmates made that sacrifice aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga after a collision between the cutter and the freighter Santa Cruz II at the entrance to the Potomac River. The following is a firsthand account of that tragic night from one of the survivors off the Cuyahoga, retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Gordon Thomas IV:

The CGC Cuyahoga in 1974, four years before its sinking. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The CGC Cuyahoga in 1974, four years before its sinking. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Oct. 20, 1978, was a beautiful autumn day on the Chesapeake Bay. Clear, cool and perfect for getting underway for my first time on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. I was six weeks into Officer Candidate School at Training Center Yorktown, Virginia. The cutter we were sailing on was the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga and was at the time the oldest active commissioned ship in the Navy or Coast Guard. At 125-feet long, the old “buck and a quarter” had quite a storied past from interdicting rum runners during Prohibition, to presidential yacht escort duty, to hunting submarines in the Caribbean during World War II. The purpose of sailing on the Cuyahoga was to teach us the practical side of manning watches and running a ship.

As we got underway at 3 p.m., I didn’t have much to do but wander around and get familiar with the ship. I was summoned to the bridge to [standby for] the bearing taker on the bridge-wing so he could eat dinner. I was shooting bearings to objects on the shore to fix the position of the ship to safely navigate up the Bay. Between fixes I was told to roll up the forward bridge windows as it was getting chilly. Little did I know, this order would save my life in a few hours.

Later, it was my turn to go on watch and my first position was radar operator. The radar scope was on the bridge of the ship, which was made up of three compartments. The pilothouse forward where the entrance was. This is where the captain ran the ship. The next compartment behind it, separated by a black-out curtain, a heavy piece of black vinyl to minimize light passage, was the radar and chart room. This is where I reported for duty.

A wreath is placed alongside the CGC Cuyahoga memorial on the 33-year anniversary. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A wreath is placed alongside the CGC Cuyahoga memorial on the 33-year anniversary of its sinking. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

I spent an hour at this position, and at 8:45 p.m. it came time to rotate to my next watch position as the navigation recorder. This position was still on the bridge but in the compartment behind where I currently was.

At 9:06 p.m. the ship began to shake and shutter violently. I had no idea what was going on. The shaking stopped and suddenly the deck rose up under my feet. There was a huge crashing sound of metal on metal like a hundred car wrecks all at once. I started to slide to the other side of the compartment 20-feet away but grabbed the exposed piping on the wall. Then the lights went out and it was pitch dark.

I had no idea what was going on but knew it wasn’t good. That’s when I smelled water. Soon I could feel it, first on my feet, then on my knees and it was rising fast. I wanted to get out of there. I knew I was three compartments away from the only door. Water was rushing in from the only exit in my current space and I presumed through the other two that I had to traverse as well, in the dark, with the ship on its side. I dove down to where I thought the door was using the current as a guide, but got tangled up in the blackout curtain. I came to the surface, got a gulp of air, and tried again with the same result.

Then it dawned on me to grab the curtain, pull myself hand over hand to the door and pull myself through to the next compartment. Voila! I was now in the chartroom. I had no way of detecting the current at the surface, so I dove down underneath the chart table in search of the next blackout curtain. God and luck were with me, and I found the curtain and pulled myself to the door and into the pilothouse. I relaxed and rose to the surface.

Salvage operations to recover the Cuyahoga following the collision and sinking. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Salvage operations to recover the Cuyahoga following the collision and sinking. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

I searched for the door and found it closed. I didn’t have the leverage to open it as it was over my head and I had nothing to stand on. I tried to swim to the other door across the compartment, but the water was pouring from it and I couldn’t buck the current. Then I recalled rolling up the windows and figured they could roll down too! I dove down, felt around and found a window crank. I turned it as many times as my lungs would allow. I went to the surface, gulped some air, and went back to the crank. I dove down and pulled myself through the window and out of the Cuyahoga.

Eleven of my 29 shipmates were not so fortunate and lost their lives. Most of them were in berthing areas or in the engine room which took the direct impact. Fifteen months later the Coast Guard lost another cutter and 23 of her 50 crew members on the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn in a collision just outside Tampa Bay. After that accident, sweeping changes were made across the fleet to minimize the potential for future accidents. They must have been effective as there hasn’t been another USCG cutter collision with loss of life since.

Memorials for the loss of the Coast Guard crewmembers are held every year in Yorktown, Tampa Bay and New London, the site of the Coast Guard Academy and the current home of OCS.

As for me, the accident didn’t deter me from my sea going career and I served aboard eight Coast Guard cutters and five Navy ships in my 23-year career. I had many adventures at sea, but that’s another story.

CGC Cuyahoga memorial plaque

A plaque honoring the shipmates lost after the collision between the cutter Cuyahoga and the vessel Santa Cruz II on the night of Oct. 20, 1978. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

 

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5 Responses

  1. X-QM3 Spanky says:

    This was my facebook status for today.
    “‎33 years ago today 11 shipmates were lost when the USCGC CUYAHOGA sank in the Chesapeake Bay after a collision with a freighter. Luckily one of my close shipmates, then QM2 Jeff Fox, was not one who perished. Jeff is one of the funniest guys I know and the USCGC DURABLE would not have been the same if he had not survived the sinking. Thinking of those Coasties who perished and the lesson of navigation (and passing the Rules of the Road exam) that is their legacy today.”
    Semper Paratus!

  2. Brad Sauers says:

    I was a QM3 on the USCGC Thetis in 1991 at the same time LCDR Thomas was the Executive Officer. He was a great man and a great officer. I still remember to this day his challenge to me to define Crepuscular Rays. Very thankful you survived this horrible experience so that you could teach me so many valuable life lessons as my XO. I never heard the story as it was told in this article.

  3. Brad Sauers says:

    I was a SNQM when I reported aboard the USCGC Thetis in 1992 and met then LCDR Thomas. What a great man! Very thankful I got to serve under you. I still remember the definition of crepuscular rays when you challenged me to define them one evening while underway in the Caribbean. What a story! Glad you made it.

  4. LT Lawrence Peters (RET) says:

    I was QM3 on the USCGCC Ingham in Portsmouth at the time this happened, I had only been married a few months and my wifes family knew I was in the Coast Guard on a ship and kept calling to find out if this was my ship or not. When the Cuyahoga was raised they brought her into Base Portsmouth, my QMC at the time sent me over to see if there was anything that could be salvaged. I rember climbing the mast to rescued some Halyard pulleys since we needed some on the “Mighty I” and hoping the mast did not fall with me up the stick. In january we took what was left of the class on OCS cruise to Charleston, SC. Some of the crew slept in life jackets, they felt those guys were bad luck. We made it home OK. Years later ran into LCDR Thomas again in Key West at JTF4 when I was a QMC, great guy to work for.

    I will always remember my fellow Coasties and the lives that were cut short.

  5. Jim Brown, LT USCG Retired says:

    I was on duty in the Third District Office while all military forces were involved in “war games”. The OOD called me as he often did to let me know that a Coast Guard Cutter was sunk. I would receive calls like this as well as actual messages with all kinds of events going on around the world, all part of the “games”. When I showed up at RCC to pick up the message, I remember telling the RCC Officer in Charge, “This looks like the real thing>” He said with a tear in his eye, “It is.” As I looked over the names of those shipmates lost, I recognized a good friend, RM1 Bruce Woods. He was accepted to the Cadet Class, a life’s goal of his and he was one of the crewman lost that fateful date. I remember it as if it were yesterday.