The Long Blue Line: Hemingway’s historic rescues in the Pacific Northwest

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area historian

A photo of the cutter Snohomish, which was built as a sea-going tug to assist vessels in distress along the Pacific Northwest Coast. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A photo of the cutter Snohomish, which was built as a sea-going tug to assist vessels in distress along the Pacific Northwest Coast. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Henry George Hemingway served one of the most interesting and distinguished careers of any officer of his era. In January of 1911, this native son of Washington, D.C., graduated from the United States Revenue Cutter School located at Fort Trumbull in New London, Connecticut. Hemingway saw service as a line officer on several revenue cutters, including the Rush of Bering Sea Patrol fame; and the McColloch, which had distinguished herself in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898.

Hemingway witnessed some of the service’s earliest organizational changes, including the 1915 consolidation of his own U.S. Revenue Cutter Service with the U.S. Life Saving Service to form the modern United States Coast Guard. He was serving on board the cutter Morrill on April 6th, 1917, when the U.S. Navy broadcast, “Plan One, acknowledge,” thereby transferring all Coast Guard units and personnel from the Treasury Department to a war footing under the Navy.

On the same day Hemingway began serving under the Navy, Canada suffered one of the worst disaster in its history. The fully loaded munitions ship Mont Blanc exploded in Halifax, killing 1,600 people and wounding many more. Hemingway led the cutter Morrill’s rescue party on shore to render emergency assistance. His party proved to be one of the first responders to the disaster and, for his efforts, he received a commendation for meritorious service from Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels.

Not long after his rescue work in Nova Scotia, Hemingway served in the Navy’s New York Division under Coast Guard Capt. Godfrey Carden, the famous captain of the port for New York during World War I. Despite their difference in rank, it was not long before these two strong-minded officers clashed over Hemingway’s work habits and behavior. Their dispute required the intercession of the service’s commandant, Ellsworth Bertholf, and likely resulted in Hemingway’s early transfer to a new assignment.

Photograph of the cruiser USS San Diego, which was torpedoed and sunk in World War I. U.S. Navy photo.

Photograph of the cruiser USS San Diego, which was torpedoed and sunk in World War I. U.S. Navy photo.

In May 1918, Hemingway received orders to serve as a gunnery officer on board the armored cruiser USS San Diego, then serving as convoy escort on the East Coast. On July 19, 1918, the German submarine U-156 torpedoed the San Diego off of Long Island resulting in the largest U.S. warship loss of World War I. Hemingway survived the sinking and served the rest of the war as executive officer aboard cutter Tuscarora, homeported in Key West. For his war service, the Navy awarded him the World War I Victory Medal with Escort Clasp and two stars; however, a medal he received a few years later would set him apart from his peers.

In early 1922, after a tour of three years on board Tuscarora, Hemingway packed his belongings and headed west for a new assignment in Port Angeles, Washington. He began serving on cutter Snohomish, a 152-foot seagoing tug designed to save lives and disabled ships in the dangerous waters of the Pacific Northwest. Hemingway saw three year’s service aboard the cutter, but with Snohomish he would experience more action than many officers do in an entire career.

Hemingway’s greatest challenge came on February 14, 1923, during a fierce storm that brought fog, rain, snow, heavy seas and hurricane force winds.

In the early evening, he steered Snohomish out of Port Angeles to render assistance to the steamer Coolcha, which had stranded near Vancouver Island. Meanwhile, the lumber steamer Nika transmitted an SOS after the freighter’s rudder broke and disabled her. The Canadian salvage steamer Algerine volunteered to assist the crew of the Coolcha, so Hemingway altered course for the Nika and steamed through the storm to reach her early the following day.

Capt. Henry Hemingway later in his career Photo courtesy of the Hemingway family.

Capt. Henry Hemingway later in his career Photo courtesy of the Hemingway family.

At 3 a.m., he arrived to find the 2,500-ton Nika out of control in heavy seas and gale force winds. To make matters worse, the vessel caught fire not long after the cutter’s arrival and desperate crewmembers launched a lifeboat to save themselves.

Hemingway assessed the situation and maneuvered the Snohomish to within 20 feet to pass a three-inch line to the vessel. After securing the line, the Snohomish’s crew used a ring buoy slid along the line stretched between the vessels to rescue the fourteen remaining crewmembers. After saving the crew from the burning vessel, Snohomish located the drifting lifeboat and rescued the rest of the vessel’s 33 crewmembers.

That day proved a day of days and Snohomish’s humanitarian mission was far from over. In addition to grounding the Coolcha and Nika, the storm blew ashore two more vessels. Before Snohomish could deliver Nika’s survivors to dry land, Hemingway had to alter course to rescue the crews of grounded steamers Tuscan Prince and Santa Rita. By the end of the day, Snohomish had gathered on board 105 wreck victims without the loss of a single life. At the time, these efforts resulted in the highest number of individuals saved by a single cutter since the founding of the Coast Guard in 1790.

Considered by local reports as “an act of bravery and daring seamanship,” the Nika case demonstrated Hemingway’s skill as a mariner, captain and leader.

After assessing the vessel’s chaotic rescue environment, he prioritized his operational goals and set his shipmates to carry them out. The engineering crew responded immediately to all signals from the bridge and the deck gang improvised the effective ring buoy system under very dangerous conditions. After returning safely to Port Angeles, Nika’s captain told reporters that he had never seen a ship handled as well as Snohomish, nor had he seen a crew work as a team as efficiently as the cutter’s. After the Nika rescue, Hemingway received a great deal of praise from the local community, and, in 1928, the he was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal, a distinction enjoyed by few cutter captains.

Hemingway served 20 additional years after his time in Port Angeles and retired as a captain in 1944. During his 33-year career, Hemingway had commanded cutters in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. He served in World War I and commanded Coast Guard destroyers during the Rum War. He also commanded the famous Secretary-Class cutter Ingham in her maiden voyage from Philadelphia to Port Angeles, Washington, and he served in World War II, overseeing the Potomac River Naval Command.

Through it all, he distinguished himself as a great leader, skilled cutterman and a member of the long blue line.

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