The Long Blue Line: Domenic Calicchio – Champion of marine safety regulations

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 Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian

Rear Adm. Edwin J. Roland, district commander, swears in Domenic Calicchio at First District Headquarters in Boston. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Rear Adm. Edwin J. Roland, district commander, swears in Domenic Calicchio at First District Headquarters in Boston. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Domenic A. Calicchio was one of the U.S. Coast Guard’s many unsung heroes whose career embodied the Service’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty. The Coast Guard’s Inspections & Investigation School named the Calicchio Award for him due to the significant impact he had on the U.S. marine industry and the Coast Guard as a senior marine casualty investigator.

Calicchio was born in 1926 to a Boston seafaring family. Like his brothers Michael and Alfred, “Dom” Calicchio served as a ship’s master so he knew well the hazards of working on board ocean-going vessels. He began his career in 1943, entering the merchant marine at the age of 16 to support the war effort. He served in the merchant marine for 23 more years and ended his career as a captain commanding ships of the United States Lines.

During his merchant marine years, Calicchio had served as an officer in the Coast Guard Reserve and, in 1968, accepted a commission as an active duty lieutenant commander. He took the commission believing that he could make a difference in the Service’s marine safety mission by championing the safety of crews and passengers on board ocean-going vessels. Calicchio’s adherence to strict safety requirements, regardless of their cost, sometimes put him at odds with the shipping lines whose safety he regulated. Early in his Coast Guard career, Calicchio made a name for himself in cruise-ship safety requirements, especially in regulations guiding lifeboat capacity, and as a captain of the port for Florida and Gulf Coast ports.

Calicchio’s greatest achievement, and one that would mark the end of his career, was the investigation into the infamous loss of the S/S Marine Electric. The Marine Electric was a T-2 bulk cargo carrier built during World War II and intended to fill Allied wartime needs for bulk cargo and fuel shipments. Numerous T-2s found employment in merchant shipping lines after the hostilities, even though their builders only intended them to serve for the duration of the war. The T-2s had proved so brittle that several of them produced stress fractures or split in two before they set sail on their maiden voyage. Not surprisingly, more and more T-2 tankers sank or fell apart as the vessels grew older and rustier. For example, the T-2s Fort Mercer and Pendleton sank on the same February evening in 1952 off the Cape Cod coast leading to one of the Coast Guard’s best-known rescue efforts.

Like many of its T-2 sister ships, Marine Electric saw service well beyond her years and, on a stormy evening in February 1983, the ship sank in the Atlantic off Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Of the thirty-four crewmembers that went into the frigid seas, only three came out alive. The Coast Guard’s board of inquiry formed to investigate this disaster included Calicchio and two other Coast Guard marine safety officers. It was due in large part to Calicchio’s efforts to uncover the causes of the wreck that the board handed down a criminal indictment of Marine Electric’s owners.

The Marine Electric case was a landmark event in U. S. marine safety because it set safety standards for older ships, such as the T-2s, and led to the scrapping of about seventy cargo vessels unable to meet those standards. It also led to regulations requiring the adoption of survival suits on board ships navigating in cold-water climates. Lastly, the horrendous loss of life in the Marine Electric disaster focused attention on the need for Coast Guard rescue swimmers and spurred Federal legislation to establish that fledgling program.

Throughout his Coast Guard career, Calicchio championed the cause of safety on the open ocean. Ironically, he downplayed his own critical role in overhauling marine safety regulations in the Marine Electric case and other marine safety cases during his Coast Guard career. Not long after the Marine Electric marine board released its critical 1985 report, Calicchio chose to retire. He went on to establish a successful practice as a cruise-ship safety expert in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Calicchio was a member of the long blue line and his high regard for those who go to sea in ships set the standard for Coast Guard men and women tasked with overseeing marine safety.

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