The Long Blue Line: Coast Guardsman’s invention of cold-water rescue technique saved over 100 lives during WWII

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

Coast Guard men and women have long created innovative ways to solve the service’s challenges.

Lt. Robert Henry “Bob” Prause, Jr., interests in technology and engineering would prove invaluable during WWII.

Painting of the Escanaba rescue effort by an unknown artist. (Coast Guard Collection)

Painting of the Escanaba rescue effort by an unknown artist. (Coast Guard Collection)

In early 1942, Prause received orders that forever associated his name to a famed cutter of World War II. He served as executive officer aboard the Escanaba, home-ported in Grand Haven, Michigan.

By June, the cutter had changed stations from the Great Lakes to Boston to become part of the Coast Guard’s Greenland Patrol. Over the course of the next year, the Escanaba served as an escort for convoys of cargo vessels and troop transports. The cutter steamed in some of the worst sea and weather conditions ever encountered in World War II.

While escorting a convoy from Nova Scotia to Greenland in the early evening on Monday, June 15, 1942, the Escanaba made sonar contact with a German U-boat. The Escanaba depth charged the submarine and likely sank it. Within an hour, Escanaba depth-charged a second U-boat, but could not confirm a kill.

Around midnight, a U-boat attack on the convoy sank the transport USS Cherokee, tossing nearly 170 passengers and crew into the bone-chilling seas. Within minutes, the shock of the water temperature had incapacitated the Cherokee’s floating survivors.

Desperate to rescue as many men as possible, Prause dangled head first over the side of the cutter while his shipmates held his legs. Despite the rough, freezing seas and the threat of attack, Prause and his crew managed to rescue 22 survivors.

The obstacles to saving victims from Greenland waters seemed insurmountable. However, the challenge of saving as many lives as possible motivated Prause to devise a solution.

Relying on his technical expertise, he developed a system of tethered rescue swimmers equipped with rubber exposure suits, which trapped water warmed by body heat. Prause drilled the three crewmembers with who volunteered to serve as tethered swimmers and their support crews so they could perform their duties smoothly from the cutter’s rolling deck in blackout conditions.

Lt. Robert H. Prause photographed early in his career. (Coast Guard Collection)

Lt. Robert H. Prause photographed early in his career. (Coast Guard Collection)

 

On Wednesday, February 3, 1943, a convoy bound from Newfoundland to Greenland provided the ultimate test of Prause’s experiments and training. Cutters Escanaba, Tampa, and Comanche served as escorts for a group of three steamers, including the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester, which carried 904 passengers and crew.

At 1:00 a.m., the following day, a torpedo ripped through the Dorchester’s hull and sank it within 20 minutes, sending hundreds of passengers and crew into the icy waters.

A state-of-the-art military issue wet suit shown in 1943. (Coast Guard Collection)

A state-of-the-art military issue wet suit shown in 1943. (Coast Guard Collection)

By the time the Escanaba arrived on scene, the Dorchester had vanished into the dark seas. The red lights of the transport’s life preservers dotted the water’s surface for miles. Donning their exposure suits in the dark, the Escanaba’s swimmers were ready to put their training into use. Meanwhile, deck crews prepared to retrieve as many survivors as possible.

Operations on deck and in the water were far more effective in recovering survivors than any previous attempts. The retrievers swam out to the Dorchester’s crew while Escanaba’s deck crew pulled those who had survived on board. By the end of the eight-hour rescue operation Escanaba’s crew had saved 133 lives – far more than the 22 rescued from USS Cherokee.

Prause’s tethered rescue swimmer system had proved a great success.

However, the success of Prause’s system would be short-lived. In June, the Escanaba joined cutters Storis and Raritan to escort a convoy bound from Greenland to Newfoundland. At 5:00 a.m., Sunday, June 13th, the Escanaba fell victim to a catastrophic explosion, believed to be the result of a torpedo attack. The cutter went up in smoke and sank below the water’s surface within minutes, taking its100 crewmembers down with it.

Prause was no longer the rescuer, but the victim. The crew of cutter Raritan threw Prause a line, pulled him on deck and provided him medical attention. Prause lost consciousness and never recovered. Due to the Raritan’s distance from land, he was buried at sea with full military honors.

Despite its success, Prause’s system of tethered rescue swimmers did not see frequent use after the loss of the Escanaba.

For his heroic efforts, Prause posthumously received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and Purple Heart Medal. Prause was a member of the long blue line and his tethered rescue swimmer system served as the Coast Guard’s first successful cold-water rescue methods.

 

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