The Long Blue Line: Lt. Winslow and his heroic rescues aboard Cutter Argo (Part 2)

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.

The ill-fated patrol gunboat USS St. Augustine (PG-54) was a converted yacht. U.S. Navy photo.

The ill-fated patrol gunboat USS St. Augustine (PG-54) was a converted yacht. U.S. Navy photo.

William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Atlantic Area Historian, United States Coast Guard

Last week we featured part 1 of the heroic actions of Lt. Charles Winslow and Coast Guard Cutter Argo. We left off  with Navy patrol gunboat USS St. Augustine colliding with American tanker Camas Meadows off Cape May, New Jersey.

Miles away from the scene of the disaster, Argo’s officer-of-the-day, OOD, asked his radarman if he still had St. Augustine on the screen. The radarman indicated he no longer had a contact for the patrol gunboat. Coast Guard Cutter Thetis tried to raise the St. Augustine by voice radio with no success, so Argo’s OOD tried to contact the vessel by their talk-between-ship system. The darkened tanker came to a stop and turned on all of its running lights, an act prohibited during wartime in U-boat infested waters. By this time, Argo’s OOD feared the worst, called Winslow for assistance and ordered Argo’s crew to general quarters.

WinslowDressBlues

Lt. j.g. Charles Eliot Winslow in his dress blues sitting for a formal portrait. Courtesy of the Winslow Family.

Winslow swung into action as soon as he stepped on the bridge. He ordered a course change straight for the unidentified vessel brightly illuminated in the heavy seas dead ahead. He also ordered the signalman to communicate with the vessel by blinker to find out what had happened. After repeated queries, the tanker blinked back “survivors to the left of you.” After several more unanswered signals, the tanker responded that it had rammed the escort and was taking on water.

After pounding through heavy seas for nearly 20 minutes, Argo arrived at the scene of the disaster. The cutter’s crew began sighting groups of survivors on life rafts and individuals floating in the frigid water waving the red lights attached to their life jackets. Winslow ordered Argo’s searchlights activated and began navigating through the wreckage to collect survivors. Winslow focused initial efforts on saving those in life rafts and grouped together in the water before the storm scattered them across the wind-swept seas. Later, Argo located individual survivors and, after that, threw lines over bodies to see if they showed signs of life. If the bodies failed to react, Argo moved on to search for survivors riding the heavy seas.

Argo remained on scene throughout the next day as Winslow and the crew searched for more survivors. For his role in the St. Augustine episode, Winslow received commendations from Coast Guard Commandant Russell Waesche and Navy Secretary James Forrestal. According to his Navy Commendation, Winslow maneuvered “his ship through heavy winds and debris-littered seas” with “outstanding tactical skill.” Argo had rescued 23 of St. Augustine’s survivors, while Thetis accounted for another seven. In addition, the search-and-rescue effort located 76 bodies out of the patrol gunboat’s total losses of 106 crewmembers. Four of Winslow’s crewmembers received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for saving victims of the St. Augustine.

Argo anchored in Love’s Cove, near Boothbay, Maine, at the Atlantic war’s end in May of 1945. The 165-foot steel cutter was built by John H. Mathis Company at Camden, New Jersey, in 1933. Courtesy of the Winslow Family.

Argo anchored in Love’s Cove, near Boothbay, Maine, at the Atlantic war’s end in May of 1945. The 165-foot steel cutter was built by John H. Mathis Company at Camden, New Jersey, in 1933. Courtesy of the Winslow Family.

Winslow demonstrated his ship-handling skills a second time during October’s 1944 Cuba-Florida Hurricane. The Category 4 hurricane whirled up from the Equator in mid-October and churned off the Georgia coast by October 19. It caught the Mexican tanker Juan Casiano 90 miles due east of Savannah, severing the vessel into two parts and sending them to the bottom. Only 21 of the ship’s 50 crewmembers found their way to a battered lifeboat. They did their best to cling to the boat as physical exhaustion and the storm’s fury peeled the victims away one by one.

Argo arrived on scene a day after the sinking and, at 8 pm, the cutter’s crew sighted flares illuminating the darkness over the swamped lifeboat. While the cutter was located some distance from the boat, Winslow skillfully maneuvered the 165-foot cutter through the heavy seas to the survivors. Argo took on board 11 men suffering from shock and exposure. The rest of the original 21 survivors had perished in the hurricane over the course of the previous day. Winslow commenced a box search in the heavy seas to check for the others with no success. In the commendation for the Juan Casiano rescue, Commandant Russell Waesche cited Winslow for his “outstanding ability and devotion to duty.” Between the St. Augustine and Juan Casiano rescues, Winslow, his crew and Argo had saved 34 desperate mariners and given them a second chance at life.

Winslow and Argo went their separate ways after the war. The Coast Guard experienced a dramatic decrease in personnel levels, forcing the service to retire cutters such as Argo. At first, the service mothballed the cutter at Coast Guard Station Cape May; however, by 1948, the service had decommissioned the cutter and sold it in 1955. By 1959, New York City’s Circle Line Sightseeing Tours purchased Argo and the vessel began a second fruitful career as the Sightseer XII.

Motor vessel Sightseer XII, formerly the Cutter Argo and now a Circle Line Cruises sightseeing vessel, ferried stranded New Yorkers from Manhattan across the Hudson after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Photo courtesy of Circle Line Tours of New York City.

Motor vessel Sightseer XII, formerly the Cutter Argo and now a Circle Line Cruises sightseeing vessel, ferried stranded New Yorkers from Manhattan across the Hudson after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Photo courtesy of Circle Line Tours of New York City.

Winslow had found within himself a natural, almost instinctive, pre-disposition for command at sea. Yet, after the war ended, he was ready to go home. In a letter to his command, he wrote, “If the Argo . . . is scheduled to fight the wintry blasts alone all winter, my answer is ‘Get me off.’ One winter upside down was enough for me. It took me three weeks to regain the full use of my feet!” Having served the entire war on the high seas, Charles Eliot Winslow moved to Southport, Maine, near his family home. There he established a successful tugboat business and summer cruise line in the Boothbay area and he named his tourboat the Argo.

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