The Long Blue Line: Coast Guardsman Seymour Wittek, S.S. El Estero

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 2008 photo of Seymour Wittek, member of the Explosives Loading Detail who responded to the El Estero. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A 2008 photo of Seymour Wittek, member of the Explosives Loading Detail who responded to the El Estero. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

For those who may recall the United States Coast Guard’s recent combat history, the name Bruckenthal should ring a bell. Petty Officer Third Class Nathan Bruckenthal served in Operation Iraqi Freedom when his law enforcement detachment boarded a suspicious Iraqi dhow laden with hidden explosives. After boarding the dhow, the Iraqi crew detonated the cargo killing Bruckenthal. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart Medal and his name now graces a Coast Guard Fast Response Cutter.

Bruckenthal was one of countless Jewish-American service members who have gone in harm’s way to perform dangerous Coast Guard missions. Seymour Wittek was another. As part of the United States Coast Guard’s Explosives Loading Detail, Wittek responded to the fire and helped put out the flames that nearly detonated a cataclysmic explosion.

Another member of the Explosives Loading Detail keeping a careful watch on ordnance, bombs and ammunition. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Another member of the Explosives Loading Detail keeping a careful watch on ordnance, bombs and ammunition. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Wittek moved to New York as a child and grew up in the Bronx, participating in Boy Scouts, sports and debate clubs, and he even served as a volunteer disc jockey at local community center dances. After high school, he began training to become an electrician.

Events in 1941 changed the course of Wittek’s life. World War II began in December and, in less than a year, Wittek enlisted in the Coast Guard and began basic training at the service’s Manhattan Beach training center in New York. In 1943, he began serving as a reservist with the Explosives Loading Detail stationed at Jersey City, New Jersey.

The story of the steamship El Estero fire is one that has been told in the pages of such periodicals as the Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest. On Saturday, April 24, 1943, a call came for volunteers to fight a fire on the Panamanian freighter El Estero. Wittek answered the call along with nearly 60 other Coast Guardsmen. The freighter carried a full load of ammunition destined for the war’s European Theater and a fire erupted in the engine room. With another ammo ship moored nearby and a line of boxcars loaded with munitions on the docks, a detonation of El Estero’s cargo could have set-off a chain reaction of 5,000 tons of explosives that could have set-off local fuel tank farms in Bayonne, New Jersey, and Staten Island. Such a scenario would have caused catastrophic damage and casualty figures and crippled New York Harbor, the nation’s busiest wartime port.

Rendering of the near-catastrophic El Estero fire painted by noted marine artist Austin Dwyer. Courtesy of Austin Dwyer.

Rendering of the near-catastrophic El Estero fire painted by noted marine artist Austin Dwyer. Courtesy of Austin Dwyer.

After the fire, Bayonne, New Jersey, threw a citywide celebration to honor the Coast Guard, its Explosive Loading Detail and local firefighting personnel. It was only at this point that Wittek disclosed to his family what had happened and how close he had come to an early death. After the war, Wittek and the rest of his Explosives Loading Detail shipmates went their separate ways. Wittek led a satisfying life marrying, raising a family and enjoying a 50-year career in the fur business. He also remained active with his synagogue and volunteered his spare time with private non-profit organizations.

Wittek remained faithful to the memory of those “subway sailors” who helped save New York Harbor from near destruction due to the El Estero fire. In 2008, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Robert Papp awarded Wittek the Coast Guard Commendation Medal. Wittek admitted his pride in receiving the recognition not just for himself, but for all the Explosives Loading Detail men who long ago answered the call to fight the El Estero fire with little regard for their own safety.

In 2010, Wittek passed away at the age of 88. He was an ordinary man who performed extraordinary feats. He was one of the thousands of Jewish-American men and women who have joined the United States Coast Guard and served in the long blue line with distinction.

The folded American flag that had draped over Seymour Wittek's casket during military honors is passed to Coast Guard Capt. Daniel Croce for presentation to Wittek's family at Montefiore Cemetery, Dec. 31, 2009.

The folded American flag that had draped over Seymour Wittek’s casket during military honors is passed to Coast Guard Capt. Daniel Croce for presentation to Wittek’s family at Montefiore Cemetery, Dec. 31, 2009.
Wittek, a Coast Guard World War II veteran involved in extinguishing a fire aboard a munitions ship in New York Harbor on April 24, 1943, died at the age of 88, Dec. 30, 2009. Wittek was awarded the Coast Guard Commendation Medal for volunteering to board the S.S. El Estero, which was carrying 1,360 tons of high explosive bombs and munitions. The actions of Wittek and his Coast Guard shipmates averted what would have been a massive explosion causing immense damage to New York and New Jersey. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Seth Johnson.

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