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Coast Guard's "Queen of the Fleet"
by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
September 8, 2017

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"... the 327s battled through the “Bloody Winter” of 1942-43 in the North Atlantic–fighting off German U-boats and rescuing survivors from torpedoed convoy ships." Retired U.S. Coast Guard Capt. John M. Waters, “The Bloody Winter”

In the quote above, retired Coast Guard captain and book author, John Waters, commented on the service’s ocean-going cutters, which formed the backbone of the Navy’s convoy escort fleet in the early years of the Battle of the Atlantic.

The “Treasury,” or 327-foot Coast Guard cutters (sometimes referred to as the “Secretary” class), were designed to meet changing missions of the service as it emerged from Prohibition. To address these needs, naval architects designed the 327s to steam at the impressive speed of 23 mph equipped with ample fuel capacity for high seas cruising. The 327s were all named for former heads of the Department of the Treasury, including Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Ingham, William Duane, Roger Taney, George Bibb and John Spencer, as well as George Campbell.

"Queen of the Fleet" U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Campbell in camouflage paint scheme early in the war. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)
"Queen of the Fleet" U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Campbell in camouflage paint scheme early in the war. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)

Campbell (WPG-32) and several sister cutters saw extensive action as convoy escorts during the Battle of the Atlantic. In fact, the 327-foot cutter Hamilton (WPG-34) was the first American warship lost in combat after the entry of the U.S. into World War II. Capable of maintaining high speed in seas that slowed Navy destroyers, the 327s were ideal for protecting shipping in the middle of the North Atlantic. The Campbell was the longest-lived and the most famous of this class. Built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1936, the cutter earned the title “Queen of the Fleet.”

Sailing under Coast Guard Cmdr. James Hirshfield, Campbell was assigned to convoy escort duty early in the war. Equipped with sonar technology and direction finding equipment, Campbell, sister-cutter Spencer and other escorts were assigned anti-submarine duty for Convoy ON-166 returning from the United Kingdom to the U.S. in February 1943. On Sunday, February 21, a “Wolf Pack” of over a dozen German U-boats pounced on the convoy. That day, Campbell steamed through waters infested with Nazi submarines, engaging numerous U-boats sighted on the surface or located underwater by sonar.

Late on the 21st, the convoy command dispatched Campbell to assist a torpedoed tanker left dead in the water by the convoy. When the cutter arrived, Campbell picked-up 50 merchant mariners in lifeboats. Meanwhile, the German submarine U-753 sent a torpedo toward Campbell and the crippled tanker. Campbell chased down the U-boat damaging it so badly that it had to withdraw from the battle. The cutter returned to the tanker and shelled its bridge to ensure destruction of classified documents mistakenly left behind by the crew. Over the course of February 21, Campbell singlehandedly damaged or drove off half a dozen U-boats.

Rare photograph showing the African-American manned three-inch battery, commanded by Louis Etheridge, honored for their gun duel with U-606 during World War II. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)
Rare photograph showing the African-American manned three-inch battery, commanded by Louis Etheridge, honored for their gun duel with U-606 during World War II. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)

In the morning darkness of February 22, Campbell tried to close the 40 miles separating it from the convoy still battling the Wolf Pack. En route, the cutter encountered more U-boats, including a submarine later identified as U-606, which had already sunk two ON-166 merchant vessels and damaged a third. The U-boat had been damaged by depth charging and surfaced hoping to attempt a daring surface attack. Hirshfield ordered the cutter to close with U-606 striking a glancing blow to the sub and loosing two depth charges beside it. The explosives lifted the U-boat out of the water; however, the glancing blow had gashed the cutter’s hull below the waterline near the engine room.

Campbell fought on as the engine room took on water. The crew brought to bear their searchlights and heavy weapons on U-606 and fought the Nazi predator on the surface. An all-black gun crew manning Campbell’s three-inch battery, under gun captain Louis Etheridge, focused their fire on the submarine’s deck and conning tower. The gun crewmembers were later recognized for their heroism and Etheridge became the service’s first African-American Bronze Star Medal recipient.

While Coast Guard Cutter Campbell’s gun crews dueled with Nazi-manned U-606, the rest of the crew raced against time as the engine room filled with salt water. The water finally reached Campbell’s electrical system shorting the circuits and dowsing the searchlights. Luckily, the U-boat had been rendered defenseless at the same time the cutter lost power. The U-boat commander ordered U-606 abandoned and Campbell’s guns ceased fire. The disabled cutter lowered its boats and rescued five of the Nazi submariners.

After the battle, Campbell’s crew continued to fight only this time it was for the very survival of their cutter. Cmdr. James Hirshfield believed he could lose his ship, so after offloading his prisoners he transferred to another ship the 50 rescued merchant mariners and all non-essential crewmembers. The cutter sat powerless in the open ocean while the convoy pressed on to its destination. Meanwhile, a skeleton crew jury-rigged a patch they placed over the gash in Campbell’s hull stemming the flow of water into the engine room. Finally, after wallowing in the North Atlantic for four days, the cutter received a tow to St. John’s, Newfoundland. For his actions during and after the Battle of Convoy ON-166, Hirshfield was awarded the Navy Cross Medal, one of only a handful awarded to Coast Guardsmen during the war. He later became a vice admiral and two-term assistant commandant of the Coast Guard.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Campbell's famed canine mascot "Sinbad", who was appointed Chief Petty Officer Dog, served aboard Campbell throughout World War II and becoming internationally famous. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Campbell's famed canine mascot "Sinbad", who was appointed Chief Petty Officer Dog, served aboard Campbell throughout World War II and becoming internationally famous. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)

Later, Campbell was fully repaired and re-gained its place of pride within the convoy escort fleet. It was during this wartime service that a furry member of the crew, the dog “Sinbad,” became one of the most famous mascots in the history of the U.S. military. The subject of film, magazine stories, advertising and a book, Sinbad enlisted a year after Campbell’s commissioning and served loyally throughout the cutter’s wartime career remaining aboard Campbell even when many of its crew were evacuated after battling U-606. Sinbad served in the Coast Guard until his death in 1951 achieving the rate of K9C, Chief Petty Officer, Dog. He had served aboard Campbell for nearly a dozen years.

Campbell continued to serve in the North Atlantic until Germany’s surrender in the spring of 1945. After that, the Navy transferred the ship to the Pacific Theater to serve as an amphibious flagship. After World War II, the cutter returned to peacetime duties under the Department of Treasury. Campbell was called up for combat action again for the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. In Korea the cutter and its crew performed search and rescue operations and ocean station duty and, in Vietnam, provided naval gunfire support and patrolled Vietnam’s coastal waters. During Operation “Market Time,” Campbell destroyed or damaged 105 Viet Cong structures and steamed over 32,000 miles in the Vietnamese War Zone.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Campbell conducting one of many naval gunfire support missions during a tour in Vietnam. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Campbell conducting one of many naval gunfire support missions during a tour in Vietnam. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)

After the war, Campbell returned home and performed search and rescue, law enforcement, military readiness and maritime interdiction duties. The cutter was homeported in New York City until 1969 before morning to Portland, Maine. In 1974, the cutter changed homeports again, this time to Port Angeles, Washington. There the ship continued its peacetime duties until decommissioning in 1982. At the time of its decommissioning, Campbell was the oldest vessel in the active-duty U.S. fleet. After decommissioning, the Coast Guard turned over Campbell to the U.S. Navy for use as a target. The Navy sank the vessel on Nov. 29, 1984, during a fleet readiness exercise in the waters off Hawaii.

The Treasury-class cutters proved very dependable, versatile and long-lived warships, most serving for over 40 years. Retired Coast Guard captain and book author, John Waters would write about Campbell and its sister cutters, “Built for only $2.5 million each, in terms of cost effectiveness we may never see the likes of these cutters again.” Campbell’s illustrious 46-year career spanned World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and many more productive years. The cutter was one of hundreds that have served the long blue line.

By William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
Provided through Coast Guard
Copyright 2017

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