Most long time Alaskans know about, even if it seems like the rest of the world never heard of them, the WWII battles fought between U.S. and Japanese forces in the Aleutian Islands. And some might even know about the Japanese submarine I-26 that patrolled from British Columbia to the California coast, sinking at least two ships and shelling a lighthouse and radio-direction-finding installation at Estevan Point, B.C.
But even those who pride themselves the most on knowing their WWII history in the Pacific Northwest are often surprised to find that there was enemy action and a small battle fought in southern SE Alaska off the west coast of Prince of Wales Island in July of 1942.
At this time an airfield had been established on Annette Island, 25 miles south of Ketchikan, to defend Canadian and U.S. interests along the coast. The Royal Canadian Air Force's No. 115 (Fighter) Squadron was established on the island on May 5, 1942 becoming "the first Canadian force ever based in U.S. territory to directly assist in American defense" according to M.V. Bezeau in the book "Alaska at War."
Alaskans and everyone else living along the Northwest Coast were jumpy at the thought of Japanese subs prowling about seeking a target, particularly after the I-26 sank the 386-ton freighter Coast Trader as it left the Strait of Juan de Fuca on June 7, 1942. The U.S. Government, fearing a panic, put out the word that the ship was sunk by "an internal explosion."
This official double-talk didn't calm everyone's fears. In the month following the sinking there were numerous reports of submarine sightings in southern SE Alaska, which, when investigated, turned out to be logs or whales.
Then, on July 6, a Coast Guard vessel patrolling near a small inlet on Noyes Island on the West Coast of Prince of Wales Island, heard from a group of salmon trollers in the area that they'd seen a sub's periscope in open waters half a mile off Cape Addington.
The Coast Guard passed on the information to the RCAF 115 Squadron on Annette Island. At the same time, two patrol ships armed with depth charges, the CG Cutter McLane and the Navy-requisitioned halibut schooner Foremost were dispatched. The next morning RCAF Bolingbroke bombers conducted searches of the area, but found nothing.
Both the U.S. and Canadian forces took the sighting seriously, however, and despite bad weather and limited visibility the RCAF sent out another Bolingbroke later in the day. Once over the search area, the crew reported a line of churning water and what they described as white puffs of smoke.
They dived on the target and at 500 feet they were able to see, running just beneath the surface, the dark, classic cigar shape of a submarine. The bomber released a 250-pound anti-sub bomb.
The explosion from the hit sent a 60-foot plume of water into the air. As the bomber circled above, the crew noted that while no debris surfaced an oil slick two to four hundred feet in diamter spread over the area. After circling for two hours searching for debris or survivors, the plane was forced to return to Annette Island.
Meanwhile, the two patrol vessels the McLane and the Foremost arrived on the scene to continue the search. Although there are deep waters off Cape Addington, the chart showed a shallow area where it was thought just possible that a damaged sub could come to rest and even effect repairs if the hit hadn't been too catastrophic. In the absence of any wreckage, the ships were ordered to maintain their position in the area and wait for the sub to possibly re-emerge.
Day two into the search, the McLane picked up underwater engine noises and dropped a depth charge over the position, but it was a dud and failed to explode. The rest of the day was devoted to a typical cat-and-mouse pursuit as the McLane continued to pick up the noises of a zig-zagging sub and dropped more depth charges, not duds this time.
The sub, tiring of being harassed, launched a torpedo which the crew of the McLane saw clearly as it cleaved the water toward them. As author Pat Roppel reports: "The commanding officer [of the cutter] was standing on the bow and saw the torpedo coming, recognizing the yellow head and green body and hearing it hiss. It left a feather of 125 feet as it came toward the cutter. The vessel moved astern, and the excited crewmembers watched the warhead speed by within two feet of the cutter's bow."
Immediately, the cutter and the Foremost steamed toward where the torpedo had been launched from.
The Foremost, unable to get far enough away from the range of the depth charges it dropped, was already damaged by its own blasts when, in deep water, it hit what seemed like a sandbar. As it turned out, the old schooner had struck the submarine so hard that it knocked her false keel eight inches off center. The wounded ship hurried away, dropping a smoke bomb to mark the spot. The McLane moved in and dropped two more depth charges, which produced an oil slick and shortly after that, the appearance of the sub's periscope.
The cutter, knowing its light armor was no match for the sub's deck guns if it should be allowed to surface and use them, closed in on the sub once more and dropped yet more depth charges. This time not only did more oil reach the surface, but so did chunks of what appeared to be the sub's insulation.
The ships, accompanied by flyovers by the Navy, scouted the area but found no further trace of the submarine. On October 30, 1943 the U.S. Navy Department officially announced that an enemy submarine had been sunk off Cape Addington in a combined action between the RCAF Bolingbroke bomber crew, the Coast Guard crew on the McLane, and the Navy crew aboard the YP-251 Foremost.
It's not known for certain which submarine was sunk*, or why it was in the area, though a post-war report prepared by the US and British Navies noted that morale had become low in the Imperial Japanese Navy when so few important U.S. coastal targets were taken out by subs: "It was frankly impossible to believe that submarines could spend weeks on the US west coast 'without contacts'."
It's possible the sub was hoping to achieve something worth reporting. Instead, very far from home and loved ones, in a cramped, claustrophobic, and smelly vessel of war, it's believed that the crew pointlessly met their deaths on the bottom of the ocean just off Prince of Wales Island, Alaska.
*The submarine was officially cited, after the war, as the RO-32. However, the RO-32 appeared to be still in action throughout the rest of the war. Additionally, Japanese official records do not confirm that they lost any submarine in that area. It's entirely possible that the RO-32 was damaged and ejected oil and the insulation to fool its pursuers into thinking it had been destroyed and then, after the pursuit was called off, limped away to safety.
The story I heard was that when the Sea Bear dropped anchor in Little Vixen, a bay five miles to the north of us, they let out too much line and when a gale came up they got blown onto a steeply inclined beach. The bow planks opened and the sea poured in. The pumps couldn't keep up and the Sea Bear sank bow first. When the tide went out, the boat broke its back on the rocks and became a total loss.
Although it must have been a frightening experience, fortunately everyone got off safely. The insurers hired a local to retrieve personal items and do clean-up on the surrounding beaches, and then, as the locals waited to hear, they declared the Sea Bear open salvage.
In the bush, nothing is allowed to go to waste and everyone in the area took turns descending on the wreck. My brother went straight to the engine compartment and made a haul in tools. Another local removed the propeller. Terry Johnson, known for her green thumb and landscaping skills, came away with the zippered stern deck enclosure made of clear plastic panels, as well as the skylight--she promptly turned these into a shipwreck salvage green house.
I got there fairly late. A ladder was placed against the high, jutting stern, and even though we got there at low tide, the bow was under water. The Sea Bear was about 54 feet long, a former racing tug that had been converted into a live-aboard yacht. I clambered up the ladder and inched along the steep slope of the stern. On a previous visit my dad had told my mom to be careful, everything was slippery--coated in diesel and oil. She took one step and fell hard, hitting her head. Not that a possible concussion slowed her down. She came away with various charming fixtures, doors (including a small Dutch door they wound up using in their bedroom), and other items.
The stench of diesel was overwhelming. Little had been done by anyone to clean that up, or the sludge circling the wreck. And although the local man hired by the insurance company had cleaned up the first debris off the beaches, more floated out all the time. (I picked up a chipped, gold painted porcelain vase with STW Bavaria, Germany stamped on the bottom, with a Fragonard painting on the front of it. An extremely incongruous sight on a wild and remote Alaskan beach.)
I made my way to the wheelhouse and had a disorienting moment staring straight down into the bay, with the bow submerged, as if I was plunging down the hundred foot wave in "The Perfect Storm." I looked away and was immediately drawn to the bookcase. Someone had been there before me and had tried to get the books out, possibly the local hired by the insurance company. But the books had swollen from seawater and were locked in place. Whoever it was had tried to break the bookcase but it was a built-in and they had little success freeing the books. The saddest part was seeing family photo albums trapped in there, destined to be submerged for years on that lonely shore as the boat slowly disintegrated.
I found, lying nearby, an old book of German fairytales with gorgeous color plates. It looked like a family heirloom so I took it home and tried to salvage it, thinking to return it to the owners if I could. But it was so heavily impregnated with a soupy, slimy mixture of seawater and diesel that it was beyond saving. Besides the vase, and a few other small items I found on the beach, I ended up with a small jade green bathroom sink ("Accent" by SeaLand Technology) which I incorporated into the floathouse I was building. To tell the truth, I felt too sad looking at the remains of someone's dream to want to pick it over, even though I knew that if it wasn't salvaged by the locals it would all be lost.
When I returned home it was to a point of land bracketed by two more shipwrecks. I wrote in a previous blog about salvaged wood from one of the wrecks, the Daybreak, to build an outdoor cooler. The other wreck is much, much older than either the Sea Bear or the Daybreak. It's nameless and only the huge deck remains.
Before the locals began to saw into it to recover the still good steel pins (from one to five feet in length) the portion of the deck that had washed ashore was about sixty feet long, and showed openings for two enormous holds, indicating that the ship was over one hundred feet, possibly as much as two hundred feet long, and around forty feet wide. It was held together with giant turnbuckles and had been built with massive 12x12" and 12x16" fir beams stacked on each other and pinned.
The ship's deck is a treasure trove of still useful, hundreds upon hundreds of railroad-style spikes and the long pins. Even the mutlitude of steel hatch cover cleat/saddles are valued as anchors.
In my research I couldn't find mention of a wreck that fit the description in this area, so who knows how long it wandered or where the deck floated in from, or where the remainder of the ship now lies. (The shipwreck that sounds the most likely by the description, the Pacific Steamer Redwood, commissioned in 1917, sank in Greville Channel far to the south of us in Canadian waters.) The ship was so well constructed that it takes a lot of effort and energy to free the steel pins, but they've been essential in the construction of our floathouses in holding our float logs together.
There's an old North Sea islander prayer that goes: "Not that there should be wrecks, Lord, but if there are, please let them come to our shores." When you live in the Southeast Alaskan bush, where you don't have easy access to stroes or materials, shipwreck salvage is a way of life.
Note: A version of this story first appeared at www.capitalcityweekly.com during the week of Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2017.
On October 4, 1980, the aurora borealis danced above the stricken cruise ship as the elderly passengers crawled out of bed and made their way to the upper deck after the captain announced that there was a fire in the engine room. Almost everyone aboard, in the inhospitable Gulf of Alaska, one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world, was of retirement age or older.
Later, Muriel Marvinney explained how she and her friend Agnes Lilard came to be aboard: "Our families are wonderful. We're both fortunate that our children and grandchildren live nearby and visit us. But, loving as our children are, and with all the dear friends both Ag and I have, there is a kind of invisible barrier for us as widows. You're always fifth wheel at social gatherings....When we broached the idea of our taking 'a slow boat to China,' our children were all for it. The more we thought about it, the more exciting the idea seemed. All summer we pored over brochures like a couple of kids."
The boat they chose, as so many other retirement folks chose, was the intimate-sized cruise ship the Prinsendam, otherwise known (in a nod to the popular TV show The Love Boat) by the affectionate nickname The Old Codger Boat.
The small Prinsendam (only 427 feet long, about the size of the flagship of Alaska's ferry system), did not have a very auspicious start. She was built in 1973 as the smallest of Holland America's fleet of cruise ships, and just before her inaugural cruise a fire started in the barrom and spread to the electrical wiring, burning out of control for an hour and a half.
On the night of her final cruise, seven years later, the fire started in the engine room. The reaction by the crew was belated and inadequate. The captain, unaware of a large time lapse between when the fire began and when his instructions were followed, assumed that there was no great danger and didn't immediately send out an SOS, assuming that their onbaord fire suppression methods would handle the blaze. However, he did send out a preliminary message that they had a situation that might escalate to an emergency.
The Coast Guard and all shipping in the area immediately went on alert. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard was hundreds of miles away from where the Prinsendam was located out in the perpetually storm-harassed Gulf. If the elderly passengers were forced to take to the lifeboats it would be hours before the rescue heliccopters and cutters could reach them.
At first the passengers thought it was only a minor fire that would be taken care of soon, and they good-naturedly joked and chatted on the dark deck in their eclectic night attire, some of them in wheelchairs. The crew passed out drinks and snacks and opened the gift shop to offer sweaters to any who needed them. The ship's entertainers, including a man who later come to fame as the musician known as Yanni, played music for them and they happily sang along.
In the early hours of the morning, still assuming that everything was going to turn out all right, the captain allowed the passengers to come back inside to get warm. He also agreed to allow the crew to open up the dining room. Unfortunately, this caused the fire to re-ignite and abruptly blaze out of control.
Hours before daylight, the captain sent off an SOS and announced that they were abandoning ship.
Until then the dead, unlit cruise ship, its electricity lost to the fire, had been wallowing gently in five foot swells with a gentle ten mph wind blowing. As the night progressed into dawn, the winds and seas began to rise.
In addition, the smoky Prinsendam was starting to list as the fire blew out porthole windows and the growing swells sloshed water into the ship through these many openings.
There were difficulties with getting the lifeboats loaded and lowered. Without electricity, they had to be lowered manually. One of the largest lifeboats got fouled in its lines and was abandoned, hanging at an angle. Another lifeboat was nearly lowered on top of another. None of them had power and the elderly passengers, crammed in so tightly they couldn't move, couldn't push their boats away from the steel sides of the ship as the waves ground and slammed them into it.
But finally they were free, bobbing about in their small boats in the vast Gulf of Alaska under a murky dawn sky with, in front of them, the cinematic vision of their cruise ship pouring smoke out her portholes and listing into the growing seas.
The captain, twenty-five crewmembers, and fifteen passengers remained on the stricken cruise ship. But by then Coast Guard and Air Force planes and helicopters were beginning to arrive. They managed to drop firefighting equipment and experts onto the liner, but after several different attempts to contain, let alone put out, the fire failed they had to admit defeat.
By the most astonishing good fortune, the oil tanker Williamsburg, fully loaded with Prudhoe Bay crude from the pipeline terminal in Valdez, arrived on the scene. Riding low in the water, it was the ideal platform in those conditions for getting the hundreds of passengers out of the lifeboats to a safe haven, especially as weather conditions continued to deteriorate. The only problem was the passengers would have to climb 40-foot rope ladders to get aboard the giant tanker.
After having been wedged into the lifeboats and wallowing around in heaving seas, some of the elderly passengers (including those who were wheelchair-bound, suffering from cancer, epilepsy, having a malarial relapse) were in no shape to attempt this feat. That didn't stop some from gallantly giving it a go. They made it to the top, but, knowing how bad storms in the Gulf could get--and knowing they were about to be struck by the remnants of a typhoon--the rescuers realized they had to speed things up.
Thus began one of the most amazing sea rescues of all time as Coast Guard helicopters hoisted the passengers, between ten and fifteen per load, aboard and then transferred them to the tanker. The elderly passengers, at this point some of them suffering from hypothermia, dehydration, and severe sea sickness, had to crawl into the steel basket, cling for dear life, and be hauled through the cold, windy air, swinging above the growing waves, to the side of the helicopter where they were dragged inside.
It took the rescuers, sometimes racing away with a load of passengers to Yakutat to re-fuel, from 9am to 6pm to transfer 380 Prinsendam refugees to the tanker. The Coast Guard cutter Boutwell had 80 passengers on board. Included in the rescued were the captain, crew, and passengers who had been left on the now completely abandoned and severely listing cruise ship.
By now the remnants of the typhoon were lashing the Gulf with thirty-five foot seas and forty knot winds. The rescuers decided it was time to head for harbor. Shortly afterwards they realized that some Air Force personnel (rescue divers who had been lowered to help get passengers out of the lifeboats and into the basket) and twenty passengers were missing. Night closed in as the storm struck in full force.
Conditions made it unsafe for the helicopters and planes to continue searching for the missing lifeboat. Instead, the Coast Guard cutter Boutwell turned back and began a search they were afraid would end in disappointment and tragedy. At 1am, to their amazement, they found the lost lifeboat and managed to get everyone safely aboard.
What was it like for those alone in the small vessel, at the mercy of towering seas, icy, spray-filled winds, worried that they might have been forgotten and abandoned? Many of the elderly passengers said they were at peace, despite their physical misery, with the idea that it might end here in this unforeseen adventure. They prayed to be rescued, but they knew that whatever happened they'd experienced long, full lives.
Muriel Marvinney recalled, "From all over the [lifeboat] voices joined in repeating the prayer Jesus taught us. In spite of the Babel of so many languages--English, Dutch, French, German--we were all one at that moment."
Incredibly, despite the conditions and the elderliness and frailty of many of the passengers, not a single person was lost as the cruise ship Prinsendam sank through 9,000 feet of cold water to settle on the floor of the Gulf of Alaska, 225 miles offshore. The Coast Guard attributed this, modest about their own part in the rescue, to the patience, endurance, and good will of the passengers. They believed that it was because they were elderly, because they had learned the wisdom not to panic and instead to quietly fall in line with the rescuers' orders, that one of the greatest maritime rescues of all time was pulled off without loss of life.
Note: Many of the details come from the book Burning Cold by H. Paul Jeffries. For those interested in reading it, be aware that while it has a wealth of detail, the author goes on awkward tangents and the book probably could have used more editing.
This blog post is for retired USN Chief, Melanie. Thank you for reminding me to write it.