Warship Wednesday April 8, 2015: The Mud Lump Picket Gang
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, April 8, 2015– The Mud Lump Picket Gang
Here we see an excellent bow-on shot of a 38 Foot Cabin Picket Boat CG-4371 of the United States Coast Guard as she would have appeared during World War II when all dolled up in her war paint. From 1920-1960, these boats were the local “Coasties” and fought bootleggers in the Rum Wars, the Germans, and Japanese during the real live shooting war that followed, and set the benchmark for peacetime service afterward.
Moreover, altogether there were over 600 of them.
Why were they needed?
With the passage of the Volstead Act, perhaps the biggest effort at pissing in the wind in the history of the Federal Government, liquor was made the scapegoat for poor societal growth by the Temperance Movement and made thereby illegal- that should have fixed everything. Well, it only made matters far worse as the demand never went away and enterprising suppliers, many fresh from military service in the Great War and with few qualms about taking risks, began bootlegging booze by land, sea, and air. The first was risky as it was too predictable, and the final couldn’t handle the volume, which led to the serious rum-runners selecting offshore delivery as the preferred means.
It was simple, buy a surplus freighter or deep draft sailing ship (there were literally thousands of them cheap after the war) load it with legal rum in Cuba or the Bahamas if down south or good Canadian Whiskey if up north, then haul the hooch to a few hundred yards offshore of the (then) 3-mile federal limit and sell it to any enterprising small boat owner that came your way– by the case and at several times the cost. And it worked, for example, the number of quarts of rum sold in Nassau, Bahamas in 1917 was just 50,000. By 1922, it skyrocketed to 10-million. It was a boon with coastal port towns in the nearby Caribbean turning into gold rush cities and some 500,000 Americans believed involved at one stage or another in the new instant economy of bootlegging.
The government’s answer to shut down this “Rum Row” was the USCG.
The thing is, the Coasties had few capable large craft as their offshore cutters were slow and couldn’t pursue the smaller fast boats of the rum runners headed back to shore, and the local harbor launches and rescue boats of the Coast Guard stations were likewise too slow and light (often rowboats or 36-footers Hunnewell Type lifeboats that could make 8-knots) to chase the speedy little power boats over the local mud lumps.
Therefore, while the Coast Guard quickly acquired a fleet of Navy 4-piper destroyers and sub chasers from mothballs and ordered a ton of new 165-foot, 125-foot, and 75-foot gunboats, but they still needed smaller boys for when the speeds got north of 20 knots and the shoals got shallower than two fathoms. That is where the picket boats came in.
Based on the classic sea bright dory fishing boats that were popular along the Jersey Coast in the late 19th Century, the Coast Guard came up with two general plans (one for a 36-foot boat, the other for a 38-footer) of fast “Cabin Picket Boats.”
Each had a wood carvel design hull with single planking and ice sheathing, either a single or double cabin, and a single gasoline engine, prop or rudder. Speeds were in the 25-knot range. They were self-bailing, had electrical lights and refrigerator, and could accommodate as many as ten coasties but only needed two to operate. With their small cabins and galley, they carried enough fuel to go out overnight and come back, venturing out to Rum Row and back several times. Too small for names, they were all given numbers.
Given a law enforcement role as primary, a first for a USCG small boat, they were tasked with patrolling and policing of harbors, shallow inlets and protected waters along the coasts. Initially, the 36 footers were built to two very, um, flexible designs one with a double cabin and one with a single, and 103 were ordered from small boat builders around the country, all delivered by 1926.
Procurement procedures for these smaller craft varied by type. In the case of the single-cabin model, a brief outline plan was distributed to boat building contractors with instructions that they retain their own naval architect to complete the boat’s final plans and specifications. With the double-cabin model, however, complete plans were drawn up and provided by the Coast Guard to prospective builders. Seven different yards were contracted for single-cabin boat construction, and six yards for double-cabin boat construction.
The 38s were all built to a single plan with 68 examples created before Dec. 7, 1941, and another 470 built between then and 1944— but we’ll get to that.
By 1924 the Coast Guard, armed with their new boats small and large and a huge influx of cash from the Hoover administration, was set loose on Rum Row. Boat crews, often called Hammerheads due to their distinctive booze smashing (and head knocking) sledges destroyed rum and whiskey alike. Off New London alone in one year, no less than 65 ships were captured with $1.5 milly in booze as well as 290 bootleggers along with them. The crews were heavily armed with BARs, M1903s and pistols because shootouts, as well as encounters with pirate ships out to rob the bootleggers themselves were increasingly common. One source cites that over 200 civilians were killed off the U.S. East Coast during the 1920s while involved in the booze campaign.
The Coast Guard was hard handed when needed and they suffered their own losses, even exacting retribution in the hanging (at the Ft. Lauderdale Coast Guard Station) of a bootlegger, James “The Gulf Stream Pirate” Alderman that killed a Coast Guardsman.
One of the spicer incidents was the capture of the SS Economy. Ensign Charles L. Duke was aboard a picket boat on the night of 3 July 1927– right before the holiday. He and two sailors were patrolling New York Harbor on board the 36-footer CG-2327 when they saw a beat up old steamer pass in the night. With the ship in poor shape and only the name “Economy” painted across her stern in a fresh script, Duke decided to board her. After the ship refused to stop following two rounds from Duke’s revolver, he ordered his two sailors that, “If I’m not out of that pilot house in two minutes you turn the machine gun on them,” and jumped on the freighter with his half-empty revolver and a flashlight.
He seized control of the bridge, took the ship’s wheel and grounded the vessel, then waited for reinforcements the rest of the night. Finally relieved just before dawn by additional cuttermen from all over New York, they found 22 bootleggers and 3,000 barrels of hooch in what was called “perhaps the most heroic” exploit in the rum war.
For more on the Rum War at sea, the USCG in 1964 produced a very informative 229-page report here in pdf format free.
Crazy marine life
Off Brielle, New Jersey in the summer of 1933, one local angler by the name of Captain A.L. Kahn, master of the F/V Miss Pensacola II, came face to face with a Jules Verne-sized monster of the depths. You see his anchor line became tangled in a Giant Manta Devil Fish (Manta Birostris) almost capsizing the boat. The local Coast Guard station sent its picket boat, CG-2390, and unable to free the boat or beast, dispatched it with “22 shots from a high-powered rifle.”
The ray was towed to Feuerbach and Hansen’s Marina in Brielle, New Jersey where it was hoisted ashore on August 26, 1933, with a travel lift. In the end, the beast weighted some 5,000-pounds and measured more than 20 feet across the wing. Kahn, with likely the biggest and weirdest catch of his life, exhibited the stuffed specimen for years.
With the bootleggers killed by the repeal of the Volstead Act, and barring the occasional sea monster fight, the pickets were some of the few Rum War-era craft that were kept in full service during the Depression due to their ease of operation, versatility, and low-cost. They continued to serve as coastal patrol and search and rescue craft, assist in maritime accidents, police fishing grounds for poachers, and even go far upriver for flood relief due to their very shallow draft.
Back at war
When Pearl Harbor jump-started the U.S. into the middle of WWII, the Coast Guard and their picket boats soon found themselves unexpectedly on the front lines. Never meant for combat, they mounted no crew-served weapons. Their gasoline engines would prove fireballs if any of these ships took a hit from a major caliber shell (even if the projectile itself did not break the cabin cruiser in two). Nevertheless, by 1942, the picket boats were in the thick of it and another 470 were soon built to join the 170~ already in service.
Issued submachine guns, hammers (to break periscope lenses if they got close enough) and grenades (to throw in the open hatches of surfaced U-boats, the pickets mounted regular patrols in the coastal waterways and harbor mouths across the nation.
Painted in dull war schemes and loaded up with food, these tiny boats would ply the 50-fathom curve on “five days out and two days in port” patrol rotations and later a few even received some 25-pound paint can-sized depth charges and WWI-era Marlin machine guns found in storage. They tended anti-submarine nets watching for frogmen, raced to the rescue of downed patrol fliers, and all too often responded to the site of successful U-boat attacks, picking up those still alive and those that were not.
In February 1942, 432,000 tons of shipping went down in the Atlantic, 80 percent off the American coast. The pickets were everywhere picking up survivors. For example:
- 27 January 1942, tanker Francis Powell, 7,096-tons, sank after gunfire from U-130 eight miles northeast of the Winter Quarter Lightship. The 38-foot picket boat from CG Station Assateague picked up 11 survivors.
- 27 February 1942, Navy steamer Marore, 8,215-tons, was sunk by a torpedo from U-432 off the North Carolina Coast. Picket boat CG-3843 picked up the master and 13 survivors.
- 27 February 1942, Navy tanker R.P. Resor, 7,415-tons, was hit by a torpedo from U-578 off Sea Girt, Delaware and exploded taking 41 crewmembers and Navy gunners with her. CG-4344 picked up two survivors.
- 31 March 1942, the unarmed tug Menominee towing three barges at 5 knots, was attacked by U-754 with gunfire about 9.5 miles east-southeast of Metopkin Inlet, Virginia near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. After being in the water all day, 38-foot picket CG-4345 picked up six men clinging to wreckage.
And so it went during the war until the U-boat menace abated after 1943. Still, the picket boats provided yeoman service day after day, ready to fight or save lives.
During the War, as reported by one who sailed these craft on the West Coast, the crew typically consisted of six men spread across BM, MM and unrated seamen. As they were often away from the regular full-sized bases, these men were on their own, “The crews of the patrol boats received a dollar and 20 cents per day subsistence money extra with their pay. We had to buy our own food supplies from the commissary and pay our bill at the end of each month. Each boat also had an old-fashioned icebox and a two-burner alcohol stove. We carried government vouchers in case we had to buy gasoline at a harbor away from the Alameda base.”
After the conclusion of the war, many of the most used vessels, those dating from the Rum Row era, were withdrawn.
By 1950, the Coast Guard planned to replace these old 36 and 38 footers that remained with a new class of 40-foot utility boats of which 236 were complete by 1966. With that, the days of the Cabin Pickets were over, although some were passed on to the U.S. Geological Survey and other government agencies for further use.
A few are still around as private yachts and are easily recognizable by their lines.
Today, the 40-foot utilities that replaced the picket boats were themselves phased out by the 41-footers of the 1970s which were in turn retired recently in favor of the new 45 ft. Response Boats that are a common sight along the waterways of the country. This new 174-member class still largely conducts the same mission pioneered by the venerable cabin cruisers.
Clocking in every day.
Hull numbers: CG2385-4372, later changed to 38300-38836 during WWII
Displacement: 15,700-pounds (8~ tons)
Length overall: 38 feet, 3-inches
Beam: 10.33 feet
Draft: 3 feet
Fuel: 240 gallons
Engine: One single. These included either Hall Scott Model 168 270hp V6s, 300hp Sterling Dolphins, Murray and Tregurtha 325s, although most of these after 1942 were completed with 225hp Kermath models.
Speed: 20-25 knots depending on load and engines fitted. One, CG2385, hit 26.5kts on trails.
Range; 175 miles
Hull numbers: CG2200-2229 (open cabin), 2300-2372 (double cabin)
Displacement: 10,000 lbs. (5~ tons)
Length overall: 35.8 feet
Beam: 8.9 feet
Draft: 30 inches
Fuel: 240 gallons
Engine: 180 HP Consolidated Speedway MR-6 six-cylinder gasoline engine
Speed: 20-25 knots depending on load and engines fitted
Range; 175 miles
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