Warship Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017: The Real McCoy
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 their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.– Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017: The Real McCoy
Here we see the mighty U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Seneca (CG-17), a warship that served in both World Wars and had a tussle or two while enforcing some unpopular laws.
Classified when constructed as a “derelict destroyer” for the then-U.S. Revenue Marine designed to deep-six semi-submerged vessels on the high seas while towing in those still salvageable, she was built by Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company in Virginia and commissioned 12 November 1908, named after the storied Native American tribe of the Iroquois confederation formerly living in New York state.
At least four Seneca’s served in the Navy during the Civil War and Great War while a fifth, AT-91/ATF-91, was a 205-foot Navajo-class fleet tug built during WWII and sunk as a target in 2003. However, the Revenue Service cutter that is the subject of this post was the first cutter by that name.
Built at a price of $244,000, she was a follow-on to the five modern cutters ordered at the turn of the Century, that, at 200~ feet and 1,200-tons were decent steel-hulled vessels that could serve their peacetime use as well as be capable modern naval auxiliary gunboats in times of conflict.
Constructed with lessons learned from those craft, the one-off Seneca tipped the scales at 1,259-tons and went 204-feet overall. Able to float in 18-feet of seawater, her twin boiler plant could chug her along at an economical 12-knots. A quartet of 6-pounders (57mm guns) and a supply of naval mines and explosives for scuttling completed her armament.
Her first “job” was helping to police the massive Hudson-Fulton international naval parade in New York. Her commander during the Hudson-Fulton parade was Captain J. C. Cantwell, USRCS, and she was shown off to both visiting dignitaries and naval personnel.
Seneca immediately went to a harder line of work, in 1909 towing the stricken White Star liner RMS Republic, which sent the first wireless distress signal in history via the then-novel Marconi apparatus after the vessel was mortally wounded in a collision with the steamer Florida off Nantucket.
Then, of course, there was the derelict duty and anti-smuggling work.
In March 1913, Seneca responded to the first International Ice Patrol, established in the aftermath of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Operating out of Halifax, Nova Scotia and ranging as far as Iceland, Seneca made no less than 10 patrols in the next three years looking for wandering ice, on one occasion saving adrift survivors of the British freighter Columbian.
During this time the Revenue Marine became part of the new Coast Guard, and Seneca changed her title and took part in the increasingly tense neutrality patrol work as the world descended into the Great War.
Upon the U.S. Declaration of War against the Kaiser in April 1917, the new service became part of the Navy. Accordingly, Seneca landed her battery of 6-pounders, picked up a new one of a quartet of 3″/50 cal guns, and for the next 28 months served as a haze gray colored gunboat for the Navy.
Seneca was assigned to Squadron 2, Division 6, of the Atlantic Fleet Patrol forces, heading to Europe along with the other large blue water cutters on convoy escort and general anti-submarine missions. Assigned to Base 9 (Gibraltar), Seneca joined the cutters Algonquin, Manning, Ossipee, Tampa, and Yamacraw.
Venturing into U-boat-infested seas proved dangerous for the small group of cutters. The small Ossipee, 165-feet of rock and roll, escorted an impressive 32 convoys consisting of 596 Allied vessels and made contacts with enemy submarines on at least 8 occasions, on one of these reportedly side-stepping a torpedo by about 15 feet. Tampa was not so lucky, sunk just six weeks before the end of the war by a torpedo hit with all hands; 111 Coast Guardsmen, 4 U.S. Navy personnel, and 16 passengers.
Seneca herself ran 30 convoys and escorted 580 ships, plucking 81 survivors from the torpedoed RN sloop HMS Cowslip in April. 1918 off Gibraltar, and 27 survivors from the stricken British freighter SS Queen in June.
Then came the Wellington.
Part of the 21-ship Convoy OM-99, outbound from Milford Haven to Gibraltar, the 5,600-ton freighter Wellington suffered an explosion that blew the first 30-feet off her bow and Seneca, responding to the scene, chased off a surfaced U-boat with her 3-inchers. Sending over a 20-man crew of volunteers to help keep the coal-laden merchantman from foundering with the hopes of making for Brest, about 350 miles away on the French coast.
While they could slow the flooding, and make 7.5-knots, a storm set in and the act turned hopeless, with 1LT Fletcher W. Brown ordering the boarding crew and remaining Wellington sailors to abandon ship and take their chances in the water.
However, 11 went down with the freighter and were awarded the Navy Cross for their heroism while Acting Machinist William L. Boyce received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal for staying in the engine room until the very end. The final message from Wellington, sent by Electrician 2nd Class Morrill C. Mason, USCG: “We are turning over, you’ve done everything you could. Goodbye.”
In all, Seneca received three letters of commendation from the Admiralty for her service in Europe. She fired upon or dropped depth charges on no less than 21 occasions, often credited with sinking one submarine, though post-war analysis never firmed that up.
Chopping back to Coast Guard duty in 1919, she picked up her white scheme, but she still had another battle to fight.
Once enforcement of the Volstead Act began in January 1920, it was the Treasury Department that was given the unpopular task of enforcing Prohibition, and “T-men” of the newly formed Bureau of Prohibition (which became ATF in 1930 and was transferred briefly to the Justice Department) became a popular term at the time for those engaged in the act of chasing down bootleggers, speakeasies and those with hidden stills. It should be noted that Elliot Ness and his “Untouchables” were T-men and not G-men of the FBI, as is commonly believed and for every public hero of the force, there were heavy-handed and unprofessional agents such as “Kinky” Thompson who gave the work a black eye– literally.
Nevertheless, as a branch of the Treasury going back to the days of Alexander Hamilton, the Coast Guard became responsible for enforcement on the seas, fighting booze pirates and rum-runners smuggling in territorial waters. The agency was hard-pressed to chase down fast bootlegging boats shagging out to “Rum Row” where British and Canadian merchantmen rested on the 3-mile limit loaded with cases of good whiskey and rum for sale.
This led the agency to borrow 31 relatively new destroyers from the Navy, an act that would have been akin to the USN transferring all the FFG7 frigates to the Coast Guard during the “cocaine cowboy” days of the 1980s.
However, Seneca and the other legacy cutters held their own as well.
One of the more infamous on Rum Row was William “Bill” McCoy, a graduate of the Pennsylvania Nautical School in Philadelphia who went on to sail the seven seas for two decades before he opened a boatyard in Florida. Picking up first one schooner and then another, the 130-foot British-flagged Arethusa which he renamed Tomoka, McCoy specialized in running liquor from the Bahamas and Bermuda as well as from the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon (where Arethusa flew a French flag and went by the name Marie Celeste) to New England, reportedly making $300,000 in profit for each trip. His profits were high because he never stepped on his booze and cut it with water, with his whiskey being passed off as “the real McCoy.”
It was a night in November 1923 when Seneca came across McCoy and his hooch-laden Arethusa off the New Jersey coast.
From Rum Wars at Sea:
Agents in cooperation with the Coast Guard put into effect without warning the principal of search and seizure beyond the 3-mile limit, realizing the likelihood of legal complications. The cutter Seneca arrived near Tomoka at daybreak and found the schooner riding placidly at anchor. The ship was first boarded by agents, and as soon as they were on board a fist fight developed in which all hands took part. The agents, though badly beaten up, were able to search her and found 200 cases of whiskey remaining from an original cargo of 4,200. Then Tomoka got underway with the agents on board. Seneca ordered her to stop. When she disregarded this, the cutter sent two shots screaming across her bows with the desired result. She was then boarded by a larger group of coast guardsmen from Seneca and seized.
It was the end of McCoy’s rum-running days and he soon headed off to federal prison on an abbreviated sentence, with Arethusa sold at public auction.
Still, Seneca proved a scourge for those who remained in the business.
Badly worn out, Seneca was placed out of service in 1927-28 for reconstruction and spent the rest of Prohibition stationed in New York, transferring to San Juan in 1932 and Mobile in 1934. Showing her age, she was decommissioned 21 March 1936 and stored at the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore to make room for the new 327-foot Treasury-class cutters then under construction.
In September, the 28-year-old disarmed cutter was sold to the Boston Iron and Metal Co., of Baltimore, Maryland for $6,605, who did nothing with her and subsequently resold her to the Texas Refrigeration Steamship Line to turn into a banana boat on the Guatemala to Gulfport run. However, TRSL went bankrupt and Seneca never left Baltimore, leaving her to be reacquired at auction by Boston Iron, who still owned her in 1941 and weren’t doing anything with the old girl.
With another war coming, the Coast Guard took Seneca back into service in 1941. However, she was deemed to be in too poor a condition for escort duty and was instead shuffled to “The Real” McCoy’s alma mater, the Pennsylvania Nautical School in Philadelphia for use as a training vessel. Seneca, renamed Keystone State, replaced the old 1,000-ton gunboat USS Annapolis in September 1942.
During this time, admission requirements at the school were raised to high school graduates between the ages of 17 and 20 years and students were instructed in dead reckoning, the duties of an officer; theoretical and practical marine engineering; and in handling boats. Some 2,000 young men cycled through the school in the war years.
In April 1946, the Maritime Commission made the newly-decommissioned Artemis-class attack cargo ship USS Selinur (AKA-41) available to the school as Keystone State II, and Seneca was returned.
She was scrapped in 1950, one of the last vessels built for the Revenue Marine Service still afloat at the time.
Seneca, however, is well remembered.
In 1928, the U.S. Coast Guard Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, honoring the service’s war dead in general and those lost on Tampa and Seneca during WWI in particular, was dedicated.
Architect George Howe and sculptor Gaston Lachaise captured the spirit of the Coast Guard’s legendary steadfastness in the monument’s rock foundation and pyramid design. Above the Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus (meaning “Always Ready”), is a bronze seagull with its wings uplifted. The seagull symbolizes the tireless vigil that the U.S Coast Guard maintains over the nation’s maritime territory.
Further, the centennial medals issued by the U.S. Mint in 2018 honoring the service’s participation in the Great War depicts a lifeboat from the Coast Guard Cutter Seneca heading out in heavy seas toward the torpedoed steamship Wellington.
Her name was recycled for the “Famous” class 270-foot Medium Endurance Cutter, WMEC-906, was commissioned in 1987 and is homeported in Boston.
Tonnage: 1,259 tons (gross)
Length: 204 ft.
Breadth: 34 ft. Breadth
Draft (or Depth): 17.3 ft. (depth)
Engines: Two Scotch boilers, one triple expansion steam engine, one shaft.
Speed: 11.2 knots
Crew: 9/65 designed, 110 wartime
Armament: (1908) 4- 6pdrs
(1917) 4 3″/50 cal guns, depth charges
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