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 January 4, 2017: There is no longer an Escape
Here we see a rack of 68-pound MK. V Diving Helmets stored on board the Diver-class salvage and rescue ship USS Escape (ARS-6), during the 1960s. From the NHC caption: “The helmets constantly have a light burning inside to keep out moisture and corrosion when stored in this manner. Sailors on board the ship say it makes a spooky sight, much like a rack of Halloween Jack-O-Lantern.”
Escape had a long and interesting life that saw her role repeatedly redefined.
The Navy was already experienced in marine salvage prior to World War II. Several major operations involved the recovery of three submarines between the wars: USS S-51 in 1925; USS S-4 in 1927; and USS Squalus in 1939.
However, the Navy did not have ships specifically designed and built for salvage work when it entered WWII, and it was not until the start of the war that salvage ships become a distinct vessel type.
The earliest designated United States Navy salvage ships (ARS) were converted WWI-era Lapwing-class minesweepers (USS Viking ARS-1, USS Crusader ARS-2, USS Discoverer ARS-3, and USS Redwing ARS-4) but they were far from adequate when it came to heavy deep sea lifting.
Then came the purpose-built Diver-class.
Built at Basalt Rock Co., Napa, Calif. — a gravel company who was in the barge building biz– 17 of the new 213-foot vessels were constructed during WWII.
Fitted with a 20-ton capacity boom forward and 10-ton capacity booms aft, they had automatic towing machines, two fixed fire pumps rated at 1,000 gallons per minute, four portable fire pumps, and eight sets of “beach gear,” pre-rigged anchors, chains and cables for use in refloating grounded vessels. And of course, they were excellently equipped to support divers in the water with one double re-compression chamber and two complete diving stations aft for air diving and two 35-foot workboats. The Mark V helmet shown above? It was put into production in 1942 with these ships in mind.
Class leader USS Diver (ARS-5) commissioned 23 October 1943 and the hero of our tale, Escape, followed shortly after.
Escape (ARS-6) in the Napa River, CA. 11 November 1943, about a week before commissioning. This ship, the second of this type ordered for the US Navy, was completed with a modified rig aft consisting of a single kingpost with two longer booms. One of the booms was soon deleted, and this became the standard rig for the remainder of the class. US National Archives, RG-19-LCM, photo #’s 19-N-57115, US Navy Bureau of Ships photos now in the collections of the US National Archives, courtesy Shipscribe.com via Navsource.
Assigned to Norfolk and then Bermuda in late 1943, Escape was based for general salvage and towing duties and during the conflict rescued at least four ships at sea including the steamer SS George Ade which was hit by a Gnat from U-518 about 125 miles off the coast of North Carolina. Despite a hurricane that brought 100-knot winds and 50-foot seas, Escape brought Ade into port and the merchantman was eventually returned to service.
Escape 1945, looking a good bit more broken in than in her 1943 photo.
As the war ended, Escape was tasked with getting the Italian submarine Goffredo Mameli back to the spaghetti boat’s home. When she was commissioned in 1929, Mameli was the deepest diving sub in the world and she also became one of the luckiest as the Italians lost something like 8 out of 10 submarines they had in the war. Mameli had spent the last few months of the conflict in the U.S. as a training ship.
Italian Submarine Goffredo Mameli August 27, 1944 off the east coast of the U.S. (Maine). Following the Armistice, Mameli and two of her sisters were sent to the US to serve as training targets for allied forces and were based in Florida, near the SONAR school in Key West. Photographed by a blimp from ZP-11
On 8 November 1945, Escape sailed from Key West escorting, and later towing, Mameli to Taranto, Italy and returned to Norfolk 22 January 1946 on;yto be laid up six months later.
Reactivated in 1951, she was soon busy salvaging the wreck of the gunboat USS Erie (PG-50), a past Warship Weds alumni, from the inner harbor of Willemstad, Curacao.
Here is a USN training film on the classic dive dress used during most of Escape‘s Navy service.
In 1958, Escape recovered a full-scale Jupiter IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) nose cone of a returning Jupiter-C rocket from the waters near Antigua and in 1960 was a support ship for Operation Sky Hook, a high-altitude balloon reconnaissance research program, which prepped her for helping in the NASA recovery operations with Project Mercury January 30, 1960, and November and December 1960; Apollo-Saturn 12 (AS-12), November 14-24, 1969; Skylab-2 (SL-2), May 25-June 22, 1973; and Skylab-3 (SL-3), July 28-September 25, 1973.
Oh yeah, and she participated in the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis blockade.
In short, she was a really busy salvage ship.
In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, Escape spent the last six months of 1974 clearing wrecks blocking the Suez Canal as part of Operation Nimrod Spar (316-page SUPSALV report on that here another 115-page one here)
USS Escape on Lake Timash, Egypt, 1974
USS ESCAPE (ARS-6) Entering a Mediterranean Sea Port, during the 1970s. Catalog #: NH 88518 click to big up
USS Escape (ARS-6) moored pierside at Cartagena, Spain, circa 1976-77. Mario Gomes via Navsource
With the Navy having several newer classes of salvage ships (the Anchor, Weight, Bolster and Safeguard-class vessels) Escape and her sisters were effectively replaced in by the 1970s.
Escape was decommissioned, 1 September 1978 and laid up with the James River Reserve Fleet near Norfolk. In her 35 years of service with the Navy, 22 skippers had helmed her.
Then came the Cuban boatlift crisis and the Coast Guard was woefully short of ships. In January 1981, Escape was transferred from reserve fleet to the U.S. Coast Guard.
In the rush to convert the grey-hulled salvage ship to a white-hulled lawman, her sponsons were taken off, she was converted from DC to AC, her diving support system and decompression chamber were removed, and much of her salving storage converted. Her armament was landed and she would roll with small arms only.
She was commissioned at 10 a.m. on 14 March 1981 at Portsmouth, Va. and at the time was the largest cutter in the USCG’s Seventh District (outclassing the “puny” 210-foot Reliance class WMECs by three feet oal).
Although the helmets were long gone, she kept her name, hull number and WWII era ship’s insignia.
1945, 1958 and 1981 respectively
Humanitarian service remained a hallmark of her career, rescuing some 586 Haitians from the sea in a single month in 1989, besting this in a three-week period in 1994 with 1193 Haitians from 39 waterlogged “vessels” (at one time having 397 souls clustered on her deck).
USCGC Escape (WMEC-6) on patrol in the Caribbean Sea picking up refugees, circa 1994. Photo courtesy of the National Association of Fleet Tug Sailors, contributed by Scott Vollmer via Navsource
Her service to the Coast Guard, besides the Cuban boatlift, was the stuff of legend and she popped a number of large narco boats including the M/V Portside with 10-tons of grass just six months after she was commissioned, M/V Juan XIII with 13-tons in 1982, the Colombian M/V Mr. Ted with 18 tons of marijuana just 100 miles off the coast of South Carolina in 1988, 515 keys of coke on the U.S. flagged yacht Ojala in 1992 (along with the hydrofoil USS Gemini) and enforcing Operation Support Democracy, the UN embargo on Haiti.
Things sometimes got dicey. In December 1982, the M/V My Lord tried to ram the old girl but the cutter managed to get a boarding team on board to arrest eight and seize five tons of narcotics.
Other conversions from her original salvage role came and her forward cargo boom and salvage wench were removed, a new gyro and weight room added, new reefers added, the ship’s office converted to CPO mess, ship’s store converted to berthing, towing wench landed and two Zodiac Hurricane boats loaded.
She earned the nickname “Workhorse of the Atlantic” picking up a Coast Guard Unit Commendation, three Meritorious Unit Commendations, four Humanitarian Service Medals, two Operational Readiness Awards and five Special Operations Award– the latter all for Operation Able Manner.
When she decommissioned 29 June 1995 at Charleston, Escape was the oldest medium endurance cutter in the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area and seven USCG captains had skippered her.
With all of the modifications, and her extended age, Escape was not in a condition suitable for recall and re-use by the Navy as a salvage vessel and was laid up at the National Defense Reserve Fleet, James River Group, Lee Hall, VA.
There she remained until the Maritime Administration paid $115,200 to Bay Bridge Enterprises LLC of Chesapeake, VA to scrap the old girl in 2009.
As for her 16 sisters, they all left U.S. Navy service fairly rapidly in the 1970s and disposed of with only the USS Preserver (ARS-8) lasting somehow until 1994. Two went to South Korea; one, ex- USS Grapple (ARS-7) is still active as ROCS Da Hu (ARS-552) in Taiwan and one, ex-USS Safeguard (ARS-25), went to Turkey. The latter is supposedly still active as TCG Isin (A-589) though her replacement is nearing.
Two of Escape‘s sisters, USS Seize (ARS-26) and USS Shackle (ARS-9) also went to the Coast Guard as USCGC Yocona (WMEC-168) and USCGC Acushnet (WMEC-167) respectively. Seize/Yocona was sunk as a target in 2006 and Shackle/Acushnet, decommissioned in 2011 as the last Diver-class vessel in U.S. service, is currently for sale in Anacortes, Wash and efforts are afoot to save her.
Escape‘s plans are in the National Archives.
One of the last remnants of her in circulation are postal cancellations honoring her as part of the NASA recovery fleet.
And, of course, MK V helmets.
Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport dock. US Navy Diver Breslin looks pretty happy in his MK V rig 1950
Displacement: 1,441 tons (1943)
1,756 tons (1964)
Length: 213′ 6″
Draft: 13′ 11″ (1964)
Propulsion: Four Combustion Engineering GSB-8 Diesel engines
double Fairbanks-Morse Main Reduction Gears
twin propellers, 3,000shp
Ship’s Service Generators
two Diesel-drive 200Kw 120V D.C.
one Diesel-drive 60Kw 120V D.C.
Fuel Capacity: 95,960 gallons
Maximum Speed: 14.8 knots on trials.
Range: 9,000 miles @ 15 knots
Cruising Speed: 10.3 knots (13,700 mile range)
Complement: 7+113 (USN–1943)
USGC: Final crew was 8 officers, 3 CPOs, 35 enlisted. (Authorised in 1981 with 7 officers, 65 enlisted)
Radar: OS-8E (1964)
Designed: one single 3″/50 cal dual purpose gun mount
two twin 40mm AA gun mounts
four .50 cal machine guns
(1964) 2 x 20mm/80
(1981) Small arms
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