Warship Wednesday, May 31, 2023: USS Fallout
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, May 31, 2023: USS Fallout
Above we see a great 1968 image of the Edsall-class destroyer escort-turned-radar picket, USS Falgout (DER-324) with a bone in her teeth during a Westpac deployment. Some 25 years old at the time, of note her christening occurred 80 years ago this week.
A vessel that saw combat against the Germans while on convoy duty during WWII, she would continue to serve in Korea and as a Cold Warrior, seeing the atomic starburst no less than nine times.
The Edsall class
A total of 85 Edsall-class destroyer escorts were cranked out in four different yards in the heyday of World War II rapid production with class leader USS Edsall (DE-129) laid down 2 July 1942 and last of class USS Holder (DE-401) commissioned 18 January 1944– in all some four score ships built in 19 months. The Arsenal of Democracy at work–building tin cans faster than the U-boats and Kamikazes could send them to Davy Jones.
These 1,590-ton expendable escorts were based on their predecessors, the very successful Cannon-class boats but used an FMR type (Fairbanks-Morse reduction-geared diesel drive) propulsion suite whereas the only slightly less prolific Cannons used a DET (Diesel Electric Tandem) drive. Apples to oranges.
Armed with enough popguns (3×3″/50s, 2x40mm, 8x20mm) to keep aircraft and small craft at bay, they could plug a torpedo into a passing enemy cruiser from one of their trio of above-deck 21-inch tubes, or maul a submarine with any number of ASW weapons including depth charges and Hedgehogs. Too slow for active fleet operations (21 knots) they were designed for coastal patrol (could float in just 125 inches of seawater), sub-chasing, and convoy escorts.
The hero of our story, USS Falgout, is the only ship named for Seaman 2c George Irvin Falgout, a resident of Raceland, Louisiana who was a posthumous recipient of the Navy Cros for his actions while serving on the heavily damaged cruiser, USS San Francisco (CA-38) at Guadalcanal in November 1942. Falgout reportedly “remained at his gun, blazing away at a Japanese aircraft until it crashed his station.”
The only ship named in his honor was constructed by Consolidated Steel Corp, Ltd., Orange, Texas (all the Edsalls were built at one of two Texas Gulf Coast yards) and sponsored at launch by his sister, Mrs. H. J. Guidry. She was commissioned on 15 November 1943 with an all-Coast Guard crew under CDR Henry A Meyer, a Coast Guard regular who earned his first thin gold stripe in 1931.
The CNO, ADM Ernest J. King, had, in June 1943, ordered the Coast Guard to staff and operate 30 new (mostly Edsall-class) destroyer escorts on Atlantic ASW duties, trained especially at the Submarine Training Centers at Miami and Norfolk. Each would be crewed by 11 officers and 166 NCOs/enlisted, translating to a need for 5,310 men, all told.
By November 1943, it had been accomplished! Quite a feat.
The USCG-manned DEs would be grouped in five Escort Divisions of a half dozen ships each, 23 of which were Edsalls:
- Escort Division 20–Marchand, Hurst, Camp, Crow, Pettie, Ricketts.
- Escort Division 22–Poole, Peterson, Harveson, Joyce, Kirkpatrick, Leopold.
- Escort Division 23–Sellstrom, Ramsden, Mills, Rhodes, Richey, Savage.
- Escort Division 45–Vance, Lansing, Durant, Calcaterra, Chambers, Morrill.
- Escort Division 46–Menges, Mosley, Newell, Pride, Falgout, Lowe.
These ships were soon facing off with the Germans in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
Following shakedown along the East Coast and the Caribbean– where Falgout picked up 11 survivors from the American tanker Touchet that was torpedoed and sunk on 3 December 1943 by German U-boat U-193— our new destroyer escort was bound for the Med in February 1944 as part of the escort of Convoy UGS 32 to Casablanca, and returned to New York with GUS 31.
Then came Convoy UGS 38 out of Hampton Roads to Bizerte in Tunisia in April. This crossing proved much more contentious and suffered from German air attacks by waves of Junkers and Heinkel bombers with the Benson-class destroyer USS Landsdale (DD-426) sunk after hits from torpedo-carrying Ju 88s on the night of the 20th. Falgout expended no less than 600 rounds of 20mm and 16 rounds of 40mm on bombers that came close enough to swat.
While on the next homeward bound convoy, GUS 39, Falgout’s sistership USS Menges (DE 320), was hit by a G7es acoustic torpedo from U-371 on 3 May. The German fish destroyed a third of the tin can, and created casualties of a third of the ship’s crew but would amazingly survive the war. Just two nights later, the Buckley-class destroyer escort USS Fechteler (DE-157), would be sunk near Falgout by German submarine U-967, with the bulk of the crew rescued.
Not all the Coast Guard-manned DEs would come through to VE-Day. USS Leopold (DE-319) of CortDiv 22 was torpedoed by U-255 and later sank in the North Atlantic, 400 miles south of Iceland on 10 March 1944, with a loss of 13 officers and 158 men. Two other classmates with Navy crews, USS Frederick C. Davis (DE-136) and USS Fiske (DE-143), would also be lost in the Atlantic to U-boats.
Falgout would make two further roundtrips to Bizerte and back followed by three to Oran and back, although not coming as close to death as on UGS 38/GUS 39. Notably, however, she did pluck four Ju88 crewmembers from the water following a raid on GUS 45 in July 1944.
She was in Oran when the news of the German surrender was received.
Her final WWII skipper was a young LCDR Henry C Keene, Jr.,(USCGA 1941), who had been aboard the Treasury-class cutter USCGC Bibb (WPG-31) earlier in the war when that vessel plucked 235 survivors (and a dog) from U-boat-infested waters in the North Atlantic. Keene would later retire in 1965 as commander of Ketchikan CG Base and go on to be a noted Superior Court judge in Alaska. Meanwhile, the good CDR Meyer, who was the greyhound’s first commander, would continue his career with the Coast Guard for at least until 1956, retiring sometime later as a full captain.
For her 14 convoys, Falgout received one battle star for her wartime service, her only casualty being EM3c James G. O’Brien who died in a 1944 accident while on libo in Casablanca, falling from a second-story window.
After limited post-war service, during which she spent most of 1946 “in commission, in reserve” in Charleston with a caretaker crew (the USCG was returned to the Treasury Department in December 1945, and most of its wartime personnel discharged and Navy-owned ships returned) Falgout was classified “out of commission, in reserve” 18 April 1947 and lowered her flag.
Break out the white paint.
With the dramatic surge in air and maritime traffic across some downright vacant stretches of the Pacific that came with the Korean War, the USCG was again tapped to man a growing series of Ocean Stations. Two had been formed after WWII and the Navy added another three in 1950, bringing the total to five.
These stations would serve both a meteorological purpose– with U.S. Weather Bureau personnel embarked– as well as serve as floating checkpoints for military and commercial maritime and air traffic and communication “relay” stations for aircraft on transoceanic flights crisscrossing the Pacific. Further, they provided an emergency ditch option for aircraft (a concept that had already been proved by the Bermuda Sky Queen rescue in 1947, which saw all 69 passengers and crew rescued by the cutter Bibb.)
As detailed by Scott Price in The Forgotten Service in the Forgotten War, these stations were no picnic, with the average cutter logging 4,000 miles and as many as 320 radar fixes while serving upwards of 700 hours on station.
Ocean station duty could be monotonous at one moment and terrifying the next, as the vessels rode out storms that made the saltiest sailors green. One crew member noted: “After twenty-one days of being slammed around by rough cold sea swells 20 to 50 feet high, and wild winds hitting gale force at times, within an ocean grid the size of a postage stamp, you can stand any kind of duty.”
A typical tour was composed of arriving at Midway Island for three weeks on SAR standby, three weeks on Ocean Station Victor midway between Japan and the Aleutian Islands, three weeks on SAR standby at Guam, two weeks “R and R” in Japan, three weeks on Ocean Station Sugar, three weeks on SAR standby Adak, Alaska, and then back to home port.
To stand post on these new ocean stations and backfill for other cutters detailed to the role, the Navy lent the USCG 12 mothballed Edsalls (Newell, Falgout, Lowe, Finch, Koiner, Foster, Ramsden, Rickey, Vance, Lansing, Durant, and Chambers), nine of which the service had originally operated during WWII.
To man these extra vessels and fill other wartime roles such as establishing new LORAN stations and pulling port security, the USCG almost doubled in size from just over 18,000 to 35,082 in 1952.
The conversion to Coast Guard service included a white paint scheme, an aft weather balloon shelter (they would have to launch three balloons a day in all sea states), and the fitting of a 31-foot self-bailing motor surfboat for rescues in heavy weather. The USCG designator “W” was added to the hull number, as was the number 100, therefore, our vessel went from USS Falgout (DE-324) to USCGC Falgout (WDE-424).
Falgout was on loan to the Coast Guard between 24 August 1951– the second Edsall so converted– and 21 May 1954, in commission for duty as an ocean station vessel out of Tacoma, Washington.
Schenia notes that she pulled eight patrols in this period including two on OS Queen, two on OS Sugar, one on OS Nan, and two on OS Victor in addition to serving as the policing cutter for the International Cruiser Race Regatta in British Columbia in 1952 and the Lake Washington Gold Cup Race in 1953.
Besides nine Edsalls, two similarly loaned ex-Navy seaplane tenders, two 180-foot buoy tenders, and nine existing 255-foot/327-foot Coast Guard cutters also clocked in on Pacific Ocean station detail, with a total of 22 vessels and their crews earning the Korean Service Medal during the conflict. The Pacific Ocean station cutters in all assisted over 20 merchant and Navy vessels in distress, including one transoceanic airliner during the war.
The USCG-manned Edsalls were all retrograded to the Navy in 1954, with the last, Chambers, striking 30 July. It turned out that the Navy had other plans for these humble vessels, now double war vets.
Falgout, laid back up after her 32 months of USCG service during Korea, was picked to become a radar picket ship, and given a new lease on life, reclassified into the Navy at Mare Island on 28 October 1954 as DER-324.
The DER program filled an early gap in the continental air defense system by placing a string of ships as sea-based radar platforms to provide a distant early warning line to possible attack from the Soviets. The Pacific had up to 11 picket stations while the Atlantic had as many as nine. A dozen DEs became DERs (including Falgout) through the addition of SPS-6 and SPS-8 air search radars to help man these DEW lines as the Atlantic Barrier became fully operational in 1956 and the Pacific Barrier (which Falgout took part in) by 1958.
To make room for the extra topside weight of the big radars, they gave up most of their WWII armament, keeping only their Hedgehog ASW device and two Mark 34 3-inch guns with aluminum and fiberglass weather shields.
Her conversion complete, Falgout was recommissioned on 30 June 1955.
She was assigned to Seattle as a homeport, with orders coming from the Continental Air Defense Command, heading out to serve regular radar picket in the Early Warning System.
In March 1959, this changed to duty out of Pearl Harbor.
On 31 January 1961, she received her 10th skipper, LCDR Samuel Lee Gravely Jr., a mustang who enlisted in 1942 and went through NROTC in 1944 to earn his commission. Gravely had previously served on USS PC-1264 in WWII, then aboard the battleship USS Iowa during Korea and the cruiser USS Toledo (CA-133), and served as executive officer and acting commander of the destroyer USS Theodore E. Chandler (DD-717) immediately before taking command of Falgout. This act, noted by the NHHC, put Gravely as the first African-American to command a combat ship.
In late 1962, Falgout, with Gravely as skipper, was detailed to Joint Task Force 8, operating out of Pearl Harbor, for Operation Dominic.
Sparked by the Soviet resumption of nuclear testing after the 1958–1961 moratorium, Dominic would see no less than 31 air dropped, high-altitude rocket, parachuted, and underwater tests of prototype and existing weapons (including the first Polaris SLBM war shot) carried out over the Eastern Pacific spanning from the coast of California to Christmas and Johnston Island.
Falgout would closely participate (sometimes within 90 miles of the detonation) in at least nine of these tests, all off Johnston Island as part of TU 8.3.6, while she would be a more distant weather ship (over 500 miles away) for much of the remainder of the other tests, in the latter tasked with chasing off Soviet spy trawlers.
The Defense Nuclear Agency’s 432-page report on Operation Dominic I compiled in 1983, has the below rundown of Falgout’s nine hottest experiences:
Notably, of the more than 80 Army, Navy, and Coast Guard vessels that took part in or supported Dominic I, only 16, Falgout included, had personnel with “suspect” radiological film badges.
And the detonation maps for Tightrope (Operation Fishbowl, less than 20 kt), Housatonic (9.96 Mt), Calamity (800 Kt), Chama (1.6 Mt), and Bumping (11.3 Kt):
Brushing the dust off Dominic off her decks, Falgout would continue to be based out of Pearl for the rest of the decade.
From 1966 to 1969 Falgout rotated to service along the coast of Vietnam where she served in Operation Market Time, attempting to interdict Viet Cong maritime traffic. This would include the TEE SHOT V operation which saw our tin can serve as a mother ship in Qui Nhon Bay to two 50-foot PCFs including berthing for two spare PCF crews.
As detailed by NHHC, TEE SHOT V “was established in the coastal area from Dong Phu village south to Chanh Oai village to detect and capture or destroy any hostile craft attempting to exfiltrate the area…During the operation a total of 2,448 junks were detected, 1,210 inspected and 484 boarded. Twenty-three persons and six junks with a total of seventeen tons of salt were apprehended and delivered to VNN authorities.”
On 10 October 1969, Falgout was decommissioned at Mare Island after just over 14 years of service to the Navy and four to the USCG under Navy orders. Her fellow DERs shared a similar fate, either laid up in mothballs or transferred to overseas allies.
On 1 June 1975, Falgout was struck from the NVR then in early 1977 was towed out to sea off the coast of California and sunk as a target.
Few relics of Falgout remain, although much of her deck logs and WWII war history is digitized in the National Archives.
As for LCDR Gravely, once he left Falgout in 1963, he went on to complete 38 years of service, command USS Taussig (DD-746), USS Jouett (DLG-29), Naval Communications Command, Cruiser-Destroyer Group Two, the Eleventh Naval District, Third Fleet, and the Defense Communications Agency.
As for the rest of the Edsalls, the former Coast Guard-manned USS Forster (DE/DER-334/WDE-434) may possibly still be afloat in Vietnam as the pier side trainer Dai Ky, while ex-USS Hurst (DE-250) which has been in the Mexican Navy since 1973, is still in use limited use as the training ship ARM Commodore Manuel Azueta (D111).
The final Edsall in U.S. waters is USS Stewart (DE-238). Stricken in 1972, she was donated as a museum ship to Galveston, Texas on 25 June 1974 and has been there ever since, today she is celebrating the 80th anniversary of her 1943 commissioning.
Ships are more than steel
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
That some ships have a
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