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In Our Waters: Darkened Ship – The Last Convoy of the U.S.S. St. Augustine

As war continued to rage in Europe, the United States Navy continued to identify ways to expand its fleet to meet the anticipated needs of involvement in the global conflict. With marching orders from the Navy Department in Washington, D.C., officers of the Third Naval District were busy surveying vessels to determine if they could be converted, in a timely fashion, to serve as naval patrol boats or auxiliaries. On December 2, 1940, several purchases were made in the service’s efforts. Two tugboats, the Thomas E. Moran and the William J. Moran, each purchased at the price of two hundred and twenty thousand dollars, as well as the yacht Pegasus for fifty-thousand dollars, and the Noparo for one hundred and eighty thousand dollars. While the tugs would receive only minor outfitting for transition to their U.S. Navy duties, the yachts would require more work for conversion. Their time in the U.S. Navy was about to begin.

The Pegasus was originally built in 1925 by the Consolidated Ship Building Corporation at the cost of one hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars. The one hundred and ninety-ton vessel was purchased from Clifford Hemphill, a New York stock broker. Prior to its transfer from its anchorage in the Shrewsbury River in New Jersey to the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, New York, all of her luxury accommodations would be removed and stored. The Noparo, a two hundred and seventy-two foot long yacht, had been built in Newport News, Virginia in 1929 at the cost of one million, two hundred and fifty-thousand dollars. The luxury yacht had been purchased by the U.S. Navy from Norman B. Woolworth, of the Woolworth Five and Dime family. Woolworth had purchased the yacht, originally named Viking, after the untimely death of its original owner, George F. Baker Jr. The Noparo, moored at the Thames Shipyard in New London, Connecticut, would be transferred to Boston for conversion.
After the Noparo was converted to a gunboat at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation Yard in Boston, Massachusetts she received her new designation as PG-54. Her luxury appointments removed, she was armed with three, three-inch guns, four fifty-caliber machine guns, and was equipped with two depth charge racks to combat enemy U-boats. On January 9, 1941, she was renamed U.S.S. St. Augustine and she was commissioned seven days later on January 16th with Lieutenant Commander John R. Litchfield, Jr., of the United States Naval Reserve, serving as her first commanding officer. After initially operating under the command of the Fist Naval District, the U.S.S. Augustine was shifted from Boston waters to the Eastern Sea Frontier in 1942. Over the course of the next two years, the U.S.S. Augustine was responsible for escorting coastal convoys between New York and various ports throughout the Caribbean
On January 6, 1944, the U.S.S. St. Augustine, with a compliment of one hundred and forty-five officers and crew, set out from New York on convoy duty bound for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As per convoy regulations, the U.S.S. Augustine and the vessels in her convoy were running darkened ship. Unknown to the convoy, the Camas Meadows, a tanker owned and operated by the American Petroleum Transport Company, was northbound at the same time. At approximately twenty-three hundred hours, the tanker’s bow slammed into the U.S.S. Augustine. The collision immediately splintered the gunboat’s seams and the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean flooded the within vessel in a matter of seconds. The U.S.S. Augustine had suffered a mortal blow.
Amidst the blackness of the night, the officers and crew scrambled to escape the sinking gunboat. A may-day was quickly issued from the Camas Meadows. Two tugboats, the Allegheny and the Point Judith, steamed out of Cape May, New Jersey and raced for the sight of the collision. Despite the efforts of the tugboats and the tanker’s men, only thirty sailors were pulled alive from the frigid waters. Sixty-seven lifeless souls, most who had succumbed to the elements, were recovered in the hours after the collision. Forty-nine members of the crew were not recovered and were listed as missing. The U.S.S. St. Augustine had slipped beneath the waves and into the Atlantic Ocean in approximately five minutes.
The loss of the U.S.S. St. Augustine, seventy-three miles south-south-west of Cape May, New Jersey in the late hours of January 6, 1944, highlighted the dangerous and deadly duty that faced members of the United States Navy and the Merchant Services during convoy operations during the Second World War.3 Sadly, only thirty members of the converted yacht’s officers and crew survived the horrible collision and subsequent sinking that occurred in the dark of night, in our waters.

About the Author – Adam M. Grohman is the researcher and author of over thirty-six books which capture the rich history of our maritime environs and United States Coast Guard History. For more information about scheduling a lecture or to purchase any of his available titles, please visit or email