Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil – Semper Paratus.
There was no way Kostas Palaskas was going to let the captain continue on this voyage of the damned. Leaking the moment they had put out for sea, it was questionable to many aboard whether or not the quasi-refurbished freighter would ever make it to her final destination of Rotterdam. The officers and crew had been pleading for hours with Captain George Couhopadelis to turn back and seek shelter in a nearby harbor. Their pleas though fell on deaf ears. As the freighter fought to stay afloat, the captain was unwilling to accept the inevitable. Profits be damned, Palaskas thought as he made his way along the slippery, rain and wave swept decks. His mind was made up. The incessant rain pelted his face and as the gale-force winds whipped about him, he knew he had to reach the wireless compartment if he was going to survive this absurd atrocity of the merchant marine. This, he reflected as he stumbled upon the wave wet decks, was insanity. There was not a true salt aboard that believed that the ship was capable of reaching its final destination under the current conditions. The freighter continued to pitch wildly in the raging storm as Palaskas finally reached the hatch. His fingers wildly fumbled along his belt as they reached for his scabbard. He gripped the handle and pulled it free. He raised the knife skyward in his grasp as he undogged and swung open the heavy hatch with his free hand. The wireless operator spun around in his seat at the sound of the heavy door’s opening. The two shipmates suddenly locked eyes. The operator looked up and saw the blade of the knife shimmering in the electric light. The message had to be sent, Palaskas thought to himself as he carefully dogged the hatch behind him. The freighter plunged down the face of a massive wave, its decks echoing a cacophony of creaks as if the steel of the hull was screaming under the stress of the swells and the seas. The message would be sent, he muttered to himself, as he eased closer and closer to the operator who sat at his post frozen stiff with fear. The message would be…
The Tzenny Chandris, formerly named the Eastern Packet, had been built and launched in Kobe, Japan in 1920. After several years of service, she had been laid up in the James River, Virginia before being purchased by John Chandris, a representative of a Greek shipping syndicate. Enlisting a crew from his native country, his plan was to utilize the freighter to transport goods to Europe. After a rushed yard period, the ill-maintained freighter was put into service. After taking on scrap metal and a small stock of sheep, hogs and fowl in Norfolk, she had made several additional port calls to take on additional loads of metal. The unfit freighter was obscenely overburdened but the voyage was to be made regardless. As she was trying to depart her last port call in Morehead City, North Carolina, she had scraped the bottom and was forced to wait until high tide to depart. Despite several reports from his men that water was leaking into the lower holds, the captain was not dissuaded in his plans. The Tzenny Chandris, he sternly retorted to those who questioned his authority and expertise, would get to her final destination. The freighter steamed into the open waters of the Atlantic.
A nor’easter had churned the Atlantic Ocean into a wild frenzy of massive waves and whipping winds. As twenty-one vessels were seeking safe haven, the freighter steamed outbound and headlong into the maelstrom. As the storm conditions worsened, the freighter made little headway. Less than twenty-four hours out of port, the freighter was fighting the wicked weather. The officers and crew continued to plead with the captain to turn back or to contact shore of the ship’s condition. He flatly rebuffed their requests. Rolling to starboard in the crest of a swell, a large portion of the iron scrap shifted. The Tzenny Chandris sustained a fifteen degree list. Water poured into the engine room. The electric lights flickered. The final moments of the Tzenny Chandris had come. Kostas Palaskas had seen and had experienced enough. The wireless operator required no more persuasion. At four fifteen a.m., he issued the first SOS message. The Tzenny Chandris was going down.
Though the radio transmission was garbled and unclear it had reached stations listening ashore. The United States Coast Guard alerted any and all vessels in the area to render assistance if possible as it readied its own fleet of rescue cutters. As the cutters Mendota, Sebago, and Bibb set out from Norfolk, Virginia into the heavy swells and high winds, the C.D. Mallory tanker Swiftsure altered her course to render aid as Captain A.C. Allen believed he was closest to the last known estimated position. He ordered his engine room to give him full revolutions. By five fifteen in the morning of November 13th, 1937, radio transmissions from the Tzenny Chandris had fallen silent. Unbeknownst to the rescuers, the Tzenny Chandris had already been abandoned and was on its way to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off of Diamond Shoals, Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
When the list worsened, Captain George Couhopadelis was forced to accept defeat. Amidst the wind-swept rain squalls, he ordered his crew to secure lifebelts and to abandon ship. Several leapt into the frigid waters before lifeboats could be lowered. The heavy cargo of iron scrap and livestock slid into the surging seas. It was every man for himself. Escaping the sinking ship would be only the beginning of their plight. With the engine room flooded, electricity on the ship flickered. The freighter, pitching wildly in the sea, suddenly went dark. The wind howled, the rain squalls intensified and the twenty-nine men aboard the Tzenny Chandris were wantonly cast out upon the open sea as the freighter capsized and sank into the black depths of the ocean.
Four hours later, the tanker Swiftsure hove into the sight. Captain Allen and his officers spotted a single lifeboat in the distance. Their approach was difficult under the nor’easter conditions. Finally, at nine thirty in the morning, Captain Mallory wrote a quick message on a sheet of paper. “Get this to sparks,” he ordered to his first mate. “We will continue the search as best we can.” He then returned his attention to the storm-churned waters and passed orders to his helmsman to alter course. Moments later, the message was transmitted. “Vicinity of Diamond Shoals. One lifeboat afloat with men approximately thirty to forty miles northeast of Diamond Shoals. No information name of ship. Men speak only Greek. Boat picked up had six men who said another lifeboat was afloat with fourteen men in it.” The Swiftsure surged through the tempest to try and locate the other lifeboat and hopefully, more survivors.
As the cutters began to reach the search area, all hands kept a sharp look out for debris on the raging swells. Above, several U.S. Navy and U. S. Coast Guard aircraft lumbered through the high winds, their pilots and crew peering down on the wide expanse of the ocean for any signs of life. Unable to verbally communicate with the Greek speaking survivors, Captain Allen aboard the tanker Swiftsure, utilized modified sign language to pinpoint the location of the sinking. Upon their arrival, only a boom crane was located. The Swiftsure and the United States Coast Guard cutters plodded along their sweeping search legs as the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard aircraft scanned from above. As night fell upon the ocean, the fate of the other twenty-three men remained unknown.
The next morning, November 14, 1937, U.S. Navy Lieutenant A.C. Keller spotted a lifeboat bobbing in the open waters. It appeared empty. He banked his aircraft and flew to the cutter Mendota. He would lead them to the lifeboat. Over the course of the next few hours, two additional lifeboats were located by the United States Coast Guard. The cutter Bibb inspected one righted lifeboat. It was empty. The Mendota found two additional lifeboats overturned. The Coastguardsmen investigated but no men were found. The search continued.
Two hours later, Lieutenant Keller spotted a swath of debris. He leveled off and dipped lower to investigate. He quickly counted the men in the water – thirteen. He circled above and watched as the men began to feverishly splash about in the water. It was not to draw attention to the pilot Keller quickly realized as he spotted the ominous fins of deadly man-eaters circling the survivors. Keller, unable to affect a direct rescue, power dove toward the water in an effort to scare off the blood-thirsty sharks. His several passes appeared to help. Keller gained altitude and raced back to the Mendota to pass on the location of the survivors. Low on fuel, the seven U.S. Navy aircraft raced back to Norfolk to refuel.
Finally, thirteen men and one lifeless body were pulled from the pitching seas by the cutter Mendota. Ravaged carcasses of livestock from the sunken freighter that had abated the sharks thirst for flesh littered the waters as the Coastguardsmen pulled the weary survivors from the sea. The men were forty miles north of where the freighter had foundered and gone to the bottom. Several hours later, the last aircraft on scene, a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft from the air station at Cape May, New Jersey spotted an overturned lifeboat. Lieutenant R.L. Burke relayed the location to the Mendota. Upon further investigation by the cutter Mendota, two survivors were pulled from the overturned lifeboat along with three lifeless corpses of men who had died in the early morning escape from the freighter. The last survivor pulled from the water, the only English speaking member of the crew, had been in the shark-infested waters for nearly thirty-two hours. The Mendota, the survivors aboard being provided medical treatment, raced for Norfolk, Virginia. The tanker Swiftsure with six survivors aboard was released from her humanitarian mission and proceeded onward for its original destination of Boston, Massachusetts. A total of twenty-one men had been saved from the clutches of death by the timely response provided by merchant mariners and service personnel of the U.S. Navy and the United States Coast Guard. The wireless operator was among the lost. In honor of their leadership in the rescue efforts of their native sons, the government of Greece honored Commander Henry Coyle, the captain of the U.S.C.G.C. Mendota and Lieutenant Clarence A. Keller of the United States Navy with gold marine medals.
The Mendota, the rescue efforts of the Tzenny Chandris in her wake, continued her service to her nation. The dark clouds of war in Europe though would alter her fate. On April 9, 1941, the United States Government indicated that ten United States Coast Guard Cutters, including the U.S.C.G.C. Mendota would be transferred to the Royal Navy to support their nascent efforts to beat back the German U-boat menace. The newly named H.M.S. Culver would soon fly the Union Jack in support of the Allied war effort against the Nazi regime. The spirit of the cutter’s Coast Guard service would soon become apparent when the H.M.S. Culver assisted in the rescue of twenty-five souls, on October 31, 1941, who had been cast adrift after their ship, the Bennekom, was torpedoed while transiting the Atlantic Ocean in convoy OS-10. Sadly though, the H.M.S. Culver, while engaged in convoy duty on the night of January 31, 1942, would suffer a terrible fate four hundred and fifty miles west, southwest of Cape Clear, Ireland.
Two torpedoes ripped into the hull of the H.M.S. Culver. Seconds after the first torpedo struck the boiler room the second one struck further aft igniting the aft magazine. A massive fireball erupted and the cutter heeled violently to starboard. Within one minute, the vessel had severed in two. Seven officers and one hundred and nineteen brave sailors were lost almost instantly. Only one officer and twelve sailors were pulled from the black icy waters of the Atlantic by their shipmates aboard the H.M.S. Londonberry. The H.M.S. Culver, the former United States Coast Guard Cutter Mendota, had become another victim of the deadly German wolf packs.
The rich history of the U.S.C.G.C. Mendota was one filled with over twelve years of service to her nation. Even in her service under the command of the Royal Navy, she had heroically served to save others in peril. Her peacetime missions peppered with daring rescues including the Tzenny Chandris, she had a sad and horrific end in service to the allied forces in the Second World War. And while her sunken remains entomb the sailors who went to sea to ensure the safety of the vessels in their convoy, her service to her nation and to the world should forever be remembered as a true sentinel and savior of the seas.
“Catastrophe: Greek Tragedy,” November 22, 1937.
“Greek Freighter Sinks off Cape Hatteras,” November 29, 1937.
The New York Times.
“23 Missing, 6 Saved as Freighter Sinks off Cape Hatteras,” November 14, 1937.
“15 From Ship Saved After a Day in Sea Clinging to Debris,” November 15, 1937.
“Freighter Leaky, Survivors Assert,” November 16, 1937.
“Retracts Story on SOS,” November 17, 1937.
“Greece Honors Rescuers; Awards Medals to 2 American Officers Who Saved Crew,” November 24, 1938.
“Ten U.S. Cutters Will Go To Britain,” April, 10, 1941.