How the Fishing Fleet Served the U.S. Coast Guard in WWII
[By J. Edwin Nieves, public affairs officer, Coast Guard Auxiliary Division 6]
At the start of World War II, demand for ships exploded to meet the needs of US maritime services. The Coast Guard was no exception as it competed with the US Navy and US Army for new construction as well as private vessels. Faced with a strong demand for vessels, the service turned to the US fishing industry as the source of its cutters. These emergency acquisitions included trawlers from the east coast, whalers from both coasts and Menhaden fishing vessels from the east coast, such as the emergency rescue vessel. Dow (WYP 353).
During WWI and WWII, the Menhaden fishing fleet became a ready reserve for the Navy and Coast Guard. Both services needed small, shallow draft vessels for escorting coastal convoys, laying mines, demining, and maintaining anti-submarine nets. Many of these vessels were bought or leased, while others were loaned to navies by fishing companies as a contribution to the war effort.
Menhaden fishing boats were designed to catch schools of small fish in coastal waters, primarily in Chesapeake Bay. Their very long and narrow design sported a distinctive plumb bow, a raised wheelhouse for spotting large schools of fish, a center hold to store catches, and a low freeboard for carrying full fishing nets aboard the vessel. The unsightly design of these vessels was well suited to harvesting large quantities of fish from sheltered waters, but not for combat operations on the high seas.
The EM Coast Guard Patroller Dow, formerly Menhaden type fishing vessel Annie dow, was a wartime charter (lease) acquisition by the Coast Guard. Ships like the Dow have received the prefix “EM” for “Emergency Manning”. For military service, these fishing boats were armed with one or two one-pound guns in the bow and stern. This addition usually required iron plating sections on the deck, which added to the wheelhouse and parts of the superstructure for crew protection. Additional communication and combat equipment contributed to the weight of the top. These additions had a negative impact on the stability and seakeeping qualities of these combat ships. During World War I, the USS James, a Menhaden fisherman converted into a Navy minesweeper, capsized in a gale off the French coast.
the Dow measured 134 feet long, nearly 22 feet wide with a draft of 11 feet, typical dimensions for a Menhaden fisherman. After conversion to military service, Dow gross tonnage increased to over 240 tonnes with a staff of 37 officers and men.
In June 1943, EM Dow entered Coast Guard service at the Baltimore Shipyard under the command of Lt. Col. Edward Doten. The Navy assigned EM Dow at the Eastern Sea border based in Norfolk, Virginia. Shortly after entering service, the unsightly cutter was reassigned to service as part of the Navy’s Caribbean Maritime Boundary. In the late summer of 1943, he traveled along the east coast, crossed the Bahamian island chain, and arrived at his new home port of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
From San Juan, the Navy assigned Dow patrolling the west coast of Puerto Rico. The cutter mainly focused on the approaches to the port of Mayaguez and the Mona Canal, a major commercial waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. the Dow conducted anti-submarine patrols and escorted commercial vessels in coastal convoys of Caribbean oil and bauxite. It also provided search and rescue support to the US Army Air Corps’ Ramey Field in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, the current site of the Coast Guard’s Borinquen Air Base.
In early October 1943, a tropical storm began to develop along the equator southeast of Puerto Rico. Later known as Hurricane San Calixto, the storm reached a force of Category 2 on the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale and began to swirl northwest toward the passage of the wind.
Early on October 13, 1943, the Dow ordered to go to the south of Mona Island to meet the Coast Guard Marion. Had the local naval command understood the severity of the weather conditions, the mission could have been aborted. The weather quickly deteriorated as the Dow headed for a collision course with the storm track. As the Dow closed by the hurricane, Doten ordered a series of maneuvers and course changes to avoid heavy seas, but then altered the course to steer the old fishing boat’s high bow straight into the towering waves.
The ship’s narrow beam and low freeboard were no match for the strong winds and rough seas of the hurricane and the following afternoon the Dow started to take water. First, the cutter lost power and radio communications, then its motors failed. After using a manual flashing light to signal the Marion that he was taking on water and needed help, Doten gave the order to abandon the ship. the Dow was abandoned about a quarter of a mile south of Punta Higueros, Puerto Rico, before winds and rough seas washed it up. All Dow 37 crew members were transported to the safety of the Marion.
In 1996, the Naval Historical Center conducted a survey to identify wreck sites in Puerto Rico. He located a wreck in northwestern Puerto Rico, just across from Punta Higueros, on the eastern shore of Desecheo Island. The wreck rests in 30 feet of water in an area known locally as the “Tornado Cave”. Further research on this site could confirm the identity of the wreckage and whether or not it is the Dow. A search of several databases, including Puerto Rican newspapers, did not identify any other marine casualties there.
Although records indicate that the Coast Guard sold EM Dow hull submerged to a local plateau in 1948 for fittings and usable equipment, the location of the ship’s last resting place is not confirmed. Regardless of its exact location, the fishing vessel and coastguard builders never imagined the Dow would meet his fate so far from his Chesapeake Bay home.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.