Remembering the Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga

USCGC CUYAHOGA 1974 The profession that is the Coast Guard is an inherently dangerous one. Through this understanding, the Service continuously makes every effort to ensure the safety of its members. Every loss of a shipmate is felt and resonated throughout the Service. It’s during these tragic moments that the service reflects on the things that could have gone differently, implementing lessons that are learned so that future misfortunes of the same nature can be avoided.

As we approach the national day of recognition for America’s veterans, the Coast Guard honors those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice.

Thirty-five years ago today, 11 shipmates made that sacrifice aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga after a collision between the cutter and the freighter Santa Cruz II at the entrance to the Potomac River.

The USCGC Cuyahoga, which was homeported at the Reserve Training Center at Yorktown, Virginia celebrated 50 years of commissioned service on 3 March 1977.  She was the oldest operational commissioned ship in all of the United States sea services at that time.  Cuyahoga (WIX-157) was built at the American Brown Boveri Corporation in 1926.  She was launched 27 January 1927 and placed in commission 3 March 1927 at Camden, New Jersey.  She was 125 feet long, had a beam of 23 feet 6 inches and a draft of 9 feet.  Her total displacement was 276 tons.  Her hull was steel and she had two diesel engines and twin screw propulsion which gave her a maximum speed of 13 knots and maximum cruising range of 4,900 miles.

On 29 May 1933 Cuyahoga arrived at the Washington Navy Yard following her six years of chasing rum runners to assume the duties with the Navy as a tender for the Presidential Yacht USS Potomac.  She was returned to Coast Guard jurisdiction on 17 May 1941 and recommissioned by the Coast Guard at the Washington Navy Yard on that day.  She was assigned her new permanent station at Baltimore, Maryland and arrived there on 20 May 1941.

On 17 January 1942 her permanent station was changed from Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia, where she reported to Commander Defense Area Group for duty.  During the war the Cuyahoga was on escort duty attached to Commander Eastern Sea Frontier and Commander Caribbean Sea Frontier.  From October 1942 to June 1945 she spent the majority of her time in the Caribbean Sea, usually escorting vessels between Guantanamo Bay, Trinidad and Paramaribo.  During the war the Cuyahoga was armed with one 3″/23 caliber anti­aircraft gun and two depth charge racks.

Following the war, the Cuyahoga once more operated out of Norfolk until May of 1946 when she, along with the Calypso, was placed “In Commission-Reserve” status due to personnel shortages.  In April 1947 the Cuyahoga was transferred from Norfolk to the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay, Maryland and worked with the Field Testing and Development Unit except for occasional engineering and other operational activities.

From 1957 to 1959 she was assigned to New London, Connecticut for training officer candidates.  Later in 1959 she assumed her station at Yorktown, where she continued to provide training for officer candidates.  She was the last of her class still in commission at the time of her loss.

The Last Voyage

At about 2100 hours on 20 October 1978, in an area about 3 1/2 miles northwest of Smith Point, which marks the mouth of the Potomac River as it empties in the Chesapeake Bay, catastrophe occurred.

The Argentine coal freighter Santa Cruz II, a 521-foot bulk carrier, hit the Cuyhoga on her starboard side between amidships and the stern. A consensus of accounts indicated that the cutter was dragged backwards for a minute and then fell away from the tanker, rolled on her side, and sank within a couple of minutes. The Santa Cruz rescued 18 survivors from the water and stayed on the scene until help arrived.  The remaining 11 men embarked on the Cuyhoga were lost.  Four days after the accident, a Marine Board of Inquiry convened in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Marine Safety Office to investigate the accident.Cuyahoga_Memorial_300

After some delay due to heavy seas and high winds, two massive floating cranes were used to raise the Cuyhoga, which was in 57 feet of water.  After an initial inspection, the ship was placed on barges and towed 65 miles to Portsmouth for a full inspection.

The Marine Casualty Report, number USCG 16732 / 92368 and dated 31 July 1979, concluded:

The Commandant has determined that the proximate cause of the casualty was that the commanding officer of the USCGC CUYAHOGA failed to properly identify the navigation lights displayed by the M/V SANTA CRUZ II.  As a result he did not comprehend that the vessels were in a meeting situation, and altered the CUYAHOGA’s course to port taking his vessel into the path of the SANTA CRUZ II.  The Cuyahoga was later sunk off the coast of Virginia as an artificial reef.

Survivors of the collision were

  • CWO Donald K. Robinson
  • BM1 Roger E. Wild
  • QM2 Randy V. Rose
  • MK2 Stephen D. Baker
  • SN Kevin J. Henderson
  • SA Jeffery I. Fox
  • SA Michael E. Myers
  • OC Arne O. Denny
  • OC Peter S. Eident
  • OC Earl W. Fairchild, Jr.
  • OC Michael E. Moser
  • OC Frederick J. Riemer
  • OC Joseph L. Robinson
  • OC Robert P. Rutledge
  • OC Timothy C. Stone
  • OC Earl C. Thomas
  • OC Lawrence V. Williams
  • LT Jonathan Arisasmita, Indonesian Navy
Lost shipmates

  • MKCS David B. Makin
  • YN1 William M. Carter
  • SS1 Ernestino A. Balina
  • SA Michael A. Atkinson
  • FA James L. Hellyer
  • SA David S. McDowell
  • OC James W. Clark
  • OC John P. Heistand
  • OC Edward J. Thomason
  • OC Bruce E. Wood
  • Capt. Wiyono Sumalyo, Indonesian Navy

Editors Note: This article is a combination of an article on the Coast Guard Compass blog and an article on the Coast Guard Historians website.

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