Thursday, August 1, 2013

Grand Haven's fallen ship, the Escanaba

The Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival is currently in full swing, running through Sunday, August 4. Attendees will gather at Escanaba Park on Friday, August 2 at 4 p.m. to celebrate Coast Guard members, living and deceased, and to honor the Coast Guardsmen who lost their lives seventy years ago during World War II on the ship that gave the park its name: the Escanaba.

The Escanaba in 1935. 

The Escanaba was a United States Coast Guard cutter built in Bay City and commissioned in 1932. Named after the town and river in the Upper Peninsula, the Escanaba was docked at the Coast Guard station in Grand Haven. Its duties were similar to those of other Coast Guard cutters in the area: breaking ice, conducting rescues, and enforcing laws along the coast.

When the United States entered World War II, the Escanaba moved to Boston and began its new life as an escort for convoys in the North Atlantic. It also conducted search and rescue operations, though on a larger scale than those it had performed in the Great Lakes. The Escanaba was responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of people, from vessels like the SS Cherokee, a passenger ship struck by torpedoes in 1942, and the USAT Dorchester, a United States Army transport ship that fell victim to a torpedo strike on February 3, 1943.

A few months afer the Dorchester rescue, the Escanaba met a fate similar to that of the ship whose sailors it had saved. On June 10, 1943, the Escanaba, along with a few other ships, was escorting a convoy from Greenland to Newfoundland. Shortly after 5 a.m., witnesses saw a wall of flame and a burst of smoke emanate from the ship. No one had heard an explosion, but whatever felled the Escanaba did major damage, as the ship sank so quickly its crew members had no time to issue a distress signal. Out of the Escanaba's 105-man crew, only two survivors and one body were recovered from the Atlantic's cold waters.

At the time of the disaster, investigators suggested that a torpedo may have struck the Escanaba. Today, many students of the tragedy believe the Escanaba may have struck a drifting mine, a buoyant device that explodes when a vessel approaches or contacts it. Regardless of what felled the Escanaba, Grand Haven residents were heartbroken over the loss of their "hometown" vessel, and eventually raised more than $1 million to build another cutter with the same name. The city also started the tradition of memorializing the crew of the Escanaba, who bravely served the Great Lakes and whose dedication to their country was so great that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for it.

Additional Information:

USCG webpage about the Escanaba

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