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SS MANHATTAN aground off Palm Beach – 1941

The United States Liner S.S. MANHATTAN firmly aground 300 yards off the beach at Lake Worth Inlet in January 1941. The after deck of the US Coast Guard Cutter MOJAVE with the deck crew preparing to pass a 12-inch hawser to the ship in an attempt to tow her off the beach at the next high tide. CBM Earl J. Morris to the right of the 5-inch gun working next to the ship’s rail.

The S.S. MANHATTAN on a Christmas/New Years Cruise 1934/35.

In the late evening of January 11, 1941 the United States Lines S.S. MANHATTAN, outbound from New York for San Francisco via Havana and the Panama Canal, ran hard aground about 300 yards off the beach ten miles north of Palm Beach, Florida.

The S.S. MANHATTAN, 705 feet long, displacing 24,290 tons, was cruising inshore of the north moving gulf stream when she plowed into the sandy beach near Lake Worth Inlet and came to an abrupt halt. She tried unsuccessfully to back herself off. The night was cold, the weather clear, light wind and moderately calm sees.

The S.S. Manhattan’s distress call was received at the US Coast Guard Radio Station, Jacksonville, Florida. The 8th Coast Guard District Office notified the nearest rescue units to proceed to the scene and provide assistance.

The life boat station at Lake Worth Inlet immediately launched their 36-foot self righting, self bailing motor surf boat. This was the First Coast Guard unit to reach the S.S. MANHATTAN. The 192 passengers and 482 crew members were in no immediate danger and the ship’s captain believed he could re-float his ship during the next high tide, so the Coast Guard surf boat hove to and remained at the scene.

The 125 foot Coast Guard patrol boat VIGILANT, based at Fort Pierce 40 miles to the north, recalled its crew members and was soon underway to also stand by with the surf boat should the passengers or crew need to be removed or otherwise assisted.

Seventy miles to the south in Miami the large 240 foot Coast Guard Cutter MOJAVE began recalling its crew and was underway about one hour later.

The MOJAVE was back in her homeport of Miami in between tours of duty on Neutrality and Weather Patrols in the North Atlantic Ocean and towing mothballed W.W.I ships from storage in the Mississippi River near New Orleans to East Coast ports for refurbishing for delivery to Great Britain.

During December 1940 on one of these long distance tows in a severe Atlantic storm, the 12-inch towing hawser snapped in two and had to be recovered before it became fouled in the MOJAVE’s propeller. After recovering the hawser from the tow and splicing it together, it was again passed to the towed ship which was in danger of being washed onto the beach. A short time later the hawser again snapped. It was decided to replace the 12-inch manila hemp hawser with an inch and one-half wire rope hawser.

Once again the MOJAVE’s whale boat towed the hawser to the towed ship and placed extra crew members on board to assist in hauling it aboard and securing it. After arduous hours of recovering the manila hawser and replacing it with the wire hawser, it now became necessary to splice in a wire bridal to ease the strain. While the deck crew was accomplishing this task, strands of the wire hawser would snap and unwrap with violent slashing of the deck and anything it came in contact with.

The deck crew finally completed this hazardous task as the storm continued to worsen. The tow was once again underway. The MOJAVE and her seasoned crew had plenty of experience in towing vessels.

When the MOJAVE was underway, the 26-foot monamoy whale boat was rigged for sea outboard of its storage space so to be ready for any emergency. In the dark night hours the deck crew, under direction of Chief Boatswain Mate (CBM) Earl J. Morris, were just completing this task when a large ocean swell caused the MOJAVE to roll heavily and Seaman First Class (S1/C) Harold was knocked overboard into the ocean. The cry “Man Overboard” was sounded. Quartermaster (QM) Charles Day on the bridge noted the time and immediately released a slide-mounted Fromkin Life Buoy, a large copper clad U-shaped life buoy equipped with carbide lights that ignited when immersed in water. This gave the “man overboard” a floatation aid and the ship a reference point to begin its search and rescue operations as it reversed course back to the emergency scene.

Chief Morris, as boat coxswain, with S1/C J. C. Entrakin, as stroke oarsman, mustered the six-man crew and immediately launched the whale boat even as the MOJAVE slowed its speed and began its turn to reverse course and return to the scene. The oarsmen began their strong strokes with Chief Morris standing in the stern at the sweep oar steering towards the Fromkin life buoy lights., Seaman Harold was also swimming towards the float and reached it at almost the same time as the whale boat.

The whale boat crew pulled S1/C Harold and the Fromkin life buoy on board and rowed to the returning MOJAVE pulling along side, hooking on and hoisted aboard, all the while underway in a rolling sea. The total elapsed time according to QM Charles Day was under six minutes. The MOJAVE was on its way back to the grounded S.S. MANHATTAN.

The MOJAVE deck crew, under Chief Morris, began preparing the 12-inch manila towing hawser and associated towing gear. The hawser was removed from its below-deck storage and rigged an the after deck. the MOJAVE would arrive on scene at about 4 AM, 12 JAN 41. The initial plan was to attempt to tow the S.S. MANHATTAN off the beach at the next high tide, scheduled at 9 AM.

On arrival the MOJAVE passed the 12-inch hawser to the S.S. MANHATTAN with assistance From the Lake Worth Inlet surf boat. At the 9 AM high tide all was ready and the MOJAVE began pulling while the S.S. MANHATTAN pushed with her engines in the first attempt to pull her off the beach.

The incoming high tide was also pushing more sand against the grounded ship setting her more firmly in place. The ship was taking a list to port as she grounded more firmly. The towing operation was placing a tremendous strain on the MOJAVE. The Merritt Chapman and Scott tugboat WILLET now arrived from Key West and added her capabilities in the attempt to pull the S.S. MANHATTAN from the beach. But she was firmly fixed and it would take extensive salvage operations before the ship would be re-floated.

The Coast Guard was relieved of responsibility for re-floating the S.S. MANHATTAN. The passengers and most of the crew were removed by the surf boat and VIGILANT without incident. The Merritt Chapman and Scott tugboat company was awarded a contract to re-float the ship. Three company tugs, the WILLET, RELIEF and WARBLER, spent the next three weeks and succeeded on 4 Feb 41. It was necessary to off-load many tons of cargo including many automobiles and fuel oil, and to dredge out a channel before the y were successful.

The S.S. MANHATTAN suffered considerable damage to its two propellers and starboard engine shaft. She was towed to Robins Dry Dock in Brooklyn, New York, for repairs.

On completion of repairs, the S.S. MANHATTAN was taken over by the Navy as the troop transport USS WAKEFIELD (AP21) with a US Coast Guard crew in June 1941.

In January 1942, as she evacuated British citizens from the port of Singapore, the WAKEFIELD was hit by a Japanese bomb killing five and wounding nine Coast Guard crew members, among the first Coast Guard casualties of W.W.II.

On 3 September 1942 while returning to the U.S. from England, a fire broke out an board causing the Coast Guard crew to evacuate the embarked passengers and finally the crew itself. A salvage crew returned and extinguished the fire but the WAKEFIELD had to be towed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and eventually to the U.S. She was rebuilt and recommissioned with a new Coast Guard crew in February 1944 and served in both the Atlantic and Pacific as a troop transport until June 1946.

The MOJAVE returned to North Atlantic Ocean Neutrality and Weather Patrols until 7 DEC 41. With the entry of the United States into W.W.II she continued service on convoy duty throughout the war. The MOJAVE was decommissioned on July 3, 1947, worn out after 26 years of arduous service.

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