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historic tug boats

A Charleston Ship and Her Famous Tow

Exultation is the going of an inland soul to sea, Past the houses – past the headlands—Into deep eternity…                                                                                                                                            Emily Dickinson

Charleston, South Carolina is a city whose life and livelihood have always been closely tied to the sea. Its nautical history goes back to its very beginning, when in April 1670, after an eight-month, five-stop voyage from England via Bermuda, Barbados, Neves, Cape Romaine, and Port Royal Sound, the HMS Carolina sailed into Charleston Harbor and landed at a low bluff a few hundred yards into a creek on the west side of the Ashley River. The 100 or so tired colonists were glad to be finally settling in to what was to be their new home. The narrow creek where the ship anchored gave the colonists some protection from Spanish galleons sailing up from Florida, but was too shallow and narrow to be conducive to commercial shipping, which became an important issue as the colony grew.

At first the area was known as Albemarle Point after George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, and one of the eight Lords Proprietors who were given permission by king Charles II to set up an English colony in America. As the settlement grew the name was changed to Charles Towne after the king. The new colony flourished and in 1680 when the threat of Spanish invasion had somewhat decreased and to better facilitate shipping, the colony moved to its current location on the peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers. Here the water around the peninsula, is deeper and better suited for ocean trade.

It is interesting that the two rivers bordering the Charleston peninsular, the Ashley and the Cooper were both named after the same person. He was Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftsbury, and like Monck, one of the Lords Proprietors. Neither man ever actually visited Charles Towne but Cooper and his secretary and physician, John Locke, had a lot to do with setting up the government of the new colony.

Since the 17th century, several shipbuilding companies have been established in Charleston, and a large number of vessels, both commercial and military, have been built there. The deep water on the Cooper River on the east side of the peninsular is especially well suited for ship building and docking.

Some of these vessels were the first of their kind. Although it was in Charleston harbor that the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was first launched and became famous in February 1864 as the world’s first submarine to sink and enemy ship, the boat was actually built in Mobile, Alabama and brought by rail to Charleston.

A truly innovative commercial ship built in Charleston was the MS Carolinian, launched in 1930 by the Charleston Drydock and Machine Company. She was the first all welded ship in the world. Built as a tanker for the Texaco Oil Company, she was 120 feet long, 23 feet wide and could hold 125,000 gallons of oil. Since the launching of the Carolinian nearly all commercial ships are welded rather than held together by rivets. Whereas welding the Carolinian required 8,000 pounds of welding rods, it saved 85,000 pounds in rivets.

The Charleston Drydock and Machine Company started out as the Pregnall Brothers Shipyard in 1869. In the late 1800s the company mainly built schooners and steamers. It was located on the Cooper River side of Charleston harbor between Calhoun and Laurens streets where today the South Carolina Aquarium, the International African American Museum, and Charleston Maritime Center are located.

For many years this was the location of Gadsden Wharf, built in early 1770s and one of the largest wharfs in America at the time. From the early days of its settlement, the South Carolina agricultural economy depended greatly on slave labor, and the importation of slaves from Africa was a lucrative business. From the 1770s to 1807, the year when the legal importation of slaves was banned, more enslaved Africans were brought into the US at Gadsden Wharf that at any other single point in the southern United States. In spite of the legal ban, slaves continued to be brought into America illegally until the start of the Civil War in 1861.

Renamed Charleston Drydock and Shipbuilding in the late 1930s, when World War II started in Europe, the company became an important naval shipbuilding center. In fact, in the early 1940s, the shipyard was basically taken over by the US Navy for the duration of the war and built mostly naval vessels. After the war, it was bought by Todd Shipbuilding out of New York but closed a few years later when the company had financial problems and moved its operations to Seattle, Washington.

Once America was in the war, the shipyard became primarily a center for building ocean fleet tug boats. From late 1942 until the war ended, there were 36 navy tug boats built at the shipyard, the first being the Apache AFT – 67 which served the US Navy until 1974 when it was sold to Taiwan. The AFT designation stood for American Fleet Tug, showing that the large tugs were built for ocean service “to aid the fleet”.

Nearly all of the Charleston tug boats were of the same design. They were 205 feet long, had a beam of 38 feet 6 inches, and a draft of 15 feet 4 inches. They were powered by four 750 horsepower diesel-electric engines that produced a total of 3,000 hp which, enabled the tugs to attain a top speed of 16.5 knots or about 19 miles per hour. Most of them were armed with a 3-inch cannon and two 40-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, and had a crew of 85 sailors. Like the Apache, most of the tugs were named after American Indian tribes. Although some people do not consider tugboats to be as glamourous as destroyers or aircraft carries, some of them had very adventurous lives.

One that saw quite a lot of hazardous duty was the USS Abnaki AFT-96, the 9th tug built at Charleston. It was named after a New England Indian tribe that was living near what is now Massachusetts when the Pilgrims arrived there in 1620. In fact, it was an Abnaki chief, Samoset, who lived from 1590 to 1653, who was the first Native American to welcome the Pilgrims to his territory.

As the story goes, shortly after the colonists arrived, Samoset walked into their camp one day and greeted them with “Welcome Englishmen”. Obviously, the settlers were very surprised. Samoset had learned some English language from British fishermen who had a camp in the Gulf of Maine north of present-day Boston. Samoset and the Abnaki tribe were helpful in getting the little colony of Pilgrims established in America.

Commissioned in November 1943 with Lt. Dewey Wally in command, the Abnaki ocean tugboat was given the motto ‘Rough and Ready’. For the next two years it operated in the Atlantic, the North Sea, and the Mediterranean which because of German submarines, were hazardous places to be.

In her many years of service in the US Navy, the Abnaki towed numerous ships and barges, but probably Abnaki’s most famous tow occurred in June of 1944. As she was crossing the Atlantic from Norfolk, Virginia on her way to the port of Oran in Algeria to pick up a disabled French warship, she was redirected to rendezvous with Captain Daniel V. Gallery, captain of the aircraft carrier USS Guadalcanal. The carrier and the destroyers accompanying her made up Task Force 22.3 which at that time was operating south of the Azores Islands 150 miles west of the country of Western Sahara.

For weeks the task force, which was designated a ‘hunter-killer group’ had been trying to locate the German submarine U-505. Since 1942, U-505 had sunk 8 allied ships and needed to be silenced. Finally, on 4 June 1944, with the help of sonar and aircraft from the Guadalcanal, the sub was spotted and the chase began.

The closest destroyer to the U boat, was the USS Chatelain DE –149, which two months earlier had helped sink submarine U-515. The destroyer came in close, shot off a barrage of anti-submarine mortars, nicknamed hedgehogs because of their size and round shape, and dropped 14 well-placed depth charges that damaged the submarine to the point that she had to come to the surface. The German commander, Oberleutnant zur See Harald Lange, was forced to surrender his vessel.

While the Chatelain picked up survivors from U-505, sailors from the USS Pillsbury, which was also part of the task force, boarded the submarine and repaired some of the damage so that she could be towed. It was the first time since 1815 that the US navy had boarded an enemy war ship on the high seas.

Once aboard the Chatelain, in the tradition of the sea, the prisoners were given medical attention, dry clothes and cigarettes. They were also stripped down and given a bath from the ship’s firehose.

It turned out that the submarine was a valuable catch. On board were found classified documents, code books, an Enigma cipher machine, and communications equipment. To keep the Germans from finding out that all of this material had fallen into American hands, the capture was kept a secret. It was decided to tow the submarine to US territory rather than sink it like most captured submarines. Loaded down with guns and ammunition, however, the destroyers were not powerful enough to pull the 252-feet by 22-feet submarine, so it was decided to hook it up to the aircraft carrier. That was accomplished, but even the Guadalcanal had trouble towing the heavy submarine half full of water. A strong tug boat was needed.

Like Mighty Mouse flying in to save the day, the ‘rough and ready’ Abnaki was called on to do the towing. Having been diverted from her voyage to Algeria, she changed course and joined Gallery’s task force on 7 June. Abnaki was a powerful tug and once the submarine’s engine clutches were released, she was able to pull the waterlogged submarine fast enough to turn its propellers so that the sub’s generators could charge her batteries enough to run the water pumps. Getting the water out raised the vessel to its normal surface level making it much easier to tow.

The Abnaki towed the submarine 2100 miles west across the Atlantic to Bermuda, arriving there on 19 June where it was thoroughly inspected by naval personnel. The US Navy wanted the German Kriegsmarine, the Nazi navy, to believe the submarine had sunk, and its capture became top secret. To hide it in plain sight, while in Bermuda U-505 was painted to resemble American submarines and named USS Nemo so the Germans would not recognize it. To further control news of the capture, the crew of U-505 was put in a prisoner of war camp and denied access to International Red Cross visits.

The ploy worked so well that within a few weeks of the sub’s capture, the German navy informed the families of the sailors that all crew members aboard U-505 had been lost. One can imagine the surprise of family members when after the war ended the crew members went home.

War creates enemies and often leads to inhuman acts. But fortunately, when a war ends, the survivors can get on with their lives and become caring humans again. An anecdote showing the human side concerning U-505’s capture is that in 1964 at the 20th anniversary of the event, Captain, now Rear Admiral, Gallery returned a set of binoculars to Oberleutnant zur See Harald Lange which he had left on the vessel when he surrendered. These survivors, who once tried to kill each other in the name of their nations, could now greet each other as human beings.

After 10 days in Bermuda, Abnaki then towed U-505 on to New York harbor. After Germany surrendered, it was put on display. For about a year, people who bought war bonds were allowed to go aboard the sub. After a stay in New York and Philadelphia, it wound up being moored at Portsmouth Navy Shipyard in Maine. Then in 1954, submarine U-505 was donated to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and it is still on display there.

U-505’s last voyage was when she was towed by US Coast Guard tugs and cutters from Portsmouth, Maine through the Great Lakes to Chicago where on September 25, 1954, it was dedicated as a permanent exhibit in the museum and as a memorial to WWII sailors. The vessel is also important in that it shows the high precision of German war technology. In 1989 the submarine was designated a National Historic Landmark.

The destroyer that forced U-505 to the surface, the USS Chatelain, commanded by Lt. Commander Dudley S. Knox, continued to work in the Atlantic, and in April 1945 was involved in the sinking of German submarine U-546. Following the end of hostilities in the Atlantic, she was sent to the naval station at Charleston, South Carolina and arrived there on 20 November 1945. She was officially decommissioned in Charleston in June 1946. Capturing U-505 won the USS Chatelain the Presidential Unit Citation “for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy”. For this and other combat engagements, the ship was awarded 5 Battle Stars.

After Germany surrendered in April 1945, the Abnaki was sent to the Pacific and worked the waters from San Diego to Pearl Harbor as well as helping with the occupation of Japan after the Japanese army surrendered on 2 September 1945.

For the next several years with Perl Harbor as her home base, the Abnaki stayed in the Pacific where she worked in numerous ports and islands in the western Pacific and South China Sea towing vessels, escorting navy and merchant ships, as well as bringing food and supplies to residents of some of the small Pacific islands.

Then in the early 1950s, she spent a lot of time at ports in South Korea aiding in the war effort there. In 1955 following the communist takeover in China, the Abnaki was involved in moving Chinese Nationalists troops and families from Tachen Island where they had taken refuge from the Chinese communist soldiers to their new home on Taiwan. Ever since then, the US has been a staunch ally of Taiwan.

In the mid-1960s, the USS Abnaki was again called to wartime duty during the conflict in Vietnam. Besides the usual towing and ship escorting, one of her important duties was the surveillance of Soviet spy ships as they sailed in the South China Sea near Vietnam. The US wanted to make sure the Soviets were not bringing supplies to North Vietnamese communists by water.

For a while in 1972 she was assigned to the port at Danang on the east coast of Vietnam and the situation was somewhat precarious. She could be in port during the day, but at night sailed out to sea to avoid Vietcong sapper-swimmers who placed explosives on American vessels. Perhaps one of her saddest duties was aiding in the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. One year later the communist government renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh City.

At the end of the Vietnam War, USS Abnaki was assigned to the naval port at San Diego and worked up and down the west coast from Alaska to South America. She was still rough and ready and on standby to help fight another war if necessary.

 After 35 years of exemplary service to the United States Navy, USS Abnaki – ATF 96 was decommissioned in San Diego on 30 September 1978 and transferred to the Mexican Navy where she was used as an offshore patrol boat for several years.

The rough and ready and reliable USS Abnaki had an eventful and very productive life as a US Navy tugboat. She was active in four conflicts –WWII, Korea, China, and Vietnam, against first the Nazi Kriegsmarine, then Japanese, North Koreans, Chinese communists, and Vietcong, and remained on alert during the years of the cold war with the Soviet Union. She earned 3 battle stars for service in Korea, and 10 for service in Vietnam for “meritorious participation in battle”.  Like the aircraft carriers, destroyers and other naval ships she worked with, she was not afraid to encounter the enemy.

Another of the 36 fleet tugs built in Charleston, one that had a local name, was the USS Cusabo AFT-155, named after the group of Indian tribes, called the Cusabo Nation, who lived along the Atlantic coast from the Savanna River north to the Wando River northeast of Charleston harbor. Members of the Cusabo Nation were the first Native Americans encountered by the English colonists when they landed at Albemarle Point in 1670. As the Abnaki had been helpful to the Pilgrims in 1620, the Cusabo were friendly and helpful to the Charles Towne colonists in 1670.

The USS Cusabo was launched on 26 February 1944, and commissioned on 19 May 1945, commanded by Lt. Walter Hunnewell, Jr. Like the other Charleston fleet tugs, she was 205 feet long and 38 feet 6 inches wide, and powered by four powerful diesel-electric engines.

After the end of hostilities in Europe, she was sent to the Pacific where she worked along the coast from San Diego, California to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, Washington as well as Pearl Harbor, Guam, Iwo Jima and other Pacific islands. And after September 1945, she helped in the occupation of Japan.

Although her tour of duty was not as long as the Abnaki, the USS Cusabo played an important role in transporting personnel and equipment in the rebuilding effort in Japan under US General Douglas MacArthur.  She was decommissioned in Bremerton on 3 December 1946 and placed in inactive reserve. Then in 1962 she was loaned to the government of Ecuador and later sold to the Ecuadorian Navy in 1978. The Ecuadorians decommissioned the tug in 1999.

Unfortunately, the Cusabo Nation is extinct as an Indian nation. However, the names of the Cusabo tribes live on in some 100 place names, such as rivers, towns, neighborhoods, islands such as Edisto and Kiawah, as well as an island on the southern edge of James Island bordering the north shore on the Folly River which is named Cusabo island. It is believed the Stono tribe of the Cusabo Nation was living in the vicinity of Cusabo Island when English colonists arrived in 1670. Unfortunately, due to wars, disease, and loss of land, by 1715 there were only a few members of the Cusabo nation left in South Carolina.

Another way the Cusabo name is still active is through a parent-led lacrosse league named the Cusabo Nation which has been organized in Charleston. It is unique in that the organizers and coaches not only teach the fundamentals of lacrosse, but also run an academic tutoring program for the participants.

Today the legacy of the sea lives on in Charleston. From its early days as a shipping center for lumber, naval stores, furs, and a variety of agricultural products, it has grown into one of the largest and busiest ports on the east coast of America. Managed by the South Carolina Ports Authority, the harbor’s wharfs handle large cargo ships form all over the world, as well as a number of cruise ships. Along with the commercial shipping done in Charleston, the US Navy still maintains a large naval station on the west bank of the Cooper River.

Ted McCormack

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