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Escanaba to return to Grand Haven

Becky Vargo • Mar 23, 2018 at 10:00 AM

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Escanaba will return to Grand Haven this summer to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its namesake’s sinking during World War II.

The ship will be in town for the 2018 Coast Guard Festival, July 27 to Aug. 5.

Festival Director Mike Smith said details and dates of the ship’s visit are still being finalized.

Smith, a retired Coast Guard commander, said he received verification of the visit with a recent call from the Cleveland-based Ninth Coast Guard District commander, Rear Adm. Joanna Nunan.

“I am beyond thrilled that the U.S. Coast Guard has made this special iconic ship available to serve as the focal point for our celebration as we remember the heroic men who served onboard the original Escanaba,” Smith said. “Commanding Officer Cmdr. Michael Turdo worked closely with the Atlantic Area Command to rearrange an otherwise committed sail plan to ensure that the ship stood stoically in the port of Grand Haven once again.” 

The third Coast Guard cutter to bear the name Escanaba (WME-907) was commissioned in Grand Haven on Aug. 29, 1987, and sponsored by the late Grand Haven Mayor Marge Boon.

From its homeport in Boston, the Escanaba has patrolled the waters off New England to enforce federal and international fishing regulations, to deep in the Caribbean on migrant interdiction patrols, to more recently through the Panama Canal and to the Eastern Pacific for drug interdiction missions.

Although it is the third Escanaba, it is just the second vessel of that name commissioned in Grand Haven. 

The original Escanaba (WPG-77) was commissioned Nov. 23, 1932, in Grand Haven, according to Coast Guard history. The 165-foot vessel was stationed in Grand Haven from 1932-40. Its primary missions were ice breaking and search and rescue on the Great Lakes.

Built by Defoe Boat and Motor Works of Bay City, the original cutter was named for the city and the river. It served in Grand Haven until the beginning of World War II.

In February 1943, the Escanaba rescued 132 men from a torpedoed transport in the North Atlantic. Four months later, the Escanaba set out on its final mission — an Allied convoy bound for St. John’s, Newfoundland.

At 5:10 a.m. on June 13, 1943, convoy members saw a flash of light and dense smoke at the perimeter of their group. The Raritan, which also was stationed in Grand Haven at one time, was one of the two cutters that rushed to the scene. They discovered the Escanaba had been hit by a torpedo and sunk instantly. There was only debris and two survivors: Seaman 1st Class Raymond O’Malley and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Melvin Baldwin.

The ship’s mast and lifeboat were recovered and are part of a memorial display in Escanaba Park along Grand Haven’s waterfront.

For many years, the two survivors attended the memorial service held in Grand Haven during the annual Coast Guard Festival. Descendants of both men, who are now deceased, plan to attend the memorial service this year, Smith said.

Also expected to attend is Dr. Ralph Nix, son of the ship’s surgeon, also named Dr. Ralph Nix. Smith said the Nix family is coming to town from Mississippi. 

The family of Yeoman 2nd Class Clifford Burton Skarin, who was among those lost in the Escanaba tragedy, is coming from Colorado. A sibling of another lost shipmate is coming from California, Smith said.

Smith said it was the hard work of local historian Wally Ewing and Loutit District Library genealogist Jeanette Weiden that enabled the Coast Guard Festival staff to contact descendants of the sailors lost in the World War II sinking.

“The sailors were so young and single,” Smith said. “When they died, they didn’t have families. And their parents and most of their siblings, who would have been in their 90s, are deceased.”

Many of those who are coming are cousins, Smith said. 

“It’s just incredible that there’s so much interest, even from cousins and second cousins who know the legacy of these men and want to come and celebrate with us,” he said.

Smith said a tribute dinner for “Heroes and Legends” is planned for the families of the sailors and many of the former commanding officers of the Escanaba.

“Part of our legacy as the one and only ‘Coast Guard City USA’ was framed by the sacrifices of the men of the Escanaba,” Smith said. “And to be able to remember them and celebrate with their successors is not only a great honor but in keeping with this year’s festival theme and the Escanaba’s motto, ‘The Spirit Lives On.’”

The festival director said plans are being made to dedicate a new memorial for the Escanaba during a community memorial service on June 13. There are no plans, at this time, for families of the sailors to attend this event.

The second Escanaba was built in San Pedro, California, and commissioned March 20, 1946. The 255-foot gunboat was ported in Alameda, California, until 1954, when it was decommissioned and put in storage until 1957. 

It was put back into service in 1957 and stationed at New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was decommissioned again on June 23, 1973.

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