Fog can be quite dangerous at sea. Fog hides many things, and not just supernatural-undead pirates in John Carpenter films. U.S. Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch found this out the hard way when she collided with another ship and sank off Point Conception, California on June 13, 1917. Her wreck would remain undiscovered for 100 years.
Thankfully, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (n.d.) partnered with the United States Coast Guard to relocate and survey the wreck.
(Photo Credit: National Archives, Washington DC)
Builder: William Cramp & Sons Ship and Engine Building Company
Service: US Revenue Cutter Service, later US Coast Guard & US Navy
Launched: December 19, 1896
Commissioned: December 12, 1897
Sail plan: 3x masts in barkentine rig (as built), 2x military masts (1914)
Hull: wood planking over steel frames
Machinery: 1x triple expansion steam engine (2400 ihp)
Speed: 17 knots
Length: 219 ft.
Beam: 33.4 ft.
Draft: 16 ft.
Displacement: 1,280 tons
Complement: 130 (wartime)
Namesake: Hugh McCulloch (27th & 36th Secretary of the Treasury)
Armament: 4x sponson-mounted 3″ guns, 1x bow-mounted 15″ torpedo tube
*note: There seems to be some confusion as to what armament she carried. NOAA sources say she was armed with four 6-pounder, 3-inch guns, however, those are two different weapons. 6-pounders have a bore diameter of 57mm and 3-inch guns have a bore diameter of 76mm. It may be that her armament was changed over time.
Commissioned into the United States Revenue Cutter Service in December of 1897, USRC McCulloch was the largest cutter of her time. Shortly after her commissioning, while on an around-the-world shakedown cruise, she was ordered to join the US Asiatic Squadron under the command of Commodore George Dewey in time for the Spanish-American War. At the time, the squadron consisted of the protected cruisers USS Olympia (flagship), USS Baltimore, USS Raleigh, USS Boston, gunboats USS Concord and USS Petrel, and the colliers Nanshan and Zafiro.
The Battle of Manila Bay
During the Battle of Manila Bay on the night of 30 April – 1 May 1898, while sailing past El Fraile Rock with the rest of the squadron, soot in McCulloch’s funnel caught fire which caused her to draw fire from the Spanish shore battery on the island. The squadron returned fire and the battery quickly fell silent. Dewey ordered the McCulloch to detach from the squadron to guard the Nanshan and Zafiro and prepare a 9-inch hawser to tow any vessel that required assistance while the rest of the squadron continued on to look for the Spanish forces off Cavite. At one point, the McCulloch intercepted the British steamer Esmeralda in order to relay Dewey’s orders regarding her movement through the bay, after which McCulloch returned to her station in the rear. I won’t bore anyone with the details, but we know that the Battle of Manila Bay ended in a decisive American victory. It is important to put things in perspective, however, and realize that while McCulloch was at the battle, she remained largely un-engaged and did not participate in the main action. Ironically, she suffered the only American fatality of the battle when the chief engineer, Frank B. Randall, died from overexertion and heat exhaustion while attempting to extinguish the soot fire in the funnel. Randall was buried at sea as recorded in McCulloch’s log book:
At 4:00 [P.M.] communicated with Olympia, requesting services of Chaplain Frasier to bury Chief Engr. Randall. Having rcvd Chaplain on board steamed down bay and at 4:15 stopped. Chaplain Frasier read the service from the dead, officers and crew being mustered in stbd waist, body exposing at stbd gangway covered with union jack. At 4:20 committed the remains of Chief Engr. F.B. Randall to the deep and fired 3 volleys from the party of 16 men, bugler there sounding “Taps”.
Naturally, depictions of the battle seem to show a dramatized version of McCulloch’s actions.
McCulloch is supposedly in the upper left at the rear of the American battle line.
(Photo Credit: Library of Congress)
Two days later Captain Hodgsdon submitted his after action report to Commodore Dewey that read:
U. S. STEAMER McCULLOCH,
Manila Bay, May 3, 1898.
SIR: Regarding the part taken by this vessel in the naval action of Manila Bay at Cavite, on Sunday morning, May 1, 1898, between the American and Spanish forces, I have the honor to submit the following report:
Constituting the leading vessel of the reserve squadron the McCulloch was, when fire opened, advanced as closely as was advisable in rear of our engaged men of war, in fact, to a point where several shells struck close aboard and others passed overhead, and kept steaming slowly to and fro, ready to render any aid in her power, or respond at once to any signal from the Olympia. A 9-inch hawser was gotten up and run aft, should assistance be necessary in case any of our ships grounded. At a later hour during the day, just prior to the renewal of the attack by our squadron, I intercepted the British mail steamer Esmeralda, in compliance with a signal from the flagship, communicated to her commander your orders in regard to his movements, and then proceeded to resume my former position of the morning, near the fleet, where I remained until the surrender of the enemy. I desire to state in conclusion that I was ably seconded by the officers and crew of my command in every effort made to be in a state of readiness to carry out promptly any orders which might have been signaled from your flagship.
D. B. HODGSDON
Captain, R. C. S., Commanding
Commodore GEORGE DEWEY, U. S. N.,
Commanding U. S. Naval Force on Asiatic Station
Following that battle, McCulloch carried dispatches with news of Dewey’s victory, arriving in Hong Kong on 7 May.
On 12 June, Dewey presented the McCulloch with four 37mm 5-barrel revolving Hotchkiss guns from the Spanish flagship, Reina Cristina. These guns are now located outside Hamilton Hall at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
Return to the United States
By January of 1899, the McCulloch had returned to her homeport of San Francisco to begin patrolling the west coast from Cape Blanco, Oregon to the Mexican border. She also assisted in relief operations following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. In August, she operated as part of the Bering Sea patrol enforcing fur seal regulations before returning to San Francisco in 1912.
In 1914, McCulloch put into Mare Island Navy Yard to undergo a refit which included replacing her 4 boilers with 2 boilers that could burn either coal or fuel oil, adding bunker fuel oil tanks, removing her bowsprit and mainmast, and replacing her original fore and mizzen masts with 2 military masts. She would put into Mare Island again in 1917 to remove 800 pounds of copper sheathing and re-caulk her haul.
McCulloch at Mare Island with 2 submarines on 7 March 1914 (Photo credit: U.S. Navy)
McCulloch after her 1914 refit at Mare Island (Photo credit: Gary Fabian Collection)
With the US entry into WWI in April of 1917, McCulloch was placed under US Navy operational command and continued her patrols off the west coast.
Collision & Sinking
On 13 June 1917, McCulloch was proceeding through a dense fog about four miles west-northwest of Point Conception, California. Around 7:30am, Captain John C. Cantwell, commanding, and Ensign William Mayne, Officer of the Deck in charge of navigation, heard a fog signal off the starboard bow. Little did the men know that the passenger steamship, SS Governor, en route from San Francisco to San Pedro, was bearing down on them. Captain Howard C. Thomas, master of the Governor, heard McCulloch’s fog signal in reply and ordered three whistle blows and engines full astern, but it was too late.
(Photo Credit: San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park)
The SS Governor collided with the McCulloch, striking the cutter’s starboard side just forward of the pilot house and holing her hull. Eventually, it was determined that the McCulloch couldn’t be saved and the decision was made to abandon ship. Robert Grassow recalls:
I heard the signal to abandon ship and went up on deck through the companionway onto the main deck to go to my station when I heard someone singing out for help. It was Johanson [sic] and he was all doubled up in the wreckage about three feet from where his bunk was. He was out against the ice boxes. There was nobody else around, so I took some of the wreckage away and there was a piece of wood eight inches long stuck in his side. The master-at-arms passed the word for men to carry him to a surf boat.
All of the McCulloch’s crew were taken aboard the SS Governor, however, John Arvid Johansson, who was severely injured in his bunk during the collision, died in a San Pedro hospital 3 days later.
McCulloch sinking by the head
(Photo Credit: San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park)
35 minutes after the collision, the McCulloch sank to the bottom. Captain Cantwell remembers:
When the boats were clear of the ship, Chief Engineer Glover in charge of the gig, came alongside and advise me to leave the ship as she was sinking faster every minute and nothing more could be done to save her. I thereupon slided [sic] down the boat-falls into the gig and we pulled clear to await further developments. The entire forward section of the deck was submerged and the propeller was half out water. At 8:06 A.M., about twenty minutes after the collision, the ‘McCulloch’ with colors flying, suddenly up-ended and sank in 60 fathoms of water
There were no reported injuries of the passengers aboard the SS Governor. An inquiry later determined that the Governor had not obeyed the “rules of the road” and a settlement of $167,000 was paid to the U.S. Government in December of 1923.
Rediscovery of the Wreck
In October 2016, the USCG & NOAA were conducting a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) training exercise and located the wreck of the McCulloch. Teams from NOAA, NPS, USCG San Diego and Alameda Dive Locker, R/V Shearwater, and USCGC Halibut and Blacktip conducted 7 ROV dives at the wreck site.
(Photo Credit: USCG, NOAA, & VideoRay)
Ultimately, given the age and condition of the wreck, the Coast Guard decided to leave the cutter as part of the surrounding marine habitat. With the discovery of the wreck, the US Coast Guard can now close a chapter in its history books and finally lay to rest a storied cutter that has been on the bottom in her watery grave for more than a century. The USCGC McCulloch is a reminder to us all that even the greatest are still at the mercy of the weather and human error.
Hodgsdon, D.B. (1898). Report of Engagement at Manila Bay, May 1, 1898. In Naval Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898. Ship Action Reports: U.S. Steamer McCulloch. Retrieved from https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/s/selected-documents-of-the-spanish-american-war/mcculloch-in-battle-of-manila-bay.html
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (n.d.). U.S. Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch. Retrieved from https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/shipwrecks/mcculloch/
[Diagnostic Hull Features and Artifacts] (1914). Retrieved from https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/shipwrecks/mcculloch/
[McCulloch in dry dock] (1914). Retrieved from https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/shipwrecks/mcculloch/
[McCulloch after refit at Mare Island] (1914). Retrieved from https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/shipwrecks/mcculloch/
[SS Governor] (n.d.). Retrieved from https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/shipwrecks/mcculloch/
[McCulloch sinking by the head] (n.d.). Retrieved from https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/shipwrecks/mcculloch/