Topic & Content
A history of the Hamilton-class U.S. Coast Guard cutter Jarvis (WHEC-725) and her grounding and near sinking in 1972. The book is organized as follows:
- Part One
- Ch. 1: Trapped
- Part Two
- Ch. 2: Frederick Wooley
- Ch. 3: The Beginning
- Ch. 4: Commissioning Ceremony
- Ch. 5: Seeking Shelter
- Ch. 6: Ship Aground: “This is No Drill!”
- Ch. 7: Dead in the Water
- Ch. 8: Abandon Ship
- Ch. 9: Road to Recovery
- Ch. 10: The Return Home
- Ch. 11: The Investigation
- Ch. 12: The Jarvis‘s Future
The book lacks a defined thesis and instead is a fairly straightforward history of the 1972 grounding incident that occurred aboard the USCGC Jarvis (WHEC-725) and the crew’s efforts to save the ship.
Steven Craig is a retired Captain in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. Prior to being commissioned as an officer, he was a Senior Chief Petty Officer. During his service with the USCG, he was part of the disaster responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, 9/11, and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
Books on U.S. Coast Guard cutters and operations are somewhat rare and don’t generate the same amount of interest as accounts of ships and battles involving the larger (and often more action-oriented) U.S. Navy. Even more rare are accounts of mishaps that occurred directly involving Coast Guard assets. Steven Craig has done an admirable job of researching and writing about the near-disastrous 1972 Alaska patrol of the USCGC Jarvis.
In many ways, this book offers a glimpse into the Coast Guard of the 1970s. At that time, a handful of Coasties were still around who had seen service in WWII and many had recently come off of blockade duties in Vietnam (Operation Sealords). Also, it would only be a few years before women would be admitted into the regular Coast Guard. The 378-foot long Hamilton-class cutters (AKA Secretary/Hero-class, and colloquially as “378s” after their length) were some of the largest and newest vessels in the fleet at the time. Lacking the helicopter hangar on the flight deck (among other upgrades) and still mounting their 5″/38 guns, they were still in their original configuration prior to their FRAM upgrades in the 1980s.
*Note: Personally, I have had a soft spot for the 378s ever since I was given a tour of the USCGC Rush back in 2007 when I lived in Honolulu. The Jarvis was also tied up at the pier at Sand Island at the time, too. All ships of this class have since been decommissioned and sold off to foreign navies. Replacing them are the Legend-class cutters.
Newly commissioned, the Jarvis set out on a patrol of the infamous Alaskan waters in the autumn of 1972. Known for its high winds, mountainous seas, and frigid temperatures, the Jarvis took shelter from an approaching storm in Iliukliuk Bay at Dutch Harbor. Unfortunately, the strong winds and muddy bottom resulted in the ship unknowingly dragging her anchor and running aground on a reef. The grounding holed the hull in the engine room which forced the crew to temporarily patch it before attempting to return to Honolulu, HI. Underway again and 50 miles away from Dutch Harbor, the patch failed and the resulting flooding of the engine room caused the ship to lose all propulsion. With no ability to make way, the Jarvis was dead in the water and drifting toward Akutan Island where the ship would certainly have been smashed against the rocky shores and lost with all hands. Thus, for one of the few times in history, a U.S. Coast Guard vessel sent out a distress call while the crew struggled to stop the freezing water from flooding in and all the while being thrown around in stormy seas.
This is basically a rescue-at-sea story involving the Coast Guard attempting to rescue its own. There are no enemies (apart from the elements) or big battles. Craig’s writing is straightforward and clear. The bulk of the book is devoted to describing the ship’s grounding, various prominent crewmembers, and the crew’s struggle to implement damage control measures to save the ship. Like other disaster stories, it became a race against time for help to arrive before the ship was smashed against the shore of Akutan Island. The book ends with an examination of the results of the Board of Investigation into the incident, the subsequent lives of the crew, and the ultimate fate of the Jarvis being sold to the Bangladesh Navy in 2013. When it’s all said and done, this book sheds light on a little-known incident from an often-forgotten service.
If anything, the writing in this book is passable, if not a little on the bland side. I’m not expecting a masterpiece of historiography (this blog isn’t Pulitzer Prize material, after all), but the writing does feel very utilitarian. On the bright side, at least it’s not littered with purple prose. It’s certainly not the worst I’ve read, but it’s not brilliant, either. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the story itself. Disaster stories aren’t like war stories where there are (usually) clearly defined opposing forces. Mother nature takes the role of the enemy, but you don’t win fights with mother nature…you survive them. Most of the descriptions simply talk about the stormy weather, the freezing temperatures, and the engine room filling with several feet of frigid and dirty water from a hole in the hull. On top of all that, the dewatering pumps couldn’t keep up with the flooding, many of the crew didn’t sleep for days, most were certain the ship would’ve been crushed against the rocks, and the ship was being tossed around in a storm like a toy (the ship rolled more than sixty degrees at some points and was in danger of capsizing). Still, it’s difficult for the writer to convey the peril of the situation the crew faced unless the reader was actually there or has experienced something similar.
The book goes into a good amount of detail about the crew’s efforts to control the flooding and a number of prominent crewmembers take center stage, however, I do wish there was more discussion on the technical characteristics of the cutter itself. There is a drawing of the ship in the book, but it’s only of the exterior. It would be more helpful for readers if there were some deck plan schematics of the ship to show where the flooding was occurring.
Another issue I have with this book is the lackluster presentation. Hellgate Press is an independent publisher. While I’m all for writers getting their work out on the shelves, a glance at other books offered by Hellgate Press shows a plethora of very generic-looking covers with uninteresting fonts. Indeed, the cover of this book looks a little hokey.
My final criticism is that the endnotes double as the bibliography. This is a practice that I’m not fond of since I like to have both the notes and the bibliography separate from each other for easier reference.
Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)
In summation, this is a very interesting story with the ironic premise that a Coast Guard cutter was actually the one calling for help. Stories about the U.S. Coast Guard tend to be relegated to very small sections of maritime lore or history in bookstores. There are even fewer stories about the boats and cutters themselves. Thankfully, this book presents one such story about one of the service’s larger vessels. The downside is that the writing is fairly generic, and reading about stormy weather and freezing temperatures may not appeal to some. It’s not the most enthralling of reads, but it sheds light on a unique incident in the Coast Guard’s history.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5