The Loss of USCGC Alert (WSC/WMEC-127)

Note: For the sake of brevity, this post will only cover the USCGC Alert. For those interested in a really good article on this class of ships, I recommend reading this post from blogger laststandonzombieisland.

Characteristics of USCGC Alert (WSC-127)

DimensionsLength: 125 ft. Beam: 23 ft. 6 in. Draft: 9 ft. (max)
Propulsion2x General Motors Type 268-A diesel engines (800 BHP in total)
Speed13 kts. (max). 3,300 mi radius at 8 kts. (economical)
SensorsSO-9 radar (1945), QBE-3A sonar (1945)
Armament1x 3″/23 (single) & 2x depth charge tracks (1941). 1x 40mm/60 (single), 2x depth charge tracks, 2x mousetraps (1945).
Crew5 officers, 41 enlisted (1945)
BuilderKeel LaidLaunchedCommissionedDecommissioned
American Brown Boveri Electric Corp., Camden, NJ.27 May 1926 (contracted)30 November 192627 January 192710 January 1969, sold 6 October 1969
(Scheina, 1982, p. 46).

Class Design Notes

The 125-foot Active-class cutters (AKA “Buck & a Quarter”-class) were designed to interdict smugglers during the Prohibition era. Meant to form the outer line of a patrol area, they were designed to trail “mother ships” and intercept them when they transferred their illegal liquor to small boats. 10 of these cutters were converted to serve as buoy tenders in mid-1941, however, the wartime needs of WWII saw them reconverted back to patrol vessels. 33 ships of this class were built in total (Scheina, 1982, p. 44 – 45). In accordance with their envisioned long patrols, these cutters were designed with sufficient messing and berthing facilities in mind for the crew. If extra berthing space was needed (for example, if survivors were taken aboard), then hammocks could be hung (Flynn, 2012, p. 11). At $63,173 each, these cutters gained a reputation for durability. Overall, these were some of the longest-serving cutters in Coast Guard history. 16 were still in active service in the 1960s, with the Morris being decommissioned in 1970. The Cuyahoga was the last of the class in active service but was sunk in a collision with the MV Santa Cruz II near the mouth of the Potomac River in 1978 (USCG Historian’s Office, 2021, para. 4).

Note the differences in the superstructure and the shape of the gunwales in the drawings when compared to the photos (Scheina, 1982, p. 48).
Profile drawing of the Cuyahoga from her casualty report (Scheina, 1990, p. 59). Note how this drawing much more closely resembles the final configuration of the Alert when compared to the previous drawings.

Operational History

After commissioning in January of 1927, the Alert proceeded to her homeport of Boston, Massachusetts where she operated as a part of Division One, Offshore Patrol Force during Prohibition until November of 1928. Following her time on the East Coast, she was ordered to a new permanent duty station in Oakland, California. Joining the other Active-class cutters Bonham, Ewing, Morris, and McLane, they proceeded together to their new duty station. While en route, they called at New York, New York; Charleston, South Carolina; Kingston, Jamaica; the Panama Canal, Acapulco, Mexico; and Mazatlan, Mexico before arriving at San Pedro, California on 6 January 1929. Shortly afterward, the Alert proceeded to San Francisco and was berthed at the Base Eleven Docks in Oakland. In June of 1929, the Alert‘s permanent duty station was changed to San Pedro due to the changing operational methods of the “Blacks” (liquor smuggling mother ships) which would stop in international waters to transfer their cargo to small boats who would then make the run to shore. Since the “Blacks” had changed their operations to Guadalupe Island and further south along the California coast, having the cutters stationed in San Pedro meant a shorter response time. In May of 1931, the Alert‘s duty station was again changed to Ketchikan, Alaska (USCG Historian’s Office, 2021, paras. 5 – 9). From 1937 – 1940, the Alert served on the Bering Sea Patrol, and in February of 1940, she returned to California with her permanent duty station being at Alameda. With additional weaponry added, she was assigned to the Navy’s Western Sea Frontier (WESTSEAFRON) Area Command and used as a training vessel throughout WWII. It was also at this time she was given the hull designation WSC-127 (USCG Historian’s Office, 2021, para. 11). From 1941 to June of 1949, she was stationed at Alameda and used mostly for law enforcement and search-and-rescue (Scheina, 1990, p. 58).

Following the war, the Navy transferred administrative and operational control of the Alert back to the Coast Guard. On 21 June 1949, her permanent station was changed to Morro Bay, California. However, by the mid-1950s, it was found that the eroding breakwater and the low number of pleasure boats and fishing vessels in the area made the Alert‘s presence at Morro Bay unsuitable. Hence, on 20 February 1959, she was transferred further south to San Diego (Scheina, 1990, p. 59). Some 90% of her time at San Diego was spent assisting boaters in distress and commercial fishing vessels. Notable activities during her time at San Diego included assisting the fishing vessels Alpha Rock and Viking 70 miles south of Punta Baja in January of 1966, as well as fighting a fire on the fishing vessel Mondego off Point Loma in August of 1967 (Scheina, 1990, p. 59). A press release in 1967 wrote that the Alert had a top speed of 19 knots; however, one former crew member, who qualified as an OOD, noted that she would not make more than 13 knots. The Alert was formally decommissioned on 10 January 1969, and in October of that year, she was sold to Highland Film Laboratories in San Francisco for $30,476.19 (USCG Historian’s Office, 2021, paras. 12 – 17).

Alert off Point Loma, San Diego. Circa 1958.

Preservation Efforts

The story of the Alert does not end with her decommissioning. According to the now-defunct website, The Old Cutter Alert (2017), Highland Film Labs kept the cutter in her 1945 configuration. She was continually used as a training vessel for the Sea Scouts and made appearances in films and TV shows throughout the San Francisco Bay area. By 1990, however, the cutter sat unused until she was acquired in 2005 by the “Cutter Alert Preservation Team, Inc.” and made seaworthy again by Mike Stone after 18 months of badly needed maintenance. After a short shakedown cruise to the Farallon Islands off the California coast, the Alert headed north to Oregon, making stops in Coos Bay and Rainier before arriving at her final destination of Portland (paras. 14 – 15). The Alert was moored at Hayden Island on the Columbia River next to the former U.S. Navy tug, Sakarissa (Romero, 2021, para. 6)

Alert in Vancouver. 27 January 2007.

Failed Attempt to Turn Alert into a Museum Ship

The Alert moored off Hayden Island on the Columbia River in Portland, OR. Just aft of her, you can see the prow of the former Navy tug, Sakarissa.

The Alert Cutter Preservation Team originally planned to restore the vessel and turn her into a museum ship that would accommodate tours and overnight stays. While she was still seaworthy, a lot of work still needed to be done to make the ship presentable and ready to accept visitors. The team noted that much of the onboard systems, such as the “32 VDC electrical system, generator control board, lighting, Hyde windlass, brick-lined diesel galley stove, hot and cold freshwater plumbing, rudder controls and engine order telegraph” were the original 1926 equipment (The Old Cutter Alert, 2017, para. 16). Additionally, the restoration team also noted that she was the world’s oldest engine-powered ex-U.S. warship in operating condition and the oldest ex-U.S. Coast Guard cutter in its original configuration still afloat, at the time (para. 17). In this case, “original configuration” probably meant she still possessed many of her original 1920s systems.

Sadly, while the preservation group had her until 2013, it seems that any restoration work on the vessel stalled, and the Cutter Alert Preservation Team, Inc. went under sometime around 2019 (given that their website is no longer maintained after that date). At some point in 2013, the Alert was acquired by the nonprofit organization, Columbia Watershed Environmental Advocates (Romero, 2021, para. 7). However, that group also folded when its founder died and the cutter has sat abandoned ever since (Ettlin & Romero, 2021, paras. 2 – 3).

The cutter (and the neighboring Sakarissa) eventually fell victim to vandalism and homeless squatters. The Interstate-5 bridge that connects Hayden Island with Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington sheltered a homeless encampment dubbed the “Pirates of the Columbia” by Portlanders. Locals in the area reported graffiti along with broken and boarded-up windows on the cutter. They also noted piles of garbage along the shore. Eventually, a work crew was contracted to clear out the “Pirates of the Columbia” homeless camp and remove the gangplank that connected the Alert with the shore (English, 2020, paras. 1 – 3).

While sitting derelict at Hayden Island, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Oregon State Marine Board, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and the Oregon Department of State Lands (DSL) worked to remove hazardous materials, such as oil, batteries, and other chemicals, from both the Alert and the Sakarissa. In total, these government agencies spent about $300,000 to remove 15,000 gallons of wastewater and various pollutants from the two vessels (Romero, 2021, paras. 15 – 17). The problem still remained about how to properly dispose of both vessels since the bureaucratic red tape and lack of specified funding for towing them away didn’t exist; not to mention that the $2 million price tag for disposing of both would’ve been the responsibility of the taxpayers. Simply put, state officials have given no date as to when the vessels would be removed from the river (Romero, 2021, paras. 20 – 25).

The Loss of the Alert

It was reported that the Alert sank on the night of 31 October 2021. The exact cause of the sinking is unknown, but U.S. Coast Guard LT Lisa Siebert speculates that (among any number of causes) people leaving hatches open could have caused rainwater to enter and partially flood the vessel, thereby making it heavier (Ettlin & Romero, 2021, para. 29). Unfortunately, the sunken ship would now cost anywhere from $2 – 4 million to remove from the river; far above and beyond the previous price tag of $1 million. To further complicate disposal matters, the state of Oregon has no program to remove the many derelict and sunken vessels from the river, whereas the state of Washington does (Ettlin & Romero, 2021, paras. 17 – 19). Bureaucracy again rears its ugly head.

Author’s note: As a native of Oregon, myself, I can certainly attest to the number of sunken vessels in the Columbia River and the bureaucratic mess that the state has in disposing of them. Additionally, the city of Portland has a homeless problem that is, unfortunately, multi-faceted and not easily solved. The cost of living in the city is very high (significantly higher than the national average), and the terms “affordable” and “housing” don’t even belong in the same sentence together. It is very saddening to me to see something like this get slowly vandalized, stripped, and destroyed by squatters and people with nothing better to do with their time.

Beyond the loss of the Alert, what is perhaps the most disheartening for naval and maritime historians is the reality that many of these storied vessels can never survive as museum ships. The restoration and maintenance of ships are very expensive and downright impossible with a lack of funding and public support. The financial realities are daunting, and most ships simply end up being scrapped. The USCGC Alert had a very active 40+ year career and deserved a far better fate than the one she got. Sadly, she became a victim of not only the economic realities of the times but also of vagrants and vandals.

References

Ettlin, G., & Romero, M. (2021, November 3). Abandoned former Coast Guard vessel sinks in Columbia River, costing taxpayers. NBC News. https://kobi5.com/news/abandoned-former-coast-guard-vessel-sinks-in-columbia-river-costing-taxpayers-172363/.

English, J. (2020, December 17). Crews clear ‘Pirates of the Columbia’ encampment. KATU News. https://katu.com/news/local/crews-clear-pirates-of-the-columbia-encampment.

Flynn, J.T. (2012). U. S. Coast Guard Patrol Craft Major Classes -100-feet to 150 feet in length 1915 to 2012. U.S. Department of Defense. https://media.defense.gov/2017/Dec/14/2001856509/-1/-1/0/FLYNNPATROLCRAFT2012.PDF.

Romero, M. (2021, July 29). Oregon has no timeline for removing abandoned military vessels on Columbia River. KGW8 News. https://www.kgw.com/article/news/local/removing-abandoned-military-vessels-columbia-river/283-1b966c27-4a9c-4f56-8819-0254afea99ff.

Scheina, R.L. (1982). U.S. Coast Guard Cutters & Craft of World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

Scheina, R.L. (1990). U.S. Coast Guard Cutters & Craft 1946-1990. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

The Old Cutter Alert. (2017, May 9). The Former USCGC ALERT WSC-127. https://web.archive.org/web/20170509035403/http://www.oldcutteralert.com/history_2.html.

USCG Historian’s Office. (2020, April 14). Alert, 1927 (WSC / WMEC-127). https://www.history.uscg.mil/Browse-by-Topic/Assets/Water/All/Article/2148701/alert-1927-wsc-wmec-127/.

2 comments

  1. Excellent article. Unfortunately, I have the sad duty to report that the Sakarissa (YTM-269) has also sunk this week, presumably for the same reasons. She was low in the water for a few months and we had an unseasonably heavy snow storm, which presumably added enough ballast weight and water to put her under. I’ve seen them in my daily commute across the Columbia river, and I consider them sister ships as they were moored alongside each other for years. Now both masts are visible sticking up out of the water. I hope some effort is made to salvage them and float them again.

    Like

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