Return to History

Post Prohibition – Ocean Weather Stations

The Service now had first class cutters designed specifically for its missions. In his eight years as Commandant, Billard had overseen an expansion unprecedented in Service history. He is recognized as one of the greatest Commandants. He was just starting his third tour of duty when he suddenly died of pneumonia. It was universally agreed that he had literally worked himself to death. It was his cutters, and one class still to come, that would take the Coast Guard into a new era.

Admiral Harry Hamlet succeeded Admiral Billard as Commandant. The country was in the middle of the Great Depression and President Roosevelt was looking to cut government costs. As the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1919, Roosevelt had firmly believed the Coast Guard should have been part of the Navy. He had not changed his mind. Another brief round of consolidation was fought and won. The Coast Guard stayed in Treasury. In 1934 Henry Morgenthau became Secretary of the Treasury.

This period was marked by several extraordinary rescues, notable the cases of Morro Castle and Childar. These, and the growth of other missions, lead to the commissioning of nine more 165B-class cutters. One of these, Electra, served for one year before being transferred to the Navy for conversion to the Presidential Yacht Potomac.

Transoceanic airways services began to expand. Navigation was sketchy and aircraft often needed the assistance of ships to verify their positions. It was assumed that, eventually, an aircraft on the trans-oceanic route would be forced to ditch and a search and rescue (SAR) operation would be needed. In addition, the weather service was asking all ships at sea to send them weather information for forecasting. These circumstances came together to shape a new Coast Guard mission. Cutters would man Ocean Weather Stations. These cutters would transmit navigation data to aircraft, transmit weather data to the Weather Service, and stand by for SAR as needed. This mission lead to a new class of cutter. In 1933, the largest ship yet designed for the Coast Guard was approved by Congress. The 327’ Secretary-class cutters would join the fleet in 1936. In 1936, Admiral Russell Waesche succeeded Admiral Hamlet as Commandant.

The ocean weather station idea originated in the early days of radio communications and transoceanic aviation. As early as 1921, the Director of the French Meteorological Service proposed establishing a stationary weather observing ship in the North Atlantic to benefit merchant shipping and the anticipated inauguration of trans-Atlantic air service. Up to then, temporary stations had been set up for special purposes such as the U.S. Navy NC-4 trans-Atlantic flight in 1919 and the ill-fated Amelia Earhart Pacific flight in 1937.

The loss of a Pan American aircraft in 1938 due to weather on a trans-Pacific flight prompted the Coast Guard and the Weather Bureau to begin tests of upper air observations using instrumented balloons. Their success resulted in a recommendation by Commander E. H. Smith of the International Ice Patrol (and future Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) for a network of ships in the Atlantic Ocean.

World War II brought about a dramatic increase in trans-Atlantic air navigation, and in January 1940 President Roosevelt established the “Atlantic Weather Observation Service” using Coast Guard cutters and U.S. Weather Bureau observers. Most flights at this time were using southern routes. On 10 February 1940, the 327-foot cutters Bibb and Duane occupied Ocean Stations 1 and 2, the forerunners of Stations Delta and Echo.

With the U.S. entering the war, Coast Guard cutters were diverted to anti-submarine duties, and the weather stations were taken over by a motley assortment of vessels ranging from converted yachts to derelict freighters, mostly Coast Guard operated. There was one converted Navy tanker. As trans-Atlantic air traffic increased, so did the number of weather and plane guard stations. The role of weather during the Battle of Coral Sea and trans-Pacific flights resulted in stations being set up in that ocean also. At the service’s peak, there were 22 Atlantic and 24 Pacific stations.

A typical weather patrol was 21 days on-station. A “station” was a 210-mile grid of 10-mile squares, each with alphabetic designations. The center square, which the ship usually occupied, was “OS” (for “on-station”). A radio beacon transmitted the ship’s location. Overflying aircraft would check in with the ship and receive position, course and speed by radar tracking, and weather data. Surface weather observations were transmitted every three hours, and “upper airs”, from instrumented balloon data, every six hours. Using radiosonde transmitters and radar tracking, balloon observers obtained air temperature, humidity, pressure, and wind direction and speed to elevations of 50,000 feet. Oceanographic observations were recommended for weather ships almost from the start.

The duty was monotonous, but dangerous. The ships were basically helpless targets for any enemy action. On 8 September 1942, USCGC Monomoy was enroute to station to relieve USCGC Muskeget 450 miles south of Greenland. The vessels were in communications with each other. When Monomoy arrived on station, Muskeget was missing with her 116-man crew, four Weather Bureau personnel and Public Health Service doctor.

The chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau wrote during WWII, “… the weather reports from these vessels were among the most vital meteorological information for war operations of the United States … The difficulty and hardships of these station vessels was fully recognized but the value of their reports more than compensated for those difficulties, and the men so serving were performing duties of high priority in the war effort.”

By 1945, American ships manned 13 Atlantic stations and 24 Pacific stations. European nations combined to man another nine in the Atlantic. By 1946, the number had been reduced to two in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic. A 1946 conference strongly recommended the re-establishment of the stations. Other nations balked at supplying ships and questioned the real need.

On 14 October 1947, Bibb was manning Station Charlie, midway between Ireland and Newfoundland. A full gale was blowing. Bermuda Sky Queen, enroute to New York with 69 souls on board, ran out of fuel and was forced to ditch in 20-foot seas. She homed in on Bibb’s radio beacon while Bibb spread oil to calm the seas. The aircraft made a perfect ditch landing and surfboats from Bibb rescued all on board. The need for the weather stations had been demonstrated. Eventually nine permanent stations were established in the Atlantic. Originally, five permanent stations and one manned during typhoon season were established in the Pacific, but this number was gradually reduced to three permanent stations. The Coast Guard manned five Atlantic and all Pacific stations. France, England, Canada, and the Netherlands manned the others.

Station Sugar was a typical station in the Pacific Ocean. The typical itinerary for manning the station had a cutter sail from a West Coast port to Sugar, from Sugar to Japan for R&R, from Japan to Sugar, and from Sugar back to home port. This was a three-month evolution. Oceanographic observations were recommended for weather ships almost from the start. Beginning in 1945 and continuing to the end, cutters made bathythermograph (B/T) observations that today constitute the largest B/T archive in existence. Many specific, short-term programs were carried out with oceanographers frequently riding the ships.

On 16 October 1956, Pontchartrain was manning November when she received a call from Pan American Clipper 10943. The aircraft had lost an engine and would have to ditch. Pontch laid fire-fighting foam to calm the seas. It was said that a female passenger looking out the window saw Pontch below and said to the person next to her, “There they are, God bless them.” The pilot made a textbook ditch, but the aircraft broke in half. Surfboats immediately began transferring passengers and crew to the cutter. Within 20 minutes of ditching, the aircraft had sunk. But before she did, every soul on board was safe aboard Pontch.

In 1964, Coos Bay rescued the crew of the foundering British ship Ambassador while manning Station Echo. Rockaway rescued the crew of Smith Voyager. There are several other instances of ocean station ships coming to the assistance of aircraft or ships in distress. These are the most well known. But by 1970, new jet aircraft were coming to rely less on ocean stations, and satellites were beginning to provide weather data. In 1974, the Coast Guard announced plans to terminate the U.S stations. In 1977, Taney was the last cutter to man an American station. The program ended when the last Dutch ship departed Station Mike in 1981.

Of course, sometimes the rescuers needed rescuing. On 23 July 1947, Bibb and her 150-man crew were assigned to Ocean Station Charlie, when a crewmember, Seaman Joseph Johns of Helena, Georgia, became seriously ill with a ruptured appendix. The ship did not carry a doctor, and the pharmacist mates on board believed Johns’ condition was beyond their capabilities to help. The captain considered steaming for Argentia (Arj), Newfoundland, but the situation dictated that Johns needed to be airlifted immediately to medical help. The Coast Guard Air Detachment based at the U.S Naval Air Station at Argentia dispatched a PBY-5A on the mission. The pilots and aircrew for this mercy mission were Patrol Plane Commander (PPC) LT. William Morrill, First Pilot (PP1P) Aviation Pilot First Class Clayton. Roll, PP2P and navigator, Chief Aviation Pilot Kenneth Franke, and crew members Aviation Machinist Mate First Class (AMM 1/C) John Pallam, AMM 2/C J. C. Entrekin, and Aviation Radio Man First Class (ARM 1/C) Walter Corbett. This aircraft and crew made a 1,300-mile round trip and an open sea landing and take off to bring Johns to a hospital in St. Johns, Newfoundland.

For a complete list of cutters that manned OWS prior to WWII go to this Link.

For a complete list of cutters that manned OWS in WWII go to this Link.

For a complete list of cutters that manned OWS after WWII go to this Link.