Steven J. Craig. All Present and Accounted For: The 1972 Alaska Grounding of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Jarvis and the Heroic Efforts that Saved the Ship. Hellgate Press, 2020.
ISBN: 978-1-55571-964-7, 276 pages, $16.95USD.
By Patricia Sullivan
This historical account of the rescue of a Coast Guard Cutter grounded in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands was written nearly fifty years after the event. The story is part thriller, part chronicle of bravery and superb troubleshooting, and part lament for bureaucratic shortcomings and failure. The subject of the book is USCGC Jarvis, a High Endurance class 378-foot state-of-the-art ship designed for multiple types of missions.
The author first learned of the incident while stationed in Hawaii many years after the event, and was able to interview several members of the ship’s original crew, as well as others in administrative positions throughout the Coast Guard hierarchy who were involved in or familiar with the incident.
In November 1972, a harsh blizzard locally known as a williwaw hit the ship while at anchor in Iliuliuk Bay, east of Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, about mid-way along the Aleutian chain. The cutter had taken shelter in the Bay after receiving impending storm warnings. Upon performing normal deck and staffing checks, the commanding officer, Captain Wooley, retired shortly after 2400, leaving an Ensign Eger as Officer on Deck with instructions to awake him if any changes in the winds occurred. Two anchors had been dropped.
The storm continued to intensify, eventually making radar readings difficult. By 0215, it was impossible to get accurate readings and Eger discovered that the anchors had been dragged over 175 yards from their 0200 position. He sent a messenger to awaken Captain Wooley. With difficulty and deep concern, the crew discovered that the anchors had not been fixed to rock, but were simply buried in the sand, and the increasing winds and waves had caused the massive shift in their position.
Pressure on the anchors caused one winch to break, and the ship continued to be dragged and knocked about in the shoals. It eventually hit rocks and began to take on water. One anchor chain crossed the bow and prevented forward movement. The story of the next 36 hours relates the remarkable and heroic efforts of all hands on deck, including underwater divers who installed a temporary patch to a hole penetrating through to the engine room. This, in subfreezing temperatures, no power and winds of up to 80 knots and seas up to 40 feet high.
By 1900 the following day, Jarvis had managed to dislodge itself and limp to another more sheltered location on nearby Akutan Island, but the engine room was badly flooded and the ship was in danger of being thrown onto the rocks lining the coast.
Captain Wooley ordered a MAYDAY message to go to the Seventeenth CG District Office in Juneau and the regional Office in San Francisco. Sending out such calls was extremely rare in Coast Guard history. The ship was in danger of being destroyed and the entire crew of losing their lives. The chilling response received minutes later from Juneau was that there “were no Coast Guard assets” near enough to provide immediate assistance.
A second distress call was sent out, and over twenty-two commercial vessels responded. The nearest, a Russian trawler, declined to assist, but two Japanese fishing vessels responded positively and proceeded toward the endangered ship. They were roughly 8 hours away. The remainder of the story is a gripping tale on a par with any maritime thriller readers may be familiar with.
Stephen Craig’s story is a tribute to the Coast Guard’s Semper paratus ethic, to the month-long efforts to rescue the ship and a summation of the military bureaucracy’s response to the incident. Appendices include a Jarvis crew list at the time of the grounding, a list of her Commanding Officers, reflections of the surviving crew members and a helpful list of Coast Guard ratings.
All Present was thoroughly researched and is a must-read for anyone interested in Coast Guard history, traditions and the challenges of serving in areas where Mother Nature is the enemy. The book includes a brief history of the Coast Guard’s formation and its involvement in Alaska since the late nineteenth century.
The only shortcoming this reader encountered was the lack of good clear maps. The narrative demands maps that fully convey the distance between points of interest, the terrain and coastal configurations, as well as Coast Guard district and regional office locations. The book’s maps are blurry and illegible in parts.
Researchers wishing to further delve into Alaska’s special weather and early twenty-first century Coast Guard activities there can watch The Weather Channel episodes that aired from 2011 – 2015 under the name “Coast Guard Alaska.”
Patricia Sullivan is the CEO of the Museum of Maritime Pets.