The Long Blue Line: A tragedy remembered — SS Marine Electric sinking 40 years ago, Part One

By United States Coast Guard Retired Captain Mont J. Smith, Jr.


I remember that terrible night as well as 37 years will permit. It was the last time I flew a helicopter as pilot in command during my Coast Guard aviation career. I was the operations officer at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina. I was awakened by the “E-City” operations duty officer (ODO) around 0330 or 0400 on Feb. 12, 1983. The ODO told me a large collier — a coal ship — was foundering off Chincoteague, Maryland.  

The ship had radioed in about an hour-and-a-half earlier to the Fifth Coast Guard District Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) in Portsmouth, Virginia, indicating it was taking on water in a heavy storm about 15 miles offshore. Suddenly, the motor vessel (M/V) Marine Electric broadcast that the crew was abandoning ship. There were 34 men aboard the Marine Electric.  

The enormity of finding them all on a black, furious sea in bad weather became apparent to everyone involved. 

First Responders Deployed 

The HH–3F ready SAR crew, which slept aboard, had already rolled out of bed, run from the barracks to the hangar, donned wetsuits, checked weather, and departed. The ODO suggested we field another helicopter crew via random recall, and launch a second HH–3F and the ready C–130 to assist. I concurred. 

The weather was a typical Atlantic seaboard nor’easter. It was variously raining, sleeting, and snowing moderately, with wind blowing from the north-northeast at 50 knots. Seas in the relatively shallow water offshore from Chincoteague were out of the east, averaging 12 to 15 feet with a short period chop. Unfortunately, Elizabeth City was about 100 miles directly downwind from the scene, requiring about an hour’s flight into the teeth of the turbulent headwinds. 

The duty officer in the district RCC had wisely alerted a closer rescue resource, a Navy SH–3G helicopter that could join the effort from nearby Naval Air Station Oceana. This helicopter was used as a “local base rescue” resource during scheduled flight training operations for the Master Jet Base. Since there was no flight activity underway, the crew was home in bed when RCC called. Nonetheless, they responded quickly and were airborne in under an hour. 

Lt. Scott Olin, the aircraft commander of our ready HH–3F, was already communicating with the Navy helicopter as he neared the scene. The Navy crew had located the main debris field and had lowered their rescue swimmer into the water to try to lift possible survivors from the raging and tossing sea.  

The victims, who were middle aged and older men, were unable to swim or assist the swimmer. Many were clothed only in their pajamas, indicating the ship had sunk so suddenly they only had time to rush from their bunks topside, grab a life jacket and jump into the frigid water. This made it impossible to use a “horse collar” rescue sling, which was designed to clip onto the survival vest of a naval aviator. 

The Navy crew resorted to using the “Billy Pugh” net, a collapsible rescue device that was originally designed to lift the Mercury and Apollo astronauts from the Pacific upon the return of their space capsules to earth. The device was not rigid enough to remain stable in the pitching seas.  

Upon arrival of Olin’s helicopter, the two crews mutually agreed that the rescue swimmer should work with the Coast Guard helicopter, whose crew deployed a rigid SAR basket with flotation. The Navy would continue to search for survivors. Two were located; one occupied a lifeboat and the other a large life raft. They decided to delay recovery of those two individuals to concentrate on the men in the water, whose lives were quickly ebbing away due to the freezing temperature. 

Smith & Crew Head Out 

I got up, dressed and drove to the air station across town. Lt. Pete Spence checked the weather as I got a briefing on the current situation. We both donned our one-piece wetsuits and life vests, and joined the crew at the aircraft, which was being towed out of the hangar. The Sikorsky HH–3F was a heavy helicopter weighing about 11 tons fully loaded. Powered by twin General Electric T58 turboshaft engines developing a total of around 5,000 horsepower, the big bird cruised comfortably at 135 knots.  

Our avionics man, an aviation electrician’s mate, Petty Officer 2nd Class Greg Pesch, told me the Coast Guard Support Center’s flight surgeon suggested we take along a hospital corpsman who was trained to administer a new rewarming technique for hypothermia victims. It was called warm vapor-saturated oxygen. I readily agreed. 

We ran through our checklists, started engines, and engaged the main rotor. Many complex avionics systems needed for navigation (an electro-mechanical navigation computer, LORAN receiver, radar, and Doppler hover coupler system) needed to be warmed up, programmed and verified. A simple programming error could take us far off course and unnecessarily delay our arrival.  

We taxied quickly to the runway, lifted into a hover and checked power available on the huge, roaring, rumbling, and shuddering helicopter. I nosed her over and we climbed out over the Pasquotank River, headed northeast at 135 knots. We could feel the turbulence as we bucked the steady headwind. Clear of town, the unlit farmland below disappeared into the black of night. The cockpit became our only reference, bathed in the soft glow of yellowish flight instruments, and multi-colored indicators reflecting off the curved Plexiglas windshields.  

Pete busied himself with tuning the NAS Oceana TACAN and checking groundspeed on our flight computer. We had a “mini navigator” computer that received and integrated LORAN C signals. I remember clearly seeing Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Cape Henry on the radar at about 40 miles ahead. Eventually we were talking with Norfolk Approach as “Coast Guard Rescue 1434,” receiving traffic advisories. 

The snow began to increase, and visibility decreased. Over water and clear of obstructions, we descended to 500 feet above sea level on the radar altimeter. We called Scotty in the other HH–3F, set up an air-to-air TACAN lock so we could fix our distance from his helicopter and had him give us “short counts” on VHF-FM for direction finding. We got a line of bearing on him about 20 miles out. 

The outside air temperature was hovering around minus 2 degrees Celsius (28.4 degrees Fahrenheit). We had the engine inlet anti-ice on and the cabin heater going on high. The radar was not painting any substantial targets. It showed mostly sea return, even on the lowest five-mile scale.  

Pete tuned and re-tuned the tilt and gain, but we could neither paint the ship nor the helicopters. As we closed within about three miles, we squinted hard, looking for the rotating beacons or flood and hover lights of the other two helicopters. We confirmed with them the ship was presumed sunk and watched their bearing slowly swing about 45 degrees off to our right, while we maintained a constant heading into the apparent wind and slowed to 80 knots indicated airspeed…  

Join us for part two of this story on Monday, Aug. 21. The conclusion of the story will appear on Wednesday, Aug. 23. 

Image Gallery

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CGD 24 Wainwright Unknown port; photo taken from quarterdeck of unnamed USCG cutter. Boston? Photo...
USCG patrol boats during Prohibition
"Coast Guard Destroyer Downes (From a Painting by the Destroyer Force Bugle Staff Artist, Marius...
"Ensign Roland making end run, Coast Guard-Marine game, Washington, D.C., 1929." Scanned from...
"1929 - Coast Guard Football Team - 1929. Back Row: -Lieut. Baker, Coast and Manager; Wineke,...
A photo of Coast Guard Destroyer CONYNGHAM on patrol during Prohibition.
Coast Guard Destroyer's baseball team (no date).
Hand-written caption on reverse of photo reads: "Officers and crew of CGC Beale (Navy destroyer...
Hand-written caption on reverse of photo reads: "R R Waesche Sr., CGC Snohomish, Port Angeles, or...
"BEALE (CG-9) (Of the old U.S. Coast Guard Destroyer Force - 1924-1930) An early 20th century...
"Engineroom Force of the Coast Guard Cutter PONTCHARTRAIN. 3-5-29 (1)." CCG Scrapbook (CG...
Copy photo found in the CG Historian's Office Special Collections Archive in the "Uniforms" folder....

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