The Bellechasse Incident
by Jim Gill, USCG Ret.
The Dixon Entrance Patrol consisted of one ship on station at a time, the Canadians and the USCG alternating in ten-day periods. The Canadian vessels were tough little minesweepers converted to patrol craft and based at Prince Rupert. The area was also patrolled by the RCAF 8th Bomber/Reconnaissance Squadron stationed on Annette Island.
They flew a strange looking stub-nosed twin-engine attack bomber call the Bolingbroke. (It somewhat resembled the British Beaufighter).
The pilots were a hell-for-leather bunch of crazies who loved fun and games. Their favorite sport was sneaking up on unsuspecting patrol craft and giving them a proper buzzing. By flying at 30 feet or less altitude, they were almost impossible to see coming in. At the last second they would go into a screaming climb, laughing their fool heads off.
Once awhile on lookout, I suddenly turned and looked right into the cockpit of a Bolingbroke coming beam on. I was on McLANE?s flying bridge, 29 feet off the water and looking at the pilots eyeball to eyeball. They were laughing so hard they almost forgot to pull up in time and barely cleared the ship, leaving those of us on deck cussing and going for a quick change of drawers.
By the end of June, the weather was becoming halfway decent but the endless patrol routine was boring. We all hoped for something to break the monotony?even another good buzzing by the Canadians would help. When the break came, it wasn?t exactly what we wanted, but at least it was different.
Late in the afternoon of July 4th, we sighted a vessel?s mast and stack barely showing above the horizon. No Allied vessel movements were scheduled in the area, so we went to battle stations and increased to full speed to investigate. Recognition signals were primitive but fairly effective. At night the more up to date ships used colored lights installed at three levels on the mast. We made ours up on deck and hoisted them on a signal halyard.
Choosing the correct signal for the current six hour period, you could "challenge"; for instance, by flashing red over green over yellow. The "reply" would be a different color combination. If the signals were correct, everything was OK, if not, you started shooting.
Everyone was jittery and sometimes opened fire anyhow. In daylight we used a three-letter code group sent by signal searchlight. The ship on the horizon was indeed sending the proper challenge with a powerful carbon arc searchlight. For us, this created a bit of a problem. We did not have a signal searchlight with which to respond.
Due to the great generosity of Uncle Sam, the program called "Lend-Lease" saw to it that all the goodies went to Russia, Britain, Canada, or whoever, and we went without. A great amount of badly needed equipment of all sorts was not available to us, and we had to make-do with what we had.
What we had in this case was an old beat-up Aldis Lamp (a flashlight might have been better). Armed with this weapon, I took aim and flashed back the proper reply.
I might as well have been using a cigarette lighter. The challenger was now approaching at high speed and still challenging!
"Pappy" was having a fit and yelling at me that I had the incorrect code or was sending it wrong.
As the vessel drew closer, we were greatly relieved to make out the lines of a Canadian minesweeper. Relief, however, turned to dismay as we realized that our "friend" was at Battle Stations, and we were soon looking down the muzzles of some ugly looking heavy weapons.
Since we had not stood down from Battle Stations, we too were trained out and ready to fire.
HMCS Bellechase smartly rounded our stern and drew abreast, the entire ship?s company of both vessels sullenly eyeing each other across an intervening 25 yards of water.
The Canadian Commander very politely hailed us, "I say, Captain, where is your signal searchlight?"
"Pappy," now in a full fit of rage, snarled back, "We gave ?em all to the damned Canadians!"
Both crews roared with laughter. The ships secured from battle stations and went their separate ways. What they were doing unannounced in our patrol area was never explained. We were to see more of HMCS Bellechase, but under considerable more pleasant circumstances.
Loss of the S.S. Port Orford
As 1942 wound its bumpy way down, we spent more and yet more time at sea, which of course translates to less and less time in port. We had been constantly enduring four on eight off sea watches since early June and were destined to continue on this way for the remainder of the year. Time in port had deteriorated to the point where it only meant an opportunity to take fuel, water, and stores.
We patrolled endlessly, chased phantom submarine sightings, rendered search and rescue, repaired aids to navigation, and generally kept on the move. The first major (and more than welcome) distraction came on December 18th when we went to the aid of the old steam schooner Port Orford.
Steam schooners built mostly in the early 20s through early 30s, were of wood construction, and 200 to 250 feet in length. Their principal use was to haul lumber from various ports up and down the West Coast.
Attempting to negotiate the winding, twisting nightmare called Wrangell Narrows in a blinding snowstorm, the Port Orford had strayed from the channel and gone aground. It was rumored that the steering engine had failed.
On our arrival, the storm had not let up and, without radar, our progress up the narrows was mostly by the Braille system. Locating the distressed vessel was easy . . . we came close to colliding before we saw her.
Port Orford was aground forward with her stern half-blocking the channel. We passed a hawser and began to pull, but the tide was down and it was futile. The hawser was 10-inch manila and soon became frozen stiff, which made it almost impossible to handle. Working on our ice-encrusted steel deck didn?t help matters much.
On the 19th the weather let up slightly and at high tide we succeeded in moving Port Orford?s stern slightly to the left. On the 20th help arrived in the form of the buoy tender ALDER, and at the next high water we pulled mightily together.
Port Orford backed her engine at full power and at noon we had her afloat and midstream in the channel. She was able to proceed unaided and headed back up the narrows towards Petersburg. End of story . . . or so we thought.
McLANE headed off for the usual searches for this and that without finding much of anything, and we all looked forward to the possibility of getting back to Ketchikan for Christmas. It was not to be, however; on the 23rd came a frantic SOS from none other than our old friend, Port Orford.
The location this time was Yasha Island, in Chatham Strait, and the situation was serious; the old ship was damaged forward and taking on water. The weather was clear, but a stiff sou?easter was blowing and a heavy sea was running.
We arrived on the morning of the 24th to find Port Orford down by the head and working hard in the swell. She was flooded all the way aft to the engine room. There wasn?t much hope that she would survive much longer, so we transferred her crew to McLANE. We also carried off a huge amount of her commissary stores, for we were running low and now had 22 more mouths to feed. There wasn?t anything more to be done except, so we retreated to the shelter of nearby Tyee and moored at the cannery pier. Fresh water was available, and we were able to take showers and fill our nearly depleted tanks.
Christmas day brought a new storm and we stayed put at Tyee, which was protected and comfortable. "Smokey," our heroic cook, SC1c Salvatore Diano, got together with Port Orford?s cook and tackled the project of Christmas dinner. Everyone wanted to help, and soon, with the stores brought from Port Orford, a great feast was in the making.
We were all a long way from home, and the loss of the valiant old steam schooner brought us together in comradeship that blended with the Christmas spirit. We sang songs, told tall yarns and then in the afternoon, tore into a meal fit for kings.
Sometimes I think it was one of the most pleasant Christmas day I ever spent. That evening we had quite a problem finding space to bed down our guests, but by placing a few on the mess deck benches and a few in the engine room fiddley, all found a place to stretch out.
Early morning on the 26th, we left Tyee and headed on out to Yasha Island to check on the Port Orford. The storm had intensified and it was tough going. Huge seas were sweeping down on the island and at first it was hard to pick out the wreck in all the white water and foam. She had broke in half and the bow section was driven hard up on the rocky shore. Nothing remained of the after half except tons of timbers and wreckage that rose and fell in the big swells.
Pappy sent word for Port Orford?s Master and Chief Mate to come to the bridge for a look. We all stood there silently for about ten minutes watching the sad ending of a great old ship.
Finally, Pappy rang down half ahead and we turned away and started the long haul for Ketchikan.
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