My Coast Guard
Commentary | Oct. 5, 2021

The Long Blue Line: USS Durant—Coast Guard and Navy warship of World War II and Cold War

By Dr. Thomas H. Rennie and retired Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class David May 

1.	World War II underway photo of the Coast Guard-manned USS Durant (DE-389) sporting its haze gray paint scheme. (U.S. Navy)Surprisingly, in the Coast Guard’s 230-year history, the service has operated very few purpose-built naval warships. However, during World War II, Coast Guardsmen operated a number of smaller classes of warships, including sub chasers, patrol gunboats, patrol craft, patrol frigates, and destroyer escorts. The USS Durant (DE-389) was one of several destroyer escorts (DE) the Coast Guard operated during World War II and the Cold War.

Durant was built as an Edsall-class destroyer escort. It was nearly 310 feet long, with a 37-foot beam, nine-foot draft and a displacement of 1,660 tons. Four Fairbanks-Morse geared diesel engines, four diesel-electric generators of 600 shaft horsepower, and two screws moved the cutter at 21 and a half knots wide open. Durant was heavily-armed for its size with three three-inch guns, one twin 40mm anti-aircraft mount, eight single 20mm anti-aircraft guns, three 21- inch torpedo tubes, one anti-submarine hedgehog projector, eight depth charge projectors and two depth charge racks.

2.	Coast Guard enlistment photograph of James Rennie, Motor Machinist’s Mate and plankowner on board USS Durant. (Photo courtesy of Thom Rennie)Brown Shipbuilding Company in Houston, Texas, laid Durant’s keel in May 1943. The DE was launched and christened in August in memory of Navy Pharmacist Mate 3rd Class Kenneth Durant, who was killed in action at Guadalcanal while tending wounded marines. After loading stores and fitting out, the ship was commissioned in November, with Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Knapp commanding a crew of eight officers and 175 enlisted men. Essay co-author, Thomas Rennie’s uncle, James Rennie, a Second Class Motor Machinist’s Mate, was plank owner on the Durant and served aboard through the rest of the war.

Assigned to Escort Division 45, Durant was ordered to the New York Navy Yard in January 1945 to begin its career as a convoy escort. The convoys Durant escorted to the Mediterranean were designated “U.S. to Gibraltar--slow convoy (around seven knots),” (UGS) with a two-digit number. For the return west from Gibraltar to the U.S., the convoys were designated with “GUS” and a two-digit number. A typical trip to the Mediterranean would begin in New York and proceed to Norfolk, where the remainder of the convoy joined before going to sea. These crossings typically required 18 days to transit the Atlantic with the DE enduring rough weather, mountainous waves, continuous rolling and rampant crew seasickness.

The year 1944 was a busy one for Durant. Its first convoy to the Mediterranean included stops in the Azores, Casablanca, French Morocco, and Gibra3.	German submarine U-873 in dry dock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard after Durant accepted its surrender and ushered it into captivity. (navsource.org)ltar. The escort group included the Coast Guard cutter Bibb as flagship, six Coast Guard DEs comprising Escort Division 45 and a Navy destroyer. The convoy included a French naval vessel, one Navy oiler, one Navy store ship, one Navy minesweeper and six Landing Craft Infantry ships (LCI). Near the Azores, Durant was ordered to turn back and herd the straggling ammunition ship S.S. China Mail back to the Gibraltar-bound convoy. It then escorted the British tanker S.S. Eclipse to Casablanca, French Morocco.

In March 1944, Durant returned to the U.S. participating en route in Operation “Spangle” firing illumination shells and depth charge patterns. On a return convoy to the U.S. in mid-May, torpedoes hit two ships in the convoy with no casualties. Sub hunting groups formed immediately with reports of contact made and the U-boat destroyed. In July, on a convoy to Tunisia, the escorts received an air raid warning from the Allied headquarters in Algeria. On July 12th, Durant’s crew went to air defense stations and laid a smoke screen at 3:30 a.m. Durant commenced firing astern when a German four-engine Focke-Wulf 200 Condor made a low run 1,000 yards distant and 150 yards above the water.

4.	Durant re-commissioned as a Coast Guard cutter in 1952 for Korean War ocean station duty. This color photograph show the cutter’s white hull and re-designation as WDE-489. (U.S. Coast Guard)The year 1945 was also eventful. In February, while escorting a convoy to Boston, the convoy merchant vessel Forthbank lost a screw and Durant took it in tow until relieved by seagoing tug USS ATR-6. In May, when Germany surrendered, the DE illuminated by searchlight the surfaced German submarine U-873. The U-boat was sitting idle with its crew pacing the deck. It surrendered to Durant and the Coast Guard-manned DE, USS Vance. The U-boat was brought into Portsmouth Navy Yard where its crew was held and its commander committed suicide.

Between mid-February 1944 and mid-June 1945, Durant had made eight roundtrip voyages as convoy escort along with Coast Guard-manned DEs Vance, Calcaterra, Chambers, and Merrill. By June, on returning to Boston, large portions of Durant’s crew had served for more than 18 months. Those who desired transfer ashore were granted the6.	Color photograph of freshly re-commissioned Navy destroyer escort and radar picket ship, USS Durant, showing the vessel’s modernized armament and radar antenna. (U.S. Navy)ir request, but most decided to remain aboard and received rehabilitation leave.

In July, Durant sailed from Boston and transited the Panama Canal on its way to the Pacific War. On the way, the DE conducted refresher training at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and shore bombardment exercises at Culebra Island, Puerto Rico. Passing thru the Panama Canal and Coco Solo Naval Base, it arrived at San Diego on August 7th. Taking on ammunition, the DE proceeded independently to Pearl Harbor and conducted combat exercises along the way.

At Pearl Harbor, Durant conducted anti-submarine warfare exercises, radar calibration practice, long-range battle practice, night battle practice, and anti-aircraft practice likely in preparation for an invasion of Japan. However, the war ended before Durant could serve in combat and the DE returned to the East Coast, arriving in New York on September 26th. A month later, it reported to Jacksonville, Florida, to undergo inactivation. In early 1946, Durant was placed out of commission in reserve.5.	The December 1956 re-commissioning ceremony for the Navy-manned USS Durant (DER-389) at the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard, located in Vallejo, California. (Mare Island Museum)

During the Korean War, Durant was returned to the Coast Guard and, in May 1952, commissioned as Coast Guard Cutter Durant, including white hull paint and new hull number (WDE-489). It served Ocean Station duty as a high-seas aid-to-navigation and checkpoint for military and commercial shipping and a communication “relay” station for aircraft on transoceanic flights. Durant also hosted teams of meteorologists from the U.S. Weather Bureau. These men carried out weather observations, assisted by specialists among the Coast Guard crew. In addition to its Ocean Station mission, Durant provided search and rescue services and much-needed medical services to passing merchant ships. The DE served Pacific Ocean Station duty until placed in reserve at San Diego in April 1954, after hostilities concluded.7.	Photograph of co-author and former Durant electronics technician David May in uniform on board the Navy’s Cold War destroyer escort. (Courtesy of David May)

In June 1954, Durant began career as a Navy-manned vessel with its original Navy hull number (DER-389). It was converted to a radar picket escort with new radar and communication systems added, including antenna on two tall masts, which made the warship top-heavy and required ballast to avoid a rollover in heavy seas. In December 1956, the DE was recommissioned at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California, as USS Durant. For the next six years, the DE alternated periods of service on the DEW (distant early warning) Line in the North Pacific-Bering Sea area. In early 1960, Durant was also ordered to Johnston Island as an observer ship to monitor intercontinental ballistic missile launches by the Russian military and trailed Russian naval vessels to Vladivostok after the tests.

From September 1962 to early 1963, Durant participated in Operation “Deep Freeze” as part of the U.S. Antarctic Research Program of the National Science Foundation. During this cruise, Durant conducted special research trapping and identifying insects in the South Pacific. It also encountered storms with 75-knot winds and 60-foot swells that caused up to 60-degree rolls. One 80-foot wave knocked the forward three-inch gun eight inches off its mount, ripped off half of the hedgehog mount, broke bridge windows, toppled both 35-foot radio communication antennas, and wrecked the surface and air radar antennas. During the cruise, Durant also became one of the escort vessels for Queen Elizabeth’s HMS Britannia while the queen made port calls in Hobart, Melbourne, and Sidney, Australia. Essay co-author David May was a Navy Second Class Electronics Technician aboard Durant during this cruise.

 In March 1963, Durant returned to Pearl Harbor. A year later, the DE departed Hawaii for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard was decommissioned in June and struck from the list in April 1974. Sold for scrap in August, the Durant ended over 31 years of proud service as both a Coast Guard and Navy warship.