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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Aug. 23, 2023

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

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

Today’s installment is the final part of U.S. Coast Guard Retired Capt. Smith’s eyewitness account of the search for and rescue of the Marine Electric’s surviving crew. Part one appeared last Friday and part two following this past Monday.  

Part two left off with the SAR crew searching for survivors during harsh winter weather and having found a possible survivor … 

12ˈ to 15ˈ Seas 

Petty Officer 2nd Class Greg Pesch was in the water alongside the victim. I struggled to maintain a smooth hoist, but I knew it was erratic. The whole world seemed to be churning. I tried hard to maintain a steady altitude of 20 feet above the wave crests. 

Since the seas were running 12 to 15 feet between crest and trough with occasional 20-footers, the bottom of the helicopter, as measured by the radar altimeter, would sometimes be 20 — and scant seconds later — 40 feet above the victim. As the seas fell away and then abruptly rose again, appearing likely to slam the bottom of the helicopter, I succumbed to the urge to pull a huge armful of collective pitch with my left hand. The engines spooled up in response, generating full power to maintain the rotor rpm at its increased pitch.  

Then, just as suddenly, the sea would fall away, and I would lower the collective to stay at a reasonable hover altitude. It was a sucker play. I had to avoid pumping the collective. I had to fight the urge to rise and fall and try to maintain a steady hover at a safe altitude. I can’t say I was very smooth. 


I had Pesch and the survivor in sight again. It was easier to hover by keeping him at the 1:30 position from my cockpit window, and watching him rise and fall as each wave crested. Pesch was out of the basket and struggling to move the inert survivor into the opening between the arch of the basket’s rigid tubing, which rose from each corner into a welded reinforced plate that was centered roughly three feet above the basket’s flooring. He was trying to keep the man’s head above water with one arm, while steering the feet and body into the basket. All the while, with his other arm, he steadied the basket from the strong forces of wind and wave that tended to twist and wrench it from his grasp. 

Within seconds that seemed more like minutes, Pesch was in the basket beside the victim and signaled a thumbs up. I told the hoist operator to go on hot mic and conn me in. 

“Up. Up 10 … up five. Forward and right 10 … ” 

“Lost target.” 

“Roger, lost target. Forward and right five … forward easy … right easy. Taking in slack…stand by to take the load. Basket’s off the water. Basket’s coming up…basket’s 10 feet below cabin door. Basket’s at cabin door. Basket’s in the cabin. Going off hot mic.” 

Pesch leaped out of the basket. The corpsman and hoist operator extricated the victim, stretched him out on the cabin floor and wrapped him in GI blankets. 

The corpsman checked for vital signs and commenced cardio-pulmonary massage, alternating with infusion of the warm, vapor-saturated oxygen. There was no initial response from the victim. 

Final Toll of the Bell 

We continued to air-taxi through the debris field, scanning. Out my side window, I could see Scotty Olin’s HH–3F in a high hover, a black silhouette against the flood and hover lights of the Navy SH–3G to his right. The Navy rescue swimmer had managed to partially leverage a body, stiff now from rigor mortis, into the basket. As this spread-eagled form rose 25 feet off the water and halfway up to the helicopter, it suddenly lurched and fell in a giant cartwheel back into the raging sea. My heart sank with it. It became a symbol of the long night’s frustration and helplessness. We could not do any good for these people. How could this be? 

We suddenly encountered another of the victims who again seemed to harbor a remote possibility of life within him and beckoned with undulating hands for us to retrieve him. Pesch yelled, “I can go down again, sir.” More cautious this time, I hesitated.  

The hoist operator prompted me: “Basket’s in the door, sir. Ready to go on hot mic and conn you in!” My mind numbed to the scene.  

We were rescuers damn it! “Go on hot mic and conn me in.”  

The hoist operator replied, “Roger. On hot mic, how do you read?”  

“Loud and clear,” I responded.  

“Roger, Pesch is in the basket. Basket’s out the door and going down … uh-oh!”  

I asked, “What is it? Talk to me!”  

“The hoist is bird-caged, sir. Aborting hoist. Pesch is back aboard!” 

The worst had nearly happened. Probably due to my horsing the controls in the previous hoist, the hoist cable had spooled back on itself on the drum. Anybody who has tried to cast with a drum-type fishing reel has experienced this. It’s an order of magnitude worse with a stainless steel-braided hoist cable. 

Fortunately, the hoist operator discovered the problem before Pesch was in the water. If the hoist had failed at that point, we could not have retrieved him. 

It was getting light. The pre-dawn visibility improved to five miles and the ceiling was around 1,200 feet. The snow had stopped. The debris field had expanded to perhaps a mile or more. Since our hoist was inoperative, we could serve no useful purpose on scene. We departed for Salisbury airport. 

It was time for Scotty Olin’s crew to retrieve the men in the lifeboat and life raft. When we arrived at the airport, our Marine Electric crewmember was pronounced dead on arrival by the ambulance paramedic. It was the final toll of the bell for a tragic evening. 

I always ask myself what could have been done to save more lives. Marine Electric was indeed the genesis of the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer program, but would more swimmers have made the difference in this case? Probably not, because distance to scene, headwind and rough seas would still have robbed many men of their chance for survival. The other Congressional mandate, that merchant seamen be equipped with cold water survival suits for long or short journeys in frigid waters, was the immediate best solution. 

As I write this, I see once again the vision, etched forever in my mind, of that terrible night of the Marine Electric. I struggle with the idea that it was my last Coast Guard helicopter mission. 

Every athlete, scholar, statesman and military leader wants to finish with a “win.” I went on to serve eight more years as an active Coast Guard aviator. My experience with the Marine Electric helped me become a seasoned risk manager.  

During my final aviation tour as commanding officer of U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, I experienced the gratification of overseeing implementation of the station’s rescue swimmer program. 

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