1937: A U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Carries Out a Dramatic Rescue in the North Atlantic

March 22, 1937

USCGC Chelan, a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) cutter under the command of Captain Lyndon Spencer, was among the vessels to respond to distress calls from the Norwegian steamship SS Bjerkli in the North Atlantic. Bjerkli, stranded 660 nautical miles (1,220 kilometers) east of Boston, was being pounded by an 80-mile (128.8-kilometer) gale. Captain Bjarne Sverdrup, Bjerkli’s skipper, and his crew of 15 men found themselves facing what the Boston Globe described as “almost certain death” and “indescribable hardships” as the fierce winds and waters relentlessly and severely damaged the vessel. It was ultimately Spencer and his crew who would carry out the actual rescue of those on board Bjerkli on March 23.

The Boston Globe recounted four days later how Spencer “drove his ship into the gale to reach the side of the stricken craft, and then by pouring oil on the stormy waters enabled the Norwegian sailor men to row to safety.” This article further confirmed, “Several minutes later the men were safely aboard the Chelan.” This USCG cutter then transported Sverdrup and his crew to Boston. Only seven hours after Chelan recued them in what the Boston Globe called “the season’s most thrilling epic of the sea,” the battered Bjerkli pitched forward and plunged to the bottom of the ocean.

This rescue was only one of several lifesaving efforts that involved Chelan over the years. This vessel had been commissioned into the USCG as a Lake-class cutter on November 5, 1928. Chelan was originally homeported at Seattle and, for a few years, alternated between spending winters at that city and – at other times each year — taking part in patrols of the section of the Bering Sea along the then-Territory of Alaska.

In 1931, Chelan was conducting one of those Bering Sea patrols when she came to the rescue of the crew of the motor vessel Gladiator after she had been wrecked on the coast of Unimak Island (the largest of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands). Chelan safely transported those crew members, one of whom was ill and in critical need of medical treatment, to Seattle. Just two months before rescuing the crew of Bjerkli, Chelan had been reassigned to Boston as her home port and shortly thereafter began her regular patrols in the North Atlantic.

The next chapter for this vessel was opened on May 2, 1941, when she was transferred to the British Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease Act, whereby the United States needed resources to the United Kingdom in its fight against the Axis Powers during World War II. As a commissioned Royal Navy warship, Chelan was renamed HMS Lulworth (Y60).

This vessel’s 1937 rescue involving Bjerkli arguably helped set the tone for the similarly high-risk but successful rescue operations that she carried out during World War II. One of these operations took place on August 27, 1941, after the German submarine U-557 torpedoed and sank the Norwegian motor cargo ship Segundo just west of Ireland. Within the span of two hours, Lulworth ended up rescuing a total of 27 survivors of Segundo in the waters of the North Atlantic — picking up two of them from life rafts, 23 others from lifeboats, and two more who were found clinging onto floating debris.

Another one of Lulworth’s notable wartime lifesaving efforts occurred that same year on October 31, after the German submarine U-96 torpedoed and sank the Dutch steam cargo ship Bennekom about 530 nautical miles (980 kilometers) west of Cape Clear, Ireland. Lulworth picked up a total of 47 survivors of Bennekom there in the North Atlantic — 22 of them who were in lifeboats and another 25 who had initially been brought on board the Royal Navy warship HMS Culver. Lulworth transported all of these survivors to the Canadian city of Bathurst, arriving there on November 30, 1941.

Lulworth remained in the service of the Royal Navy throughout the remainder of the war. She was transferred back to the USCG on February 12, 1946, and once again named USCGC Chelan. The following year, however, she was removed from service and sold.

(The above photo of USCGC Chelan was taken during her time as HMS Lulworth.)

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on USCGC Chelan (re-designated as HMS Lulworth during World War II), please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USCGC_Chelan

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