IT'S ALL A MATTER OF Luck
Cooley, Gary, Sea Classics
The pressures of war forced a brand new rescue tug to go to sea with an inexperienced skipper and no way to defend itself
She wasn't much of a ship, but then I wasn't much of a Captain. Having hardly any sea experience, I became ATR-3's skipper strictly by default when her appointed captain came down with a serious gall bladder attack just as we were about to begin our sea trials out of Boston late in 1943. Appointed her Executive Officer, my commission as an ensign in the US Navy was still as wet as the gray paint on her hull. Td only been out of Officer Candidate School at NYU a few days when orders arrived sending me up to the Boston Navy Yard. Barely fourmonths earlier, I had been a second-year law student at New York's Brooklyn College.
The fifth year of the Atlantic War was just ending and Hitler's brazen U-boats still were a serious threat able to attack almost any Allied ship or convoy because Naval escorts were still in somewhat short supply. Our brand-new ATR had been built up in Booth Bay, Maine, and her crew was as green as the unseasoned timber she was made of. Though she had been ordered in 1942, numerous unforeseen building delays in the wooden-hulled ship building program saw her launching delayed until November 1943. A hurriedly conceived wartime vessel based on British experience with rescue ship operations, ATR-3 was rated as a rescue tug and made of wood because steel was in such short supply. Powered by a 1600-hp triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine because they happened to be available, if not preferable. She was driven by a single screw and manned by three officers and 51 enlisted men.
That our new home had a pugnacious chesty look did not a warship make, for upon closer inspection we quickly realized that none of her armament had as yet been fitted and wasn't likely to be because the destroyer-escort building program had priority in getting the 3-in/50-cal DP mount we were slated to receive, ditto the two 20mm Oerlikon A/A guns as well. So, we were magnanimously issued two old WWI-era .303-cal Lewis guns as our sole temporary armament.
His disappointment was obvious as our skipper, Lt. (jg) Vincent St. Angelo, a Mustang former Coxswain 1C awarded a commission, reviewed my service record only to learn that my only sea experience had been a brief cadet orientation cruise aboard a light cruiser. Even more disturbing was the fact that of our assigned 51-man crew, only five had ever been to sea. Added to this, 18 of the others were still away at tech schools and had not yet reported aboard, leaving us very shorthanded to say the least. But our newly minted skipper was determined to get our sea trials behind us.
"Win, lose, or draw, Mister Cooley, this ship commences her sea trials at 0500 tomorrow," Capt. St. Angelo emphatically declared, little aware that within three or so hours he would be in a hospital ashore doubled up in pain as I contemplated if I might not have been happier in the Marines.
The problem was that there seemed to be no end to our troubles. Anything that could go wrong, had gone wrong. A fire in the galley caused by a careless shipyard ship-fitter left us with no way to prepare hot meals. Only one of our two radios worked, the radar had not yet arrived, the head was inoperative and we were issued only two 50-round pans of .303 ammunition for the Lewis guns. Equally of concern was the fact that six of our newly assigned commissioning crew had just been released from the brig for various major and minor bad conduct infractions, including being AWOL. A surly lot of conscripts, I feared a few malcontents and troublemakers could spoil the entire crew.
With no other qualified officer to place in command on such short notice when St. Angelo became sick, the flotilla commander came aboard to determine if I, as the XO, was up to taking the vessel to sea. The way he put it to me, the reputation of the entire US Navy and possibly even the outcome of the war was at stake if our humble tug did not embark on its sea trials on schedule. …