The U.S. Coast Guard has an under-recognized place in World War II history, fighting German spies before the U.S. entered the war and immediately taking on convoy escort duties, weather patrols, and anti-submarine missions after America declared war on the Axis Powers. One of the Coast Guard crews that bravely shouldered the load was the USCGC Campbell which, in icy Atlantic waters, took bold action to finish off a German U-boat that attempted to attack it.
Crewmembers of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Campbell pose with their mascot, Sinbad, in World War II.
(U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office)
The Campbell was part of a class of 327-foot Coast Guard cutters specially designed for high-speed service on the high seas. It spent much of World War II protecting convoys and, in February 1943, was one of the escorts for Convoy ON-166. This was before the bulk of German submarines were chased from the Atlantic in “Black May,” and the wolf packs were on the prowl to cut off supplies to Europe and starve Britain into submission.
On February 21, one of those wolf packs found and engaged the convoy. Over a dozen subs fired torpedoes and shells into merchant vessels as the Coast Guard and Navy vessels rushed to protect them.
The Campbell’s involvement started with rescuing 50 merchant mariners from the water. It had to dodge a German torpedo during the rescue, and then it pressed the attack against U-753, heavily damaging it and forcing its withdrawal. It spent the rest of the night driving off German U-boats until it finally attempted to get back to the convoy.
Crewmembers load a Mk. VII depth charge onto the HMS Dianthus, another escort of ON-166, during World War II.
(Imperial War Museums)
In the pre-dawn darkness, Campbell was 40 miles behind the convoy, essentially alone and attempting to catch up and help kill more German submarines. But then a shape emerged from the inky blackness. U-606 was bringing the fight to the Campbell and attempting to engage it before it could meet up with the convoy.
U-606 had three kills to its name, including two ships of ON-166. But it had been damaged while sinking those earlier ships, and attacking the Campbell was a greedy and potentially risky move. Attacking from the surface exposed its position to the American crew and would allow the Campbell to employ its gun crews as well as depth charges.
When the Campbell spotted the sub, it went one step further. Cmdr. James A. Hirshfield ordered a ramming maneuver, swinging the ship about to slam its hull against the submarine.
The Campbell’s bold maneuver came at a cost, though, as the side plating ruptured and salt water began to pour in. Cmdr. Kenneth K. Cowart supervised damage control while also helping to ensure that sufficient engine power was on hand for the continued maneuvering and fighting.
Meanwhile, on the deck, the men controlling the depth charges had managed to drop two during the ram, damaging U-606 further. And deck gun crews began pouring fire onto the stricken sub, attempting to disable or kill it before it could unleash its own deadly barrage against the cutter.
In this melee, an all-Black gun crew of a three-inch gun battery distinguished itself for bravery, accurately concentrating its damage on the sub’s deck and conning tower.
But the salt water took its toll, finally shorting out Campbell’s power. The German sub was defeated, and the cutter took five prisoners, but Campbell was liable to sink at any moment. Hirshfield ordered the prisoners, the merchant mariners, and all non-essential personnel off the ship.
He led the remaining crew through four days of damage control without engine power before finally receiving a tow back to port for repairs. The Campbell survived the war. Hirshfield received the Navy Cross for his actions, and Cowart and Cmdr. Bret H. Brallier received Silver Stars for their parts in saving the cutter.
Louis Etheridge, the man who led that all-Black gun crew on the three-inch battery, later received a Bronze Star for his work that February.