The sub-chaser that snagged in Six Shilling Cay

Six Shilling Cay is a shallow islet less than a mile long, including off-lying rocks, just 50 feet wide. Fleeming Channel is a mile wide and connects deep water with the bight of Eleuthera, leading to the Exumas. Late on the night of December 11-12, 1944, while chasing a report of a German submarine, US Navy sub chaser snagged in the reefs of Six Shilling Cay. This is how her commander, Charles A Tobin of Melrose Massachusetts, and crew fought to save their ship.

USS SC-1059 was armed with depth charges, a 40-mm anti-aircraft gun and two .50-calibre machine guns. Two GM diesels, each 1,200 hp gave the ship 21 knots. At 148 tons, the boat was 111 feet long, 17 wide, and 6.5 feet deep. A crew of 25, four of them officers worked under Lt (jg) Tobin.

SC-1059 was assigned to Task Unit 03.1.8 along with four other vessels; patrol craft PC-1564, SC-1058, and SC-1295. On December 11, they escorted convoy YAG-32 from Miami to Nassau. At 2:44am, TU 03.1.8 was told to scramble for an anti-submarine patrol in Bahamas and was under way by 4:35am; the weather was fair. By 5:15am, SC-1059 left Miami, then past Great Isaac Light, heading east. The radar and sound gear were on. At 4pm, the group cleared southern Abaco, and at 10:15pm were between Hole-in-the-Wall Light and Little Egg Light Island. Then they headed south, past North Eleuthera. Fatefully, at 11.32 pm, the course was changed to southeast and speed slowed in the dark to five knots. SC-1059 steered by the “wake light” or stern light, of SC-1058.

Then disaster struck. At 20 minutes before midnight, SC-1059 ran hard aground on Six Shilling Cay. Emergency soundings revealed that there was four feet of water under the bow and six feet aft. Since the keel was 6.5 feet, the sub chaser was hard aground. The commander of PC-1564 led his formation into a trap of cays and reefs. Though the grounding must have been both terrifying and sobering, the men were not idle. They moved the heavy ammunition aft, and for a little while the vessel came off the shoal. A quarter-hour later she was again aground, and ten minutes after that, the port anchor was let go and the engines were shut off.

By 2am, the generators were flooded and shut down, and the sub chaser was heeling over 20 degrees to starboard. PC-1564 radioed Miami that SC-1059 was aground broadside with engine and rudder were damaged and requested a tug. The sub chaser was pounding badly. Navy tug ATR-29 was sent from Miami, and the RAF base in Nassau asked for assistance. A high-speed RAF rescue boat would be on scene by 8:20 am. Hope came after sunrise. The RAF crash boat arrived and launched a small boat, which took off five American sailors, leaving 20, and taking them over to PC-1564. Half an hour later, four crew were taken off, leaving 16 men and the British returned to base. Rescues continued, leaving 14 men aboard for an anxious night of cold food, no light, and constant discomfort.

The next day a Bahamian sloop named BA 79, possibly a Symonette-built 120-foot wooden minesweeper, dropped anchor a mere 200 yards from the stern and sent over two small boats to offer assistance. This grand gesture was not taken up. They may have been a local fishing craft doing what they could to offer local knowledge and assistance. Early in the afternoon of the same day ATR-29 arrived. It was a rescue tug designed for heavy duty, deep-water work, 165 feet overall and 15.5 feet deep. It launched a power vessel which boarded the SC-1059 to appraise the damage; it with four men, leaving ten.

The power launch returned with gasoline and a portable pump; now the men had a tool with which to fight the ingress of water. The following morning a lead patch was secured over a hole in the officer’s wardroom, then to the hole in the engine room. No doubt the men had no means of cooking hot meals, no lights except torches, and no plumbing via which to relieve themselves. The interior of the vessel must have been soaked with sea spray and rather uncomfortable. That afternoon PC 1564, SC-1058 and SC-1295 returned to Miami. SC-1059 was deemed salvageable, and rescuers were settling in for more of a siege than a pitched battle against the elements. Then ammunition was moved to the deck and 18 depth charges taken to the tug. A towing attempt failed, as the tow line parted.

Saturday 16 December two three-inch pumps were able to get the ship on an even keel. Ammunition was moved from the port side to mid-ships, but then SC-1059 tilted ten degrees to starboard. The tug was arranging to pull her off the rocks. This too failed and the tow line was cast off and brought aboard the tug. At five minutes before midnight, two whale boats from ATR-29 managed to haul SC-1059 over on its port side. Then the life-rafts were found to be missing. The next day confidential technical items were removed from SC-1059 in the event the sub chaser sank after being pulled off. Then good news. At 10:20am, ATR-29 began its third and final attempt at salvage 48 hours after the last attempt.

By 11:10am, SC-1059 was again afloat, for the first time in a week. By Wednesday, they were back at Pier 3, Miami, moored port-side-to at the very dock their voyage had begun eight days earlier. Shortly afterwards the crew were transferred from ATR-29 back to SC-1059 and muster was held. Tobin proudly states “all present or accounted for”. Special mention is made that “morning colours” were flown, indicating that the ship was back in shape and able to fly the national ensign. It must have been a great relief for some degree of normalcy to have been restored. Her crew were home for Christmas. Charles Tobin excelled in civilian life with a 30-year career as an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission, over which he become secretary and acting executive director; he lived until 2007.


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