Coast Guard to mark 40th anniversary of cutter Cuyahoga tragedy
By DAVID OWENS | The Hartford Courant | Published: October 18, 2018
NEW LONDON, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — Forty years ago Saturday, the Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga was cruising north on Chesapeake Bay when at 9:06 p.m. it was struck by a 521-foot Argentine coal freighter.
The Cuyahoga, the oldest ship then in commission in the Coast Guard or Navy, was a training vessel for the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. During its 51 years of service, it chased rum runners during Prohibition, escorted presidential yachts and searched for German submarines during World War II.
The 29 men on board the Cuyahoga that night included its regular crew, 14 officer candidates and two Indonesian Navy officers.
The 125-foot cutter was no match for the freighter. The cutter was pushed backward then fell away from the freighter, it’s starboard side heavily damaged, according to a Coast Guard account of the collision. Cuyahoga listed sharply and moments later sank in 57 feet of water. The Argentine freighter, the Santa Cruz II, rescued 18 men from the water. The 11 men who were lost were mostly in the berthing areas or the engine room, both which took the direct impact of the collision.
Among the dead were four officer candidates, an Indonesian Navy officer and six of the Cuyahoga’s regular crew.
On Friday morning, Coast Guard officer candidates and as many as four Cuyahoga survivors will remember the tragedy and honors those lost during a memorial service at the Coast Guard Academy chapel.
The Coast Guard Officer Candidate School, now based at the academy in New London, was in 1978 based at the Coast Guard Training Center at Yorktown, Virginia. The officer candidate school’s 17-week program provides the Coast Guard with officers who have already graduated college or come up through the service’s enlisted ranks.
The officer candidates mark the Cuyahoga tragedy with a memorial service each year. And every day of their training, candidates pause at a Cuyahoga memorial in their barracks, said Coast Guard Lt. Eric Romero.
“All of our officer candidates that come through, they really revere the Cuyahoga,” Romero said. At the memorial, which consists of items recovered from the Cuyahoga, “they pause and pay their respects because it literally could have been any of them.”
The collision occurred where the Potomac River empties into the Chesapeake. The Cuyahoga was on a training cruise that had begun about 3 p.m. on Oct. 20, 1978. The Santa Cruz II had taken on a load of coal in Baltimore and was headed to Argentina.
An investigation into the collision found the Cuyahoga’s commanding officer at fault. “The Commandant has determined that the proximate cause of the casualty was that the commanding officer of the USCGC CUYAHOGA failed to properly identify the navigation lights displayed by the M/V SANTA CRUZ II,” according to the investigation report. “As a result he did not comprehend that the vessels were in a meeting situation, and altered the CUYAHOGA's course to port taking his vessel into the path of the SANTA CRUZ II.”
After it’s recovery, the Cuyahoga was eventually sunk off the coast of Virginia as an artificial reef.
The collision, and another 15 months later that claimed the lives of 23 Coast Guardsmen, caused the service to implement sweeping changes that have helped the service avoid a similar tragedy since.