Editor’s Note: This account is taken from the books “The Skipper and the Eagle” by Gordon McGowan and “The Barque of Saviors” by Russell Drumm “and the archives of The Day.
The three-master that appeared in the harbor on the morning of July 12, 1946, looked like something from New London’s past, but it belonged to the future.
Almost 300 feet long with a graceful white painted steel hull, she was rigged as a boat: square sails on the foremast and mainmast, fore and aft sails on the mizzenmast. The ship docked at Fort Trumbull and was then inspected by 1,200 onlookers.
75 years ago this week, New London got a first glimpse of what would become one of its enduring symbols: the Coast Guard barque Eagle.
The arrival matched a pattern of events that defined 1946: the winding up of the details of World War II. The United States Maritime Service Officers School at Fort Trumbull has completed its final class and has closed. Electric Boat has launched its last submarines from war contracts. EB’s closed Victory Yard has been sold to a pharmaceutical company called Pfizer.
At the Coast Guard Academy, there were also unfinished business. During the war 5,000 cadets had the unusual chance to learn on a square rig. The training ship Danmark, in American waters when the Nazis invaded her home country, offered her services to the United States and was assigned to the academy. Denmark had since left, but authorities learned that a replacement was available in the ruins of Germany.
Here’s how a ship built by the Third Reich found its way to New London to become a mainstay of the Coast Guard.
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Cmdr. Gordon McGowan taught seamanship at the academy, but by his own account his expertise in square rigging was limited. He had spent his early years in destroyer service during Prohibition.
He was therefore delighted when he was ordered in early 1946 to travel to Bremerhaven in occupied Germany, take command of a training ship and bring it back. The Allies were dividing the German fleet and the United States had claimed the ship as a prize of war.
McGowan may not have been fully qualified for the mission, but he knew more than anyone.
“The reasoning that ‘In a village of the blind a one-eyed man is king,’ must have guided those who wrote my orders,” McGowan later wrote. “I was one-eyed Coast Guard.”
In Bremerhaven, McGowan saw a city reduced to rubble by Allied bombs. In a destroyed shipyard, he found what he was looking for. Resting on the bottom of the Weser River at low tide, her hull stained and blistered, was the training ship Horst Wessel.
It looked abandoned, but when McGowan got on board, he found the German crew living there. With no order or destination, they served in a navy that no longer existed.
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Ten years earlier, amid the glory days of the Third Reich at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg, their ship was baptized with champagne by Bertha Wessel, the mother of its namesake.
Even in Nazi times, “Horst Wessel” was an unusual name for a ship. Most ships honored German naval heroes of centuries past, but Wessel had been a disciple of Adolf Hitler who composed the Nazi anthem. At 22, he was murdered by his girlfriend’s ex-lover, but propaganda turned this sordid incident into the death of a martyr.
“This ship will be named after the fighter and poet at the forefront of the German revolution,” FÃ¼hrer MP Rudolf Hess said at the christening as Hitler listened behind him.
Horst Wessel was the second of three square rigs built for the Sailing Training Fleet after a 1932 disaster in which the training ship Niobe capsized in a storm, killing 69 people.
The war put an end to Horst Wessel’s mission to navigate the North Atlantic. For a few years the barque was used to train members of the Hitler Youth Navy before being reactivated as a warship at the end of the war.
In April 1945, filled with refugees, the ship headed west along the German Baltic Sea coast, away from the advancing Soviet army. He was intercepted by a British capture crew and decommissioned. After Germany surrendered, its flag was lowered.
While the Allied navies traded in the spoils of war, Horst Wessel was towed to Bremerhaven to await his fate.
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McGowan did not become captain immediately. For the moment, Horst Wessel was still under the nominal command of Bertold Schnibbe, a tall and thin 35-year-old man whose crew affectionately called him âKa-Leutâ, short for his rank, KapitÃ¤n-Leutnant.
Wondering how the military of a defeated nation would treat him, McGowan was surprised to find Schnibbe showing respect and friendship to his successor and the crew members coming to attention whenever he appeared. .
Schnibbe explained that the German Navy saw itself as a professional fighting force largely without Nazi fanaticism. Yet, by Hitler’s order, the ship had been fitted with a demolition charge and had to be destroyed if it were to surrender. After Hitler’s death, the order was canceled.
Impressed with the ship’s intricate rigging, McGowan had to deal with a lot of work to make her fit for navigation. Everything he needed – sailcloth, ropes, paint – was hard to come by, and supply officers continued to direct his men to warehouses across Germany that were nothing but four walls. without roof. A replacement engine block turned out to be the wrong model even though it had been researched down to the serial number.
The redesign took months, but there was a bigger challenge. McGowan had 50 Coast Guards at his disposal, 250 less than he needed to fully outfit the ship. But no other was available. So he concocted a plan to “borrow” former German navy volunteers from a British demining project, along with Horst Wessel’s crew, to bolster the ranks.
The new name of the vessel was to be “Eagle”, which had a long Coast Guard pedigree. But when McGowan broke the news to Schnibbe, the German laughed and placed his hands a foot apart.
“Igel? ” He asked. “In German, this word means small animal, what you call ‘groundhog’.” McGowan explained that “eagle” was English for “Adler”. Understanding, Schnibble said, âThat’s a beautiful name, Captain. It couldn’t be better.
The new name also matched the ship’s figurehead. The shipyard doing the repairs presented the crew with a piece of hand-carved teak in a shield to replace the swastika that the wooden eagle squeezed in its talons.
On May 15, 1946, the Eagle became a Coast Guard vessel in a ceremony aboard the ship. With McGowan now in charge, he dreaded having to ask Schnibbe to leave the captain’s quarters. But the German had moved alone to another cabin.
When McGowan looked for him there to thank him, “his head was on the desk, his arms outstretched. His shoulders were shaking silently. Seeing that he hadn’t noticed my intrusion, I tiptoed away quietly. . “
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On the day of sailing, McGowan faced an unpleasant task. A boy named Eddie, a war orphan, had clung to the crew. Showing a military port and speaking perfect English, he endeared himself and was clearly looking for a ticket to the United States.
Knowing he should have discouraged the attachment, McGowan sternly ordered the crew to produce Eddie, who had disappeared, presumably intending to reappear as a stowaway once the ship was at sea.
“It took about half an hour, but they dragged him, kicking and biting, to the side of the ship,” McGowan wrote. “Looks of reproach were directed in my direction as they gently lowered it to the side.”
After a stopover in Falmouth, England, Eagle headed out to the open ocean, visiting two Atlantic havens: Madeira and Bermuda. With most of the distance behind them and the crew having encountered few problems, the trip looked enchanted.
But McGowan had a hunch that he had forgotten something. Two days from New York, he decided the weather was suspicious but was dissuaded from changing course. When he woke up in the night to the sound of the wind, he knew he had made a mistake. Eagle was soon in the middle of a hurricane.
“The voice of the storm was more than a roar,” McGowan wrote. âThere was the high-pitched sound of tearing – the tearing of the fabric of the gates of hell. â¦ The anterior upper and lower peaks were the first to disappear. An instant they were there, a second later they were gone. In total, $ 20,000 worth of sails burst like balloons.
Amidst heavy seas and 80 knot wind, McGowan struggled to recover and let Eagle weather the storm. He accomplished the difficult maneuver and the ship survived.
Defeated but triumphant, Eagle sailed to New York, dropped the Germans off at a POW camp, and then proceeded to his new home in New London.
“Our initiation had been severe,” McGowan wrote. “… I have had proof that a square-rigged sailboat is a good place for a novice to learn about the sea.”