Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hero of New York: McManus and the El Estero

On April 24, 1943, the fully loaded munitions ship SS El Estero caught fire, threatening to destroy the strategic bomb loading facility at Caven Point, Jersey City, Bayonne, lower Manhattan, and parts of Brooklyn. A team of Coast Guard volunteers saved the day by moving the ship out into the far reaches of New York harbor and sinking her to put out the fires.

When my father, Jim McManus, remembered the El Estero, he never failed to mention his amazement at seeing young Coast Guard volunteers piling into launches and shuttling out to the burning munitions ship to help hold down the fire hoses. They were so brave, he recalled. My father was watching them from the deck of the burning ammunition ship.

No one today can fully appreciate how dire the circumstances were. Few of us have been close to an intimidating fire. Fewer still have been close while standing on the equivalent of a small atomic bomb, thinking about how a munitions ship explosion destroyed Halifax in 1917 with 2,000 dead and 9,000 wounded.

My father could see the fire at Caven Point across New York harbor from the Brooklyn Coast Guard barracks. He'd been trained to lead firefighting teams and immediately jumped in a jeep and headed for Jersey City via Manhattan and the Holland tunnel. Another officer decided it would be prudent to stay in Brooklyn.

When he arrived at Caven Point, he found the Coast Guard Officer in Charge (OIC) in a heated argument with an old Army colonel, dressed up in a campaign hat and leggings a la General Pershing. The Coast Guard officer was withering under a barrage of profanity: "I don't give a sh#%t about you or your men! Get that f@*#ing ship out of here! This is the only f@*#ing place for loading heavy bombs on the entire East Coast!" My father offered that the colonel was right and the Coast Guard OIC told him to round up some tugboats. He found two. One of the captains objected and said he was: "leaving and getting up the Hudson as far as he could, as fast as he could." My father drew his sidearm, put the .45 caliber pistol to the man's head, and told him if he tried to leave that he [my father] would blow his [the tugboat captain's] brains out." The matter settled, my father got on the radio and called the New York Fire Department and told them to send the Firefighter, which had the capability to pump enough water to scuttle the ship. The NYFD's John J. Harvey was also dispatched. When the fireboats arrived the Coast Guard volunteers who'd been shuttled out from shore held down the heavy hoses that pumped sea water into the El Estero's holds. The move and scuttling took several hours.

My father and the Coast Guard OIC Commander Stanley were the first on the ship, as the Army and Jersey City firemen evacuated, and the last off. Stanley did not leave the ship until he was sure everyone else had been evacuated. And it was a good thing. After all the other volunteers were off, he ordered by father and another officer, Joel Beckwith, to search the ship. Below decks, they found a very old Jersey City fireman who'd been left behind and was sifting through the debris trying to find a lost fire nozzle (reality is stranger than Mel Brooks). "It's a very valuable brass nozzle," offered the fireman. "Get the hell off the ship! We're sinking her now!"

Over the years, starting in the 1950s, in a long correspondence, my father wrote to the Coast Guard about the neglect of the El Estero volunteers, trying to ascertain why they'd been the denied the Navy and Marine Corps Medal they'd been nominated for. He was told repeatedly that other than the Legion of Merit awarded to Lt. Commander Stanley and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal awarded to Lt. Commander Arthur Pfister, who commanded three Coast Guard fireboats, no other medals, including the Coast Guard Commendation Medal, would be awarded, even though volunteering under life-threatening circumstances is typically recognized by the Navy and Marine Corps Medal (in peacetime the Coast Guard Medal).

Though we continue to write to the Coast Guard and The New York Times, the entire story of the El Estero remains to be told and the bravery of the Coast Guard volunteers continues to be largely unrecognized.

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