Written over 20 years ago, the text above from Sebastian Junger’s book “The Perfect Storm” describes rogue waves – at one time known only to unfortunate mariners who witnessed them firsthand and died as a result. Today, rogue waves are better known by scientists, researchers, and by fortunate mariners, who have lived through them, such as the few lucky survivors of the Coast Guard Cutter Jackson who experienced them in the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.
In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, Sept. 14, 1944, the Great Atlantic Hurricane was making its presence known off the North Carolina coast. The hurricane had spawned several days earlier in the Atlantic sweeping up the East Coast and reaching its peak strength just south of North Carolina. Steaming off the Outer Banks, Cutters Jackson and Bedloe had received several storm warnings while screening the liberty ship George Ade, disabled by a torpedo attack, and its tow, a Navy ocean-going tug. The 125-foot cutters were sister ships built in the 1920s to interdict illegal liquor smugglers during Prohibition. At the start of World War II, larger guns, depth charges and heavy deck gear added to their top heaviness.
At dawn that Thursday, seas had reached as high as 50 feet and winds over 50 miles per hour. Jackson’s crew began preparing for even heavier weather, battening down hatches and disarming depth charges on the stern racks. By 9:00 a.m., conditions became frightening with driving rains and seas so high the cutter’s radar failed to locate contacts hidden behind towering waves. The larger liberty ship sent out an S.O.S. signal, but it was all Jackson and the other vessels could do to keep themselves afloat.
Later, with wave heights increasing to between 50 and 100 feet, rudders alone failed to keep Jackson headed into the seas so the bridge crew used the cutter’s twin screws to help steer. Green water cascading onto the cutter began ripping loose Jackson’s deck gear, including the depth charges, luckily disarmed hours before. Riding the cutter resembled an amusement park ride with the sea lifting the cutter onto the crest of a wave and then plunging into the void on the other side.
By 10:00 a.m., winds were clocked at well over 100 miles per hour. The huge waves, eyewitnesses believed to be 100 feet high, forced Jackson on a wild ride down their faces only to slam into a wall of water at the base of the next monster wave. Meanwhile, equipment throughout the cutter, including galley gear and radios broke out of their lockers and crashed onto the interior decks. Earlier in the day, the crew had had complete confidence in the cutter’s seaworthiness, but the worsening conditions made many wonder if they would survive.
It was a series of larger waves, likely mountains of water referred to as rogue waves, which hit Jackson late in the morning. The first wave carried Jackson to its crest from which it managed to recover, but then a second towering wave rolled the cutter to port side forcing its mast into the sea. A third wave, described by a crew member as “a pyramid with a huge curl on top” and estimated as high as 125 feet, bore Jackson on its crest where survivors said the ship hung in mid-air for seconds. There, the hurricane’s blasting winds blew the cutter on its side and plummeted from the wave top to the bottom of the trough 100 feet below. This time, Jackson failed to right itself, filled with water and disappeared into the hole between the behemoth waves.
In the aftermath of the sinking, most but not all of the crew escaped the capsized cutter. Only a few were trapped in darkened compartments or fell into the roiling water. However, several who made their way outside had no life preservers in a maelstrom of behemoth waves and 125 mile-an-hour winds. Of those who managed to get to a raft, the seas ripped them from the floatation device every time it flipped over. When the raft righted itself, fewer men had the strength to climb back aboard.
Sister cutter Bedloe suffered a similar fate to the Jackson, when a succession of rogue waves knocked the ship over and capsized. While Jackson capsized at about 10:30 a.m., Bedloe lost the fight at approximately 1:00 p.m. Likely, Jackson succumbed to waves pushed ahead of the storm’s eyewall, while Bedloe was sunk by rogue waves formed on the backside of the eyewall. It is possible that both cutters were victims of a phenomenon called the “three sisters,” a series of rogue waves that travel in threes and are large enough to be tracked by radar.
After the storm subsided, the remaining men floated for two more days. Exhaustion and exposure took their toll on the remaining survivors. Of the 38 officers and men who made it into Bedloe’s rafts, only 12 of those survived the storm and subsequent hours of exposure. Of the 37 men who got into Jackson’s rafts, only 20 survived. These cuttermen were not old timers—they were young men in their physical prime. Most of the officers and enlisted men were in their late teens and 20s, including Jackson’s skipper who was only 23 years old.
When new recruits enlist in time of war, they fail to realize they will fight two enemies—mankind and Mother Nature. Just ask veterans of the Marine Corps 1st Division about the green hell of Guadalcanal, veterans of the 101st Airborne Division about the frozen hell of Bastogne, or the Coast Guardsmen of the Cutter Jackson about the watery hell of the Great Atlantic Hurricane. The Jackson fought the good fight and lost against the most formidable and deadly waves found in the world’s oceans. Jackson and its brave crew, and the men of the Bedloe, will be remembered as part of the service’s long blue line.