USS Baldwin: Navy Warship Hits the Montauk Rocks in 1961

The USS Baldwin
The USS Baldwin, Photo: Public Domain, U.S. Navy

Last week, the huge cruise ship Costa Concordia, all 952 feet of it, on its side hard up against the shoreline of Giglio Island offshore of Italy for a year and a half, was finally brought upright. It was accomplished after huge chains were attached to her, a strong pull applied that over a 24-hour period slowly increased to 5,000 tons of pull, at which time this great pleasure palace with its 12 decks of staterooms, its four swimming pools, five dining rooms, 13 bars, 10-story grand atrium, spas, arcades, theatres and a gambling casino was righted, so it could finally slide 50 feet or so down the slant of the sea bottom to come to rest on a platform of bags of concrete. The cost of the operation was nearly $800 million and may surpass $1 billion by the time it’s completed. And now, very soon, the salvage companies will come and have their picks of the chandeliers, sterling and silver, crystal and teak and every other thing of value.

This operation brought to mind a similar shipwreck here on Long Island that took a long time to remove. It was 1961. The modern era. But this ship, a destroyer in the U.S. Navy, came onto the rocks at Montauk Point about half a mile to the west on the ocean side. It was there for six weeks, as much of a tourist attraction as the Costa Concordia was in Italy of this year. The Navy could not get it off the rocks. And then, finally, after the death of a sailor involved in that effort, they tried a novel approach, which finally succeeded. The ship was the USS Baldwin, a 348-foot Gleaves class destroyer. It had fought in World War II. Now, 16 years after the end of that war, in March of 1961, it was decommissioned and floating in one of those big Navy yard areas where lots of old warships were kept. This one was in Boston. At the beginning of April, for some reason, the Navy decided to tow it from Boston to a similar facility in Philadelphia.

That spring, I had come home to my parents’ house in Montauk for spring vacation, and, having published the first editions of Dan’s Papers as a summer newspaper the prior year, was eager to proceed to a second summer. Things were pretty quiet that spring. And I was, among other things, looking for stories I might write for the summer. And then, during the night, on April 16, the USS Baldwin came up on the rocks at what the surfcasters called Clark’s Cove, at the base of an 80-foot cliff near the Montauk Lighthouse, and the whole town heard about it in the morning.

I went out there. You could park up on the Old Highway and walk down along the trails through the woods to some of the few summer houses on the cliff out there. Several were owned by people I knew. One was the home of the French family, who owned the Panoramic Resort Motel. There was an abstract expressionist artist, Balcomb Greene, who lived there with his wife Terry. There were homes that were later to be owned by Andy Warhol and Dick Cavett and Paul Simon. There was a house that was owned by Peter Beard, who is still there today.

The Baldwin had come rumbling noisily ashore, up onto the rocks in a thick fog, right in front of Balcomb Greene’s house in the middle of the night. The Greenes slept through this, but at 8 a.m. that morning came out there onto their deck for coffee and in moments, when the fog cleared, they were able to see it, this massive warship, its guns pointing at them, ashore on the rocks below.

Of course, the authorities were contacted, and by the next day, there were people from the Navy as well as people from TV stations and newspapers and other media. Soon, the side lawn of the Greene property became a small tent city for the media. As for the Navy, they brought in two trailers to oversee the rescue operation.

And so, through accounts in the local daily papers, we learned what happened.

During a wild storm at sea on April 16, the line between the tug and the warship parted. Attempts were made to get the towship and warship close again, to throw lines across and reel the ship back in, but in the open water and in choppy seas, the Baldwin just struck out on her own and drifted for several days with the Navy following. After that, though, they lost it in a fog. Then, finally, on the third day, the report came in that it had come ashore onto the rocks out at Montauk.

Three salvage ships with winches and chains arrived offshore. These ships had names. These ships were named the USS Windless, the USS Salvage and the USS Hoist. Huge towlines were tied to the Baldwin. But, as it happened, with all their pulling and tugging on that first day, nothing came of it, other than that the ship moved a foot or two. From the sound of it, it was being torn up along the bottom whenever it moved. It was aloft in the rocks at low tide, but half underwater at high. On the second day, one of the towlines snapped aboard the USS Windlass, and in the whiplash, a sailor was killed. The project was put on hold for a week.

In the weeks that followed, metal plates were welded over all the gashes that the rocks were cutting into the hull. I can’t tell you whether this was done from the inside or the outside, because I don’t know. But after it was made watertight, the three salvage ships pulled it again and again and it would move a few feet and they could hear it open up again. Its bottom was being torn to pieces. They were now patching plates over earlier patches.

During this time, there was the feeling in town—Montauk was a motel town and a fishing town then—that it just might be that the Navy would never get this ship off. It would ruin the town. How could they be so stupid? Wasn’t there a second towline? How could they tow a big warship with just one line? And why wasn’t anyone onboard the Baldwin during the tow?

Finally, in late May, the Navy changed its strategy. They decided there was no longer a likelihood that the USS Baldwin could be salvaged. Even if they got it off, it would be beyond repair. They would take another approach.

There was no more pulling. For the next week, everything topside was sealed. The smokestacks were sealed, the guns were sealed, the portholes and doors were sealed. Then, pumps set up on the top of the cliff began to send air through hoses down into the hold of the ship. The idea was to raise the ship up on a bubble of air and then just ease it off.

And that is what happened. On June 1, 1961, the USS Baldwin was eased off the rocks and floated on the cushion of its trapped air. It was towed out to sea by the USS Recovery accompanied by the USS Luiseno, where, in 200 fathoms of water, it was sunk by gunfire. And that’s the story.

Since that time, from that day to this, I never thought to look into the history of the USS Baldwin. We certainly know the story of the Costa Concordia. Unlike the Baldwin, which had nobody aboard, it came ashore carrying 4200 people—wealthy people who paid thousands of dollars to be entertained on a cruise that would take them to Civitavecchia, Savona, Marseille, Barcelona, Mallorca, Tunis and Palermo. There were also onboard bandleaders, chefs, showgirls, lifeguards, masseurs, croupiers, porters and crew members. Thirty-two of those people died. There was also the captain, Francesco Schettino, who left the ship before everyone was evacuated. He is now on trial for abandoning a ship, and for causing a shipwreck. Some say he should also be tried for cowardice.

The history of the USS Baldwin is an amazing story.

The Baldwin was built in the summer and fall of 1941 in anticipation of World War II. She would have a crew of 16 officers and 260 enlisted men, four five-inch artillery guns, six machine guns, four Bofors anti-aircraft guns, seven 20-millimeter cannons, five torpedoes and six depth charges. It was a formidable warship. After construction in Seattle, she was launched in San Francisco and then posted to the Navy Yard in New York City.

And then came Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Now we were in it.

During 1943, the Baldwin served escorting merchant marine convoys of supplies, tanks, guns, ammunition and troops crossing the Atlantic from New York through attacks by German U-boats and dive-bombers. Millions of tons of these convoy ships had been going with all hands to the bottom of the sea in these American convoys. The destroyers fought to prevent that. The USS Baldwin escorted convoys that landed troops and supplies at Marrakesh and Casablanca in the early part of the war. Then she was posted to England to await further action.

On June 4, 1944, the Baldwin was on the lead line of warships approaching the French coast during the invasion of Normandy. More than 160,000 soldiers in ships behind them would soon land there. The Baldwin took hits from the German shore batteries at the back of the Normandy beaches, it fought off planes from the Luftwaffe and dropped depth charges on E-boats trying to disrupt the landing. It remained in place for five days, damaged but never in danger of sinking until all the soldiers in the main assault were across the Channel.

Also, at least according to the ship’s doctor, who dictated what happened during those days later on to his children, the Baldwin was either the first or second ship to bombard the coastline of occupied France, firing shells at the concrete bunkers filled with German artillerymen as the American and British landing craft headed through the screen of warships toward shore.

USS Baldwin refloated
The USS Baldwin (far right) during operations to refloat her at Montauk Point at 1030 Hrs. on 28 April 1961. (US Navy, Public Domain)

Here’s a quote from that account, as told by Dr. Donald Chrisman.

“We had been told we were going to have a ringside seat, but I had never really expected to be as close as we were. They couldn’t take adequate care of the wounded and asked the destroyers to help. I got a dozen, six of whom were really bad. I was busy giving them plasma, morphine, etc. for several hours before I could transfer them to a large ship. Our wardroom was a shambles, but I think I saved some lives. Some were dead before they got to me. And there’s nothing more pitiful on earth than a young high school boy with so much life before him, dressed clumsily as a soldier, lying white and still at your feet.”

After D-Day, the Baldwin sailed into the Mediterranean and participated in the Allied landing on the South of France in August of that year, making landfall along the coast of the Riveria, where the Costa Concordia was later to frequent in search of pleasure. It landed supplies and troops and operated at Bizerte, Oran, Naples and St. Tropez. And after that, it returned to America, to join in the convoy that escorted the heavy cruiser Quincy as it carried Franklin D. Roosevelt across the Atlantic for his meeting with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in February of 1945.

Finally, after Germany surrendered, it went through the Panama Canal to join the assemblage of ships at Okinawa. It was assigned to Task Force 55, to be part of the invasion of the City of Sasebo on the Japanese mainland. This was intended to take place on September 20, and the fight to last until October 2. But on September 2, the Japanese surrendered, so that battle never took place.

After the war ended, the USS Baldwin was “decommissioned” in Charleston and taken to Boston, where its moving parts were greased and the rest painted and put into what they called “mothballs.” It could be taken out and used again if the country needed it. The Korean War started up four years later, but the Baldwin was not called up. Then, in the official Navy history of the warship, the USS Baldwin was struck from the Navy’s list of ships on June 1, 1961, and was scuttled on June 5, 1961. She’s down at Davy Jones’ Locker somewhere in the Atlantic to this day.

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