Back in the 1950s, when I was a teenager, I was amazed to learn that so many ships had been wrecked on the shores of the East End. There were hundreds of shipwrecks, dating back to the days when the Indians taught whaling to the English settlers in the 1600s.
Yes, there had been a need for the lighthouses at Fire Island, Hampton Bays and Montauk. And yes, after a crew either died or got rescued, there had to be rules and regulations about who got to keep pieces of the shipwreck and its cargo. The government appointed wreckmasters in every town. There were also life-saving stations where local volunteers would assemble to use rescue equipment to try to save lives, often during great storms.
All of this had come to an end by the time I got here in 1956, however. There hadn’t been any major shipwreck in a half-century because modern navigation devices were in place to prevent them. So there were no more life-saving stations and no more wreckmasters. All of this stuff, I figured, was now part of the local history.
But then, on a foggy Saturday morning in April 1961, the word went out that a large U.S. Navy destroyer, guns bristling, had fetched up on the rocks at the bottom of a cliff in Montauk. In all the reading I had done about shipwrecks, I had never learned of any warship that had come ashore here, other than the British man-of-war HMS Culloden during the Revolution.
Then there was another surprise. I learned that the destroyer had come clattering up on the rocks directly in front of the oceanfront home of someone I knew.
Back then, the East End was a quiet place. A dog could sleep on the yellow lines in the center of the main streets of some of the towns even in the summertime. Because of that, and also because the East End was so physically lush and beautiful, numerous artists and writers from New York had bought small homes in isolated locations to live and work in a sylvan setting. Among them were painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in Springs, songwriter Marvin Hamlisch in Quiogue, author John Steinbeck in Sag Harbor, painter Larry Rivers in Southampton and playwright Edward Albee in Montauk.
The one I knew was abstract expressionist painter Balcomb Greene, who lived with his wife Terry deep in the woods at the top of a cliff facing the ocean in Montauk. I had seen him around town, waited on him in my dad’s drug store, and had spoken with him from time to time. He was a remarkable person. He stood six-foot-five, had a great shock of white hair, big eyes and a lined face and was not only tall but gaunt. His clothes were always splattered with paint. He wore rolled-up jeans held up by a clothesline at the waist and was always barefoot. Even in winter. He spoke softly to me when we encountered each other, in a deep baritone voice.
Fogs often rolled in from the sea to envelope oceanfront homes. It still does. That warm Saturday morning, the Greenes had coffee out on their deck facing the roaring sea below and saw nothing. Soon, however, the fog dissipated. And there it was, bow first, the guns pointing up at them, the surf pounding the sides and washing over the decks.
Nobody was around down there that they could see. Balcomb called the Coast Guard. And from that point on and for the next three months, their property, with their reluctant permission, became the site of several military rescue trailers with all their wires and generators and dozens of navy officers in uniforms as they tried to get this ship off the rocks. Also, there was the New York City media, including the three major TV networks and their news wagons and commentators, government officials and various engineers and skin-divers. This was a national event. Peace and quiet, for the Greenes anyway, was at an end. And this circus, for that is what it was, went on and on.
As for me, as part of the media, I went there to the rescue trailers from time to time. I felt embarrassed to be there, since I knew the Greenes, and deliberately did not knock on their door, but I had to write about this for Dan’s Papers, which had published its first issue just the year before. I also went down to the rocks. There were trails from the woods that took you down. They were now getting pretty worn out.
An admiral gave a television interview down on the rocks. This had developed into a scandal. The destroyer that had got away.
The USS Baldwin had been a World War II destroyer that, after the war, had been kept in what they called “mothballs” at a dock in Boston along with other ships, just in case another war came along where they might be needed. An order had gone out to transfer the Baldwin to another mothball facility in Philadelphia, and so the folks up in Boston, knowing the Baldwin could not be started up and sailed to Philadelphia, had arranged for an oceangoing military tugboat to tow it there.
But the chain towing it was not strong enough. There had not been a second chain. A big storm with high waves was out in the Atlantic and they knew that. No sailor was stationed on the Baldwin. They started towing it anyway.
After the chain snapped south of Montauk, many efforts were made to round up the Baldwin somehow, but all of them failed, and then it had rumbled up on the rocks in front of the Greene’s house. They’d get it off.
But they couldn’t get it off. At first they decided to pump the sea out of it. The sea had splashed water across the decks and down into it. Divers would bring pumps onboard and drop them into the hold. They’d turn them on, the ship would lift up, and a towline to another tug boat out at sea would haul it off. When they tried it, though—this was after the first month—the pumps were turned on, the destroyer rose, the tug pulled on the chain, the destroyer slid noisily across the rocks tearing holes in the bottom, and the water came back in, which settled the Baldwin back down in a new location on the rocks. Then, terribly, the line between the tug and the Baldwin snapped and the whiplash hit and instantly killed a sailor on the tug.
Two more months passed as the Navy re-assessed its plan. The media wrote stories about how perhaps the Baldwin might just stay right there as a tourist attraction forever and ever. (I thought about the Greenes.) And then, one day, the Navy executed a new plan. A crew climbed aboard the ship and dropped air pumps into the hold. Before leaving the ship, they wrapped thick plastic caps over every opening on the deck where the air below might get out.
With that job done, the pumps were started up and began to create an enormous underwater air bubble inside the Baldwin, which, when it got large enough, again lifted up the Baldwin several feet. This time, wisely, only slack lines were attached to the tug, and in the end the Baldwin just gently floated off.
The tug nudged it out to sea and when far enough out, the air pumps were turned off and gunfire sank the USS Baldwin into 80 feet of water, where it remains today as a home for tons of fish who swim in and out of it. It’s also marked on charts. Good fishing at Baldwin.