Our Amazing History: The USS Baldwin

The USS Baldwin aground at Montauk Point shortly after she came to rest. The mothballed destroyer had broken free from her towline on April 16, 1961 and drifted ashore.
The USS Baldwin aground at Montauk Point shortly after she came to rest. The mothballed destroyer had broken free from her towline on April 16, 1961 and drifted ashore, Photo: H Series, NH 99000, NH 99107 USS Baldwin, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC

During a storm on April 16, 1961, the captain of a commercial fishing boat off the coast of Montauk Point spotted a 19-gun, five-torpedo and eight depth-charge-projecting World War II destroyer adrift at sea, wildly pitching and rolling. No crew was to be seen.

The U.S. Navy was glad to hear of it. This was the USS Baldwin, a highly decorated warship that had survived hits during the Normandy invasion, sunk German E-boat surface vessels, participated in the American landing in Southern France and been part of the escort that brought America’s President Franklin D. Roosevelt to meet with England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Russia’s Premier Joseph Stalin at Yalta in February 1945 to discuss how to finish off the Germans.

On April 16, 1961, the ship, after being retired and tied up at the South Boston Naval Annex, had been under tow bound for Philadelphia when the tow ropes snapped and the ship drifted off.   Two nights later, after desperate Navy efforts to get it under control failed, it rumbled up and came to a halt on the rocks at Montauk where it wedged itself in at the bottom of a steep cliff in front of the oceanfront home of Balcomb Greene and his wife Terryn, just west of the lighthouse.

More than 400 boats have wrecked along the shore in the Hamptons and Montauk since 1640. The Baldwin, at 348 feet, was likely the largest of them. The Greenes slept through it.

Of course a 20th century, steel-hulled warship from World War II is not going to break up on the rocks anytime soon. Indeed, the following morning, the Greenes looked out their window and there it was down there. It would be there for months.

Balcomb Greene was one of the great abstract expressionist painters who’d moved from Manhattan to the Hamptons in the late 1940s seeking peace and quiet in studios in the woods. An imposing figure almost 6 feet 5 inches tall, Greene, assisted by friends, built his home himself. It included a studio, a grand living room and a great view of the sea. He painted giant semi-abstract canvases, often of ships lost in storms.

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

Now here was one.

If the Navy botched up towing the USS Baldwin, they continued botching up removing it. The Greenes had no privacy until summer.

The Navy quickly requisitioned the Greenes’ 1-acre side lawn, brought in two trailers, and populated it with officers tasked to supervise getting the Baldwin off. The media came, too, with their trucks, cars and satellite dishes. Soon, it was a small city of reporters daily, interviewing the naval officers.

At first, the Navy tried towing the Baldwin off. Three salvage ships anchored offshore and using winches and chains pulled and pulled, but the Baldwin, making horrible scraping sounds, just moved a foot or two. Divers now found the bottom had been torn. Next, sailors came aboard with welding tools to cap the guns and seal the hatches. A stronger pull moved the Baldwin further, but then a chain broke and its whiplash hit a sailor, killing him instantly. The effort was halted.

Another month went by, and a new plan went into effect. Using air pumps up on the lawn, the Navy forced air through hoses down the cliff to the ship to create an air bubble belowdecks. With that, the Baldwin rose and lifted off the rocks.  Success.

One mile out at sea, newer Navy ships bombarded the Baldwin until she listed and finally sank to the bottom of the sea.

Today, schools of fish make this underwater wreck home. Fishermen love it.

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