On March 11, 2011, at Coast Guard Base Support Unit Ketchikan, Alaska, the 67-year-old Coast Guard Cutter Acushnet was officially withdrawn from service in a decommissioning ceremony that concluded with a moving rendition of “Taps.”
Sadly, it was time for the Coast Guard’s oldest ship to go – but she leaves behind an unrivaled legacy of service, one that spanned the oceans from Okinawa to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Iwo Jima, the Mariel boatlift, the Coast Guard’s most famous ocean rescue – Acushnet was there, and, it seemed, just about everywhere else.
The ship began service in the U.S. Navy as a 213-foot Diver-class fleet rescue and salvage vessel, USS Shackle, on Feb. 5, 1944. Her first homeport was at Pearl Harbor, where she served as a salvage ship in the West Pacific throughout the remainder of World War II, clearing wreckage and repairing ships. In support of the Okinawa invasion, Shackle completed 55 salvage and rescue operations on naval craft damaged by kamikaze attacks. The ship’s crew received three World War II battle stars, a World War II victory medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medal, the American Campaign Service medal, and the Navy Occupation Service medal.
In August of 1946, the ship was commissioned into the Coast Guard as the cutter Acushnet, a search and rescue tug homeported in Portland, Maine. Acushnet also served as part of the International Ice Patrol, hunting icebergs in the north Atlantic shipping lanes. It was during her service in Portland, on Feb. 18, 1952, that Acushnet became involved in one of the Coast Guard’s most celebrated rescues, in a violent blizzard off the coast of Cape Cod that split two tankers, the Fort Mercer and the Pendleton, in two. The role of Acushnet, whose captain, John M. Joseph, maneuvered the ship’s fantail next to the Fort Mercer’s stern in 60-foot waves to provide a place for 18 survivors to jump to safety, is detailed in the books The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue, by Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, and Two Tankers Down: The Greatest Small Boat Rescue in U.S. Coast Guard History by Robert Frump.
On July 8, 1968, Acushnet was redesignated an oceanographic vessel, and later underwent hull alterations and other modifications to accommodate scientific equipment and research space. The ship served the National Data Buoy project at NOAA’s Office of Naval Research and the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in San Diego, Calif. In 1971, Acushnet was reassigned to Gulfport, Miss., where she was redesignated again, this time as a medium endurance cutter for the Coast Guard, charged with law enforcement and search and rescue in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
In 1980, Acushnet was one of more than two dozen large Coast Guard vessels to respond to the chaos of the Mariel boatlift, a mass exodus of nearly 125,000 Cubans who departed for Florida between April and October of that year. The refugees were carried aboard 1,500 boats of varying shape, size, and seaworthiness, and Acushnet assisted more than 35 of these boats, aiding 120 refugees directly.
Acushnet was moved to Eureka, Calif., in 1990, and spent the next eight years patrolling the West Coast as far north as the Bering Sea. In 1998, she reached her final homeport, Ketchikan, where she was charged with law and fisheries enforcement and search and rescue, conducting patrols from the Dixon Entrance to the Bering Sea for months at a time.
On Feb. 23, 2007, after the decommissioning of USCGC Storis, Acushnet was designated “Queen of the Fleet” – the oldest commissioned cutter in Coast Guard service – and given the gold hull numbers to go along with the honor. Acushnet – her ancient hull literally wrinkled with age – and her 80-member crew became a fixture in Ketchikan, which has not yet been assigned another medium endurance cutter.
For now, the “Queen of the Fleet” designation passes on to the CGC Smilax, a 100-foot inland construction tender commissioned in 1944 and based at Coast Guard Station Fort Macon, N.C.
At Acushnet’s decommissioning ceremony, her last skipper, Capt. Mark Frankford, sought to recognize the efforts of his own crew, as well as all those who had come before them: “This cutter’s proud history,” he said, “served as a continuing source of inspiration to the crew and me as we worked to execute our missions to the highest standard, to be worthy successors of the hundreds of Coast Guardsmen and Navy sailors who walked Acushnet’s decks before us.”