The Long Blue Line: Warren Deyampert – African-American rescue swimmer of World War II

Monday, February 18, 2019

Originally Posted by Diana Sherbs, Thursday, February 7, 2019

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

Painting of the Escanaba rescue effort by an unknown artist. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Painting of the Escanaba rescue effort by an unknown artist. (U.S. Coast Guard)

. . . his courageous disregard for his own personal safety in a situation of grave peril was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Navy & Marine Corps Medal citation, Officer’s Steward 2/c Warren T. Deyampert

Enlistment photograph of Warren Deyampert at the beginning of his brief but heroic Coast Guard career. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Enlistment photograph of Warren Deyampert at the beginning of his brief but heroic Coast Guard career. (U.S. Coast Guard)

African-American Warren Traveous Deyampert served in the U.S. Coast Guard in early World War II. It was a time when the U.S. military barred African-Americans from the officer ranks and limited them to junior enlisted or food service ratings. Deyampert was a heroic Coast Guardsmen with great loyalty for his cutter and shipmates. This fact seems surprising given the second-class status African-Americans held in the service at the start of the war.

Born in Alabama, Deyampert moved to Pittsburgh while in high school and enlisted in the Coast Guard at age 19, five months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. During his time in the Coast Guard, Deyampert served on only one cutter, the Escanaba. He came aboard in August 1941 and, over the next two years, he advanced rapidly from a third class mess attendant to second class officer’s steward.

With heavy seas and icy water, the North Atlantic seems an impossible place to save lives. Nevertheless, the challenge of rescuing as many men as possible motivated Escanaba’s crew to develop a system of tethered rescue swimmers equipped with parachute harnesses and leash lines as well as rubber dry suits that insulated the swimmers from the cold water. Three of the cutter’s crew volunteered to serve the hazardous duty of rescue swimmer, including Deyampert.

Deyampert and his fellow rescue swimmers drilled frequently, so they and their supporting deck crews could work in heavy seas and blackout conditions. In early February 1943, Deyampert and the others had a chance to put their skills to the test. At the time, Escanaba served as an escort for the three-ship convoy, SG-19, bound from St. Johns, Newfoundland, to southwest Greenland. Weather conditions during the convoy’s first few days proved horrendous as they usually did in the North Atlantic winter. The average air temperature measured well below freezing, the seas were heavy and the wind-driven spray formed layers of ice on Escanaba’s decks and superstructure.

U.S. Army Transport Dorchester before its ill-fated voyage to Greenland. (U.S. Coast Guard)

U.S. Army Transport Dorchester before its ill-fated voyage to Greenland. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At 1 a.m., Feb. 3, the enemy submarine U-223 torpedoed the convoy vessel and U.S. Army transport, Dorchester, that carried over 900 troops, civilian contractors and crew. Within 20 minutes, the transport slipped beneath the waves sending surviving passengers and crew into lifeboats or the icy water. By the time Escanaba arrived on scene, Dorchester had already begun its descent into the abyss. The seas were smooth due to a heavy oil slick and the wind was light. Dorchester’s life preservers were equipped with blinking red lights to help rescuers locate floating victims at night. These lights dotted the water’s surface into the distant darkness.

A state-of-the-art military issue dry suit shown in 1943. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A state-of-the-art military issue dry suit shown in 1943. (U.S. Coast Guard)

During the war, the service required cutters to observe blackout conditions during nighttime operations. Hence, Escanaba’s crew began preparations to deploy the rescue swimmers in advance, to minimize confusion in the dark. As Escanaba steamed to the scene of Dorchester’s sinking, the rescue swimmers donned their exposure suits and the deck crews made lines ready for hauling helpless survivors aboard. Sea ladders and heaving lines were made ready and a cargo net dropped over the side.

Once on scene, Escanaba located its first group of floating survivors, stopped and drifted toward them. Some of the men were clinging to doughnut rafts, while others remained afloat using life preservers. The victims suffered from severe shock and hypothermia and could not climb the sea ladders or the cargo net. In fact, they were incapable of grasping a line used to haul them on board the cutter. Clad in his dry suit and secured to Escanaba by a line, Deyampert swam out to the floating victims and life rafts. He checked for signs of life and secured victims to a line, so the deck crews could pull the survivors up to the cutter. Even though many victims appeared frozen to death, 38 out of 50 that appeared dead were frozen but still alive. The swimmers got the floating victims to the cutter immediately saving time and saving more lives. Thus, Escanaba could reach more victims before exposure froze them to death.

Selflessly, Deyampert remained in the icy water nearly four hours. Pulling rafts in close to the cutter and securing them with lines from Escanaba, the officers’ steward was often in danger of being crushed between life rafts and the cutter’s side. He kept helpless survivors afloat until they could be secured with a line and hauled aboard the cutter. He also swam under the fantail of the maneuvering cutter to keep floating victims away from the suction of Escanaba’s propeller. All the while, he disregarded the danger to himself trying to save as many lives as possible.

Cutter Escanaba shown in camouflage paint scheme during its deployment with the Greenland Patrol. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Cutter Escanaba shown in camouflage paint scheme during its deployment with the Greenland Patrol. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the end, Escanaba’s tethered rescue swimmer system proved more effective in recovering survivors than any other method. After eight hours of rescue operations, the cutter had saved 133 lives. However, the glow of success proved short-lived. In June, Escanaba joined cutters Storis and Raritan to escort a convoy bound from Greenland to Newfoundland. At 5 a.m., Sunday, June 13, Escanaba fell victim to a catastrophic explosion, believed by many the result of a torpedo. The cutter sank in minutes, taking Deyampert and 100 of his shipmates down with it. Only two Coast Guardsmen survived the sinking.

Despite his secondary status in a segregated service, Deyampert placed the needs of others before his own and played a key role in the rescue of well over 100 Dorchester survivors. For his heroic service, Deyampert posthumously received the Navy & Marine Corps Medal and Purple Heart Medal. Soon, the U.S. Coast Guard will name a Fast Response Cutter in his honor. Deyampert was a selfless and courageous Coast Guardsman who embodied the service’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.

Deyampert’s father, Joseph Deyampert, receives the Navy & Marine Corps Medal from a Coast Guard officer near Mobile, Ala. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Deyampert’s father, Joseph Deyampert, receives the Navy & Marine Corps Medal from a Coast Guard officer near Mobile, Ala. (U.S. Coast Guard)

 


Leave a Comment




We welcome your comments on postings at all Coast Guard sites/journals. These are sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard to provide a forum to talk about our work providing maritime safety, security and stewardship for the American people to secure the homeland, save lives and property, protect the environment, and promote economic prosperity.

The information provided is for public information only and is not a distress communication channel. People in an emergency and in need of Coast Guard assistance should use VHF-FM Channel 16 (156.8 MHz), dial 911, or call their nearest Coast Guard unit.

All comments submitted are moderated. The Coast Guard retains the discretion to determine which comments it will post and which it will not. We expect all contributors to be respectful. We will not post comments that contain personal attacks of any kind; refer to Coast Guard or other employees by name; contain offensive terms that target specific ethnic or racial groups, or contain vulgar language. We will also not post comments that are spam, are clearly off topic, or that promote services or products.

The U.S. Coast Guard disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from any comments posted on this page. This forum may not be used for the submission of any claim, demand, informal or formal complaint, or any other form of legal and/or administrative notice or process, or for the exhaustion of any legal and/or administrative remedy.

If you have specific questions regarding a U.S. Coast Guard program that involves details you do not wish to share publicly please contact the program point of contact listed at http://www.uscg.mil/global/mail/

The U.S. Coast Guard will not collect or retain Personally Identifiable Information unless you voluntarily provide it to us. To view the U.S. Coast Guards Privacy Policy, please visit: http://www.uscg.mil/global/disclaim.asp

Please note: Anonymous comments have been disabled for this journal. It is preferred that you use your real name when posting a comment. WE WILL POST THE NAME YOU ENTER WHEN YOU SUBMIT YOUR COMMENT. Also, you are welcome to use Open ID or other user technologies that may be available.