Flagship once served during war

By Lynn R. Parks

Decades ago, Herman Schmidt was driving south on U.S. 13. His wife, Ellen, was a passenger in his car and as they rose past Seaford, he happened to glance to the right.

"And I nearly lost control of the car," says Schmidt, 90 and a resident of Milford. "There it was, right along the side of the road. The old Stephen W. McKeever" – the former menhaden fishing boat that was commissioned by the United States during World War II and to which Schmidt was assigned as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard.

In the 1970s, when it nearly caused Schmidt to be involved in a car accident, the Stephen W. McKeever was serving as the Flagship restaurant. Today, the old vessel is in the same location, perched on a bank of the Nanticoke River and still within sight of drivers headed south on U.S. 13. But it isn't serving as anything. The restaurant, most recently called Nautico, is long closed and the boat looks as though it is slowly falling apart.

With July 4, the day the nation celebrates its birthday and remembers its past, just over, Schmidt, who retired from the Coast Guard in 1972 as commander of the station at the Indian River Inlet, thought those familiar with the Flagship might be interested in the story of his service aboard the Stephen W. McKeever. It's a short story, as the boat wasn't built for war duty. But it's a compelling one. And it starts with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Schmidt grew up on Long Island. "By the time I was 10 or 12, my father and grandfather had me out in the sound, fishing," he says. "And I was certainly familiar with the Coast Guard. When Pearl Harbor happened, I knew that I didn't want to be drafted into the Army. So I joined the Coast Guard. I was 21 years old."

He had his basic training at the Manhattan Beach Coast Guard Training Station in New York and then was sent to Fort Story near Norfolk, Va., for his first assignment. He was part of a unit that maintained charts of safe waters for fishing vessels.

After a year there, he returned to Manhattan Beach for quartermaster school. At the end of training, in October 1943, he went back to Norfolk as a third-class petty officer and was assigned to the Stephen W. McKeever.

The old fishing vessel had been retrofitted as a submarine patrol boat. "We were to patrol shipping channels off the Virginia coast," Schmidt says. The boat had a crew of about 50.

On the boat's second day out, about 50 miles off the Virginia coast, its sonar equipment indicated that it was passing over a submarine. With Schmidt serving as helmsman, the crew passed over the submarine again and dropped a depth charge, or bomb, into the water.

The bomb did exactly what it was designed to do: It sank about 300 feet and then exploded. Whether the explosion destroyed the submarine or not, no one is sure, Schmidt says. "We never heard from the Navy," he adds. "We think that the sub was at least partially crippled, as the bomb made very strong contact."

But the bomb also created a bubble of water that surged up from the ocean and rocked the Stephen W. McKeever, probably as it had never been rocked before. Caulking – actually lengths of rope that were covered in tar – that kept the boat watertight popped loose and the boat started taking on water.

"That boat wasn't built to take a depth charge," Schmidt says. "We were taking on water faster than we could get rid of it. The captain put out an emergency call and the Navy responded with a sea-going tug. It got there in time and was able to get us into port."

That was the end of the Stephen W. McKeever's Coast Guard career.

All of its new equipment was taken out and the boat was put back in dry dock.

"We were out just a couple of days and practically sank ourselves," Schmidt says. "The Coast Guard had done a lot of work getting the boat ready for war and very quickly, it was stripped and decommissioned."

Schmidt went on to serve in a variety of ports, including Galveston and New Orleans. On convoy duty, accompanying troop and supply ships across the Atlantic to the European theater of war, his ship encountered a number of submarines. The patrol frigate the USS Newport, on which he was again serving as helmsman, was given credit for destroying a submarine that had torpedoed a U.S. ship off the coast of Long Island. After Germany surrendered, Schmidt served in the Pacific theater aboard the USS Leonard Wood, delivering troops and supplies to Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines. And then, he says, "the war was over."

Schmidt decided to make the Coast Guard his career. He worked his way through the ranks to chief warrant officer. In addition to being posted aboard the Nantucket Shoals Lightship, he served on an ice-breaking ship that traveled the Hudson River, keeping the shipping channel open from Poughkeepsie to Albany. That winter, he says, temperatures dipped to 22 degrees below 0 in Albany and the ice on the river was 6 feet thick. "We would break through during the day and go out the next morning and it would be all frozen again," he says.

He was named commander of the Coast Guard station at Indian River in 1968. At that time, he said that he expected to remain in Delaware following his retirement.

A few weeks after Schmidt spotted the Flagship restaurant in Seaford, he and Ellen returned there for dinner. "We sat down in the hold," the area that, in its days as a fishing vessel, was used to store the catch, Schmidt says. "It really was an ideal setting for a seafood restaurant, very nautical. And the food was very good."

Schmidt is proud of his Coast Guard service. He recommends joining the branch to anyone, "especially if you like the water and like helping humanity," he says.

"The Coast Guard's duty is mainly protecting life and property at sea," he says. It is also responsible for maintaining thousands of buoys that help ships navigate their way through waters. "And that," Schmidt says, "is very worthwhile work."

History dates back to 1917

World War II wasn't the only time that the Stephen W. McKeever was called to duty. According to the naval history website www.NavSource.org, the 136-foot boat, built in 1911 in Noank, Conn., was first commissioned Aug. 14, 1917, by the U.S. Navy. It was used as a minesweeper during World War I and was decommissioned March 27, 1919, and sold July 1 of that year.

The site says that the boat had a displacement of 223 tons. It was originally powered by steam and later was fitted with a diesel engine. The boat was commissioned again by the Coast Guard July 19, 1943, and decommissioned just five months later, on Dec. 29. It was returned to its owner.

According to the Coast Guard's website, www.uscg.mil/history, converting the Stephen W. McKeever to a military patrol boat cost $105,516.

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