Captain Steven Craig hadn’t been in the Coast Guard long before he heard one of the greatest tales of survival and selfless heroism he’s ever been told. Nearly 37 years later he’s written a book, “All Present and Accounted For” in order to chronicle the little-known story of survival off the Alaskan coast so that the tale might live on, just like the crew and ship at the center of the inspiring drama itself.
In 1973, Craig, who makes his home in Centralia during the warmer months, was assigned to a Coast Guard buoy tender in Honolulu. That’s when one of his peers pulled him aside and filled his head with the extraordinary tale of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter “Jarvis.” Just one year earlier, the newly commissioned ship had been sent to the waters off of Alaska in the dead of winter in order to protect prime fishing waters from poaching by foreign entities. However, that benign task took a hard turn toward the terrifying, when the ship ran aground not once, but twice, with the collisions tearing holes in the belly of the Jarvis both times.
According to Craig, that crewmember from the Jarvis insisted that, “If anyone tells you they were not afraid, he is lying. There was no panic, but there was fear.”
The words of that harried Coast Guardsman in Hawaii continued to bounce around in Craig’s head for more than three decades before he decided to dive into the research in order to put it all down on paper. During his research he spoke with more than 30 crew members who experienced the near-sinking and he made every effort to provide a factually accurate account. He explained that the reality of the near miss catastrophe effectively rendered embellishment superfluous.
“I was going to write a magazine article but it sort of exploded on me because I started hearing all these stories from all the crew members,” Craig noted. “Like one guy told me, when the ship got back to Honolulu it was time to transfer and they never had time to sit down and talk to each other about what their experiences were.”
As he worked his way through the records in order to scrape together as many first-hand accounts as he could Craig says he encountered only one survivor who was unwilling to go on the record. Nearly everyone else seemed relieved to finally have an outlet for their long harbored survivor stories.
“The one common thread was they all said it was teamwork. There wasn’t one person who stood out as far as saving the ship,” said Craig.
Hearing the story for the first time, though, one extraordinary account that rises to the surface revolves around a crewman who also happened to be an amateur scuba diver. That brave crewman volunteered to use his own equipment to dive into the frigid waters and swim beneath the ship at least a dozen times in order to unclog dredge hoses that had become blocked with sediment and other gunk. The diver was later hospitalized with pneumonia and his equipment had to be scrapped due to thick oil and other contaminants the crew took to calling “elephant snot”.
After the ship first ran aground crew members were able to cobble together a temporary patch that held back the ocean. At that point, with help at least 24-hours away, the radio dispatchers back on land advised the ship to attempt to make its way back to safer waters on its own. Craig said one piece of that haphazard but functional patch job, a hunk of wood hammered into a gape in the hull, wasn’t discovered until at least 30 years ago while the ship was actively sailing.
That attempted return voyage by the Jarvis was as ill fated as its original mission, however. When conditions once again conspired to run the ship aground again the hull again tore apart, this time filling the engine room with 13 feet of water and causing a complete loss of power. This time there was no means of repairing the damage on the spot and the ship was left adrift and destined to break apart on a looming rocky shore. At times, according to Craig, the compromised ship listed more than 60 degrees and left the crew no option but to walk on the wall in order to accomplish their various tasks.
“One guy said he cut his hand and the water was so cold that he just stuck his hand in the water and it stopped the bleeding,” said Craig. “Another guy said you’re so busy working that you don’t really have time to get scared.”
Eventually, an unlikely rescue ship in the form of a Japanese fishing trawler arrived on the scene but that happy ending had never been an assumed outcome for the sailors at the edge of U.S. territory. It was the confluence of those formidable and unrelenting factors that inspired Craig to put the story down on paper all these years later.
“Over the years I just thought why hasn’t anybody heard about this. I mean, you ask anybody in the Coast Guard and they don’t know anything about it. We almost lost one of the newest ships in the fleet, which the Jarvis was at the time,” said Craig. “Maybe it was how close the ship was to sinking in that severe Alaska weather. Things could have easily turned south and we could have lost a lot of people.”
Craig, who formerly served as Postmaster in Oakville and ran for Centralia City Council in 1986, has lived in numerous outposts of Lewis County over the years. He’s written several other books over the years including “Chronicles of Katrina” and “Italy Travel and Adventures.” The retired Coast Guard captain is hopeful his newest book, “All Present and Accounted For,” will make its debut on Dec. 1. The book will be available through all major book outlets online.
“This book is not about second-guessing the findings of the Board of Investigation; Monday morning quarterbacks can be found in any classroom in America,” added Craig. “When you take into account the severe weather, including the notorious severe williwaws and the extremely cold, windy, ice and wet conditions and high sea waves — you have the makings of a disastrous situation.”
Additional information, including an avenue to purchase Craig’s books directly, can be found online at www.stevenjcraigbooks.com.