Commodore Frank Hamilton Newcomb: Seaman, Patriot, Lifesaver, Joint Warrior

By: CDR (Ret) John D. Hooper, USCG

In the spring of 1940, when asked by the United States Navy to identify a distinguished Coast Guard officer who could provide the namesake for a new warship, Coast Guard commandant, Vice-Admiral Russell Waesche, unequivocally nominated Commodore Frank Hamilton Newcomb for the honor. The only American warship named for a member of the United States Revenue Cutter Service, USS Newcomb (DD-586) proved a hard fighter during World War II. The feisty Fletcher-class destroyer sank a Japanese submarine at Saipan; provided fire support at Saipan, Tinian, the Palaus and Iwo Jima. Newcomb is also credited with torpedoing the Japanese battleship Yamashiro in the momentous Battle of Surigao Strait, and sustained five kamikaze hits at Okinawa, killing or wounding dozens of her crew.

 

Born in Boston in 1846 and the oldest of three children, Frank H. Newcomb had the sea in his veins. His father, Captain Hiram Newcomb went to sea at the age of fifteen and commanded his own merchant ship before reaching the age of twenty. Frank followed in his father’s footsteps, sailing on board his father’s ship as a boy. At the age of sixteen he served on board another merchant vessel that made a round the world voyage.

Described by shipmates as humble, Newcomb began his naval career during the Civil War. In 1863, at the age of seventeen, Frank received an officer’s appointment as an Acting Master’s Mate on board the mortar schooner USS Para, which served in numerous engagements as part of the Union Navy’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. In early 1865, he transferred to the USS Arethusa, a coaling vessel home-ported at Port Royal, South Carolina, a local military hub for the Union and a safe haven for slaves escaping Georgia and South Carolina plantations.

At the end of the war, Newcomb tendered his resignation and returned to Boston to make a living. At first, he tried his hand as a merchant then as an officer in the merchant service, voyaging to Europe and the West Coast. But American merchant shipping saw significant declines after the war and Newcomb failed to enjoy the same prospects and prosperity he had seen as a merchant mariner before the war. In 1869, Frank began working in the nation’s booming railroad industry, including the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad and later with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe.

By the early 1870s, Newcomb had had enough and returned to the sea. He applied for an appointment with the United States Revenue Cutter Service and, in 1873, received a commission as a third lieutenant. Newcomb spent the rest of the 1870s serving as a junior officer on board Revenue cutters Petrel, Crawford and Johnson, achieving the rank of second lieutenant in 1878.

During much of the 1880s and 1890s, Newcomb had served nearly continuously on Revenue Service cutters at stations along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in Alaskan waters. In 1891, he received promotion to first lieutenant and, in September of 1897, he assumed command of the cutter Hudson, home-ported in New York Harbor. In the succeeding months, tensions mounted between the United States and Spain, reaching a flashpoint in late February 1898 with the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba.

On the second day of April, Hudson slipped her moorings in New York and steamed down the East Coast to Virginia and the Norfolk Naval Shipyard to take on arms, armor and ammunition. The ninety-four-foot Hudson had a tugboat design, drew ten feet of water and had a top speed of twelve knots.  Hudson was technologically advanced for her day. She was the service’s first steel-hulled cutter and was powered by a triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine. Designed to serve harbor patrol duties on the East Coast, Hudson included a complement of three line and two engineering officers. She also carried eighteen enlisted men, including two warrant officers and a cook, steward and boy.

In the months leading up to the Spanish-American War, the Norfolk Navy Yard was tasked with outfitting and arming the American fleet and the facility was bustling with activity when Hudson arrived.  Hudson received an armament of two six-pound rapid-fire guns located fore and aft and a Colt automatic “machine” gun on top of the aft deckhouse. She also had a layer of five-eights-inch armor bolted around her pilothouse and the deckhouse. On April 21, Congress declared war with Spain and, with the Revenue Cutter Service on a war-time footing and oversight of cutters transferred from the Treasury Department to the Navy, Newcomb found himself serving in the U.S. Navy once again.

On Saturday, April 23, after fitting out at Norfolk, Hudson steamed south toward Key West, Florida, a staging area for U.S. naval operations around Cuba.  By Thursday, May 5, Hudson had arrived in Key West and, on May 9, the ship took up her assigned duty station off the coast of Cuba. Likely due to her relatively shallow draft of ten feet, the naval command assigned Hudson to enforce the blockade between the ports of Cardenas and Matanzas. On May 10, Newcomb used Hudson to reconnoiter the approaches to the bay, which was defended by three Spanish gunboats. Newcomb tried his best to draw the gunboats out for a fight, but they refused to steam outside the safety of the bay. Newcomb later found that the two main channels into the bay were blocked with debris and considered steaming his way through it, but feared the presence of underwater mines. After further reconnaissance, he found a third channel that contained no mines, but was passable only at high tide with shallow-draft vessels. Newcomb developed a plan to capture the gunboats by sending shallow-draft warships through the un-mined channel, which he presented to the fleet commander, Rear Admiral John Watson, on board the flagship USS Dolphin.

On Wednesday, May 11, the day after pitching his proposal to Admiral Watson, the gunboats USS Machias (PG-5) and USS Wilmington (PG-8) and torpedo boat USS Winslow (TB-5) appeared outside Cardenas Bay to help carry out Newcomb’s plan. The Machias drew too much water to enter the bay and participate in the attack on Cardenas, so she laid down a bombardment of the barrier islands to eliminate any Spanish snipers near the shallow entrance to the bay. This bombardment accomplished, Hudson, Wilmington and Winslow slowly steamed through the narrow passage toward Cardenas Bay. Between noon and 1:00 p.m., the vessels had entered the bay and Wilmington’s captain, Commander Coleman Todd, sent Hudson in search of the gunboats on the western side of the bay and ordered Winslow to search the eastern side of the bay. While Hudson carried out her survey of the eastern shore, Winslow and Wilmington met about 3,500 yards offshore from Cardenas, where Commander Todd had spied the gunboats moored along the city’s waterfront.

Todd next directed Winslow’s commanding officer, Lt. John Baptiste Bernadou, to investigate the situation with the Winslow. Armed with torpedoes and three rapid-firing one pound guns, drawing only five feet and with a top speed of nearly twenty-five knots, compared to Hudson’s twelve; Winslow seemed perfectly suited to capture or destroy the Spanish gunboats. Winslow was the fifth of the Foote-class of swift torpedo boats; her crew included twenty enlisted crew and the dashing Lt. Bernadou. Winslow’s executive officer, Ensign Worth Bagley came from a distinguished North Carolina military family that included brother-in-law Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy during World War I.

As often happens in combat, the original plan of attack proved useless after the battle began. Bernadou had ordered Winslow to steam toward the waterfront in reverse, probably to make full use of the stern-mounted centerline torpedo tube. But as soon as Winslow reached a distance of 1,500 yards from the wharves, Bernadou found himself within the white range buoys used for aiming enemy artillery and the Spanish defenders surprised the torpedo boat with salvoes from heavy artillery hidden along Cardenas’s waterfront in addition to one-pound guns blazing from the moored gunboats.

The firefight quickly escalated. Having witnessed the shelling, Hudson steamed at top speed from the eastern shore and received permission from Commander Todd to engage the enemy along with the Winslow. By 2:00 p.m. the battle was on between the Spanish gunboats and artillery on one hand, against Winslow, with her one-pounders; Hudson, with her six-pounders; and the distant Wilmington, with her heavier four-inchers. During the gun duel, Hudson’s Assistant Engineer Nathaniel E. Cutchin oversaw the rapidly changing engine operations, while Second Lieutenant James Hutchinson Scott and Third Lieutenant Ernest E. Meade commanded Hudson’s six-pound guns.

Spanish guns blazed from half-a-dozen directions, but they were difficult to spot because the enemy used smokeless powder and the Americans were blinded by their own black powder ammunition. To help Lt. Newcomb navigate the shallow bay and see his way through the fog of Hudson’s guns, Second Assistant Engineer Theodore G. Lewton mounted the deckhouse behind the pilothouse and helped Newcomb direct the cutter’s movements. As Newcomb later wrote, “Each and every member of Hudson’s crew . . . did his whole duty cheerfully and without the least hesitation.”  The ship’s boy, sixteen-year-old Moses Jones of New Bern, North Carolina, fed ammunition to the aft gun, while Ship’s Steward Henry Savage passed up shells from the magazine. Savage, a veteran of the Civil War, shouted up to Engineer Lewton, “Hot time in the old town tonight, Mr. Lewton!”

By now the battle was fully engaged, with Spanish gunners closing the range of the Winslow. As the battle raged, accurate enemy fire disabled Winslow’s steering gear and one of her engines. In addition to the battle damage, a strong breeze was pushing the torpedo boat toward the Spanish batteries and into shoal water too shallow for the ten-foot-draft Hudson to navigate.  Lt. Bernadou called out to the passing Hudson, “I am injured; haul me out.”     Newcomb reacted quickly, steering Hudson through the muddy shallows toward the Winslow with the cutter’s propeller churned up brown water. Hudson steamed as close as she could while Ensign Bagley and a number of crewmembers stood on Winslow’s deck to receive a heaving line from Lieutenant Scott. The intensity of the enemy fire increased and Bagley yelled out, “Heave her. Let her come. It’s getting pretty hot here.” But by the time the vessels closed enough for Scott to heave the line, an enemy shell exploded among Winslow’s men, mortally wounding three men and instantly killing a fourth as well as Ensign Bagley.

Despite the enemy shelling, strong winds and shallow water, Hudson’s crew managed to secure a three-inch hawser to the Winslow and tried to tow her out of range. The hawser snapped due either to the strain or enemy fire.  Undaunted, Newcomb was determined to succeed a second time, exclaiming “We will make it fast this time.” He plowed further into the mud, backing and filling to carve a path to the stricken Winslow. Hudson’s crew tied the torpedo boat alongside the cutter in tugboat fashion and Newcomb successfully hauled the torpedo boat out of range of the Spanish guns.

The men of the Winslow and Hudson distinguished themselves during the Battle of Cardenas Bay. Winslow withstood eighteen shell hits. Her smokestack and ventilator were shot down, her armored conning tower was disabled and her hull holed just above the water line. The enemy killed five of her crew, including Ensign Bagley, and wounded several more. Suffering from serious shrapnel wound, Bernadou was transferred with the other wounded to the Wilmington for medical attention. Congress would recognize three of Winslow’s crew with the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroism. Despite the fierce fighting experienced during the day, Hudson’s work was not finished and Newcomb received orders to ferry Winslow’s dead and wounded to Key West. That evening, Winslow’s casualties were loaded onto the Hudson and Newcomb steamed the cutter to the fleet’s base of operations, arriving at 7:00 a.m. the next morning.

The crew of the Hudson had also performed courageously during the Battle of Cardenas Bay. In addition to rescuing the Winslow in a hailstorm of enemy fire, Hudson returned fire, pouring 135 six-pound shells into the enemy in only twenty minutes. In his after-action report, Newcomb spent much of the narrative praising the heroism and valor by the crews of Winslow and Hudson during the battle. In his usual generous spirit, Newcomb credited Lt. Bernadou and Winslow’s crew for their “remarkable bravery.” Newcomb also commended Hudson’s crew, including lieutenants Scott and Meade, who directed gunfire for the cutter’s two six-pound guns; Assistant Engineer Cutchin, who supervised the engine room and never missed a bell.

During the summer, Hudson continued to serve as the guard ship for Cardenas Bay, stationed farther east than any other blockade vessel. While blockading the approaches to the bay, Hudson captured three vessels carrying stores to the enemy at Cardenas and destroyed a fourth. In addition, Hudson landed two detachments of Cuban insurgents and their equipment inside the bay to reinforce the insurgents surrounding the port city. Hudson also fired on a suspected Spanish torpedo boat which proved to be a hulk filled with explosives by the Spanish in hopes of destroying an unsuspecting U.S. Navy vessel. The explosives ship was later destroyed by the USS San Francisco.

Frustrated by the lack of opportunities to get into the fight, Newcomb continued to look for ways to pursue the war effort from his limited patrol area. On at least one occasion, he steamed within rifle range of a Spanish gun emplacement as if to challenge its occupants to a duel. But after the Battle of Cardenas, naval vessels received orders never to fire unless fired upon and the Spaniards failed to shoot first.

One night while on duty at Cardenas, the Spanish liner Monserrat attempted to break through the blockade at nearby Matanzas. Signal rockets shot up from the American guard ship and Hudson poured on the steam to assist. Hudson made her best speed ever, with flames shooting out of her smoke stack, but Hudson arrived too late and the Monserrat made the safety of the Cuban harbor. It was rumored that the Spanish ship carried a cargo of war munitions and pay for the Spanish troops, so Newcomb tried to devise a way to capture the moored vessel while patrolling outside of Matanzas.

At 4:00 a.m. on Monday, May 16, Newcomb declared, “I think that we will take a look at the Monserrat.” In the darkness of the early morning, Newcomb quietly steered his cutter under the walls of the fort overlooking the harbor, just inside the white ranging buoys of enemy artillery. Day broke just as Hudson approached the Monserrat and the sun lit up cutter. Completely exposed by the light and vulnerable to Spanish artillery, Newcomb ordered Hudson out of the bay at full speed. He had, however, confirmed the identity and location of the steamer for the fleet’s commander.

Hudson continued her patrol operations through July and by mid-August, at the conclusion of the brief war, the cutter returned to a rousing welcome at her homeport of New York City. In a special message to Congress, President William McKinley commended Hudson for rescuing the Winslow “in the face of a most galling fire” and Congress recognized Hudson’s crew with specially minted medals for their valor. A joint resolution provided Lt. Newcomb with the war’s only gold medal awarded by Congress and the Revenue Cutter Service advanced Newcomb seven points in the promotion system, fast-tracking him to the rank of captain by 1902. Congress awarded Hudson’s line and engineering officers silver medals, and awarded bronze medals to the enlisted crewmembers.

By 1900, Newcomb had reached the age of fifty-four and would serve in a variety of service roles for the next decade. Highlights of his final ten years included assignments as Supervisor of Anchorages (an early version of captain of the port) for New York Harbor, and Superintendent of Construction of Life-Saving Stations for the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes at a time when dozens of such stations were erected on those shores.

Frank Newcomb retired with the rank of captain commandant, a flag rank by today’s standards and, in 1927, received the rank of commodore on the retired list. From his birth in Boston, Massachusetts, to the christening of a World War II warship in his honor, the story of Frank H. Newcomb had spanned a century.  It also involved three of the nation’s sea services, possibly four if one includes the U.S. Navy, Revenue Cutter Service, U.S. Life-Saving Service, as well as the modern day Coast Guard so-named in 1915.  In 1934, Frank Newcomb-a professional mariner, selfless and humble public servant, bold warrior, and American patriot – died and was interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

The author wishes to thank and give credit to Dr. William H. Theisen, CG Atlantic Area Historian (“The Fighting Captain of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service”, NHHC, The Daybook, Vol 14, Issue 4); and Dr. J.M. Caiella (“The Little Tug That Did”, USNI, Naval History, October, 2016), and the U.S. Coast Guard Historians Office, Washington, DC, all sources for this article.

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