USCGC Cherokee WATF-165
Photo right, courtesy of Terrence Wright
The Cherokee (AT-66) was the third ship of the Navajo class of ocean tugs built for the Navy. She was launched on 10 November 1939 by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., Staten Island, New York. She was sponsored by Miss E. Mark and was commissioned on 26 April 1940, Lieutenant Commander P. L. F. Weaver in command. Prewar days found Cherokee sailing on towing duties along the east coast and in the Caribbean. As United States naval ships took up convoy escort duties in the western Atlantic to support beleaguered Britain, and as Iceland was occupied by American forces, Cherokee's operating area expanded to Newfoundland and Iceland. Similar operations continued until 23 October 1942, when Cherokee sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, for the invasion of North Africa. The only tug to accompany the vast invasion fleet across the Atlantic to French Morocco, Cherokee served well off the beaches during their assault 8 through 11 November, and on 11 and 12 November, aided two of the destroyers torpedoed by enemy aircraft.
The tug remained in North African waters to care for the many ships concentrating there with men and supplies until 31 March 1943. Fitted with tanks, she served as yard oiler at Casablanca until 3 May, when she departed for Norfolk. After overhaul, she reported at Bermuda 20 June to provide tug, towing, and salvage services to the escort vessels and submarines conducting training there. Cherokee was reclassified ATF-66 15 May 1944, and twice in 1944 crossed the Atlantic to Casablanca to take stricken destroyers in tow for the United States, carrying out these difficult assignments with distinguished seamanship. Upon her return from the second of these crossings in July, Cherokee took up duty towing targets for ships in training in Casco Bay, Maine, until 28 May 1945, and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until 23 July. Following the war she continued towing operations in the Caribbean, along the east coast, and to Brazilian ports until she was decommissioned 29 June 1946 and transferred to the Coast Guard the same day. She was awarded one battle star for her World War II service.
She was commissioned that same day as WAT-165 and was ordered stationed at Coast Guard Base Berkley in Norfolk, Virginia. She was the "major search and rescue vessel of the Fifth Coast Guard District" during her service. She also conducted law enforcement patrols. Her first major search and rescue case occurred on 27 February 1947 when the SS President Warfield, in ballast and sailing for Marseille, when she ran into heavy seas 75 miles south of Diamond Shoals and called for assistance. The Cherokee proceeded to her aid and escorted her to a safe berth in Hampton Roads. On 25 December 1949 she rescued the crew from an Argentine tanker that had broken in half and towed the tanker's aft portion to port. On 14 May 1951 she assisted following the collision between the M/V Thomas Tracey and a naval vessel. From 6 May to 1 June she relieved CGC Kaw of the tow of CGC Tahoma and continued to Curtis Bay, Maryland.
On 28 February 1954 she freed the grounded Panamanian M/V Rio Mar off Cape Henry. In January 1955 she assisted the M/V Steelore 275 miles off Cape Henry, Virginia. In January 1956 she towed the M/V Hellespont 176 miles east of False Cape. In February 1956 she towed the British M/V Irene M to Virginia Capes. On 19 March 1956 she fought a fire aboard the M/V Ciudad de Quito loaded with nitrates in the James River. In March 1956 she assisted the stranded Greek M/V Navarchos Kounduriotis off Newport News. In the summer of that year she towed the cutters Avoyel and Chilula from Orange, Texas, to Curtis Bay. On 5 February 1957 she assisted the Italian M/V Emanuele V. Parodi following an explosion.
In June of 1964 she moved to the Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Norfolk, Virginia, where she remained for the remainder of her Coast Guard career. On 26 April 1965 she assisted in the search for debris from a Navy aircraft off the Virginia Capes. On 6 October 1965 she removed a depth charge which had been caught in a net, from the Canadian fishing vessel Lady Anna and disposed of it in deep water off Cape Henry. In 1966 she was assigned to recover the payload of a rocket which had taken some of the first close-up photographs of the moon.
On 29 January 1967 she assisted following the collision between M/Vs Bodoro and Beaver State on the Potomac River. On 1 February 1967 she towed the disabled tug Lambert's Point to Norfolk. From 27 to 28 February 1967 she assisted in fighting a fire aboard the M/V Caldas and towed her to anchorage in the lower Delaware River. On 4 December 1967 she assisted after the barge Mohawk hit the Chesapeake Bay bridge. On 27 April 1968 she towed the disabled F/V Ok Service Five 132 miles ESE of Cape Henry to Little Creek, Virginia. On 13 July 1968 she took on board a disabled pleasure craft in the Florida Straits. On 14 November 1968 she towed the disabled sailboat Windless 90 miles east of Cape Hatteras to Oregon Inlet.
In February 1969 she maintained surveillance over 12 foreign fishing vessels that sought a haven off the Chesapeake during a storm, thus beginning her participation in the enforcement of fisheries regulations, what became known as the "Offshore Fisheries Patrols." On 20 April 1969 she towed the F/V Captain Johnny 25 miles ESE of Chesapeake Light Tower to safety. On 11 December 1969 she towed the disabled F/V Bobby and Jack to Chesapeake Bay. On 4 July 1970 she helped fight a fire in an oil storage tank at Sewells Point, Virginia. On 10 July 1970 she helped fight a fire on the M/V Atlantic Saga in York Spit Channel.
In the mid-1970s the Coast Guard began emphasizing the interdiction and seizure of drugs being smuggled by sea and the Cherokee's history during this time illustrates that shift in operations, although she continued to remain always ready to assist those in need. On 2 December 1976, while participating in "Operation Watchdog," she seized the M/V Valborg 40 miles NE of Norfolk carrying 3 tons of marijuana. On 2 November 1978 she seized the M/V Friendship IV off Cape Hatteras for smuggling. She fought a fire on the F/V Linda Lee for six hours on 22 May 1979.
Beginning in the late-1970s, in addition to the seizure of narcotics, the interdiction of illegal migrants also came to the forefront of Coast Guard operations. The Cherokee was deployed during the Mariel Boatlift, when Cuban dictator Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel and thousands of Cubans fled in unseaworthy craft for Florida. She earned a Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation for her service from 29 May to 18 June 1980. Her citation notes: "USCGC CHEROKEE was involved in fifteen search and rescue cases which directly assisted forty-four refugees. Eleven vessels were safely towed to port during this period in which CHEROKEE steamed over 3,400 miles."
On 16 January 1980 she escorted the disabled F/V Decco 13 to Cape Charles. On 18 May 1980 she rescued four from the F/V Decco 5 following its sinking SE of New Jersey. On 3 April 1984 she seized the M/V Somape II 390 miles east of Norfolk, after marijuana was discovered on board. On 18 November 1984 she seized the tug Arikok 30 miles north of Grand Bahama Bank with 15 tons of marijuana on board. On 27 November 1984 she intercepted a boat carrying 105 Haitians and returned them to Haiti.
From 2 to 7 February 1986 she participated in search and recovery operations off of Cape Canaveral, Florida, after the space shuttle Challenger exploded soon after liftoff, killing all aboard. During the operation she steamed over 1,000 miles and recovered numerous shuttle parts, and she was awarded a Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation. From 1 October 1986 to 30 June 1987 she participated in an inter-service and international operation to "disrupt maritime and air smuggling of marijuana and cocaine" in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, for which she earned another Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation.
On 12 October 1987 she was rammed by the M/V Camaronero II that was attempting to avoid being boarded in the Yucatan Channel and 23 tons of marijuana was discovered when the Cherokee's boarding party finally got aboard the M/V. On 21 February 1989 she seized the F/V Sea Power 85 miles east of Cape Cod for allegedly using illegal nets. Later that year she was part of the security ring around the USS Tennessee during the testing of the Trident missile system.
She was decommissioned on 30 January 1990 and returned to the Navy for disposal. The Navy turned her over to the Maritime Administration on 28 February 1991. She was reacquired by the Navy on 6 October 1993 and used as a target.