In 1940, I and my primary school classmates were privileged to get a tour of the Modoc, a United States Coast Guard Cutter that was moored in front of the customshouse in downtown Wilmington, N.C. Wilmington was her home port. It was a trim little ship, and I enjoyed the experience very much. The following year the officers and sailors of that small ship had the experience of a lifetime in the North Atlantic.
On May 24, 1941, the Modoc was patrolling Allied convoy lanes for survivors of German U-Boat attacks. We were not yet in the war, but under the orders of President Roosevelt we were giving the British all the assistance we could. On that day, the Modoc was heading east in the Denmark Strait in the wake of an eastbound convoy. As twilight arrived, the crew observed a huge gray vessel heading rapidly toward the south. It was the German battleship Bismarck. It had sunk the British battlecruiser HMS Hood earlier that morning. Damaged during the engagement, the Bismarck was attempting to outrun the vengeance driven British fleet and escape into the open Atlantic. Overhead, fighter aircraft from the HMS Victorious were preparing to attack, and British cruisers and the battleship HMS Prince of Wales were following at a respectful distance. As the Modoc attempted to exit the scene, she was spotted by the British. They had just lost the Hood and were on the lookout for sneak maneuvers from the Germans, therefore any unknown vessel was suspect. Not willing to take any chances, the British made preparations to attack. The Prince of Wales and British cruisers took aim, awaiting the signal to fire. With huge guns pointing directly at her, the Modoc turned towards the protection of a nearby fogbank. One shell from the battleship could totally obliterate the cutter. The British admiral twice issued orders to open fire on the little ship, but the gun control officer on the Prince of Wales realized that the Modoc was not an enemy vessel and requested confirmation. By then, the Modoc had disappeared into the safety of the mist.
The Modoc survived the war and was decommissioned in 1947. Sold to a private owner, she served as a merchantman running between Central and South American ports for most of the following two decades.