George Vladimirovich Stepanoff was born in Moscow, Russia on April 23, 1893. Little is known about his early years except that his parents were Vladimir and Katherine Stepanoff and, in 1919, he was an Imperial Russian Navy officer stationed on board a Second-class Russian cruiser (destroyer) in Vladivostok.
During the Bolshevik Revolution Stepanoff remained loyal to Czar Nicholas and become part of the White Russian forces in the Pacific. In 1919, American, British, Canadian and Chinese troops occupied Vladivostok. Ships from those countries and France controlled the port. The story, as told by Mike Hall, Capt. USCG (retired), is that Stepanoff and his fellow shipmates seized two Second-class cruisers in 1918 and sold them to the Japanese two years later. The tale gains credibility by the fact that five Tverdi-Class destroyers were seized by White Russian forces and two, Tochni (Tochnyi) and Tverdi (Tviordyi), where transferred to the Japanese sometime between 1919 and 1920.
Apparently Stepanoff used some of his share of the sale to buy passage to the US. He then enlisted in the US Coast Guard on December 5, 1923 as a Boatswain’s Mate First Class. His first assignment was on board the newly commissioned tug Shawnee (WAT-54) stationed in San Francisco, California. By 1941 he had been promoted to Chief Boatswains Mate and was commanding officer of Raritan (WYT-93) based in Staten Island. Shortly after taking command, Raritan became part of the Greenland Patrol Forces based in Narsarssuak. While there he was promoted to lieutenant. After three years in Greenland Stepanoff returned to the States, taking command of USS Might (PG-94), one of the ten Canadian corvettes transferred to the US Navy as part of the reverse Lend-Lease. Following VE Day, Stepanoff, now a Lieutenant Commander, was assigned to Algonquin out of Portland, Maine.
In December 1946, Algonquin was in Cape Cod when a northeaster with seventy-knot winds hit the coast. A message from 1st District alerted Stepanoff that a four-barge tow trying to exit the Massachusetts end of the Cape Cod Canal was losing ground and was in danger of breaking up. When Algonquin reached the scene, she didn’t dare go alongside; she and the barges would have torn each other apart. But something had to be done quickly — the fourth barge with four men aboard was sinking. Bob Wilson, Algonquin’s executive officer, proposed a solution: Get as close to the barge as possible, inflate a fifteen-person rubber raft, float it over to them on a line, pull them back when they got aboard. The raft would be flexible enough not to cause serious damage in collisions with either barge or cutter. Stepanoff quickly agreed. They tried Wilson’s plan, and it worked to save two men of the four men before the barge sank. Nine months later and hundreds of mile to the east, Mike Hall, who had been on board Algonquin during the rescue and was now 1st Lieutenant on Bibb, used the same technique to successfully rescue all 69 passengers and flight crew from the Bermuda Sky Queen.
After Algonquin, Stepanoff went on to command Argo (WPC-10), Laurel (WAGL-291), Spar (WLB-403), and Yamacraw (WARC-333) interspersed with short assignments to Base Boston until retiring on May 1, 1955. In all, he served for twenty-two and a half years, not counting possibly as much as ten years in the Tsar’s Navy. During his service he was awarded the American Defense Service Medal with letter “A”, American Campaign Medal, Asian-Pacific Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, European-African Middle Eastern Medal, and National Defense Service Medal
After retiring, he lived with his wife Valentina in Ayer, Massachusetts. George Vladimirovich Stepanoff, Commander, USCG (Retired), died March 8, 1980, was cremated, and his ashes were buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge.
I first heard about CDR Stepanoff from Mike Hall, Captain, USCG (Retired), who had served with him on Algonquin; afterwards Mike and Stepanoff became good friends. By the time they met, Mike had been in the Coast Guard for four years, almost all of which was at sea and most of that time was on board Spencer during the Battle of the Atlantic (see Bloodstained Sea for more about Mike Hall). Mike feels he learned more from CDR Stepanoff than from anyone else and still has a deep respect for his one time CO.
From what I know of Mike, he and CDR Stepanoff are cut from the same cloth. Both preferred sea-going assignments to being on shore, are leaders in the best sense of the word, are exceptional seaman, and have little tolerance for incompetence or bureaucracy. Sadly, there are few if any like them left today.
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