By Sam Smith
The Greyhound rolled the 180 miles towards Yorktown, passing weathered, weary places where nothing seemed new, nothing shone, nothing smiled. As I sat alone in the dark of tidewater Virginia in the winter of 1961, my own past seemed to fade as irretrievably as the deep, distant line of shadows where the fields and the woods met. When I stepped off the bus, I would, for the first time in my life, be without a story. The only thing that would matter would be what I did next. For four hours I felt empty, stripped and scared.
Thus I arrived at the Coast Guard Reserve Training Center completely unprepared for its normalcy and even subdued hospitality. The classroom and dormitory buildings were standard Coast Guard architecture — antiseptic white clapboards topped by dull green or red shingles, a sight that has meant home, progress, or security to generations of mariners. Our rooms were basic gray without brutality: a couple of government-issue gray desks, a gray bunk bed and two gray metal wardrobes. My one hundred classmates were either much like myself, apprehensive young college graduates, or somewhat less apprehensive enlisted men attempting to become officers. Unthreatened confidence was restricted to our instructors and to a small group of warrant officers attempting to leave the purgatory of that specialized rank in which they were considered officers but not quite gentlemen and in which they lacked the prospect of promotion. The warrant officers would attend our classes but were not subjected to demerits, marching in formation and other such annoyances. And if they failed, they were still warrant officers, which in the Coast Guard wasn’t bad.
My roommate was a journalist mate first class, also surnamed Smith. I called him Bill and he called me Smitty. Some years older than I, Bill was married, had been in the Guard for some ten years and took a avuncular interest in his seaman apprentice roomie. Bill, it turned out, was of what I would soon learn was a familiar Coastie prototype, a competent, enjoyable and decent man without a trace of guile. He showed me the proper mix of spit and polish to make the toes of my black shoes glisten; he instructed me in how to make hospital corners on my bunk and how to clean the white piping on my seaman’s uniform with a toothbrush and then suck the dirt and water out with my lips and teeth. In return I helped Bill with his math and together we quizzed each other for the endless multiple choice exams that popped up almost daily.
Because of the massive amount of information the Guard intended to pour into our brains within thirteen weeks, there was little time for harassment or pointless exercises. Between reveille at 6 am and the first class at eight, we did calisthenics, ate breakfast, cleaned our rooms, and were inspected in our fresh-never-sat-down-in whites. The rest of the day was mostly filled with classes and studying, with a little pro forma drilling thrown in. Our training vessel was a 125′ patrol vessel, the Cuyahoga, which had been built in 1927 to catch rum runners. Seventeen years later, she would sink in minutes following a collision with a freighter in Chesapeake Bay. Like many of the Coast Guard vessels of the era, the Cuyahoga would never have passed Coast Guard inspection. Every major Coast Guard vessel of that time had seen service during World War II. On a few vessels it was said that the crews wore lifejackets to bed and wagered on whether the ship would make it back to port.
The Coastguardsman’s Manual we were given included this description of our training vessel:
These 125-footers were built between 1927 and 1929, primarily as anti-smuggling vessels . . .By the end of [WW2] they were commencing to show their age. . . the survivors are presently assigned to district patrol work where they are still frequently in the news for small boat rescue work. But their slow speed is a disadvantage, ant they eventually will be replaced by larger faster craft.
At the time we trained on the Cuyahoga the manual was fourteen years old.
Both the discipline and the yelling to encourage it differed only in degree from what I had experienced growing up. At the end of the third week I wrote home:
When we’re not marching, in class, studying, or cleaning up, we’re dressing and undressing. Nine changes was the score for one day. My present demerit score is ten, one of the lowest in the class. I got through five days with none which was a minor feat.
I had also learned at home that rules were made to be circumvented. Thus, I quickly discovered that if one slept on top of one’s sheets, rather than under them, they were easier to prepare for inspection. And I took illegal naps under my minimal GI gray desk during lunch breaks, positioning the door of my wardrobe so I would not be seen by a passing instructor.
Not only did I survive the regimen, I seemed to thrive on it. I didn’t even mind the two score hour exams we took to reinforce the instruction. I found myself becoming a real Coast Guard officer. It was no longer something I was doing to avoid the draft, but an effort of pride and satisfaction.
I especially liked all the new things I was learning: the difference between carvel and clinker hull; that you mark a lead line with a red rag at seven fathoms; what the strongback (with puddings) is used for; that the safe working load for manila line is the circumference squared times 150; why a two fold purchase can lift more than a gun tackle purchase but is slower; why a single screw walks the stern to starboard (or is it port?) when reversed; the proper lights and signals to use in international and inland waters; international regulations for preventing collisions at sea; that on the radio my name was spelled Sierra Alpha Mike; that signal hoists are read top-down; outboard-in and fore-aft; how to help a plane ditch in the ocean; techniques of anti-submarine warfare; how to use an M1, .45, and a Springfield line throwing rifle; the operation of a 3″/50 gun; how to plot a course using the sun, stars, shore objects, radar, and loran; the history of the US Coast Guard; the duties of the US Coast Guard including icebreaking; aids to navigation, enforcement of the Sockeye Salmon Treaty, customs laws, the Refuse Act, the Loadline Acts, and immigration laws; laws against gambling devices at sea; how to arrest someone and use search warrants; why killing a Coast Guard officer was a federal crime; how to maintain watertight integrity on a ship; the use of a ship’s casualty power system; dewatering a damaged ship; the difference between hogging and sagging; how to keep a ship from capsizing; fire party organization and operation; dealing with biological; chemical and atomic warfare; when to use a parallel track, creeping line, or expanding square search during rescue missions; and 48 USC 248a providing for the protection of walruses.
The service I had joined was formed in 1790 by Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, to put teeth into his program of protective tariffs and to help create financial stability in a shaky new nation burdened by some $70 million in war debts. The Revenue Marine, as it was then called, was organized as a small fleet of ten cutters and in the 1790s proved encouragingly capable of accomplishing Hamilton’s goal of arresting smuggling along our coast. When I joined it was still an agency of the Treasury and I swore to uphold not only the Constitution but the US customs laws as well.
Hamilton’s instructions to officers of the Revenue Marine were in the front of thr Coast Guardsman Manual (although in later years it would disappear) Here is what Hamilton told us to do:
While I recommend in the strongest terms to the respective officers, activity, vigilance and firmness, I feel no less solicitude that their deportment may be marked with prudence, moderation and good temper. ~ They will bear in mind that their countrymen are freemen, and as such are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of domineering spirit.
They will, therefore refrain, with the most guarded circumspection, from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness or insult. If obstacles occur, they will remember that they are under the particular protection of the laws and they can meet with nothing disagreeable in the execution of their duty which these will not severely reprehend. . .
This reflection, and regard to the good of the service, will prevent at all times a spirit of irritation or resentment. They will endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perseverance in their duty – by address and moderation rather than by vehemence and violence.
For eight years the Revenue Marine was the only navy the country had. Once a regular Navy was established, the Coast Guard would be seconded to it during wartime while being under the Treasury in times of peace. In World War I it suffered the highest percentage of casualties of the any of the services and in World War II engaged in convoy and anti-submarine duty as well as manning landing craft. Coast Guard vessels saved 1,500 lives on D-Day.
On September 11, 2001, Coast Guard Admiral Richard Bennis, captain of the port of New York City, directed the evacuation of over 300,000 people by water from Manhattan following the attack on the World Trade Center. Bennis, suffering from cancer, had had staples removed from his brain just the day before the disaster, yet managed to coordinate the largest maritime evacuation since Dunkirk.
Five years later, the Coast Guard rescued some 33,000 people on the Gulf coast in the wake of Hurrican Katrina.
The peacetime history of the Coast Guard is filled with such stories – like that of Ida Lewis who, as her father before her, was keeper of the lighthouse on Lime rock in Newport RI harbor. During her half-century career, she saved 23 persons from drowning. Once she rescued three men whose boat had been swamped as they tried to pull a sheep from the water; then she went back and rescued the sheep. Her activities brought President Grant to the rock in 1869. Upon landing Grant got his feet wet. He remarked, “I have come to see Ida Lewis and to see her I’d get wet up to my armpits if necessary.” When she died, every ship in Newport Harbor tolled its bells in honor of the woman who had lived so long in the tradition of the lifesaving service: “You have to go out; you don’t have to come back.”
Here’s how the Regulations of the Life-Saving Service of 1899, Article VI (“Action at Wrecks”), section 252, page 58, put it:
The statement of the keeper that he did not try to use the boat because the sea or surf was too heavy will not be accepted unless attempts to launch it were actually made and failed, or unless the conformation of the coast — as bluffs, precipitous banks, etc. — is such as to unquestionable preclude the use of a boat.
These instructions remain in the instructions for Coast Guard life stations as late as 1934.
The sea seems determined to force men to fight it with their bare hands. It is a teacher of humility, an enforcer of respect, a revealer of fraud. It is indifferent to paper distinctions between men, without regard for fine words, and contemptuous of the niceties of society. Those who live with the sea will probably always be a bit different and those who go to sea in ships and boats as small as the Coast Guard’s especially so. As Joseph Conrad put it, “Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is ships alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretenses.”
In matters of military etiquette and discipline, the coast guardsman often fell short of the requirements of the book. It was the sea and the jobs to be performed upon it that enforced the real discipline. This was tacitly recognized by many in command.
Besides, many of the units were manned solely by enlisted personnel operated with only sporadic direction from their commissioned superiors. When things went awry (particularly when they occur on liberty and did not effect the work of the service) there was a tendency towards leniency. The Coast Guard had the lowest court martial rate of any of the services. But the more relaxed attitude towards matters of military discipline resulted not in operational laxness but rather in a clear refutation of the theory that the military must kill the spirit and independence of a man in order to get the most out of him.
And the legends helped. Such as the story of the cutter Bear which, during a 41 year career in Alaskan waters, served as a floating court, hospital, and rescue vessel. Her most dramatic rescue occurred during the winter of 1897-98 when she went to the aid of whaling ships frozen near Point Barrow. After sailing as far as possible, a party from the ship mushed 1,500 miles across the ice, driving a herd of 400 reindeer ahead of it for food. Not a single life was lost.
Lieutenant D. H. Jarvis in his report said of the whalers: “They were stunned and it was some time before they could believe that we were flesh and blood. Some looked off to the south to see if there was not a ship in sight, and others wanted to know if we had come in on a balloon.”
Reaching the stranded whalers in late March, the Bear’s crew maintained health and order until the cutter reached them four months later.
In the last weeks of OCS, our status dramatically changed. Up to then liberty had consisted of going to Nick’s seafood restaurant in Yorktown and drinking 3.2% beer or driving to Williamsburg for a meal and champagne cocktails (the region was on the conservative side of local option drinking laws). But now we were nearing the time when we would be transformed from our instructors’ students to their colleagues, a transition smoothed by inviting us to the Officer’s Club.
Also in the last weeks we were asked to fill out a form requesting our first assignments. I applied for three ocean-going tugs — two on the west coast and one in North Carolina. I wrote: “Beyond the above I would prefer a small floating unit near a city.” I had high hopes that my wishes would be fulfilled. After all, among the reserve officer candidates, I ranked second in the class.
My orders finally arrived: It seemed that Ida Lewis and the Coast Guard Cutter Bear and all their heirs would have to wait. I was to report to Second District Headquarters, St. Louis, Missouri, as public information officer and aide to the district commander. Nothing like this had happened to Ensign Hornblower.
As it turned out, the Coast Guard had selected me for OCS not because of my knowledge of the sea but because it was looking to beef up its public relations. I was one of several in our class sent to PIO billets in district officers. The Guard had finally decided to forsake its informal motto, “In our obscurity lies our security.”
Before leaving on this odd and somewhat embarrassing assignment, I returned to Washington for visit friends and to attend a party that promised to be out of the ordinary. The party was to be given at a farm in Middleburg, Virginia for Liza Lloyd Mellon. Prior to the ball, I was invited to the farm of Phil and Katherine Graham, whose daughter Lallie I knew. Also, Phil Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, employed as managing editor the father of my friend, Alfred Friendly Jr., who had gone to elementary school with me.
Arriving at the Grahams about an hour before sunset, I found drinks being served on a lawn overlooking dark green hills as three horses wandered as near the guests as the bush border would permit, watched skeptically for a few moments, and then moved on. There were only a few debutantes around but there were Mr. And Mrs. John Kenneth Galbraith, McGeorge Bundy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Bobby Kennedy, the William Paleys and Joseph Alsop. In a letter later I noted that “Mrs. Paley looked like the eleventh best dressed woman in the United States trying to make the list of the ten best dressed women in the United States. This was quite unnecessary since she is already on it.”
On a hill near the Mellon’s home were brightly colored tents of medieval design, sleeping quarters for the male guests. Each tent had a wooden raised floor, 15 cots, and an ashtray for every occupant. Several of the tents had been made into heads with showers and electric outlets for shavers included. Another tent housed two separate catering operations. There was room in this canvas city for 268 male souls. The local Episcopal rectory had been renovated for the women.
The main house contained not only the Mellons but an art gallery whose properties ranged from Renoir to Pissarro to Picasso. A large society orchestra alternated with Count Basie’s band until six a.m. The fastest omelet maker in France, flown in for the evening, was equally indefatigable. A half-hour of fireworks and a brief visit by Jacqueline Kennedy (who seemed more interested in Rousseau, Pissarro and Picasso than in the other names present) gave a redundant gloss to the evening.
Towards six am we wandered towards a large yellow tent to rest. Al Friendly crawled onto a cot still in his white dinner jacket, pulling the covers up as if he bedded down in this fashion every night, and went to sleep.
By eight I was up for breakfast: a bottle of beer and scrambled eggs. One of the caterers told me he had never seen anything like this either. As our minute Agincourt came to life and spirits returned, we took off again for the Grahams and a swim in their pond. Upon arriving on the second floor to change into a swimming suit, I found Joseph Alsop crawling on his knees searching for something in the hall. He got up, mumbled, “I can’t seem to find his shoes” and returned to his bedroom.
After a morning in the sun, we returned to the Mellons for lunch. A hefty buffet had been laid out and twin pianos played for the benefit of those still strong enough to dance. As I left at three-thirty, the omelet maker was still hard at work.
For the next year or so, it would be my job to explain what the hell the Coast Guard was doing in St. Louis. The official spiel I developed went like this:
The Second Coast Guard District covers all or part of 21 states from western Pennsylvania to the Rockies, from the upper part of Alabama to the Canadian border. Within its borders are more than 5,000 miles of navigable water, mainly the Mississippi and its tributaries. There was are also 103 lakes of more than ten miles in length that fall under USCG jurisdiction. There are more than a quarter of all the aids to navigation in the country to be found in the 2nd District. We board 25,000 small craft for safety inspections each year. . . .
My unofficial spiel went like this: The Mississippi River is much harder to guard than, say, Massachusetts, since it has two coasts. Well, how do you guard the coast of the Mississippi, Ensign Smith? Listen, wise ass, you don’t see any of it missing, do you?
Still, there were some definite pecularities to the post. For example, we lost over 100% of our buoys every year thanks to ice and the huge tows. And we probably had the only search & rescue center whose territorial chart showed the location of bars and restaurants. When a distraught wife would call up looking for her missing husband, invariably last seen in a “small white boat with an outboard,” the first order of business would be to check with the bartenders and restaurant managers near the last known location.
Although my own search & rescue activities were limited to patrolling a few regattas on the river, I once almost caused a serious maritime disaster. I had gotten a local TV station down to do a piece on the St. Louis Coast Guard base. As we were talking and filming, we were hailed by a small white boat with an outboard that was drifting helplessly in the stiff river current. The base sent out a crew who quickly hauled in the two couples and their boat. They were clearly relieved until, that is, one of the men noticed the TV camera. “You’re not going to use this on TV are you?” he asked with considerable despair. “You can’t. These aren’t our wives.” The film was canned.
If you were to think of a city in terms of color, St. Louis would have been that of dirty, smoke-smudged brick. Back in the 19th century a severe fire burned down many dwellings, leading to a city ordnance against wood structures. The rest of the city lacked brightness as well. I moved in with the son of a St. Louis-Dispatch editor who worked for an advertising agency. He and his friends, and the friends I would make, often spoke of St. Louis as a place to leave. It was the early 1960s and while nobody knew it yet there was a restlessness among the young, particularly in places where everything had been decided and judged, where life consisted of fulfilling a role without surprise, risk, discovery, or mystery.
I was not impressed by St. Louis society, describing its members as buzzing “around frantically like flies trapped in a lampshade.” There seemed a singular inability to enjoy status once it had been achieved. Life was taken in dead earnestness and woe to those seen enjoying it. The spirit was reflected in the society pages of the local papers where no one in the photographs appeared to be having a very good time. Most serious of all events was the Veiled Prophet Queen Ball. The Veiled Prophet was a carefully disguised prominent male social leader charged with crowning the leading debutante of the year. This was done in the largest gathering place in town to which 10,000 general admission seats were sold. The papers treated the matter as it would a major league pennant victory — complete with features such as the one about J. C. Jones who for seventeen years had arrived around midnight in order to be the first in line when the ticket window opened the next morning. The ball was even televised.
Nor did more staid and less prominent St. Louis enthrall me. I wrote that “St Louis is the center of a large German Catholic population that likes Prophet Queens as much as they like Martin Luther. It is perhaps testimony to the universality of the Roman Catholic church that a Boston Irishman would feel completely uncomfortable in such somber surroundings. One gets an almost irrepressible desire to set off noisemakers or play bawdy songs from a loudspeaker while driving through this part of town.”
On the other hand, St. Louis did have Gaslight Square, a whole neighborhood devoted to bars and entertainment including Irish bagpipes, operatic jam sessions, Dixieland and modern jazz, quiet trios, comedians, stage shows, twist clubs, and even silent movies shown on a parking lot wall. The common practice was to have one drink at a club and then move on, a practice that not only kept the bars busy but the streets as well.
There was also the Fox Theater. This building on Grand Avenue was built during the days when the screen was still small but the theatres were large. Walk inside and you found yourself in a cathedral for pagans, where a benevolent celluloid god was worshipped continuously from noon on. A guide to St. Louis described its lobby as a “towering space, its encircling colonnade topped by capitals of golden vultures. A staircase, flanked by seated lions with flashing electric eyes, rises to a landing furnished with four high-backed red velvet throne chairs, each with armrests in the form of camels.”
The climax came at intermission between the double features. As the first film faded from the screen a spotlight shone on the center of the orchestra pit and a $70,000 organ slowly rose into view. Played by Stan Kahn (who collected vacuum cleaners as a hobby) the organ was one of the most powerful in the world and, in fact, could not be played at full intensity for fear of bringing the entire citadel down upon the audience.
But that never happened nor did much else. I moved into an apartment on Lake Avenue where the nearby movie theatre was playing “Never on Sunday.” It still was when I left town.
Then there was the river. It was dirty and smudged and mundane as well and most of the time like everything else in town it just kept right on rolling along. I felt upon seeing it that one more childhood myth, like Santa Claus and fairy godmothers, had been destroyed. Yet I soon would learn that this modest, muddy stream could rise thirty feet about her current height and carry anything with her in a vengeful dash towards the sea; she could freeze, turning into a mass of ice flows that jammed themselves against each other like ice-carved rugby players, laying against the piers of bridges until the first thaw of spring released their awesome energy. In quieter times, tows – with each barge carrying the equivalent of ten freight car loads – would plough quietly along, some carrying more cargo than all the steamboats of Mark Twain’s day put together.
I threw myself into the job of information officer and aide with a gusto that quickly distracted me from disappointment over the assignment. My desk was in the reception room of the District Commander where I sat across from his secretary and next to the office of the Chief of Staff. Both men were captains with long sea experience, possessing competence that was as unselfconscious as it was deep. The chief of staff, Captain Gene Coffin treated me with in the manner of a fun-loving, knowledgeable and gentle uncle. The District Commander, Oliver Peterson, while genial enough, didn’t seem quite certain of what a public information officer was meant to do or why he had one. Captain Peterson was a man of action not of words. He had once taken the Coast Guard cutter Eastwind to within 442 nautical miles of the North Pole, a record for a surface ship at the time.
Captain Peterson had also in 1952 directed the rescue of 70 of the 84 tanker crew members by several Coast Guard ships during a violent winter storm. When the first call came, a CG plane flew to the location to guide the rescue ships in. The Eastwind, arriving on the scene, spotted part of a tanker and called the plane on the radio. We see the ship, the radioman said, but we don’t see you. The plane’s crew replied that they could see the tanker but not the Eastwind. It took some time before ship and plane realized they were looking at two different tankers — identical in class and identical in fate — both having broken in two 60 in the gale.
In my office, liberated from the District headquarters photo lab, is a large photo taken from the plane that shows the Eastwind bow towards half of a tanker and if you look closely you can see a life raft on a line being pulled between the two vessels. Sometime after this photo was taken, the waves increased and the transfer of crew by life raft was no longer possible, Captain Peterson ordered his own crew to bring up their mattresses and stack them on the fantail of the Eastwind. He then backed the vessel precariously near the stern of the tanker and had the remaining crew leap to safety.
cCaptain Peterson didn’t tell me this. In the Coast Guard you let other people tell stories about you, so I learned the tale from my photographer’s mate first class, my mentor and co-conspirator for the greater glory of the public information office, Billy Keys. It was Keys who also told me about a journalist’s mate had developed a small trade aboard one of the ocean station vessels that stood search and rescue duty for 30 days at a time in midst of the North Atlantic: he had composed love letters for less literate crew members. With this talent, Alex Haley became a legend in the Guard years before his writing reached a larger audience.
I had one thin gold stripe that circumnavigated my sleeve; Billy had several short white ones. Although Billy called me sir, he also knew that in knowledge of Guard practice and tradition and knowledge, he outranked me.
Together we threw ourselves into creating the district’s first real public information office. The first essential was to enlarge the staff. In no time, a journalist’s mate appeared, a fine addition save his desire to save my soul. Rollin Hill had been born again, a concept with which I had only the vaguest acquaintance, but I quickly accept the notion that attempted conversion was not a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and thus exposed myself to endless discussions of the matter. By the time I left, the office would have a staff of five — including the District Commander’s driver, carefully selected for his typing rather than his driving skills. Not bad for my first year and a half in a government bureaucracy.
Not long after I got there, Captain Peterson was transferred and the district got as commander its first honest-to-god admiral. To be an Coast Guard ensign in St. Louis was odd, to be an admiral there was truly exotic.
Admiral O. C. Rohnke had commanded six vessels, and had helped to create the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Report Program that used computers to keep track of merchant ship positions. This not only made rescue of troubled merchant ships far easier, it put the ships at the Coast Guard’s disposal to help whenever an emergency arose near their position.
Admiral Rohnke absolutely fit the role: tall, gray hair and erect — yet with a mild manner that never once erupted into misplaced ego during our time together. My job as aide was to do anything the admiral needed. People such as myself were sometimes called dog robbers, dating back to the days when aides got the leftovers from their boss’s dining table, thereby depriving the dogs of the scraps. With an aiglette (gold loop) on my shoulder, however, wherever I went in the 2nd District the shadow of a flag officer followed. With Admiral Rohnke’s arrival I had received a de facto promotion.
I also knew that Admiral Rohnke and Billy Keys had much more in common than either had with me. Yet in one way Rohnke and I were in the same situation: the gold on our arms only told part of the story.
I learned that in Peoria. Having an admiral in the office was a godsend for public relations and I quickly started using Admiral Rohnke (although never hinting at such crassness) as a sort of roving logo for the Second District. He willingly submitted to whatever scheme I devised. For an inspection trip to the Coast Guard station in Peoria, I pulled out all the stops. Swede Johnson, a huge red-haired warrant officer who commanded the Coast Guard buoy tender Goldenrod, was delighted to cooperate, getting the local liquor wholesaler to throw a big party for the visiting flag officer. Swede also wanted Rohnke piped aboard his vessel.
The Goldenrod, for good reasons, had never before piped anyone aboard. It was, after all, only a tugboat that pushed — or “towed ahead” in river parlance — a barge with a crane for doing the buoy work. Nonetheless, with several reporters and television cameras watching, a chief boatswain’s mate blew his pipe and his crew saluted as the admiral stepped sharply aboard the barge. I stood looking pleased with myself until I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was one of the cameramen: “Was that it?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said.
“Well I wasn’t ready, he has to do it again.”
I approached my boss. “Er, Admiral, the TV guy says he didn’t get the shot. Would you mind being piped aboard again?”
“Sure,” Rohnke replied and stepped gamely off the barge and back on the dock.
This time the camera was ready and the admiral marched smartly aboard. As I was beginning to relax, the chief boatswain mate turned to me and said, “Mr. Smith, they didn’t shoot that did they?” “Yeah, Chief, they did.”
“Well, he’s got to go back and do it again. My men weren’t ready.”
If you were to list three jobs whose practitioners are not generally known for their tolerance, admirals, chief boatswain mates and TV cameramen would be near the top. And near the top of their list of people not to be tolerant towards would be freshly-minted ensigns.
There was, however, nothing to do but to ask. With only a shrug, the admiral stepped ashore once more. This time we got it right.
It was only one of Admiral Rohnke’s remarkable performances that day. An hour or so later we were underway on an inspection voyage down the Illinois River. The Goldenrod had a tiny wardroom and around the table sat just the four of us: the skipper, the chief, Admiral Rohnke and myself. A white linen cloth and glassware had been laid on and no sooner had lunch been served than an enlisted man appeared with a bottle of wine.
If we had been in the Italian or French navy no one would have blinked. But drinking alcohol aboard an American naval vessel was verbotim. That’s one thing I remembered from OCS. As I was trying to figure out how to handle the situation, the admiral leaned over to me and said very softy, “I won’t say anything, Sam, if you don’t” “Yes, sir” I replied, immensely relieve as I silently pledged my undying loyalty to the admiral.
For an admiral, it must have been all a bit trying being there in the epicenter of America trying to maintain the appearance of a man of the sea. The official car didn’t help, either. The Coast Guard in those days was an orphan of the Treasury Department. Thus it was not that surprising that the admiral’s car was a Chrysler Imperial seized by Treasury’s alcohol and tax unit during a raid on Chicago mob operations.
It was an asset the mob must have been glad to forfeit. The car was regularly in the shop. On one occasion, I was forced to commandeer my own 1941 Oldsmobile Hydromatic to get the admiral to the airport. I was tempted to mount the admiral’s flag on the front bumper but settled for having the driver, Gary Smith, salute sharply and never crack a smile as Rohnke entered the back seat of the ancient beast. On another occasion, I stood along a suburban highway in dress uniform and aiglette hitching a ride back for the admiral and the driver, the former being too distinguished to do the thumbing and the latter unlikely to provoke response by a passing car.
Which is not to say that Admiral Rohnke didn’t have his limits. On one occasion, the 2nd District sent a boarding crew into Oklahoma to do safety inspections on a lake that was considered a federal waterway. The crew returned to St. Louis early, reporting that they had been stopped by the Oklahoma state police who told them that the next time they came into the state they had better wear their authority on their hip. Rohnke didn’t like that at all and immediately flew to Oklahoma to straighten out the governor, leaving me to bring his Ford Thunderbird to the state capital, a task I accomplished at speeds of up to 100 mph on the straightest, longest and most empty roads I had ever seen. (Senator Robert Kerr once asked Eugene McCarthy to support an exemption for his state from the anti-billboard provisions of the interstate highway legislation. McCarthy not only agreed but offered to deliver a speech on the subject. To Kerr’s dismay, the gist of McCarthy’s plea was that billboards would actually improved the Oklahoma scenery ).
In between planning and executing the various adventures of my boss, I churned out news releases, set up displays at river-related conventions and gave talks to high schools and civic groups. On one occasion, during a conference for the warrant officers who commanded the various buoy tenders in the district, I enlisted the tough and salty gentlemen to the greater cause of public relations. My technique was simple. First, I had them all over to a party at my apartment and got them good and drunk, which weakened their wariness. The next morning, we met in a conference room and I asked them only one favor: that they call up the local daily paper and suggest that they send a reporter and a photographer on a day long trip down the river to view the exciting business of tending buoys. Several stories resulted, including a full two-page spread in the Des Moines Register. A number of the COs became first-rate flacks for the Coast Guard.
Not only did the Coast Guard tend to run low and poor on ships and cars, but it didn’t have enough officers for all the things it was meant to do. One was constantly shifting roles to fulfill the collateral duties thrust upon the lesser ranked. Further, the new president, John F. Kennedy, added to the work load. He had noted during his inauguration parade the lack of any blacks in the Coast Guard Academy contingent and called the Treasury Department the next day to seek a remedy. And so the word went forth, even to the federal building in St. Louis, to do something about it and I found myself, although the name hadn’t been invented in 1961, serving as the district’s affirmative action officer. I was totally unsuccessful. St. Louisians of any ethnicity were disinclined to think that going out on any of the major oceans was a good idea for either themselves or their sons. The black businessmen and civic leaders I addressed agreed and seemed to regard me as an agent of the devil when I described what a Coast Guard officer actually did and under what circumstances he often did it.
Kennedy had also declare the nation unfit and wanted the military to set an example for everyone else. And so I found myself assigned to run a physical fitness program for the hundred officers and men of the district headquarters. It all went somewhat better than the affirmative action effort, but in the end those who started out fit tended to stay fit while similar trends prevailed among the flabby. Being in charge of all this inertia did, however, inspire my own efforts and I pumped iron regularly in the dingy YMCA gym with that marvelous assortment (including in this instance a professional wrestler) one found in such places before fitness was defined by silly people in spandex jumping up and down and yelling faux encouragement at their bedraggled wards to the sounds of excessively loud rock.
But though there was enough to do, I never doubted that I wanted to be part of the real Guard. So when Admiral Rohnke was assigned to Washington and he asked me, “Is there anything I can do for you while, I’m there, Sam?” I said, “Yes sir, get me on a ship.”
Once again he came through. On my next trip to DC, I stopped by the assignment office at Coast Guard headquarters. “My name is Smith and I came by to see how my transfer was coming.” The lieutenant commander looked at me, pondered a moment, and without referring to any document, replied, “Smith, Smith, Sam Smith, you want to go to sea, right?”
There were only three thousand officers in the whole service and at that moment I knew I had joined the right branch of the military, in contrast with my friends who wore the same bars in the Army or Navy but were still a number to be shuffled about.
In the Coast Guard if you didn’t know someone, you knew someone who did. This after all, was the service in which just one family, the Midgetts of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, provided over two centuries literally hundreds of its members to the Coast Guard and its predecessors, the Revenue Cutter Sevice and the US Lifesaving Service. Seven Midgetts earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal and three the Silver for rescues. I never met a Midgett, but I met those who had served with them, all of us members of an even larger family called the Coast Guard.
My assignment came through: Bristol Rhode Island, operations officer and navigator aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Spar. Bristol sat in the upper reaches of Narragansett Bay, whose huge bite out of the mainland gives Rhode Island its jagged border. It has also provided cover for centuries of illegal activity from slave to rum to drug running to illegal quahogs. Narrow channels led tankers, freighters, and smaller craft to Providence and Fall River. A large island divided the bay into an east and west passage. At the entrance to the East Passage, with its ornate homes posing above the unimpressed sea and sky, was Newport. A little further up the bay was the Navy base with its herd of destroyers waiting impatiently to be released to the blue pasture beyond Brenton Tower. Still further, coming to course 035 degrees true at Castle Island Light, was Bristol.
When I got there, the small town of Bristol — population 5,000 — was giving the world rubber soled shoes, golf balls and fiberglass sailboats. For many years prior to that, though, its mark had been more impressive as the magnificent craft of Hereshoff slid down the ways of his Bristol yard to sail to a hundred different ports.
Shortly before I arrived Bristol had tried to restore a bit of its honor by purchasing the second cherry-picker style hook and ladder truck to be sold in the country (the first had gone to Chicago). The proximate cause of the purchase had been a serious fire in the tallest apartment building in town (five stories), but there weren’t any more tall apartment buildings and hence considerably less need for a cherry picker.
The fire engine arrived in early spring and was displayed on the town green. Unfortunately, when it was finally time to take the engine to the firehouse, it had sunk into the soggy town green and had to be towed off. When it arrived at the firehouse another problem developed: the building wasn’t deep enough. Eventually a deal was worked out with the local trash hauler: the fire engine could be stored in his garage – but behind his trash truck and he would keep the key.
The Spar, one of the newer ships in the Guard, had made Bristol its home for most of its 19 years. The people of Bristol considered the ship their navy. When it was learned that she was to be in the Coast Guard’s yard over the town’s vaunted July 4th celebration, several Bristolites wrote their congressmen asking that the yard work be rescheduled.
As one of the five officers on the ship, I was invited to make myself at home at the Elk’s Club, and otherwise quickly integrated into Bristol’s social life. Further evidence of the Spar’s status came on a Memorial Day weekend. Two men from the ship went on liberty at ten AM. At eleven PM they were in the local jail having been involved in a roaring fracas that included among its casualties a policeman who had tried to stop the fight and was slugged for his efforts.
I went to the court the next morning in full uniform to bring the two back to the ship. Before the judge passed his sentence, I promised the magistrate that Bristol would not see much of the pair for the next few weeks. He gave them a minimum fine and a minimum lecture and released them into my custody. Everything went smoothly until the judge asked the sailors whether they wanted to say anything. Gilbert, standing at attention in a bloodied tee-shirt and with a black eye, replied, “Well sir, it was like I was telling Mr. Smith here, I was just minding my own fucking business when this fucking guy come up starts giving me shit and so. . . ” I gave Gilbert a sharp nudge, the judge smiled indulgently and closed the court for the day.
I was concerned that the town might think unkindly towards the ship as a result of the incident. Far from it, as the tale was told to me several times later in various places, Gilbert was right — our boys hadn’t thrown the first punch. That they had been drinking steadily for twelve hours and had decked a cop didn’t seem to matter — in fact the latter act seemed to inspire a certain amount of awe.
In 1957, the Spar circumnavigated the North American continent, making the first deep draft voyage through the Northwest Passage in the company of two Canadian Coast Guard cutters. Not since Raoul Amundssen crossed the top of Canada aboard his vessel Gjoa had any ship succeeded in this venture.
The voyage had gone without mishap, but two years before I stepped aboard the Spar experienced its worst luck just a few miles from home. On the way back from replacing ice-driven buoys in the bay, she had struck a rock and might have been a total loss had not the crew lowered away her two power boats and used them to tow the stricken ship, in sub-freezing temperatures, to a sand bar, where she settle to the level of the main deck.
One of my men had just that day reported aboard out of boot camp. I asked him what happened. “Well,” he said, “I was sitting on the mess deck and someone told me the ship was sinking. I thought it was some sort of drill or something.”
The Spar was 180 feet long. Unlike most Coast Guard cutters that were painted barn siding white, the buoy tenders had black hulls and white superstructures. We sometimes sardonically referred to them as The Great Black Fleet. The Spar was equipped to break ice and her rugged construction and towing ability made her an excellent heavy weather search and rescue craft. She was also used to bring fuel, water and crews to the Nantucket Light Vessel and to the several of the nearby lighthouses. But her main task was to maintain 170 buoys from Block Island to Buzzard’s Bay. My main task, other than to make sure the ship got where it was going, was to put the buoys where the charts said they were.
For every buoy we knew the correct angles of three fixed shore objects such as a tower or building. On each wing of the bridge a quartermaster would take hold a sextant horizontally and read off the the bearings between two of the objects. A single screw ship, the Spar was not easy to maneuver and we approached the buoy location dead slow, the quartermasters calling out their angles: “76 degrees, 13 minutes on the left — correcting.” From the other wing: “82 degrees, 52 minutes on the right — uncorrecting.” I would stand on a wing of the bridge with a chart and three-arm protractor keeping up with the position of the ship. As the position plotted over the right black dot on the chart I would tell the captain, “She’s on.” He would cry to the chief on the buoy deck below, “Let her go.” A seaman swung a mallet to the chain stopper. Fifteen tons of sinker and buoy were released and as she settled into her position, a final check on the angles was made we backed away.
But other things affected buoys besides wanderlust. The pockets that hold the light batteries might leak water, shorting the electrical system. The batteres might discharge sooner than expected. The flashing device might be defective. All four bulbs in the automatic lamp changer might be burned out. A clapper might be off a bell. A light might be burning steadily instead of flashing its proper characteristic. Bird droppings might obscure the lens. Or the buoy might simply be scheduled for replacement or servicing.
Brenton Point Lighted Whistle Buoy S2 was a large buoy in Rhode Island Sound near the entrance to Narragansett Bay, in plenty of deep warter. On a Friday in February, she was scheduled to be serviced. It was a good day for tending buoys. Not too cold and not too rough. If your specialty was repairing lanterns you appreciated this. You could remember a night deep in that same winter when you had climbed aboard an ice-covered buoy that was careening carelessly against the side of the ship. You could remember mounting fifteen feet of slippery cage to the lantern, almost losing your grip every time you inched higher. And you could remember sitting atop that rocking pinnacle trying to rewire a lamp-changer in the winter wind. Your memories made you glad for a day like this.
The officer on the port wing of the bridge could see the buoy a hundred yards ahead. “God damn current’s setting me down too fast.” The buoy approached almost imperceptibly as the ship edged forward. It rolled gently in the slight swell and every four seconds a weak red flash came from its light. The officer shoved the stick beside him forward and called to the helmsman inside the wheelhouse, “Increase to right full.” The helmsman spun the wheel. There was a groan from somewhere deep inside the ship as the diesel engines responded to the thrust of the throttle and released their full energy. The officer returned the stick to a vertical position and the groan ceased.
There was no surge of speed when the lever moved forward. The ship continued to creep towards the buoy, but the engines and the rudder had combined to turn her bow to starboard. The buoy was off the port bow now. “Shift your rudder. ” The turning of the bow was checked. Down on the buoy deck, below and forward of the bridge, a small group of men in safety helmets and dungarees watched the buoy. Over their heads a large buff-painted boom hung in wait.
“Ease your rudder.” The buoy was close and the officer shoved the lever aft.
This time there was the groan and more. The whole ship shook in protest as the engines tried to stop the forward momentum of 1000 tons of steel moving through the water. The buoy struck the side of the ship and started scraping its way aft. Before it had traveled more than half the way down the buoy port its motion was checked. The officer returned the lever. The roll of the ship and the roll of the buoy didn’t coincide, but the men on the buoy deck anticipated the erratic movement. A wire strap was led through the cage of the buoy and back to the hook that hung from the boom. The chief in charge on the buoy deck held up his hand.
The electric boom motor started to spin, the boom cable became taut, pulling at the strap. Up on the bridge a second officer was plotting the position of the buoy. “She’s two hundred yards north of station, Captain.”
“Very well,” the captain replied, without lifting his eyes from the operation below. A half-dozen men were trying to bring a twelve ton buoy aboard a rolling deck and there were a half-dozen things that could go wrong.
Only last week the nylon cross-deck had suddenly snapped with the crack of a rifle. The men tending the lines were thrown to the deck. Others nearby ducked and headed for what protection they could find. The buoy had swept a path across the deck. “Drop it,” the chief had yelled and the boom operator had let the buoy crash to the steel surface. Fortunately it had been a calm day and no one was injured. But it had been a sharp reminder that things can go wrong without warning. This day, however, the buoy came aboard smoothly. As it arose from the water a large cylindrical body was revealed, coated with mussels and green slime. And extending down from the body there was a long tube that counterbalanced the upper portion of the buoy when it sat in the water. Light, cage, body, and tube were dragged aboard, restrained by the boom and the cross-deck line. For a few seconds the huge buoy hung suspended, but the moment the chief could see that the chock was properly placed underneath the giant it was quickly lowered to the deck and secured. The helmeted men set about the familiar routine, scraping the body and tube of its marine growth. checking the lantern, replacing the long black batteries that rested in two pockets in the body, The buoy chain rested with one of its links securely slipped into a chain stopper on the edge of the buoy deck. Now the chain would be hauled and checked and then the whole buoy would be replaced, refreshed and properly positioned on its station in Rhode Island Sound.
By their nature, buoys are frequently near bad water. The Aids to Navigation Manual blandly stated that a buoy tender skipper is often called to go “where no ordinarily prudent navigator would take his ship.” A prudent navigator, for example, doesn’t let his ship get within a hundred feet of a rock that could slice his hull, but marking that rock for other mariners might require that one do just that.
Captain Jimmie H. Hobaugh, who had commanded the Woodrush, a 180-footer in the Great Lakes, , told an interviewer, “I used to put her aground all the time – that’s the only way you can set some of the buoys that you work. . . If you work Sand Point Bouy in Munising there is the actual imprint of the bow of a 180 in the sand. When you go aground, you drop the bouy and you know it’s on station.”
We ran aground three times when I was aboard, a fact that amazed my Navy buddies. In the Navy running aground tends to end one’s career. But the Navy doesn’t set buoys in the Cape Canal entrance channel where the charts call for a string of markers at the precise edge of a dredge path or right next to a dangerous ledge off Block Island. Only one of the groundings was without excuse. Leaving an unfamiliar Coast Guard station in Miami early one morning, the captain insisted that he could reverse despite the sand bar I had pointed out to him. Within seconds we were aground but within another minute or two we had lines back on the dock and had warped ourselves off. The only damage was to a lamp post at the corner of the dock which had been bent ninety degrees. Like miscreant adolescents, we pulled in our lines and took off without apology or report, the only nautical hit-and-run in which I was ever involved.
The reason we were in Miami was because we had carried two 40 foot patrol boats to be used to guard John F. Kennedy when he was vacationing near there. At a flank speed of 15 knots it had taken us days to get down there and days to get back. I had the conn as we finally pulled up to the dock at Bristol. We weren’t more than a hundred feet off when a crew member came out on the buoy deck below and called up to the bridge, “President Kennedy’s been shot.” I thought: what a stupid thing to say. I edged the ship up gently to the pier, got the lines properly secured and went below. Only then did I realize that it was true. Despite days away from homeport, no one left the ship for three hours as we huddled around the mess deck television.
As in St. Louis, I had more than my share of collateral duties. My official assignments included being operations division officer, navigator, CIC officer, senior deck officer, morale and recreation officer, electronic material officer, education officer, photography officer, public information officer, exchange officer and drug control officer. These duties ranged from the titular to the trying. For example, the ship’s PX was run out of a closet. One month’s inventory included 437 cartons of cigarettes, 226 assorted chewing gums, 6 cans of Dr. Lyons tooth powder, 31 normal tubes of toothpaste, four decks of regular cards and eleven for pinochle as well as 48 X Cellos and 41 Sultans for a total cost value of $766.04. To reconcile our massive inventory and sales would sometimes take a couple of hours a month. Not even a penny could be unaccounted for and some fiend at headquarters had designed the reports so that throwing one of your own pennies into the pot wouldn’t help.
The drug inventory I performed with the deck officer, Bob Sanderson. Each month, Sanderson and I would retire to the captain’s cabin with all the bottles of drugs and the brandy that we carried on board. We would take a drug bottle and dump its contents into a cigar box and then count each pill, confirming to each other what we had seen. Should someone actually need to consume the pill, its strength would presumably overcome any residue left by our monthly mauling.
The bottle of brandy was a little harder to assess, although both Bob and I had seen its contents diminish in the wake of sea rescues. If a crew went off in a lifeboat as part of the operation, they would be welcomed back with an order to report to the captain’s cabin. There Captain Flynn would have laid out as many glasses of brandy as there were lifeboat crew members. These young men were, as Flynn well knew, almost all beer drinkers with little interest in the more effete liquors. They would take a few sips and then put their glass back on the green felt table in the center of the captain’s cabin. After an appropriate moments of good cheer, everyone would depart leaving Flynn to finish the job.
The nickname for the Coast Guard was the hooligan Navy. It was not without merit. In military manners and matters, the typical coastguardsman left much to be desired. But in return you got someone willing to jump a bobbing buoy in a 30-knot breeze or take a life boat into a black, storm-driven sea. The enlisted coast guardsman expected to be treated as an individual. It was, after all, he and not that one and a half striper on the bridge who jumped the buoy, secured the cross-deck to it, replaced all the burn-out bulbs as the buoy careened crazily against the side of the ship. It was, after all, his Coast Guard, too. It was, after all, his ship.
Most officers, from admiral down, understood this, and behind the formal hierarchy of rank lay the equally important hierarchy of competence and experience. By the time I got to the Spar, I understood this. I was coming aboard a ship as navigator with only sailing experience and 13 weeks in OCS behind me. I was to lead men who knew much more than I did.
My first test was on the bridge. The captain suggested I take a navigational fix. For piloting fixes, one sighted three shore based (and charted) objects using the peloruses on either wing of the bridge. These were compasses on a stand with telescopes mounted on top so one could read the bearing and see the object at the same time. Once having read the bearings, you stepped into the pilot house and with a parallel rule transferred the data to the chart. If all went well, your three bearings met in a point or tiny triangle at the exact position of the ship. If all did not go well, such as one of the bearings being off, you were left with a bloated triangle and a far vaguer idea as to where you were.
My triangle was considerably larger than desired. Beside me was my first class quartermaster, Bill Miller, a QM2, and a seaman assigned to my department. I couldn’t really see, but I felt the executive officer and the captain looking over my shoulder as well. I kept my eyes glued on the chart without saying a word, thinking desperately what to do next. The holy spirit put the right words in my mouth. I turned to Miller, shrugged, and said, “Not bad for a fucking reserve, huh?” I could tell from the reaction that I had passed the test — which was not, after all, to prove how good I was, but to admit that I wasn’t.
The Spar took the crew backand forth from Woods Hole and fueled the lightship.
After that it was easy. I told my crew that I was happy to run a laid-back department as long as what we were meant to do — navigation, communications, electronics — got done and got done right. I had only two chickenshit demands. First, regardless of what anyone else did on the ship, I wanted the operations department to salute the captain on first meeting of the day. This was a naval tradition that fell by the wayside on smaller ships, but I had sized up my boss and knew this little nicety would be worth it. The second thing was that the brass on the bridge was to be kept polished. I didn’t have to size up my boss on that one; he had already given me the keep-the-brass-shined lecture.
Captain Jack Flynn was a mustang, which is to say he had formerly been an enlisted man and had applied to the Coast Guard Academy while serving in the Army. He was short, Irish and in amazing shape given his drinking habits. I got along with him well, even to the point of earning the right to wear a totally non-regulation LL Bean one-piece hunting outfit and Sears thermal boots on the bridge in winter. The executive officer didn’t think it was such a great idea, but Flynn called it my bunny suit and never objected. Under normal circumstances, Flynn was reasonable, funny and enjoyable to be around. During Lent, when he gave up booze, he was hell. Nearly everyone on the ship drank, so Flynn only stood out because he was the head drinker. On more than one occasion, the Spar was called out late at night on a heavy weather search and rescue mission with up to two-thirds of the crew having just been pulled from bars. One night, Captain Flynn stumbled aboard as the winds made up to gale force. He stepped up to the radar and pretended he was in an old-fashioned shoe shop checking the x-ray machine. Staring intently at the screen, he mumbled that he needed the next larger size. The exec, Bob Overton, came over to me and said quietly, “Sam, you take it out. I’ll keep the skipper busy.” And he did, conning the captain out to the outboard wing of the bridge where they traded sea stories as I got the ship underway and headed for sea.
Besides liking to drink, Flynn and I shared a similarly loose attitude towards military matters. Overton had never lost his academy-installed rigidity. Once we were standing on the bridge discussing flag etiquette. At point I said, “Hey Bob, what do you fly from the starboard yardarm during a general court martial?” Without hesitation, he replied, “The accused.”
And so Bob wasn’t too pleased when Gordon Tuck (Gilbert’s partner in the aforementioned bar fracas) went AWOL overnight with the base pickup truck. This is the sort of thing that one went to the brig for in the Navy. I, however, was the officer on duty and when Tuck showed up back at the ship I sat him down in the wardroom and told him he had a choice: either face a court-martial or perform umpteen extra hours of work on the ship. There was nothing in the Uniform Code of Military Justice that permitted me to hand down such a plenary punishment, but extra duty was such a firm Guard tradition that while Overton was incensed at my having cheated him out of a court martial, he could do nothing about it. Tuck, naturally, had taken the extra duty without hesitation.
The exec was predictably furious at me, but he recognized that I had played by the tacit rules of the game. Besides, Captain Flynn, I knew, would understand. His attitude was that Tuck was the best helmsman on the ship and that if he wanted to go off from time to time and do stupid-ass stuff then that just meant another compartment on the Spar would be subsequently painted out.
Not only was Tuck a fine helmsmen, he didn’t get sea sick. This, despite his other failings, put him in the top one and a half percent of the ship’s complement, at least whenever it was blowing over thirty. Both the captain and I fondly remembered occasions when, as we were flashing our hash over the side, Tuck was standing blissfully at the wheel occasionally muttering things like, “Hey, I really like this shit.”
The scariest few moments I ever spent with Flynn he was cold sober. We were coming back from a day of working buoys. The ferry that ran from Bristol to Prudence Island was coming down the channel the other way — on the wrong side. I blew one blast of the horn, indicating hat I wanted to pass like cars on a street, port to port. The ferry blew two blasts — an illegal cross-signal. She wanted to stick to her side of the channel. I turned to Flynn. “Should we let her go on. . .?” But the captain was mad. “I’ll take the conn,’ he said. “I stand relieved, sir,” I said, and I was.
Flynn blew a series of warning blasts and stuck to the right side of the channel; the ferry kept coming straight at us. Then the captain blew one extremely long blast as if to say, “I really mean it, you fucker” and the ferry eased over. We passed but a few feet apart with Captain Jack Flynn and Captain Mannie dePino standing on the wings of their respective bridges, screaming obscenities at each other.
Because of her heavy weather abilities and because of the growing unseaworthiness of the Coast Guard’s older search and rescue vessels, the Spar had been assigned responsibility for heavy weather rescue missions. In fact the 125 foot search and rescue patrol boat at Woods Hole, the General Greene, was a sister ship of the Cuyahoga, built during Prohibition and now considered of such dubious seaworthiness that she was not permitted out in anything more blustery than small craft warnings. This humiliating restriction for a ship intended for rescue was instituted after the captain sailed halfway to Bermuda during a storm because he did not dare turn the General Greene around.
The storms become one given enough time. It’s a Friday evening. The crew has been granted early liberty. The wind is making up to forty knots out of the Northeast. The ship is on Bravo-2 status meaning it must be ready to leave on two hours notice. The Office of the Deck has the number of every bar and restaurant in Bristol handy.
I had cancelled plans to go to a party in Providence and instead was having dinner at the Lobster Pot in Bristol, first leaving the phone number with the quartermaster of the watch. About 10:30, a message, operational immediate, arrives at the Spar from Commander, First Coast Guard District, telling of a fishing vessel in distress 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod. There is a description, a loran fix and orders to “proceed and assist.”
A waitress at the Lobster Pot comes over and tells me that the crew is being recalled. I pay the check and returned to the ship. Bill Miller, Quartermaster First Class, is already up in the chart room plotting a course. “It’s going to take 18 hours to get to her,” he says.
The special sea detail is set and the ship gets underway. After an hour’s cruise down the Bay we take departure of the well protected East Passage and enter Rhode Island Sound. At first, the Spar only nods gently at the sea. Soon, however, she is rolling and pitching relentlessly. The ship has been secured throughout with the exception of the bridge and it has already become stuffy below.
Lying in my bunk, waiting to go on watch, the ship seems determined to throw me to the deck. I hang on and feel the internal organs of my body trying to do the same. I wonder whether that was my liver or my spleen that took a sudden lunge in the direction of my throat. Placing my laundry bag next to the bulkhead and my life vest next to the bunk guard rail, I construct a make-shift straitjacket to keep me from sliding from side to side. Now I just roll with the ship.
To survive a North Atlantic winter gale the Spar will have to keep punching like cocky little fighter, always on her toes, always moving. She will alternate rolls of up to forty-five degrees while leaning way back and then plunging into the sea. Sailors call the motion corkscrewing. And don’t like it much.
It seems better to be on watch. At least there is something to do other than just think. The red glow of the darkened wheel house is deceptively restful. Outside the wind chips at the skin, the high bow strikes out at each wave, sometimes slapping it down, sometimes ducking under.
It isn’t going to be as bad as that time we had patrolled in hurricane strength winds the radar tower the Air Force had abandoned because of the storm.
A few years earlier another “Texas Tower” had collapsed in a storm with the losss of 28 personnel. Now the Air Force apparently thought it wise in extreme bad weather to evacuate the towers and let the Coast Guard patrol them to make sure the Soviets didn’t climb aboard. Circling a Texas Tower 110 miles from shore in an 180 foor ship for hours in hurricane strength winds is not a lot of fun.
It might not even be as bad as the night I found myself on the bridge with the conn, supposedly 45 feet above sea level, but looking up at the crests as we dipped into each trough and then one even higher wave had suddenly stopped and shook the Spar’s 180 feet, bringing a call from below, “What the fuck you doing up there? You just knocked two guys out of their bunks.” This one is just an ordinary storm.
It isn’t going to be as bad as that time we had patrolled in hurricane strength winds the radar tower the Air Force had abandoned because of the storm and then had asked the Coast Guard to keep an eye on it. It might not even be as bad as the night I found myself on the bridge with the conn, supposedly 45 feet above sea level, but looking up at the crests as we dipped into each trough and then one even higher wave had suddenly stopped and shook the Spar’s 180 feet, bringing a call from below, “What the fuck you doing up there? You just knocked two guys out of their bunks.” This one is just an ordinary storm.
If you feel ill, you have only the marginal solace of companionship. The bridge, being the only access to the outside during bad weather, is host to crew members seeking the leeward wing from which to relieve themselves. Later I will drink Coke and eat plain white bread to calm the internal insurrection, but for the time being there is nothing to do but go about one’s business feeling awful.
Free of the protection of the land, the wind is blowing stronger. I grasp the handles of the radar set and try to find my balance. I try to amuse myself by plotting the course of a large blip that has appeared on the scope. I am reminded of the even larger blip I had once spotted in the fog that kept closing on our stern. I called the captain and by the time he had come to the bridge a large Russian fishing and surveillance vessel had broken through the shroud 100 years away. The captain went to wire Washington.
As the ship takes a heavy roll, the quartermaster slides past me and hits his shoulder hard against the starboard bulkhead. On the radio I hear a freighter tell the Narragansett Bay pilot he’ll be at the entrance in two hours. The blip on the scope is the freighter. Its crew will be pulling liberty in Providence tonight.
During a normal watch there are three men on the bridge: the officer of the deck, the quartermaster of the watch and the helmsman. The rest of the ship is tending to its business or asleep. During the lonely hours of the mid-watch, those on the bridge are a trio of adventurers on an empty planet. They are the only ones who will known what took place that night. They will become acquainted with the thousand voices of the sea.
A few curt bits of information are exchanged when the watch is relieved: “This black beast is on a course of 136 degrees true, making good eleven knots, 0330 position is on the chart, the radar scope is empty. , . .” But aside from that no one will ask them about the watch. And the log will read simply: “Underway as before.”
Throughout the next day the Spar pounds along towards the object of her search – a 69-foot green fishing vesel with a white superstructure, orange dory, 7 persons aboard, and engine failure. Towards mid-afternoon we approach the area and make radio contact with the trawler as we have several times during our trip out. The skipper speaks on 2182 kilocycles with a thick Scandinavian accent. He says that all on board are well, that his vessel comes from New Bedford, Mass., and is owned by a man whose name had an unmistakably Portuguese round. Leif Erickson, Prince Henry the Navigator and Captain Ahab have found a common heir 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod. The Spar’s only radioman, who has brought his mattress to the radio shack so he can grab a few moments sleep between messages that flow in and out around the clock, asks the trawler for a long count. The skipper counts slowly, the Spar’s radio direction finder searches for the direction of his voice, the needle finally coming to rest five points off the starboard bow. The ship alters course and heads for the disabled craft.
A mast is sighted ahead. The Spar approaches the trawler wallowing in the heavy sea. Our gunner’s mate, wearing a bright red vest, aims his line-throwing gun across the bow of the other ship. There is a report and a thin line soars over the water. In less than ten minutes the fishing vessel is in tow and the Spar headed back towards New Bedford.
Now the seas begin to abate. I start to feel like eating good food again. Early in the trip I had given my lobster saute to Neptune as a peace offering and thereafter had subsisted on dry bread and Coca Cola. But now the smell of the cooks preparing cream of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches wafts through the passageways, a sure sign that good weather was back.
Finally, we are in Rhode Island Sound and then Buzzards Bay. The fishing craft is turned over to the commercial towboat Captain Leroy at the entrance to New Bedford harbor. We haul in the towline and where once had been a fishing vessel find a sack of deep sea lobsters, secured there by the trawler crew. The Spar turns back down Buzzards Bay towards Bristol. Steaming up Narragansett Bay in the morning light, the sun causes a million reflections on the water to play tag with one another. Rose Island, Buoy 17TTR, Poppasquash Point and Bristol Harbor draw closer at a steady 12.1 knots. It is neither hot nor cold and the wind does not bite. There are no disabled fishing vessels, no gales, no Vietnam, no Dallas, no Birmingham, no hunger, no fear, no weariness, no pain, nothing but a world in which all is well.
The Spar approaches the dock.
“Put out all lines when you can.”
A gentle nudge and the Spar is home again.