Ocean Station Charlie
In the spring of 1965, Uncle Sam wanted very much to send me to the jungles of South East Asia. I had been to college and was working as a radio announcer in Wilmington, Delaware, at the time and was not at all interested in sloshing through a jungle with an M 1 rifle or an M 16 for that matter. I had already lost one classmate to “the war” and though I was certainly not one of those anti-war fanatics that were on TV each night, I had other plans. I wasn’t too sure what those “plans” were but I was sure they did not include Viet Nam. The draft lottery was underway and all the guys my age had already been placed into the lottery and numbers were being drawn regularly.
By late spring apparently my number came up because I received a letter from my draft board instructing me to report to Philadelphia for an “Army Induction Physical”. This was not good. Not good at all.
At the time, I was exactly six feet tall and weighed 130 pounds and wore glasses because I was near-sighted. I was reasonably sure I would be rejected because I was so skinny you could count each rib. The physical exam lasted 35 seconds and I was pronounced a perfect specimen. I was about to become a soldier in the United States Army.
Options? Yes, I had options. Some guys had run off to Canada and given up their US citizenship. I may have thought about it but never really considered that a viable option. A better idea was to join the United States Coast Guard. Or the Navy. Or the Air Force…anything that would keep me out of Viet Nam or becoming a soldier…even the Peace Corps maybe.
The Coast Guard had a special meaning to me because as a kid I had spent each summer at my Grandmother’s home on the Chester River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. When I got my driver’s license I worked as a dock boy at the Worton Creek Marina right on the bay for a couple of summers. That’s where I really learned about the Coast Guard. Summer thunder storms would come up unexpectedly and invariably send a cabin cruiser onto the shore. The Coast Guard would dispatch a 40-foot patrol boat from Annapolis or Baltimore to pull the stranded vessel off the beach and tow them into Worton Creek right to our dock.
These 40-foot steel boats (the Guard called them Forty Boats) came with twin GMC 671 diesel engines with apparently no muffler system, because you could hear them coming from miles away. The Captains of these boats were third class petty officers…generally boatswain’s mates. And each boat carried a seaman and an engineman. The helm had a steering wheel and two Morse controls which engaged the transmissions and applied power to each engine with one lever. The 40 boats would come in and the Captain would turn and face the stern with one hand on each Morse control and literally walk the boat sideways, right up to the dock, much to the delight of the assembled onlookers, most of which were young girls and their mothers, who seemed drawn to the dock by the sound of the engines. It seems the vibrations created by the exhaust from the twin 671’s affected females much the same way riding a Harley Davidson or a pony does. Once the 40 boat was secure to the dock, the Captain would turn off the Coast Guard radio and he and his crew would open up the case of beer given to them by the grateful owner of the rescued cabin cruiser. When the beer was gone, the radio came back on and they went back out to the bay for another rescue. It had not escaped my notice that this was not the worse way to spend my military service, so that spring I went down and tried to join the Coast Guard.
The Guard, as we came to call it, was not at all impressed with my physical attributes, particularly my vision and my glasses. It seems they had some minimum requirements of their inductees and as the minimums related to vision, one had to have at least 20/100 vision. I was tested and they determined my vision was 20/200 which actually is just one tick up from 20/100. My vision was not good enough for the Guard and I was rejected. This was not good. Not good at all. A short visit with the Navy recruiter dashed hopes there. Seems they had all the volunteers they needed…same thing with the Air Force.
I was working at night at WDEL FM, playing classical music and really didn’t have many expenses, so I went out to the New Castle County Airport and started taking flying lessons during the day. It was just something I always wanted to do. It had nothing to do with my military service problems…I just wanted to fly. I had taken one or two lessons when I got the call from the Coast Guard recruiter.
“It seems,” he said, “the U S Navy has just given the Coast Guard five icebreakers and we need to man those ships. We are temporarily lowering the vision restrictions to 20/200. Are you still interested in joining the Coast Guard?” Interested? You bet your sweet ass I was interested! I told him I’d be down to his office in thirty minutes!
An hour later all the necessary paperwork was filled out: I was to be inducted into the United States Coast Guard on July 25th. Given this was around the middle of May, I raced back to the airport and met with my flight instructor to explain what I had done and why. Normally the course for a private pilot’s license took about six to eight months, even up to year, depending on how quick the student picked up the instruction. But a lot really had to do with how often the student could get into the air. Since I was still working at night, I would be able to fly every day. That would be very helpful but there were the Ground School requirements that presented a bit of a problem…one had to log a certain amount of time in Ground School before becoming eligible to take the final exam. Ground School consisted mainly of classroom lectures on weather, rules of the air, navigation, radio communications and emergency procedures, to name a few. My instructor told me not to worry; he would give me the required ground school while we were taxiing to and from the runways. He claimed I was a natural pilot and since I had some actual experience on two-way radios already, the communications end was no big deal. Thanks to my Dad, my time on the rivers and bay had laid a solid understanding about navigation. So, after all was said and done it really just boiled down to take offs and landings. Landings. The most important part of flying. Landings. We did hundreds of landings. “Touch and Goes” they called them. Every flight included five or six touch and goes.
One particular day remains burned in my memory. We had departed New Castle and flown across the Delaware River to some little Podunk grass air strip in New Jersey and landed. The instructor climbed out of the Cherokee 140 and told me to take off, fly around a bit and land. “Are you shitting me”, I said, “I’m not ready to solo!” “Look,” he said, “I’m not about to turn you lose in a 200-thousand-dollar airplane if I didn’t think you could do it. Now go ahead. But remember: when you make your approach for landing, if you are too high or too fast or what-ever and have to go around, on the second attempt, put it on the ground. Because if you don’t get in on the second attempt, you are going to be in big trouble. Your brain will lock up and you won’t be able to land! Now get up there!”
It is hard to put into words the exact emotions I felt at that moment. Fear doesn’t come close. Whatever it was, I pushed the throttle forward and lifted off, seriously wondering if I was going to die. Any pilot will tell you takeoff is no big deal; the plane will literally take off by itself if it has enough air speed. Landing, on the other hand, is a different story. Altitude has to be just right; air speed must be perfect. These two variables are most important because if the air speed is too slow the plane no longer flies, it falls. Add to that a myriad of other variables and any pilot will conclude that landing is the trick.
I lifted off the grass and headed out into a sweeping left-hand turn and entered a left downwind for landing. I checked everything off the landing checklist, turned left onto the base leg, lined up the grass runway out my left window and turned onto final. Flaps, don’t forget the flaps. Watch the air speed, a little fast. Watch the altitude, a little high. More flaps, less speed! Christ, I’m half way down the runway and I’m still a hundred feet off the ground. I could see my instructor out the right window. He was standing right where he was when I took off, holding his head with both hands.
Full throttle! Go around! The words were burning in my ears: “If you don’t get in on the second time…” Well, this was it. I had had a wonderful life. Many adventures. Met lots of people. Had many friends. But this was it. Today, I’m going to die.
I made an extra-long downwind leg which gave me an extra long final approach. I’m not sure if that was because I wanted to live a few more seconds or what, but I approached the end of the runway and crossed over the threshold of pine trees and killed the power, pulled hard on the flaps and pushed the nose down about as far as it would go. The Cherokee pointed her nose to the ground and went weightless. Two seconds later I pulled back on the yoke as hard as I could, and she flared out and touched down as if I really knew what the hell I was doing. My instructor came running up to the plane, laughing and slapping me on the back, telling me he didn’t think I was going to make it. He would never know. I had soloed and got my shirt tail cut off when we got back to the real airport. It was a big day. Really big.
Now the real flying got underway. Cross country, they called it. The instructor would assign a destination and I would have to plan the trip. Check weather, plan the route based on selected altitude (planes at odd altitudes fly in one direction, those at even altitudes fly the opposite) get to the destination and return. Then came multiple destinations…a round robin type of trip from, say, Wilmington to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and back to Wilmington. Each stop required the airport manager to sign off on my log book, assuring that I had, in fact, arrived and landed.
July 25th was fast approaching and I was beginning to think I was a pretty damn good private pilot, but I still did not have a license. I was still a “student pilot”. I was flying every day that weather permitted which was a huge plus. Most students flew one day a week on the weekends so their first quarter hour had to be spent refreshing last week’s exercises. In my case, that wasn’t necessary. On July 21st I took my required flight test with an FAA flight examiner. I was to become licensed as a Private Pilot, Single Engine Air, if I passed. Which I did not. During a series of 45-degree banking turns around a pylon I failed to notice that the gyro compass had tumbled and was way off. Consequently, I was unable to steer a VOR heading back to the airport. There are, I learned, several times in one’s life when one realizes just how stupid one can be. This was one of those times. My instructor was furious. The license would have to wait.
The weather was IFR the next day, but the day after (the 23rd) was perfect so off we went for another test. The results were much more rewarding. I became a private pilot.
The afternoon of July 24th I took my Dad up and flew around for a couple of hours on a trip that included flying by my grandmother’s house on the Chester River in Maryland and buzzing our own house in Wilmington. A huge summertime thunderstorm came up quickly so I had to make a cross control landing at Wilmington to get on the ground. A cross control approach means the yoke it turned hard to the left while the rudder is pushed hard to the right. The result is a very rapid decent towards the ground. At the last second you straighten everything out and land. It is one of my favorite landings, next to cross wind landings. I think Dad was shaken but he didn’t show it.
So, the next morning, with official US Coast Guard orders in hand, I boarded a bus for Norfolk, Virginia, to join the Coast Guard. About six of us from the Mid Atlantic region of the US all sort of arrived at the induction center about the same time and some guy in uniform loaded us into a US Government 15 passenger van and took us to the US Public Health Service Hospital in Norfolk for an induction physical. For the rest of the guys it was routine. For me, it seems, it was not. First of all, they gave us a color-blind test. That little square book with all the colored dots on each hard page? The one where you can see the numbers and letters on each page through the dots? Damn. All I could see were dots, and none of them, on any page, made numbers or letters. This was not good. The examining doctor decided to give me a Farnsworth Lantern Test. I was ordered to peer into a machine which showed three different colored lights: red, yellow and green. I could easily tell stop, caution and go lights out on the streets in traffic because, the doctor said, I could see the location of the lamps relative to each other. In other words, my brain knew that the top light was always red, the one in the middle, yellow and the one on the bottom was always green. The Farnsworth Lantern Test, however, was pitch black except for the single light which was illuminated by the doctor. So, it was with a huge amount of concentration that I was able to compare the last light with the current light and guess what color it was. Upper, red. Middle, yellow. Bottom, green. I passed it.
The rest was pretty routine…blood pressure, knee jerk reactions, temperature, listen to the lungs, take a deep breath and cough. Then I stepped onto the scales. 129 pounds. “Hmm” I heard the doctor murmur, “129. That’s not good, son. The minimum weight for your height of six feet is 132. You’re three pounds underweight”. Damn! I was about to be shit-canned from the Guard over three pounds? “C’mon, Doc, give me a break”.
“Well,” he said, “Tell you what. Run down the street three blocks to the Sterling Soda Shop and eat six bananas and drink two banana milk shakes then come back. I’ll be here until 16:30.”
Off I ran to the Sterling and did just what he ordered and got back to the Health Service Hospital at 16:25. I jumped on the scale and it settled down at 133 pounds. I was in! One might realize why I have not eaten a single banana or anything that has bananas in it since then. Nothing. We were transported back to the Norfolk Induction Center where we all raised our right hands and joined the Coast Guard.
I suppose since I was the last of the six to have completed the physical, they gave me all the personnel folders for the other guys and told me I was in charge of getting them on the 23:00 train to Philadelphia. That was a bit of a challenge since we all had decided that being we were in the Coast Guard and this was, after all, Norfolk and loaded with sailors, we probably ought to get drunk. Five drunken recruits, and one drunk throwing up bananas all night, made quite a sight on the train that night. None the less, bright and early the next morning we pulled into 30th street station in Philly and got off the train. A very polite fellow greeted us as I turned over the personnel records from my ‘command’ and we boarded a Coast Guard bus to Cape May, New Jersey, and the Coast Guard Training Center, or TRACEN as they called it...or boot camp as we called it. That is the instant that the word “polite” was no longer used or thought of for the next eight weeks. We were on the bus, there was no turning back and we were ‘boots’, swabs, scum…we were generally the lowest form of life on the planet, it was loudly explained, and the best thing we could do for ourselves was shut up, pay attention and don’t open our mouths unless someone asked you a question. This was all, very exciting. That opinion would soon change.
Coast Guard boot camp had been abbreviated from 16 weeks to eight because of those five Navy icebreakers I mentioned earlier. The Guard needed bodies and needed them fast. Therefore, the 16-week curriculum was squeezed and crammed into eight weeks. On the one hand, that was a good thing. Obviously, on the other, it was not. None the less, it seems that since I had a loud voice I was to be the Recruit Company Commander of Charlie 36. That meant two things. The first was that I would be in charge of marching 130 guys from one place to another, calling cadence and generally making sure they got there in a timely and orderly fashion. The second thing was that if someone screwed up something, no, anything, I generally got my ass chewed out. But I had gone to boot camp with what I thought was a really positive attitude. I really wanted to be in the Coast Guard. I looked at the entire 8 weeks as a learning opportunity. And though most of the other guys pissed and moaned about everything, I seemed able to recognize the positives behind each activity we were assigned. The first, of course, was marching. Marching taught us cooperation and dependence on one another. The endless classes about naval history and procedures I found interesting; most of the other guys did not. I wondered to myself why these guys even joined up if they didn’t have a love for the water and helping other people. And speaking of water, there was the pool.
The pool is where we learned how to save someone’s life if they were drowning. A person who thinks they are drowning is dangerous. He or she will cling to anything they think will keep them from going under. If the rescuer doesn’t know what he is doing he could very easily be taken down by the panicked victim. One of the most amazing things of the entire eight weeks occurred at the pool. Out of 130 of us, there were five or six guys who could not swim. Now why would anybody join a water- born organization like the Coast Guard if they could not swim? These fellows at first refused to go into the deep end of the pool. Even with the drill instructors yelling at them. When asked, they always answered that they could swim, but the truth was they could not. Finally, the DI's would push them into the pool, the non-swimmers would go straight to the bottom and one of us standing on the edge would be ordered to go in and rescue them. Fortunately, no one drowned. The instructors put these Pouges into a remedial swimming class but that was not the worst of it. When we got back to the barracks I asked the non-swimmers why in the hell they joined the Guard knowing they couldn’t swim. Most answered they thought they would be in a boat or on shore, “…guarding the coast”, not in the water.
Then there was the tower. The tower was at the deep end of the pool. It was fifteen feet above the surface and every one had to jump off, into the water. The purpose, of course, was to teach us what it would be like if we had to abandon ship without a life boat. Remember, it was all about preparation to join the active duty sailors. We jumped alphabetically, like most things done in boot camp, which put me about in the middle of the line. The procedure was simple. Climb up the ladder, onto the small platform extended slightly over the edge of the pool, grab your nose with your left hand, your nuts with your right, and jump. Simple. Except that even though the platform was exactly 15 feet above the water, by the time a guy stood up on the platform his eyes were almost six feet higher which made the jump seem to be 21 feet. That’s pretty damned high, especially for someone who had never done anything like that before. One by one we climbed, grabbed and jumped. Until the first “freezer”. The first black recruit had climbed up to the platform but would not jump. The DI’s were screaming at him. He was screaming “NO”. They threatened to climb up there and throw him off; he sat down on the platform and clung to the handle bars with a death grip. He was frozen on the platform and frankly we were frozen at poolside wondering how this was going to play out. Two or three more minutes of screaming and finally a DI climbed up to the platform and forced the guy off. He was given the opportunity to voluntarily go back up and jump “unassisted” but he declined and was sent home. Amazingly enough, there were two or three others who froze up there, mostly from the ranks of the non-swimmers. Then it was my turn.
Now, admittedly, I don’t do very well with heights. Despite having a pilot’s license and soaring along at 7 thousand feet, I’ve never gotten along with ladders. With that in mind I began the slow climb to the 15-foot platform that I knew was going to be 21 feet off the water. Finally, at the top, looking down, scared to death, shaking…my fellow boots looked like ants down there and the pool was the size of a postage stamp. I could not believe how far down it was. I really didn’t think I could do it. But I was determined not to be one of the babbling, crying, begging “freezers” we all had seen already. So, I took a deep breath, thought “God help me survive this”, grabbed my nose and nuts and jumped. Words cannot describe the feeling of accomplishment when I finally came up from the bottom of the pool to the surface. Five seconds earlier I was reasonably sure I was going to die. I had not. I had made it. Nothing they could throw at me from here on out could be as bad as this. The rest would be a piece of cake. Until the manual of arms.
I approached the manual of arms as an exercise in team work. Unfortunately, not all of my mates saw it the same way. The premise was for each of us to manipulate our M1 rifle into various positions around our bodies while standing at attention. First on the right shoulder, then to the left, then lower the stock to the ground, back up across your chest…there were, it thinks, 16 different positions the M1’s were to be placed in. The last two or three parts of the drill were to open the breech, close it then pull the trigger with your right index finger while holding the barrel across your chest with the left.
We had been out on the marching grinder in mid August about an hour already learning the manual of arms. Our DI, a first-class Boatswain’s Mate had taken us through the manual of arms dozens of times, carefully teaching us each specific maneuver. One hundred twenty-five of us (five had been sent home) pretty well had nailed the exercise. We looked like a well-oiled machine going through our paces. 125 M1’s all moving in the same direction at the same time…it was a beautiful sight. The problem was not the sight, it was the sound. There were sounds involved as well. The sound of 125 left hands grabbing the rifle by the barrel as it came off our right shoulder. The sound of 125 M1’s hitting the ground…all these sounds sounded as one. One slap. One loud thud on the ground. That was perfect. But it was the last sound that was beginning to frustrate our DI. We had learned weeks ago it was not a good idea to disappoint or otherwise piss off our drill instructor. He insisted there would be only one sound at the end of the drill. The one sound of 125 triggers being pulled at the same time. “It should”, he said, “sound like one loud click”. The problem was the sound. Our sound was “one loud click” followed by one other, very soft click. One person, somewhere in our company formation was late on the trigger pull. And the DI would not have it. We did the manual of arms over and over again but still there was CLICK and click. One loud and one soft. And with each subsequent ‘CLICK click he became more enraged. Screaming at the top of his lungs that he was going to kill the person who was late…stalking like a tiger though our ranks with his hand cupped over his ears, trying to find the culprit with the late click. Then, in frustration, he made us do fifty push-ups each time there were two clicks. After about 400 push-ups at mid afternoon in the middle of August at Cape May, we all had decided that we would kill the son of a bitch that was late. Suddenly, our DI stopped pacing and screaming and stood before us with a smile. In a very quiet tone he announced that we would complete the manual of arms and there would be only one click at the end. He instructed us to open the breech of the M1, place our right thumb into the bullet chamber and very slowly and carefully close the breech. Carefully, he emphasized, because if we closed it too rapidly it surely would hurt. We did just as he said and looked around. All of us standing there with our right thumbs clamped in the breech. We all were smiling, a few were quietly laughing. If, we thought, this was supposed to be some sort of torture? Shit! This was nothing compared to the 400 push-ups we had already done.
Then, suddenly, the laughter stopped and the smiles disappeared. The DI told us to raise the M1 over our heads and hold it with our right arm. Over our heads. With one arm. We didn’t know it at the time but we would “hold it” for five minutes. By this time in our boot camp experience we all were in pretty good shape physically so this one arm over the head thing was not that bad a deal. The deal was about to get worse. There we were, standing at attention, with a government issued M1 rifle which weighed nine pounds, with our right thumbs locked in the chamber up over our heads, for a total of five minutes, when the DI told us to raise our left leg off the ground and stand only on the right. For another five minutes. Sweat was pouring off. Most of it seemed to be going into our eyes. Guys were beginning to moan from the pain of the exercise. Occasionally one stupid boot would allow his left foot to touch the ground and the DI would catch him. That produced a litany of screams, nose to nose, in front of the offending soul. Five minutes. Gun raised. On one foot. At attention. Just when it couldn’t get any worse, the last five minutes was over. But it could get worse we learned. We were still standing at attention, with our M1’s over our head, on one foot. Very quietly the DI said, “Now hop”. Hop? Did he say hop? Has he lost his God damned mind? HOP? Sure enough, that’s what he said. We were in total disbelief. Then he screamed in that ever-present high-pitched squeal of his, “Hop you worthless scum hop on your right foot!” We each looked around and very slowly and carefully began to hop. “FASTER” he yelled. Faster we went. “FASTER” he yelled again and faster we went. The pain was excruciating. Our right hands hadn’t quite gone numb but the blood was beginning to flow from where the cuticle used to be and it was running down our arms. Then one guy passed out. Then another. And another. Our screams of pain and discomfort could be heard all across the grinder. Surely some non-sadistic bastard would hear our screams and come and rescue us and arrest our DI. They did not.
After what seemed like an hour but was only a couple of minutes we were ordered to lower our weapons and remove our thumbs. I don’t recall a more grateful moment in all of my boot camp experience, as the blood rushed back down my right arm to my hand. The DI quietly and calmly explained that this was an exercise to build team work. We would need team work during our Coast Guard careers because the Guard at that time was smaller than the New York City police force and we would be doing our job and several other jobs as well while at our duty stations.
“Now,” he said, “we will once again perform the manual of arms…this time as a team. This time with one click.” You bet your ass ‘one click’. We all thought as one. If we heard two clicks, someone would surely die, and we would kill him, not the DI.
“Manual of Arms, HUH!” the DI yelled, which was our cue to begin. Right shoulder. Left shoulder. Slap. All of the elements of the exercise were executed like clockwork. Amazing, given the mass discomfort we all were experiencing. But the final trigger pull was fast approaching. Believe me; if somebody fucks this up he’s dead. Because God only knows what the DI has in mind after this. Three quarter way through the drill I had a terrible thought. “What if I’m late? What if I screw this up? Concentrate! Concentrate! Concentrate, God damn it! Don’t screw this up!”
To the end and: C L I C K! Only one click?
We all were holding our breath. Then, ever so slightly, a smile began to appear on our drill instructors face and he said, “See? You are a team. You are Charlie 36 and you act as one. You are a team!” There was a huge sigh of relief from Charlie 36 as we pounded each other on the back with our good hand and congratulated each other on the successful completion of the manual of arms. We didn’t know we would again perform the exercise at our graduation ceremony. We would nail it that time as well.
At the end of our sixth week at Cape May, they granted us weekend liberty. Those like me, who lived within driving distance, were able to go home for the weekend. In addition to a real home cooked meal we also got a chance to have our white uniforms washed by our Moms. We hadn’t paid much attention to our “whites” until those of us who had gone home returned that Sunday afternoon. Charlie Company was assembled to see if we all made it back and to document who had gone AWOL. Fortunately, we were all accounted for. But standing there in the bright afternoon sun it was quite evident which recruits had gone home for the weekend because those that had, returned with freshly washed, bright white uniforms, which made the rest of the company look grungy in their sort of yellow whites. The command did not make a big deal about it. I just remember thinking that Moms know more about washing clothes than the Coast Guard.
The last two weeks of boot camp were not bad at all, given that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. There were plenty of classroom tests to make sure we had mastered the lessons and there were quite a few hours on the grinder practicing for the graduation parade. There would be hundreds of spectators, we were told. Mostly family who lived within driving distance, I suppose. And it would be Charlie Company and Delta Company. And of course, the practices surrounded the order that we would be sharper and much more uniform in every respect than the lowly Delta Company. Our company march on the parade grounds had to be perfect. No excuses. Period. And who would be marching Charlie Company? You guessed it, the Recruit Company Commander, me. Once again, my ass was on the line, but I was very confident our guys would be perfect. I loved calling cadence and turned out to be pretty good at it. That seemed to make it easier for the rest of the company to execute the marching commands. And while we were practicing I got a chance to look across the grinder at Delta Company and noticed they did not seem to be quite as sharp as we were.
Finally, graduation day came and the ceremony was over. We did our part without a hitch, and strangely enough, when it was all over our drill instructor shook each of our hands and congratulated us all. And somehow, after eight weeks of despising this man, all the hatred, fear and disgust just sort of washed off us all and we each sort of wished he could go with us to our next duty station. There is some sort of psychological term for this…something about captors and captives.
The only perk offered a Recruit Company Commander was that he could choose which of the 12 Coast Guard districts he would be assigned after boot camp. And I had a plan. I would choose Coast Guard District Five, headquartered in Portsmouth, Virginia. District Five encompassed the entire Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Beach Life Boat Station and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I knew The Bay pretty much like the back of my hand from spending each summer there. Virginia Beach Life Boat Station was generally acknowledged as the best shore duty on the entire East Coast because the beach was crawling with young girls. And my family and I loved the Outer Banks ever since we had gone camping at Cape Hatteras for three weeks in the summer of 1957. My dad and I had also traveled down to Harker’s Island, North Carolina, because he wanted to buy a 28-foot Harker’s Island Skiff, which was actually a cabin cruiser. The Islanders were famous for the great flair they built into the bows of their boats…a flair that would generally take any sea the ocean or the nearby sounds could offer. My thinking was that any duty station in District Five would be fabulous. Additionally, almost every station had Forty Boats. And none of them had an icebreaker.
Upon graduation from boot camp we were all sent home for what the Guard called “ten days of recruit leave.” We each had our orders to report to such-and-such district headquarters on the eleventh day. From there we would be assigned our specific duty station. The rest of Charlie Company was assigned to various districts around the country. A good number of guys got assigned straight to one or the other of the five ice breakers the Navy had given the Guard. Ten days home. It would be great. And I had a plan.
The plan was to outsmart the Guard and the rest of the men that were going to report to CG District Five on the eleventh day. The plan was that I would report one day early and get my choice of all the duty stations that were open at that time. Would it be Coast Guard Group Baltimore and the upper Chesapeake? Or would it be VA Beach? Or perhaps CG Group Fort Macon, North Carolina, and the outer banks? I’d get to pick and choose. Cool. What a plan.
That first night home after boot camp was memorable. My very good friend Ted Joslin had decided he was going to take me to a Turkish restaurant and bar called Masgani’s on West 8th street in Wilmington for some entertainment. The inside of Masgani’s could easily have been Marrakech. It was dimly lit, smoky, crowded with men and women mostly sitting on pillows on the floor, surrounding what appeared to be a dance floor. Some were eating, all were drinking. And the drink of choice was some sort of clear liquid that was poured either from a tall pitcher with a very long spout or, we were told, a goat’s bladder. Ted warned me the stuff was potent. But hey, I’m a sailor and sailors can handle drinks. That’s what we do. We go out on liberty and drink. Then the music started. Live Turkish music and a live belly dancer named Fauzia. Another drink, please. She was beautiful, especially since I had been surrounded by men for eight weeks! There were other dancers also. And they were dancing right there. Right in front of us. One could reach out and touch them, but of course, that was not permitted. After several drinks the belly dancers were pouring their fire water straight into our mouths from the pitchers. Then they would pull one fellow out to the middle of the floor and encourage him to follow her at belly dancing, much to the delight of all present. If one was the least bit reluctant to dance they would simply pour some more Turkish what-ever it was and before long he would be dancing. Now you should know that I considered myself a damn good dancer. I had been forced as a child to take dancing lessons, so I knew the ropes. Although I knew nothing about belly dancing, how hard could it be? I would show them. Just one more drink, please.
As best I can remember the crowd cheered loudly as I made an absolute fool of myself. Ted came by the house the next day so I could wash his car, where I had thrown up while hanging my head out the passenger window the entire way home. He had gotten me home safely, thank God. It is good to have great friends. His critique of the evening before was that everyone had a great time. I’m not so sure. I could hardly stand up the next day.
On the fourth day of my 10-day recruit leave I received a telegram from the Commander of Coast Guard District Five. He ordered me to report to the commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter INGHAM W-35 at something called Berkley Base in Chesapeake, Virginia. I had no idea what a ‘Coast Guard Cutter INGHAM’ was so I went to my trusty Blue Jacket’s Manual. The Blue Jacket’s Manual had all things Naval and Coast Guard in it and sure enough, on page 124, there was a picture of a 327-foot ocean going ship called INGHAM. That page will forever be burned into my brain. It described INGHAM as a high endurance cutter that currently was assigned to ocean station duty. “What the hell is an ocean station?” I thought. Read on, son.
“There are four ocean stations in the North Atlantic Ocean, each 210 square miles in size. The ocean station vessel patrols the area and releases weather balloons every six hours.”
WHAT? WEATHER BALLOONS? WHY?
My brain is racing back to boot camp. No one said anything about an ocean station. No one said anything about a “high endurance cutter”. No one said anything about weather balloons. None of these words crossed anyone’s lips the entire eight weeks. All they talked about was the fucking ice breakers…occasionally they might mention a buoy tender or even isolated duty at a remote LORAN station up on the Aleutian Islands, but nobody said anything about a fucking ocean station. And this was certainly not going to be a forty boat on the Chesapeake or a duty station on land. An ocean station? Damn! And I had a plan! I had six days left of my recruit leave and I tried to make the best of it. I actually did have something going for me even though my great plan seemed to have gone up in smoke. I had been to sea before.
Before I was born, back in 1939, my dad and some other guys working for the DuPont Company invented Nylon, Rayon, Orlon and Dacron…the four synthetic fibers that practically changed the world. The world was on the verge of another world war and the government decided it wanted something to replace silk in parachutes. Something it could manufacture, not grow. Bam! Nylon. It was sort of a plastic, it could be manufactured, it was strong and light, it worked perfectly as a parachute and it was cheap to make. Long story short, the company transferred my dad, my mom and me to Buenos Aires, Argentina, so he could supervise the construction of a Dacron plant there. In 1948 the best way to get from the States to South America was by ocean liner. So, at the age of three, I set off from the docks at New York City for a 19-day trip aboard the Moore McCormack Lines to Buenos Aires. I don’t remember much of that trip, given I was only three. But at age six we returned to the States and I do remember that trip. A year later we returned to BA (that’s what we called it) and a year and a half after that we came home for the last time. So, by the age of eight and a half I had crossed the equator four times and traveled over 21 thousand miles by ocean liner. I absolutely loved the last two trips. I was old enough by then to wander around the ship by myself. And since I was just about the only kid on board, I pretty much had the run of the ship. I could go to the bridge and they would let me steer. They had to place a chair by the huge ship’s wheel. It was larger in diameter than I was tall so they put me up on the chair so I could see the giant compass just in front of the wheel and its two steel balls, one on each side of the compass. An officer would tell me what course to steer and away we went. I got to do that every day for about ten minutes. But the highlight of my trips to the bridge was precisely at noon each day when they would permit me to pull the cord to sound the ship’s whistle.
I explored all other areas of the ship. The engine room, the galley, the exercise room or gym, the library, the elevators…everywhere. The crew sort of made me their mascot. It was great and I absolutely loved going to sea.
So, with that in mind I was actually pretty up-beat by the time I got to Berkley Base across the Elizabeth River from Portsmouth, Virginia and saw for the first time the US Coast Guard Cutter INGHAM. All 327 feet of her. She was completely white except for the sort of light brown and yellow mixture painted on her smoke stack with the Coast Guard shield and a black ring painted on the top of the stack. She had two masts. The main mast was forward and the second was a tripod type arrangement that supported a huge radar antenna of some sort about three quarters of the way to the rear. And she had a great flair built into her bow, much like the skiffs built on Harker’s Island. (Turns out the naval architect who designed her was from Harker’s Island.) She was absolutely beautiful, I thought, as I just gazed at her before going aboard. I imagined her to be the most sea worthy ship in the Coast Guard with that flared bow. I did not know at the time that she was one of several 327’s the Guard had, all part of the Secretary Class, and each named after a different Secretary of the Treasury.
I walked up the gangway with my sea bag over my shoulder just like I had seen sailors in the movies do it and smartly turned and saluted the colors on the fantail and requested permission to come aboard. The guy at the top of the gangway watched my act then just rolled his eyes and sent for his messenger. Within a moment a Sonar man named Brooker took me below to meet the Master at Arms. INGHAM’s Master at Arms was a huge, ugly, mean looking first class boatswain’s mate named Powell. He explained very quickly that if I didn’t give him any trouble he would not give me any trouble. He asked if I understood and I answered, “Yes Sir!” He then screamed, “Don’t call me sir you fucking idiot!” and showed me to my bunk and my locker. Perhaps “bunk” is not the best adjective to describe my sleeping space.
Imagine a rectangle made out of an inch and three quarters galvanized pipe six feet long and two and a half feet wide, attached at each corner to four metal posts. Inside the rectangle was a smaller rectangle of thick canvas tied to the pipe with rope through grommets. On top of that was a thin mattress which was covered with a thin cotton sack, referred to affectionately as a “fart sack.” These “racks”, as they were called, were hung three high, mine was in the middle and actually was pretty comfortable. As soon as I got my stuff stowed in my locker I was told to go up on deck and report to somebody on the deck force who would tell me what to do. In that I was a seaman apprentice, fresh out of boot camp, it was generally expected I would be assigned to the deck force. I was given a chipping hammer and told to find rust and remove it. As soon as the rust was removed the area was cleaned up with a wire brush and painted white. And that’s just about all there is to it. Chip, brush and paint. There ain’t a whole lot of thinking necessary here…just chip, brush and paint. Fortunately, we were going to get underway in a matter of days…I couldn’t wait!
On October 26th, 1965, INGHAM backed out of her slip at Berkley Base into the Elisabeth River and “stood down” the river towards Hampton Roads, past the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the Naval Operations Base at Norfolk, air craft carrier row, submarine row, over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and into the Atlantic Ocean. I was on the main deck as part of the deck force when they set the Special Sea Detail. Everyone had a job to do when we got under way or came into a port. Being outside on deck I got to see all the friends and family who had gathered on the docks waving good bye as we sailed away. The executive officer, Commander Robert Henry Scarborough, took “the con” of the ship when the special sea detail was set. That meant he would give the orders regarding what course and speed would be utilized while we made our way into the Atlantic. As noted, our XO was a full commander. This ship rated a full captain as commanding officer…something that would never happen in the Navy. The INGHAM was the size of a naval destroyer escort at 327 feet. In the Navy she would rate a lieutenant or possibly a lieutenant commander as captain. But in the Guard, she got a full captain.
Commander Scarborough was a 1944 graduate of the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point and joined the Coast Guard in 1949 after serving as an officer in the Navy and Merchant Marine. He maintained a license as Master of ocean steam and motor vessels of unlimited tonnage on any sea or ocean. Though he had a sound powered phone operator standing right next to him to relay his verbal orders to the main deck and the engine room and the helm, those of us on deck could hear him quite clearly when he barked course and speed changes. He got the ship underway and standing down the river with such poise and efficiency one could not help but be impressed.
Being a seaman apprentice while underway meant three things. First, we would stand a lookout watch up on the flying bridge with a pair of binoculars and shout down a brass tube which led to the bridge if we saw anything. It did not matter what it was. If we saw it we reported it.
Second, we would be the messenger of the watch. As such we would walk around the ship mainly looking for fire but often delivering messages or making sure the next watch was awake and up and ready to relive our watch on time or making sure no one was smoking if the “smoking lamp” was out. The third thing we did was steer the ship. My first day at sea aboard INGHAM and I was about to steer her. I couldn’t believe it. The guy I took over for gave me the heading to steer and I kept the ship within three degrees of the assigned heading most all the time. It wasn’t a Forty Boat that I had wanted but I was on cloud nine and having a blast, I was driving and we were headed to Argentia, Newfoundland. It couldn’t get any better I thought.
Each watch lasted four hours on duty and eight hours off. During our four hours on we rotated the three duties above every thirty minutes; that is thirty minutes as lookout, thirty minutes as messenger and thirty minutes on the helm. Most know that there are usually three duty sections aboard ship and each section gets a watch assigned. For example, the first duty section would be assigned the Mid-watch from midnight (00:00 hours) until four in the morning and from noon (12:00) until four in the afternoon (16:00). So, they would be on duty four hours and off duty eight. The second section would take over at 04:00 and stand watch until 08:00 and from 16:00 until 20:00. The third section would be on watch from 08:00 until Noon and 20:00 until 00:00. The first of these watches was called “The Mid Watch”, the second “The Four to Eight” and the third was occasionally called “The Eight to Twelve”.
The weather was extraordinary as we headed north east at 12 knots on three to four-foot seas. I thought the INGHAM took the seas quite well given her speed with a gentle roll and a bit up and down, it was no problem keeping plates, cups and saucers on the mess deck tables. This observation would prove quite different as the winds and seas increased.
Although I thought the weather and sea conditions were perfect, there were several ship-mates who became sea sick. I found them hanging over the rail on the main deck or perched around the garbage chute, which was called The Slop Chute aboard ship, where all leftover, uneaten food was thrown into. The chute led straight to the sea. I have been fortunate to have only experienced sea sickness once. But that is enough. And although I believe it is mostly mental, it causes one to throw up everything he has eaten. After all the food has been regurgitated the dry heaves generally continue ad-nauseum for quite a while. Men are brought to their knees, they swear they will never eat again and sometimes they can be heard begging God to just take them away.
We would stop at Argentia, Newfoundland to refuel then head back to sea to take up position on Ocean Station Bravo. Bravo, as the station would come to be called by the crew, was located at the mouth of the Labrador Straight at position 56.30 North by 51.00 West half way between Canada and Greenland, in the middle of the Northwest Atlantic Mid-Ocean Canyon.
Argentia was home to a US Navy base and what was an Army Air Force airport given to us at the beginning of the Second World War by England and Canada. Placentia Bay, which leads to the harbor, is where President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met to discuss various aspects of the war with Germany during the early part of the war. Our needs at Argentia involved refueling. As we steamed up Placentia Bay towards Argentia harbor, we set the Special Sea Detail. Once again, Commander Scarborough could be seen and heard as he took the con and climbed to the flying bridge. Even though the full bridge wings would give him good views of each side of the ship he felt he had a better position higher up to see all he needed to see. He eased the ship up toward the dock and ordered number one line to be put out. Number one line was the line, most forward, up at the very bow. A boatswain’s mate fired a shotgun with a small line attached to the projectile onto the Navy dock. Line handlers on shore quickly retrieved the line and began pulling it ashore. The small line was attached to a larger line which was further attached to the main mooring line…all of which were pulled ashore. When the main number one line was made fast ashore, the XO took up a strain on the line while ordering lines three and five put out. They are spring lines and when they were secured to the dock the XO was able to ease the ship alongside the pier despite a 25-knot wind blowing off the dock. He was an amazing ship handler.
Liberty was granted to the two other sections, not mine. We took on 21,264 gallons of diesel fuel and 26,502 gallons of Navy Special Fuel Oil which our boiler tenders called “Bunker C”. Built in 1936, the ships propulsion power came from steam. She had two main 200 PSI boilers and two main steam turbines. The boilers were isolated by a bulkhead from the main engine room. The boilers were run by Boiler Tenders or BT’s, while the engines were run by Machinists Mates. The BT’s would make steam and send it aft to the engine room where it would be blasted into steam turbine engines which would turn the two propeller shafts. Then the steam was allowed to condense and return to the boilers as water to be reheated and used again.
Fuel was a very important part of the life of the ship. We were about to head out to sea to a part of the ocean very far from the nearest refueling station. We would have to conserve as much fuel as possible at all times in the event we would have to steam a great distance to answer a MAYDAY call from a stricken ship. We needed steam to propel the ship but we needed fuel oil to make the steam. We also needed fuel oil to make fresh water. As I understood it, sea water was boiled and turned to steam which was then condensed. The condensed water was free of the salt from the sea which could then be drunk, cooked with and bathed in. Fresh water was also a valuable commodity. Very early on we were taught how to take a sea shower. Simply put it involved wetting down one’s entire body then turning the shower water completely off. You then soaped up and scrubbed everything from your head to your toes then turned the water back on to rinse away the soap. To be caught wasting water was guaranteed being put on report and standing before the Captain at a Captain’s Mast. Occasionally the fresh water desalination unit would break down and cause us to go on Water Rationing which meant we used as little water as possible.
About four hours after we arrived at Argentia we were ready to depart. The two duty sections that were granted liberty had all gone to the Navy enlisted club and were returning in various states of inebriation. Several of the deck crew were totally hammered and were of no use to the rest of us. Therefore, most of the duties of getting underway rest with those of us in my duty section. The drunks would catch our wrath when they sobered up.
The INGHAM stood down Placentia Bay then headed east past Cape Race and eventually north east and north to Ocean Station Bravo. The wind had been increasing hour by hour as we departed Argentia Navy Base and by now had peaked around thirty-five knots. We were steaming north at ten knots directly into the wind and sea. Speaking of which, the quartermaster of the watch logged the winds as 360/33 which meant he had received the “true wind” from CIC as coming from the north at 33 knots. He estimated the wave heights at 15 feet. That estimation was more than likely a consensus of his opinion and that of the Officer of the Deck, commonly referred to as the OOD or simply the OD.
This is what I had been waiting for. An actual sea…not the placid waters we had steamed across since leaving Norfolk. This was real. This was good shit. INGHAM was headed straight into the on-coming swells and I was delighted to see that she handled each swell as though she owned it. She would push up the front of the swell until her forepeak cleared the very top of the wave then smoothly and quietly break over and down the back side of the swell. At the very instant her bow arrived at the bottom of the trough between two swells, the flair in her bow would take over and throw tons of salt water aside and immediately begin to lift the bow upward towards the very peak of the next swell. Over and over, this oscillation continued for hours as we reached ever northward towards our destination at Ocean Station Bravo. The winds and seas remained the same but by the time we arrived at Bravo the air temperature had dropped to 28 degrees. It didn’t take long to figure out it was much better to be on the helm or on messenger watch rather than up on the flying bridge as the lookout. Simply put, you could freeze your ass off up there, in a manner of speaking. In the mean time, I had grown very confident of INGHAM‘s sea-worthiness. I had early-on assumed she would be sea worthy, given she was Coast Guard. The Guard’s motto regarding rough weather and rescues had always been “You have to go out. You don’t have to come back”. But it was doubly reassuring to have witnessed, first hand, how she handled, what to me was rough water. I was on a great white Cutter and together, we could handle anything Mother Nature could throw at us.
We crossed the line that marked the southernmost boundary of Ocean Station Bravo and continued north in search of the cutter we were to relieve. Two-way radio contact between us and them was soon established and it wasn’t too long after that our radar had picked them up. They were standing by right in the middle of Bravo, right at the very center of the 210 square mile Ocean Station, waiting for us. They soon would be headed back to Boston, and I wondered to myself why they hadn’t gone down to the southern boundary and waited for us there. They would have been that much closer to home. Turns out it is sort of a tradition to relieve each other at the center of the station.
The four ocean stations east of the United States and Canada are patrolled by US Coast Guard vessels. The stations are Bravo, of course. Then Charlie located just about in the middle of the North Atlantic, Delta located south west of Charlie, east southeast of Newfoundland and Echo down around Bermuda. And usually when two cutters rendezvous on an ocean station they participate in a high line drill. That’s where both ships steam ahead, side by side, at the same speed, and then pass a line across from one to the other. They are about 100 feet apart, and this high line is the means to transfer personnel and materiel back and forth between the two ships. It is an excellent drill because many times during a rescue at sea it is necessary to establish a high line to the disabled vessel in order to remove injured crew members or send over portable pumps or firefighting equipment or a doctor or medicine. Today, however, with fifteen-foot seas and 35 or 40 knot winds, the two Captains decided not to do the drill. That was a disappointment…I really wanted to see it.
So, with what appeared to me to be absolutely no ceremony or fanfare, the other cutter just turned and headed south. I don’t know what I expected. Some sort of announcement on the ship’s PA system? A long blast of the ship’s whistle? Something. Anything? Nothing! We were now, officially, Ocean Station Bravo and that was it.
I had just started on messenger watch when the ocean station relief took place. Thirty minutes later I would be on lookout. But in the mean time, as I walked aft, I noticed the ship was rolling back and forth from port to starboard noticeably more than earlier. In fact, as I walked down the interior passageway from the bottom of the ladder which leads from the bridge aft, I noticed first my left shoulder and elbow would brush along the starboard bulkhead then my right shoulder and elbow would do the same on the port bulkhead of the narrow passageway, because the ship was rolling back and forth from port to starboard. With the back and forth rolling continuing I completed my messenger watch and returned to the bridge, prepared to relieve the lookout. I pulled on an extra foul weather jacket because I knew it would be cold out there and still at 130 pounds I got cold just thinking about the cold. Out I went through the water tight door on the bridge, to the port wing of the bridge, about to climb the ladder to the flying bridge, when I caught a glimpse of the ocean. For some reason it seems we had stopped and were drifting. INGHAM was behaving just like any other craft on the water. It matters not if the vessel is a dinghy or the biggest aircraft carrier in the world. If it is not going forward or backward it can’t steer and it simply turns itself and aligns itself with the troughs between the waves. And she rides the sea in that manner. She floats up the front of the oncoming wave, over the top and down the back of the same wave or swell. Into the trough and the afore mentioned ride occurs again. And again. And again. Over and over until she gets underway again and can maintain steerage. Remember, a vessel must be moving through the water, either going forward or in reverse to be able to steer. If she can’t steer she most always will turn parallel to the sea and ride the swells sideways. What caught my eye initially was the fact that as I walked out on the port wing, INGHAM had just floated down the back side of a swell that was going away from the ship to starboard. That caused her to roll about 30 degrees to port coming down the back side. So, when she, with me standing on her port wing, reached the bottom of the swell, still heeled over 30 degrees, I had to look up to see the top of the next swell which was being blown into spray by the wind. There was an unimaginable amount of water above my head and I thought for an instant I could touch the face of the oncoming swell. That, it turns out, was simply my imagination running a bit wild. I hadn’t seen anything like that before and it was a bit humbling.
I climbed the ladder to the flying bridge and relived the lookout. This was his fourth patrol, so I asked, “What in the hell is going on? Why are we drifting?” “We always drift” he said. “What? Why?” I asked, “We have to drift to conserve fuel in case we have to steam hard at full speed to rescue somebody say, 300 miles away. There ain’t no gas stations out here. If we run out of fuel we’re screwed!” And with that he turned and climbed down to the bridge and relived the helm.
I had thirty long minutes to digest what I had just heard, all the while hanging on for dear life as the ship continued to roll back and forth 30 some degrees to starboard and 30 some back to port. By now the temp had dropped to about 24 degrees and the spray that was being blown off the tops of the swells to port were starting to freeze on the deck. My footing was slippery at best so I sort of wrapped my right leg around the brass voice tube which led down through the deck to the bridge and held on to the rail for, what I thought was, dear life. I would soon realize this was nothing. After seeing nothing but wave after wave attacking INGHAM from the port side for thirty minutes and being what I thought was colder than a witch’s tit, my relief finally climbed up the ladder to relive me. Trembling from the cold I asked him about this drifting shit I had been told thirty minutes earlier. (Coasties are notorious for making up all kinds of shit to tell the new boots that come aboard ship. Many a first timer has been sent to the paint locker by a boatswain’s mate to fetch a “left handed monkey wrench”.) Basically, the same information came out. We drift to save fuel. With that I relieved the helm.
I still had a mountain of doubt about this drifting explanation. What captain in his right mind would permit his ship to drift out here at the mouth of the Labrador Straight? I mean we were right here where the icy Labrador Current meets the warm Gulf Stream waters making the sea a maelstrom. The ship was rolling a total of about 60 degrees from one side to the other. Stuff was falling off shelves. Glassware and china were breaking, not to mention the other hard items that were not secured and were flying or sliding around below decks.
Never-the-less, I asked the helmsman I was about to relieve, “What course?” With a disgusted look and a roll of his eyes nearly all the way to the back of his head he said, “No course, you dumb fuck, we’re drifting!” and off he went on the messenger watch. I suppose I must have been quite a sight to the quartermaster and the OD, me standing there holding on to the helm with both hands, with nowhere to steer, shivering from the outside cold like a wet puppy.
“Humphreys,” the OD said, “you don’t have a heading to steer…we are drifting…carry your ass back there to CIC and warm up. If I need you I’ll call you.” “Yes sir” I said and turned and walked off the bridge. I had never been in CIC. In fact, I had no idea what the hell CIC was or what it stood for. Right behind the bridge was the navigator’s station. That’s where the ship’s navigator kept all his charts. It’s where the fathometer that told us how much water was under the ship was and where the LORAN receiver was located. It was a small space, barely large enough for three men. Just aft of the navigator’s station or ‘chart room’ as it was commonly called, was CIC. I opened the door and slowly walked in.
CIC, I soon learned, stood for Combat Information Center. I immediately concluded this was the radar room. Against the starboard bulkhead was a large radar display with a radar operator sitting in a large, overstuffed “easy chair”, staring into the scope. He was facing starboard and had a seatbelt on. It didn’t take long to figure no matter how far the ship rolled from side to side, the operator was going to stay put before his scope with a minimal of effort. Another, smaller radar was mounted against the port bulkhead with yet another operator strapped in. In the center of the compartment stood a large plotting board that had some indistinguishable markings on it and over near the port bulkhead were a number of Plexiglas status boards that could be written on with grease pencils. There were three men on watch in the CIC. The two radar men and the third, standing at the plotting table, with a radio telephone headset on.
“TWA 741 this is Ocean Station Bravo, go ahead with your information” the guy in the middle said, speaking into the mouthpiece of the headset. My eyes were as big as saucers. As a pilot I knew immediately that this guy in the middle of CIC was talking to a commercial air liner and the man strapped into the seat in front of the large radar was seeing TWA 741. I looked over there and saw four contacts on the screen. TWA 741 immediately responded with a large amount of information relating to his current position, his flight level, where he was coming from and where he was going, all at what seemed to me to be the speed of light. None the less, I was sure this guy was talking to an airplane.
I had experience on the other end of a conversation like that whenever I contacted air controllers at an airport I had never been too. I would always ask for a “radar assisted approach” into the airport so as to be sure not to get into another airplanes way or do something stupid. I always thought it better to let the controllers bring me in, especially at a busy airport like Baltimore-Washington or Pittsburg or Philadelphia.
Fred Smith was the third class Radarman in the middle of CIC talking to TWA 741. When he appeared to be finished and everything was quiet he looked at me and asked what the fuck I was doing there. “This is a secure compartment. You have to have a security clearance of ‘Top Secret’ to come in here,” he said with a scowl.
“The OD told me to come back here and warm up for a while…I’m the helmsman”, I said quickly.
“Christ Almighty!” Smith said.
“Look,” I said, “I’m a private pilot, are you controlling aircraft here?”
“You’re a fucking pilot?” Smith asked.
“Yea, I am. Why are you talking to aircraft?” I asked.
Smith seemed to calm down a bit at the same time the other two Radarmen turned to hear what Smith had to say.
“Well,” he started, “we see all the aircraft that fly from the US to Europe and back. The land-based radars can’t see the planes this far out but we can.”
“So how far and how long do you control them?” I asked.
“Well, we don’t actually control them in the sense that they do back home. But we know what the winds aloft are and they always are looking for a better altitude with better winds to get them into their destination faster. If a guy is at flight level 390 and asks what the winds are at, say 310, we tell him. Then if 310 winds are better for him, he’ll get us to try and get a clearance for him to descend to 310.”
Right away, I knew this was a test. Smith wanted to know if I really was a pilot or just blowing smoke up his ass. I knew exactly what he was talking about because I, too, had requested a change in altitude several times while on my cross-country flights.
I fired back, “How in the fuck do you know what the winds are at 310?”
One of Smith’s eyebrows rose slightly and the other two radarmen, I thought, might have smirked.
“I know the winds at 310 because we just finished releasing and tracking a fucking weather balloon. We know the winds from the surface all the way up to 54 thousand feet.”
Ah, the infamous weather balloon I had read about. This was beginning to make a little more sense.
I resumed my watch duties until relieved then lay below, but I couldn’t get CIC out of my mind. I would have to talk to Smith more. I’d have to get the whole picture. In the mean time, INGHAM had an activity which interested me very much. Each night, after supper a full-length motion picture would be shown on the mess deck, after all the food trays were cleared and washed. They set up a projector and lowered a movie screen and most of the two watches that were not on duty at the time would crowd onto the mess deck, sit at tables or on the floor and watch a fairly current movie. When the movie was over, the games began. Poker games, that is. Every single night that we were underway, after the movie, at least one full-fledged poker game would start. Generally, with six players and a half-dozen observers, and they were playing for real cash. But it was supposed to be against regulations to gamble on board so they used “The Book” to keep up with winnings and losses. One man kept the book the entire trip. Except when the game was being played while he was on watch. Then another guy would keep the book. A player would sit at the table and “buy” say $10 worth of chips. That amount would be subtracted from his name. At the end of the game the player would turn in what chips he had left and that amount would be added to his name or account in the book. As a rule, the games generally started around 20:30, when the movie was over and last until 05:00 the next morning. If you had the 8 to 12 watch you could get in the game after midnight when you came off watch, because if you had the Mid Watch you would play until you had to go on watch at 23:45, and therefore there would be a couple of empty seats. It was not at all unusual for several of what I called the professionals to play all night. I never really understood when they slept. None the less, I fancied myself a poker player, and I wanted in. I was about to learn a very valuable lesson and it was going to cost a lot of money.
I thought I knew how to play poker. I knew about straights, flushes, full houses (they called them full boats), two pair, trips or three of a kind, and I knew which hand was better than another. What I did not realize is that these guys had been playing poker for months if not years before I came aboard. And they played dealers choice which meant that the guy with the deal (it rotated around the table each hand) could call out the game he wanted to deal. He would announce the game as he was dealing. For example, he could say, “Five card draw, jacks or better” of “Five card draw, deuces wild” or just “Five card draw” or “Five card draw, jacks or better, progressive”. That was a pisser because if after the deal if no one had a pair of jacks or a better hand, they would deal again and of course, re-ante. It didn’t take long for the pot to grow quite sizeable. As a rule, there was a limit to the amount you could bet. It would generally start out at twenty-five cents. But as players got comfortable with a quarter or board with it, the limit would be raised. Fifty cents, a dollar, two, five, ten and occasionally near the end of the patrol, the limit would be raised to “pot limit” which, of course meant you could bet whatever was in the pot. It goes without saying that the higher the limit the more opportunities there were for a player to “buy” the pot. This fact, above all others, was my downfall. Along with seven card stud. Ah, seven card stud. I had never seen much less heard of seven card stud. For all I knew it was invented in the Coast Guard. Here’s how it worked.
The dealer would deal two cards down to each player and a third card face up so all at the table could see. The player with the highest card showing would then bet. The remaining players would then either call or call and raise. After all the betting was done, the dealer would deal the fourth card to each player, face up so all could see. Again, the player with the highest showing hand so far would bet…say a guy had two fives showing which was high on the table, he would lead the betting and the others would call, call and raise or fold. Eventually four cards would be dealt face up, with the original two still face down. There would be a betting interval after each face up card. Then the seventh and final card would be dealt face down to each player. Of the seven cards, (four face up and three face down) you would choose the best five cards you had and bet them. One had to figure out what another player had, given what cards were already showing. Six players each had four cards showing. That meant 24 of the fifty-two cards in the deck were showing so the challenge was to figure out what an opponent had that was not showing. The old salts had been playing this game for years. It would be a difficult lesson for a boot that had just come aboard. Add to that just one more little twist.
Occasionally the dealer would call “seven card stud, low hole wild”. This was a ball buster. What it meant was the lowest card you held face down was wild. Let’s say you were dealt a pair of nines for the first two cards given to you face down. Those two nines were now wild because they were the lowest card in the hole (your hand). Let’s say you were dealt a pair of kings face up during the deal. That meant you now had four kings (because of the pair of nines face down which were wild). The only thing the rest of the players could see would be the pair of kings. You, of course, knowing you had four kings, would be betting the piss out of your four kings. The rest of the table had to figure out you had four kings or determine you were bluffing. And what if a guy had, say, three fours’ showing. He naturally would have at least four of a kind, given the lowest card he had in the hole was wild. Occasionally a player could even have five of a kind which would beat any other hand on the table. Five of a kind could be had with a pair in the hole and trips showing. But that “low hole wild” part of the deal could come right up and bite the shit out of your ass. Let’s say you were dealt the pair of nines I mentioned earlier. And to that you got the pair of kings face up, as mentioned. That means you have four kings, a great hand by any measure, and, of course, you are betting the shit out of that hand. Then the seventh card is dealt, face down. It’s, say, an eight. The eight then becomes the lowest hole card. It’s wild. You now have only three kings, facing possible straights, flushes four of a kinds even royal flushes and five of a kind. This exercise, over which you have no control, has cost you a pretty good chunk of change…all because of that last, lower, face down, hole card being wild. It was not a game for the faint of heart. It surely was not a game for a damn boot who had never seen the game before. That first patrol cost me five hundred dollars. I had to sell 2 and a half shares of DuPont stock I had left over from college when I got back to Norfolk, just to pay off the debt. It taught me that I did not know anything about poker. Something would have to give.
Bravo is located at the mouth of the Labrador Straight about half way between Labrador and Greenland at 56.30 degrees north and 51 degrees west in the Northwest Atlantic Mid-Ocean Canyon 6,000 feet above the bottom. The Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream generally meet at that position and the two extremes of ocean temperature make the water mad all the time.
This might be a good time to explain just what an Ocean Station is. Geographically, it is a 210 square mile piece of ocean. In the case of Bravo, the center of the square is exactly at the coordinates I mentioned above and each side of the square is parallel to North South and East West. The Cutter assigned to the station must remain within the 210 square mile area unless ordered out for reasons I’ll discuss in a bit. Every six hours civilian weather people on board fill a large balloon with Helium and attach a radiosonde to it then release the balloon. As it ascends the radiosonde constantly reports temperature, humidity and its altitude. Meanwhile, a Coast Guard Radarman tracks and calls out the range and bearing of the balloon every thirty seconds. The civilian weather people log each and every reading. They have a formula which computes the wind direction and speed based on the bearing and distance of the balloon. An on-board altimeter gives them the actual height of the balloon at each fix. Radarmen track the balloon generally for about 45 minutes. By then the balloon and the radiosonde have reached about 50,000 feet and the balloon has burst from lack of pressure and the radiosonde falls back into the ocean. I take the weather guys about half an hour to calculate all the data and hand a list of the winds aloft for each altitude. They also send the data back to the National Weather Service by radio. The information is invaluable to all aviation interests flying the North Atlantic routes from the US to Europe and return. So that’s the primary purpose and one of the reasons these patrols were referred to as “weather patrols”.
The next reason, of course, is search and rescue or SAR. The Radio operators or Radiomen as they were known, monitored the international distress frequency, 500 Kilocycles, 24 hours a day. Traffic in the radio room as all done in CW…that is dits and dahs or dashes. If a ship was in danger and needed assistance, she would broadcast SOS (that would be dit dit dit for S, dah dah dah for O and dit dit dit for the last S) on 500 Kcs. All ships at sea were required to listen to 500 Kcs. Any ship hearing an SOS was required to answer and establish its position. The closest ship or ships would then respond and give aide. The on-station vessel would report the SOS to Washington and they would decide whether or not to send us off the Ocean Station to rescue and give aide.
The third reason for being on an Ocean Station was the aviation angle. Back in 1955 a Pan American flight from Hawaii to California encountered engine trouble and the pilots determined they were not going to make the coast. The pilots located an Ocean Station vessel, flew a holding pattern around the ship while they burned off as much fuel as possible then ditched or landed on the ocean right next to the Coast Guard cutter who affected the rescue of all persons on board the flight. All the High Endurance Cutters practiced Ditch and Rescue operations every chance they got. Additionally, almost all trans oceanic flights called in to the Ocean Station vessel to report their most recent position, their estimated next position report, their altitude or flight level, their origin and destination, the number of persons on board, the amount of fuel remaining on board, their calculated speed and the outside temperature. These flights were not required to contact the Ocean Station but all of the information listed above is crucial in the event the plane gets in trouble and has to declare an emergency and ditch. All that information is vital for the Coast Guard to perform its SAR work efficiently. Also, remembering that we are talking about the Mid Sixties…in the heat of the Cold War, Ocean Stations reported all unidentified westbound aircraft. The US had back then what it called the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line. It was an imaginary line some 200 miles off the east coast of the US, across which every plane must be identified. If a west bound plane did not report in to an Ocean Station we would track it on radar, determine its course and speed, and present position and report that to Washington via an Immediate message. We never knew what became of all those unknown westbound flights. Suffice it to say none were Russian bombers.
Upon arrival at Ocean Station Bravo in the middle of the night we were prepared to take over and assume the call sign Ocean Station Bravo. We established radio contact. The two bridges communicated. We offered to relive the other ship, she accepted and away they sailed. I don’t know why she didn’t meet us at the southern extreme of the station…that would have put her 12 hours closer to home but there was an old tradition that the relief most always took place at the dead center of the station, what was called the “Oscar Sierra Position” (Oscar Sierra or “On Station”, utilizing the military phonetics). As soon as we became Ocean Station Bravo, we stopped all engines and began drifting. If the wind was blowing from the northeast, we drifted in a southwesterly direction until we got to the southwest corner of the station. Then we would get underway with one engine turning 67 RPM’s, making 3.7 knots heading straight into the wind until we got to the northeast corner of the station, at which time we would shut down the engine and drift again. Drifting meant we were wallowing in the swells, rolling 30 to 40 degrees either side of zero. At least under way the rolling stopped as we headed into the seas. Aside from terrible weather, the patrol was mostly uneventful. We rarely saw the sun during the day. The wind constantly blew in excess of 35 knots. The seas were routinely 15 to 30 feet high. Often, while at the bottom of a trough, one could look up from the wing of the bridge and see the tops of waves literally being blown off and inundating the entire ship in sea water. To say it was miserable would be a gross understatement. Having been given permission to strike for Radar man, I was fortunate to spend my on-watch time in the relative comfort of CIC. On routine patrols such as this one, the watch involved mainly working air craft and tracking weather balloons.
As to the aviation work it is important to note that a majority of flights from the US to Europe would depart BOS, JFK, PHL and BWI around 9 or 10 PM so as to arrive in Scotland, England, France, Germany and a myriad of other cities in Europe, between 6 and 10 in the morning. The consequence of that is that the Mid Watch on an ocean station had the most aircraft within the 360 miles of air space we could see on radar. So, the nighttime Mid handled mostly east bound flights while the daytime Mid Watch handled mostly westbound flights. Additionally, one must understand that the planes did not fly a straight line from their departure to their destination. They flew what is called “a Great Circle Route”. It’s a bit difficult to explain, but because of the curvature of the earth departing US flights from, say Boston, would fly north east up the coast, past Nova Scotia, over Newfoundland then turn slowly east past Greenland and Iceland and finally heading south east to their European destination with a huge, sweeping arc. They call it The Great Circle Route! On Ocean Station Bravo we would handle around 25 aircraft on each Mid Watch and less that 5 or 10 on any of the other watches. Bravo was just a little too far North for the majority of flights. Bravo worked a lot of flights out of Chicago, Detroit and Dallas. By far the busiest Ocean Station was Charlie. Ocean Station Charlie was located at 52.45 North, 35.3West just about slap dab in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. It was nothing for the Mid Watch on Charlie to have 50 planes on the radar scope at a time. It was a bit hectic but those of us who loved communicating lived to go on Mid Watch on Charlie.
At the end of our time on Bravo, we steamed back home to Berkley Base, via Argentia, of course, to refuel. At Berkley the crew repaired everything that had broken while at sea and INGHAM got a fresh coat of paint. Commander Scarborough was a stickler about the appearance of his ship. It is supposed to be white. That means it will be white. That means there will be no rust showing anywhere! Period! Our next patrol was to Ocean Station Charlie…the busiest station. My orders to Radar School had been ‘delayed’ because of lack of availability in Groton. No big deal: I wanted to go to Charlie anyway to work all those aircraft.
Upon our return to Berkley Base I was transferred to Coast Guard Class A Radar School in Groton, Connecticut. It was a sixteen-week school and Commander Scarborough had “ordered” me to finish first in the class. Because I had been given the opportunity to “strike” the rate on Bravo and Charlie, I knew much more about CIC operations than the other 19 guys in the class. I had already learned how to determine true wind direction and speed, track course and speed of surface and air radar contacts, communicate via voice radio and generally run the watch. As the school progressed the instructors would set us up in a mock CIC. They could control everything in CIC from the room next door. It was like a Link Trainer for Combat Information Centers. Because I had firsthand experience working in CIC on INGHAM there was nothing the instructors could throw at us that I had not seen and handled before. That’s not to say I didn’t need to go to the school. I learned a huge number of things at Radar School but having worked in a real CIC was a huge advantage and I was fortunate enough to graduate first in the class.
I returned to INGHAM and she sailed for Ocean Station Delta. Delta was busier than Bravo but less busy than Charlie. This Delta was uneventful until we started home at the end of the patrol. On July 17, 1967, we picked up a very small contact on the surface search radar and relayed the information to the bridge. As we got closer we tracked the contacts course and speed. It was headed East at about 3 knots. It still showed as a very small contact on radar. When we got within a mile of the contact it became visible. We were flabbergasted to see a 12-foot sailboat with one old man on board. The boat was called “Little One”. The sailor on board identified himself as an Englishman named Willis. He said he was sailing from New York City to Portsmouth England alone and that he was just fine, thank you. The little boat looked to be in pretty good shape as did its Captain, so there wasn’t much we could do. I think we handed down some fresh food and water and left him on his way. The old boy was a “Salt” from top to bottom. Hard, wrinkled skin, brown from the sun, a long scruffy grey beard and at 78 years old he looked pretty tough. He asked us to send a message back to New York to his wife to let her know he was OK, which we did.
Our next patrol was Charlie, again. We sailed from Berkley on the 18th of August. Just like before: Up to Argentia for fuel then out the middle of the ocean. On August 21st we received a MEDICO message about, of all things, Captain Willis on the Little One. The message said that a merchant vessel had come upon the Little One and found the Captain ill. They were unable to render medical aid. The only thing they could do was report his position and the fact that he was sick. We were diverted to DATUM, the last known position reported by the merchant vessel. When we arrived at that position we began an expanding square search on a 070-degree axis. A Coast Guard C 130 aircraft joined the search. We were off the Grand Banks, it was night time and it was foggy as well. Visibility was less than a quarter mile. The C 130, call sign CG 1346, arrived on scene 5 minutes after midnight and began dropping flares. I was in voice contact with CG 1346 on 126.7 megacycles and we coordinated our expanding square search. After about 20 minutes 1346 reported they thought they had seen a light of some sort in the fog. They gave us a rough position and we eased over to where the aircraft was circling. We had fired up a huge spotlight mounted on the flying bridge, searching for anything resembling a small sailboat. There was no radar contact because the sailboat had lowered its radar reflector, a small round piece of metal designed to reflect radar beams that generally hung from the top of the mast of a wooden vessel, for some reason. We were inching ahead, literally, fearing we might run over Little One in the fog. When we were about 50 yards away the lookouts spotted Little One. INGHAM came along side and discovered Captain Willis hanging upside down, by his ankles, from the top of the mast! He told us he thought he had developed a hernia and this was the only way he could get relief. He had hoisted himself up the mast with his main halyard. Our U S Public Health Doctor and the Chief Corpsman were lowered over the side down to the little sailboat to treat Willis. Fortunately, the ocean was dead calm that night so climbing up and down the ladder was not that big a deal. The deck crew lowered a six-foot basket down to Little One and the Captain was eased down his mast into the basket which was then hoisted aboard the INGHAM. He was taken to sick bay and treated for his hernia. Apparently, the old boy hadn’t bathed regularly and to say he reeked would be a gross understatement. You couldn’t get within 8 or 10 feet of him…his stench would literally gag you. None of us knew how the Doc and Chief managed to treat him in sick bay. They were stronger men than I. We hoisted Little One on board and headed to Argentia where the boat was dropped off and Captain Willis was transferred to St. Johns, Newfoundland for treatment. We raced back to Charlie, arriving two days late and having to explain our delay.
In the mid 1960’s Coast Guardsmen served proudly on various Cutters on all the Ocean Stations. We did not know until years later they would all be extinct. Doppler radar and weather satellites would be the death of Ocean Stations. By the mid 60’s all commercial and military aircraft had Doppler radar installed on board. Doppler was an extraordinary radar which basically shot a beam straight down to the face of the earth then have it bounce back to the aircraft. No matter day or night, clear or fog or storm or ice, mountains or deserts…Doppler radar could compute exactly how fast and in exactly which direction the AIRCRAFT was flying. EXACTLY. Therefore, technically, pilots no longer “needed” the Ocean Stations to help them know where they were.
AIRCRAFT communicated with the Ocean Station with VHF radios which were very good within the 360-mile radar range. There was no static unless the AIRCRAFT was further out or just out of radio range. But generally, if they were that far away, we couldn’t see them on radar anyway. Never the less, just after noon, the silence in CIC would be broken by,
“Hello Ocean Station Charlie, this is TWA 741 on 126.7Megs.” The aircraft was introducing himself by presenting his call sign, ‘TWA 741’ and telling us he was transmitting on frequency 126.7 Megacycles. That was important because we also monitored 121.5megs the international distress frequency for aviation as well as 242.0 Megs which was an Ultra High Frequency freq used by our military pilots. We also had several High Frequency radios on line as well. So, the Ocean Station would respond,
“Good afternoon TWA 741, Charlie has you loud and clear.”
“OK Charlie, TWA 741 was 54.30 North, 30 West at 1815 Zulu. We’re estimating 54 North, 40 West at 1926. 741 departed from Heathrow to JFK estimating an on-time arrival. We’re at flight level 390 with 46,000 pounds of fuel on board and squawking 1200. “Whew. That was a lot of information coming very fast. What the pilot was telling the Ocean Station is that his last position fix was at 18:15 hours (GMT) and at that time he was at position 54.30 degrees North Latitude and 30.00 degrees West Longitude. The next data he sent dealt with where he expected to be at 19:26 hours. He planned to be at position 54.00 North and 40.00 West. Unbeknownst to us, he knew exactly where he had been, where he was and where he would be at a given time in the future…because of Doppler radar. Never the less, since he had given us his transponder code of 1200, we could “see” him on the air search radar scope.
“Roger, 741. You are positive radar contact at 344 degrees true, 128 nautical miles from my “Oscar Sierra” position”. What we were telling him was that he was 128 nautical miles North West of us on a bearing of 344 degrees and we were right in the middle of Ocean Station Charlie…the Oscar Sierra position or the On-Station position. Therefore, if his navigator drew a straight line from our OS position out 128 miles, on a bearing of 344 degrees that would be exactly where he would be at that very moment on his chart.
To be honest, however, the ships navigator had to rely on celestial navigation to determine the ship’s position. They also had LORAN available (I think it stood for Long Range Aid to Navigation) but out in the middle of the North Atlantic the LORAN signals were so weak they were oft times useless. So, a lot of times the ships position was an educated guess at best, especially during inclement weather. And although somewhat embarrassing, an occasional good guy pilot would tell us,
“Uhhhh Charlie, we just plotted your fix and we’ve got you guys about 58 and a half miles due east of where you say you are.” He was being polite. What he meant was we were 58 and a half miles due East of where we “thought” we were. Doppler radar in the air helping a surface ship…who would have thought? CIC would pass the info to the OOD on the bridge without fanfare.
Commercial and military aircraft were not the only “customers”. There was a company in the US that provided pilots to individuals who had purchased single engine airplanes in the US and wanted the plane delivered to, say Portugal, Germany, Spain, France…anywhere in Europe. These remarkable pilots were mostly women, and they were by themselves out there. They would pick up the Piper or Cessna or Beechcraft from the factory and fly it up to Gander or St. Johns Newfoundland. There they would fill up every fuel tank to the last drop, and when the weather was right they would set off South East, trying to find Ponta Delgada, a tiny island half way between Newfoundland and Casablanca. We had a radio beacon on board that transmitted 24/7 that they could home in on. Normally that beacon could be heard 200 miles away, but these girls were not at flight level altitude…they were flying, in the dark, at 7,000 feet. At that altitude, the range of the beacon was about 50 miles. The range of 126.7 was a little better at that altitude, but not much. We always knew they were coming. We would get a teletype message indicating an approximate time of arrival.
We would be on guard couple of hours ahead of time because these pilots had no Doppler radar. The best they could do was fly by dead reckoning until we could find them on radar or they could find the beacon. And, again, at 7,000 feet, our air search radar was not very effective. Most of the time we picked them up on surface search at about 10 or 12 miles out. Just as soon as we were able to establish radio comms with the pilot, she would want to know about the winds at 7,000 feet. She could then recompute her heading to accommodate the fresh wind direction and speed to get her to the nearest fuel stop at Ponta Delgada. If she didn’t have enough fuel for Delgada she would ask for winds aloft at every altitude we had between 8,000 and the surface. I always hated to have to tell them the most recent winds aloft report was 5 hours old. But we never lost one of the girls on our watch, as far as we knew. Had one gone down, we would have been dispatched on the heading she had decided on until we found her or wreckage or both. Again, we never had to do that.
There was one other little annoying task we had to take care of on Ocean Stations especially between June and November. Remember, there were no weather satellites in operation at the time. Ships at sea relied on each other to send current weather reports back to the National Weather Service. The Weather Service would plot all the reports and publish forecasts based on the information they had received. There were numerous hurricanes in the North Atlantic that folks back home never knew about because they never impacted the East Coast. But they did impact commercial shipping. Therefore, if what the weather folks’ thought was or could become a hurricane anywhere near the Ocean Station, CG Headquarters would dispatch us to find the storm, enter the eye and ride inside the eye for six hours so as to determine the actual, accurate course and speed of the hurricane, its barometric pressure, and maximum sustained winds and gusts and launch and track an extra weather balloon. That info was invaluable to shipping and we were the only ones who could do it. On one particular Delta patrol, INGHAM dealt with six such storms. And one of those storms we didn’t know about. A Pan American flight called us on 126.7 and said they were watching a huge storm on their weather radar. They could clearly see the eye wall and they had calculated the storm was headed straight for us at 12 knots. It was 120 miles south and would be on us in 10 hours. We battened down everything and waited. The importance of these reports can’t be overemphasized. Again, there were no weather satellites, no hurricane hunter aircraft out there. It was just us telling the rest of the commercial shipping, where the danger was and where it was going.
So, there you have it: weather satellites, Doppler radar and GPS pretty much shut down the Ocean Stations. They were no longer necessary. The dependability and efficiency of jet aircraft engines eliminated the need for ships to ditch next to.
As for this Coastie, in all honesty, I loved every minute I was at sea and every minute I was aboard. I had the great honor to sail with her and some extraordinary shipmates to Viet Nam and WESTPAC and Market Time half a century ago, to rescue Cuban refugees in the Florida Straits and, strangely enough, to be in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on the Sunday morning in 1968 that they filmed the bombing scenes for the motion picture TORA! TORA! TORA!
The Old Girl rests easy at her mooring at Key West. We are so proud of the volunteers who are taking good care of her. May she continue to enlighten and educate all who go aboard the most decorated ship afloat.
Josh Humphreys, RD 3 -
New Bern, North Carolina
U S Coast Guardsman from July 1965 thru July 1969.