Now Available in Paperback and Kindle at Amazon.com
As those who have been following chapter excerpts on my blog know, these memoirs covers my Coast Guard Career from Academy days to retirement. I am proud to share these back of the book blurbs.
“In my experience, the best way to learn something is to find a teacher who blends historical facts with the art of story-telling. Dick Marcott proves he is the master in “The View from the Rigging”. Those of us who paralleled his professional life, can smile often and remember our own experiences as Dick reviews his Coast Guard career. Others are introduced to the extraordinary blend of the professional and personal commitment of both the service member and the family of those who dedicate themselves to public service in the uniform of their country. It’s a story told well and highlighted with very real moments of serious accomplishment at work and at home. We should all be so fortunate to have such stories to tell our grandchildren.”
James M. Loy ADM, U. S. Coast Guard (Retired) Commandant, 1998-2002
“I never cease to be amazed at what I learn from Captain Marcott’s memoirs of a fascinating life I never knew existed. The stories are a tribute to his service that he sells with beautiful detail, humor, and pathos.
Dani Weber, Asst. Prof. of English, SUNY Sullivan
“If you’ve ever been to sea, you’ll enjoy my friend Dick Marcott’s tales of Coast Guard Duty. If you haven’t, this book might count as your first deployment.”
David Poyer, author of TIPPING POINT and ONSLAUGHT
Rotating off a year’s isolated duty, I expected my assignment request would be honored; I asked for shore duty at a district or group office, anywhere on the west coast. I felt a little disappointed when I received orders to the Reserve Training Center, Yorktown, VA. In the first place, Carol and I hoped to see more of the country. Yorktown was thirty miles away from Norfolk, VA. Secondly, I didn’t know what a Reserve Training Center was, nor what type of duty that would mean for me.
So, I didn’t get what I asked for. But, what I got—proved to be a wonderful career-defining assignment that both Carol and I have cherished as our favorite duty station in a twenty-eight year career.
We were familiar with the area only as day tripping tourist when we were stationed in Norfolk. This time we were digging into what was probably going to be a four year assignment. Heading south on US17 we crossed the peninsulas made by the great rivers that raced from the mountains of Virginia toward the Chesapeake Bay: the Potomac, the Rappahannock, and the York. We drove through villages with homey names like White Marsh, and Ordinary.
The landscape morphed into a rural postcard. Flat sandy soil dotted with scrubby clumps of grass stretched from the narrow highway. White farm houses sat sheltered in an oasis of trees protecting families from the hot sun of clear-cut farm land. You could almost see them sitting on the wrap-around porches waiting to offer lemonade or a pint of stout to friends arriving by carriage up the long circular drive. Roadside signs every twenty miles reminded us we were traveling the George Washington Memorial Highway. We knew we were in the south again, but one that somehow seemed more honest and pure than Norfolk.
When we came to a sign that pointed the way to Gum Fork, we knew that the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge that spanned the York River at the pinch point between Gloucester and Yorktown was right ahead.
We wanted to buy a house. A four year assignment made that reasonable. We had managed to save some money in the last year. I had spent hardly any of my salary on Loran duty in Okinawa, and Carol, who stayed with her parents in Roosevelt, Long Island, worked as a teller at the Meadowbrook National Bank. In addition, within a year, we could expect a big raise as I went over four years service as a lieutenant. Our income would be double what he made since we last managed a household in Norfolk, VA. It was time to buy.
We had contacted a realtor earlier, and he was ready to show us options. Newport News was about 10 miles south of the base. We quickly settled on a three bedroom rancher on a cul-de-sac in a new development at 721 Roslyn Road. Offer made and accepted—our first home cost $15,500. The following day, we were ready to move in, except we had no furniture.
Our realtor recommended a large furniture store on the north end of town. Carol and I had a great shopping day and the salesman an even greater one. We bought furniture for every room in the house in one day from one store. Dinning room table, chairs, china closet, buffet, two complete bedroom sets, desk and bookcase for a den, and a roomful of living room furniture highlighted by a curved sectional, coffee tables, and end tables. We furnished the whole house. We had a ball doing it.
We sat watching the salesman filling out the sales slip with a big smile he couldn’t hide.
I said, “You know, we bought a lot of stuff here today. Are you going to throw in at least a couple of lamps?”
“Rich!” Carol visibly gasped as her eyes darted soundless messages at me.
“What?” My response was a slow, whisper-like sing-song above hunched shoulders.
“I’ll have to check with the manager.” the salesman broke in, as he disappeared with a quizzical look.
“God, Rich! My mother would die if she knew what you just did.” Her face was still red. Her mother was a furniture adjuster in Abraham & Straus, a well known department store on Long Island.
“What do you mean? Everyone does that. It’s standard practice in Bradford.” I continued, “After all, nobody’s going anywhere, the buyer or the seller. Bradford sales clerks know they sell to generations, and they know how to keep customers.” A new suit would always get you a free tie. An expensive one would net you a shirt and a tie.”
The salesman returned. “The manager will be glad to add two living room end-table lamps to your order, sir. No cost, of course, and thank you.” He looked as surprised as Carol. Who raised these people?
The furniture was delivered in a day. We took another two to get it arranged then our attention turned to the back yard. We needed a fence. The back yards were all open to each other, including those on the next street. Carol was already hinting for a dog. We decided on a three rail board fence, nothing fancy, 1 x 6’s between 4 x 4’s. I thought it would be a do-it-yourself project until I attempted to dig the first post hole.
The “sandy soil,” was but inches deep. Beyond that was clay—hard packed, battleship grey, shovel sticking, back breaking clay. I didn’t have the time, nor the energy to do it. We asked the realtor for suggestions for a fence contractor.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “you can get that done a lot cheaper just hiring a couple day laborers to dig those post holes then nail the rails up yourself, or you can let them do it. Can you be around to supervise?”
“Yea, I guess, but how do I get them?”
“Well just drive down to the lower end of Jefferson Ave, toward the water. You’ll see a bunch of niggers standing around on a street corner, just jiving with each other while “they look’n fo’ work.” His tone was mocking. “But, those who are really serious will have a handkerchief tied to the parking meter and will be standing near by it.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. Just pick out a couple of big bucks and ask them if they’ll give you a couple of days digging fence-post holes. They’ll give you an honest day’s work, but you gotta be there to tell ‘em what to do and keep an eye on ‘em.”
That was 1961. It was obvious there was not much progress in racial attitudes from the three-bathroom (Men, Women, and Colored) filling station we encountered three years ago in Norfolk. They were nice guys, worked hard, and I had my fence in two days, including a redwood stain. As someone once said, “The past is never dead—it ain’t even past.”
I fingered the slim strip of paper with the indecipherable Kenji characters for the umpteenth time. I was about to step into the foreign world of Okinawa armed with nothing but these instructions for a taxi driver to get me to the Yakina village boat docks.
I pushed open the double doors with my B-bag and stepped into the hot August sun and saw long line of yellow taxi cabs. The first cab scooted curbside to a tire squealing stop directly in front of me. The driver bounded out, grabbed my bags, threw them into the trunk and took the paper strip from my outstretched hand. I watched as he fingered the wrinkled sweat stained two inch paper strip. I wondered, “Is the Coast Guard the only service too cheap to provide instructions on a full sheet of paper?”
We drove past business strips with unattractive two to four story block buildings, whitewashed to a eye squinting white. Some had recessed balconies, New Orleans style, with wrought iron fences. Storefronts displayed garish circus-like banners of bright red, yellow and green Kenji characters advertising their wares.
Street lamp poles sprouted from the narrow sidewalks, far enough away from the curb to be pedestrian hazards. Their lights hung in an arc over the streets. Sagging wires stretched across the intersections with horizontally hung traffic lights, green to red, left to right. Odd mini trucks and bantam cars filled the streets, leapfrogging each other with every change of the light as if they were in a frenzied race to get out of town.
My mind was clogged with survival thoughts: How will I ever understand these people? Will anyone from the station be at the boat basin in Yakina? If I miss a scheduled departure, will I have to stay overnight? Where? What kind of shape is the station in? What is Ike village like? The people? God, I miss Carol already! How am I going to make it for a year?
Just then, we capped a rise that revealed a panoramic view of the east coast of Okinawa, exposing a chain of islands on the horizon, a few miles across the small bay, the northernmost being Ikeshima, my ultimate destination.
A thin line of white clouds joined the low islands to separate the blues of sky and bay. It was a scene like a travel brochure that promised an island paradise. A few red roofs and white houses peeked through the green tree clusters as the road curled downhill toward the fishing village of Yakina. The paradise image was soon destroyed by the unwelcome smell of fishing docks. The soaring temperature and stagnant air did not help. High concrete walls squeezed the road. Cement-block houses, with no pretense of architectural design, ugly stains bleeding through their bad whitewash, clustered in protected enclaves.
The docks were busy. Fishing boats, twenty to thirty feet long, were moored the length of the pier. They had low freeboard and open decks. Some had small cockpits on the afterdeck for the engine housing and an open wheel house.
Workers arranged their gear in the shallow well-decks while women, squatting on the pier, knees fully bent, feet flat, repaired damaged nets. They could work in this position with broad brimmed straw hats providing their only shade, for hours on end. One boat was unloading her foul cargo into a miniature truck for transport to market.
The island hopping taxi boat was filling up with passengers and cargo. Men and women in casual kimonos or shorts hauled their shopping trip bounty onto the boat. Children, typically in student uniforms of black pants, white or black shirts, and beanie ball caps, covered the landscape like Maine black flies. Everyone wore rubber flip-flop sandals. Passengers found space among wooden boxes and unattended cargo of chickens and goats in open crates. I found a bench seat near the stern. I was the only non-Asian, wearing a service dress khaki uniform to boot, and I did not turn a single curious head.
The taxi-boat had wooden poles crudely mounted vertically on the sides with a sagging canvas awning stretched between them like a canopy on a four-poster bed. Passengers pushed, shoved, even stepped on each other, as they found space. The Japanese politeness I expected had, apparently, been suspended. Animated motions and raucous high pitched Japanese voices filled the air as everyone squeezed into seats on the deck and cargo boxes. Some even perched atop the rail hanging onto the awning poles to keep from falling overboard.
The taxi-boat captain controlled our departure time based on his estimate of the state of the tide. Neither a clock nor shouted pleas moved him. Shallow reefs and sand bars between the islands lay in wait to punish those who ignored nature’s time. Our captain misjudged it.
We weren’t ten minutes into the trip when a loud scraping sound of the bottom crunching in the sand and coral, brought the boat to an abrupt stop, engine running. Passengers lurched forward, grabbing their flying packages, chicken crates, and each other—we had just run aground.
Arguments ensued, everyone talking, the coxswain shouting directions.
Suddenly, four men passengers jumped over the side into water up to their thighs and began pushing the boat backwards. The captain shifted to full astern, engine whining, the churning propellers now making a frothy, dirty sand and coral backwash swirl around the volunteer salvage-assistants. As we slowly moved off the sand bar, the captain cut the engine, and people settled down, accepting the grounding as just another glitch in their crossing. The men jumped back into the boat, their wet clothes dripping on everyone, and we were on our way again.
As we approached the Ike village pier, my spirits lifted with the sight of a grey Coast Guard jeep and a chief petty officer standing beside it. Chief Armstrong, wearing a tropical khaki short uniform with an overseas cap, saluted smartly. He was tall, and thin with a deeply lined and tanned face that made him look older than his years. He wasted no time hanging around the village. He grabbed my bag threw it into the jeep and said, “Hop in, skipper. You’ll have plenty of time to explore the village. Let’s get you out to the station.”
It was August 1960. Carol and I sat in the American Airlines lounge at Idlewild Airport (later named JFK International). We talked quietly, self-isolated in our morose bubble from the faceless people around us. It was hard for me to look at her when we did talk; moist eyes were not suitable for an officer in uniform. We had been married a little over two years and we now faced a one year separation.
After twenty-two changes of orders in the last four months, thanks to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, I had finally been dropped from the international political whipsaw. I now held orders to be the Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard LORAN Station Okinawa, Japan. My footlocker, however, a victim of the fiasco, was aboard a U.S. Navy transport being delivered to the other side of the globe—Naples, Italy.
The garbled PA announcement sounded like they called my flight. I turned in my seat to face Carol, a strained smile on my face, “Remember, although I’m boarding this plane for San Francisco in a few minutes, you cannot believe I’m really going to end up in Okinawa until you get a post card from there.” She smiled back weakly, gave me a publically presentable kiss on the cheek, and said good bye. I turned and walked toward the boarding ramp. I never looked back.
My initial orders were to station Tarumpitao in the Philippines. But, I was a designated standby emergency relief, so I attended LORAN school one cycle early and my orders read “….unless relief is required elsewhere earlier, report for duty to the CG LORAN Station Tarumpitao Point, Philippines Islands. “Unless” was the key word.
I had focused on Trumpitao. The station was located on the western tip of the island of Palawan in a heavy jungle area. I exchanged letters with the current CO who shared a few photos and gave me a heads-up as to what he found to be important concerns: Keeping the jungle from encroaching on the grass air strip, the station’s lifeline; preparing for the inevitable raid from hostile Borneo Pirates (an active tribe of headhunters from nearby Borneo); and avoiding the poisonous cobras that were often found on the station, most recently, one wrapped around the door handle of the CO’s quarters.
I could prepare for the first two. I would keep hacking away at the jungle, and give the pirates whatever the hell they wanted. They usually took food and a small weird selection of “trinkets” for souvenirs. It was the King Cobras that gave me pause.
My first change of orders came two days before I completed Loran school. I was now assigned as the PCO of a new Loran C station that the Coast Guard was building at the site of Rite 3. That was the classified code name for a secret location that the headquarters message assured me, “I would know when I needed to know.” The people at Loran school couldn’t even answer my question, “So, do I pack a fur parka or pith helmet and shorts?”
Eventually, I knew I was going to L’Estartit, Spain, on the Mediterranean coast in the crescent of the Spanish, French, and Italian Riviera. I was to report during the last phase of construction in July and be the CO when it was commissioned. It would eventually be a family station, a two year assignment, and I could bring Carol over probably for the second year.
That is, until the NY Times Headline on May 1 1960.
“Soviets Down American Plane;
U.S. Says It Was Weather Craft;
Khrushchev Sees Summit Blow.”
President Eisenhower issued statements that our U-2 spy plane was a “weather observer” that had navigational problems and inadvertently drifted over the Russian air space. Then Premier Khrushchev, in one of the great diplomatic “gottcha” moves, revealed that he had in fact captured our pilot and his pictures of their ICBM sites. Colonel Powers was now in a Russian prison. The Eisenhower administration, greatly embarrassed, caught spying and lying, needed to lay low, especially after Khrushchev’s speech, “….U.S. must not build another military base on foreign soil…”
After twenty-one go-nogo changes to my orders, Carol and I were on leave at her family’s house on Long Island, only a few days from my departing for Spain, Then, the Western Union man came to the door. Of course, the message was for me, “Report without delay to CCGD3(p) for change in orders”. Carol and I made the short drive to New York City without comment. Carol cooled her heels in Battery Park while I seethed my way to the third floor of CG District Office. Now I was going to Okinawa, Japan.
I gazed out my window seat in the Boeing 707 across the tarmac to the large terminal windows knowing that Carol was among the crowd watching the takeoff. Cross country flights with the new jet powered passenger planes, only in their second year, still drew a crowd who cheered each takeoff in amazement.
I had a short stopover in San Francisco and a long flight to Honolulu where I met with a few other Loran CO’s for a two day logistics briefing from the 14th District engineering staff. Then on to Tokyo and a short welcome from the Commander, Far East Section. His yeoman handed me a piece of paper and said, “Sir, this has instructions in Japanese for you to show the taxi driver. You’ll have to catch a local taxi-boat from Yakina Basin to get to your station. Good luck, Sir.” Finally–I was on the last leg to Okinawa. I thought, “If our marriage stood up through this transfer, we were meant to be.”
At the Tokyo airport I stopped at the magazine counter, picked up a picture postcard of an Okinawan Shinto shrine and its famous Torii Gate and scribbled a short note, “Finally on a plane to Okinawa for last leg. Wish you were here. See you in a year. Love, Dick.” My footlocker arrived in November
I headed my Toyota out of the CG Air Station in Washington DC bound for the Smithsonian Castle. I needed to get Ambassador Elliot Richardson there for a dinner speaking engagement and I didn’t have much time. I never understood Washington traffic. Why were people snarled inbound on the 14th street bridge? They were supposed to be getting out of D.C. not trying to get back in.
The light rain didn’t help. At the slightest sprinkle, cars, like automatons, merged into tight jams. Drivers had fought hard for their own precious space, and they were protecting it. I was blocked out of the only exit I knew, two lanes over, not enough time. Now I was headed into unknown territory, downtown Washington at dusk. When I glanced at the Ambassador to explain our situation, I saw his head swivel to the right lamely pointing at the familiar red castle as it passed down our right side, a quarter-mile away. “I think that’s where we are supposed to be going,” he said as the castle faded out of sight. No Shit!
“Sir, I’ve been forced out of the exit lane and we are headed into the heart of DC. I don’t know the city well. Could you help me with directions?”
“I’m sorry, he said, “but I don’t know the city at all. Someone picks me up in the morning. I sit in the back seat with that little over-the-shoulder-pin-light and read the overnight mail that the driver brings with him. Now, that I think about it, I don’t think I could even find my way to work.”
Of course he couldn’t. Why should a Secretary of Defense waste away his time finding his way to work, fighting traffic while he hunts for the best rout? This man operated in a whole different world than I couldn’t even imagine.
“That’s all right, sir, we’ll make it in plenty of time. I’m sure I can feel my way around a block or two.” Did that sound convincing?
My strategy was to go far enough north, then head east for a few blocks and turn south. We should run into the Mall and then I’d be home free. It was working…for a while. Without warning, my street split into four lanes. The right and left lanes offered exits to the Mall, the center two continued to a down ramp that disappeared. Blocked out of an exit again, I entered the short tunnel, and then I saw the sign, “Welcome to Virginia.”
I don’t know how that happened. I tried not to react and hoped the Ambassador did not see the same sign. He didn’t. I calmly felt my way into a return loop, crossed the 14th Street Bridge back into D.C. again, successfully this time, just like it was the plan. I don’t think my passenger was even aware.
This could have been the end to a good story, except, I was not at the front entrance to the Smithsonian Castle when I did find it. I was on the back side, no obvious way to get in. I spotted a uniformed guard walking the perimeter, and I pulled to the curb.
“I’ll be just a moment, Ambassador,” I said. I jumped out of the car, called to the guard, explained the situation, and asked if he could help. He could. I returned to the car, opened the front door for the Ambassador and said. “Sir, this guard knows exactly where you are to be and will escort you there. It’s been my pleasure to meet you sir, good luck with your speech.” No sweat…fifteen minutes to spare.
On the way home, I envisioned what the Washington Post headlines could have been: “Coast Guard Captain lost for hours in endless loop from DC to Virginia: Ambassador Richardson late for Macmillan honors.”
With apologies to Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well.
Ambassador Elliot Richardson was one of the distinguished members of a Coast Guard Academy Advisory board. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1975-1976, and still carried the title. He was better known to Americans, however for his earlier rolls in the U.S. Government. President Nixon had appointed the Harvard Law graduate as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) in 1970. He later served as Nixon’s Secretary of Defense and Attorney General. In 1974, rather than follow Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, he resigned.
Rear Admiral William Stewart, the Chief of the Office of Personnel, and I flew via Coast Guard aircraft from Washington, DC to the Academy for a whirlwind day of briefings for the committee. I was the chief of Training and Education Division and therefore the Admiral’s chief staff officer for Academy affairs. The Ambassador and several other DC politicos flew with us.
The meeting was held in the Henreques Room of Hamilton Hall. We were surrounded by the library’s walnut and glass-front bookcases and large mahogany tables. I watched the Ambassador who sat at the end of the table of Advisory Board members. There was a Spartan handsomeness about him. His hair was neatly parted, and combed in a modest pompadour. He wore dark horned rimmed glasses. His straight lined thin lips receded modestly to set off his square cleft chin. He looked like Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch playing Ambassador Richardson.
He appeared to be more interested in the magnificent Aldis Brown murals of historic Coast Guard battles that encircled the room above the bookcases than the business at hand. Of all things–he was doodling! His ink pen swirled, stopped, checked, scratched, reversed, and blocked every figure and form known to man in a never ending tribute to nothing until his 8 x 10 notebook paper was filled with artistic gibberish. I was disappointed that this distinguished visitor paid such little attention to the briefing–until the Academy briefer finished his presentation.
Following mundane comments from the other members of the committee and the Academy staff, the Ambassador unwound his lanky frame from the chair he had surrendered to nearly an hour before, and stood.
“It seems to me, from what I have been hearing, that the main issues fall into categories…..”
His slow Tennessee-like drawl silenced the room as he gave the most erudite, yet simple, summary that captured the essence of the entire meeting. He even laid out potential solutions. I couldn’t believe it! The man was brilliant! I relearned a big lesson that day… never prejudge capabilities on appearances.
I later learned that other high profile figures were famed doodlers: Congressman Barber Conable of New York, and Nelson Rockefeller. Both men have claimed that doodling kept them “more active, intellectually.” They have also agreed that Elliot Richardson was probably “the most prolific doodler on Capital Hill.” His aides fought for his doodles after staff meeting; they were collectibles. That was my second mistake of the day, albeit through innocent ignorance, I did nothing to recoup his doodle. It did not live on, but, rather, found its way into the janitor’s trash…lost forever.
After a hectic day, our Coast Guard pilots informed us that bad weather was going to delay our departure. Ambassador Richardson expressed mild concern. He was scheduled to speak at a Smithsonian Institution dinner that evening honoring former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Takeoff was delayed and progress was slow. Admiral Stewart who had guests returning with him was making alternative plans to insure the Ambassador got to the dinner on time. He turned to me.
“Dick, I know your car is parked at the Air Station. Could you high-tail the Ambassador to the Smithsonian Castle? I think it’s going to be close to get him to the dinner on time.”
“Yes, sir, of course.”
We taxied directly to the CG hanger, and the Ambassador and I hustled off the plane as soon as the wheel chocks were in place. I ran ahead and opened the front door for the him. He climbed in just in time…it was starting to sprinkle. As I slid under the steering wheel I could see the Ambassador scanning my dashboard. “This is a very nice car,” he drawled. He smoothed his hand along the tan imitation leather beneath the windshield, “Is it new?”
“No, sir. Not really. It’s a two year old Toyota Corona.”
“Well, it’s very nice.”
“Thank you, sir.” I smiled to myself thinking about his reaction to my car. It dawned on me that I had placed my distinguished passenger in alien territory….the front seat of a compact family sedan. Hell, he probably hadn’t even sat in the front seat of any car for years, much less a little foreign model. I smiled again to myself and thought, “I’ll just let him dream on of the day he might own one too.”
The trip was not over yet. We still faced rain and Washington, DC traffic . It did not bode well.
Having skated by the Marine Colonel on the beach in the morning when I interrupted his amphibious war game, I was a bit concerned about returning to the beach in the afternoon to pick up our M-boat for transfer back to Ikeshima. I had barely turned off the main highway when I discovered “the war was not over, and I was still in the “battle zone.”
Fierce fighting was taking place in the scruffy growth near the roadside as the blue army made progress against the red defensive positions. I could hear gunshots including machine gun fire all around me.
Suddenly a marine jumped from the downhill side of my jeep and began running alongside firing blanks over the hood at an enemy he had apparently seen on the uphill side.
I was startled, but kept going at a slow pace down the curvy dirt road, the shooter running alongside, until the enemy jumped up on the hill, the two of them now firing at each other and hollering, “I got you.”
“No, man, I got you first.”
“The hell you did, you can’t use that jeep for cover; it’s not part of the exercise.”
“Is too. You’re dead, man!” At this point an officer umpire, I presumed because of the green arm band, leaped onto the road in front of me signaling everyone to a stop. I hit the brakes, and I think I may have even put my arms in the air a little, as the marines continued arguing.
The umpire quickly settled the argument.
In his senatorial voice and boring finality he announced, “Although the jeep is not officially part of the exercise, the blue invader showed marine initiative taking advantage of changing situations. The red defender is dead, the blue marine may continue.” Without another word, he waved me to continue.
About a quarter mile further, I came upon a roadblock with an armed sergeant stopping traffic and a machine gun nest set up at the side of the road behind a small sand bag bunker. I went through my story, figuring I had an advantage now. From the top of the hill, we could see our LCM coming back across the bay for the pickup, but the sergeant was not impressed. He knew navy vessels were grey and this black LCM approaching could very well be a third country vessel trying to pick up a spy! At his invitation, I accepted the armed guard who road with me while I followed the sergeant to battalion HQ.
Oh man! The battalion commander was my marine colonel friend from the beach. I felt better when he smiled and said, “So, you’re still around here causing trouble Lieutenant?”
“I hope not sir”
“I’ve heard that your LCM was on the way to pick you up, so I’m giving you a non-combat pass that will keep you out of trouble until you get out of here.” He was laughing.
“I’m really sorry for the trouble sir”, I apologized again, “we normally get message notice for this sort of thing. I don’t know what happened.
“Where you from Lieutenant?”
“Pennsylvania, Sir. Small town in Northwest, called Bradford.”
“You go to the Coast Guard Academy in New London?”
“Yes, Sir, class of ‘57.”
“You know, there was a lad about your vintage from my home town, Upper Sandusky Ohio, who went to the Coast Guard Academy, can’t remember his name.
I smiled and ventured a guess,“Would it be Tom Matteson, sir? How many other CGA grads around my age could there be from Upper Sandusky, Ohio? Tom always reminded us that, strangely, it was below Sandusky.
“By God, that is the name.”
“Yes, Sir, Tom’s a classmate. He’s in flight school now.
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Yes Sir.” Was that the correct response?
I never had a chance to tell that story to Tom until our 50th reunion at the Coast Guard Academy. He was pretty sure he knew the Colonel’s family. Tom, retired as a Rear Admiral and Superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy. He was later appointed as the Superintendent of the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY.
The lingering breeze from last night’s storm threatened to spill the fog from Kin Bay onto the station. Petty officer first class Smith rapped once on my office screen door.
“We’re good to go, sir. I just came from the beach. It’s damned foggy and the bay is still moving around a good bit, but I don’t think we’ll have a problem.”
“Thanks, Smith, I’ll be ready to roll in 10.” I had considered canceling the routine supply run, but the weather report called for clearing, and the wind was expected to die down, so getting back from the main Island of Okinawa in the afternoon was not going to be a problem. Smith was an experienced LCM coxswain, and I had great confidence in him.
The M boat was bobbing a bit, even in our protected cove, as I backed the jeep up the ramp and into position in front of our truck. Smith brought the ramp up, backed out expertly, made the pivot and headed out into the bay. The choppy waves pounded the flat ramp like a hammer trying to stop our forward motion. Visibility was less than a two hundred yards.
Half way into the seven mile crossing, an offshore breeze from the main island joined forces with the rising sun to lift the veil of fog. The coxswain called out, “Sir, we’ve got a problem here!”
I got out of the jeep, moved aft to climb the ladder leading to the cockpit. Before I got to the top I could clearly see “the problem.” We had blindly moved into the middle of a joint military exercise. We were surrounded by Amphibious Attack Transports, (APA’s), with their brood of LCVP’s and LCM’s circling them, like ducklings clinging to their mothers, their assault troops at the ready. The assault task force included a few Navy destroyer escorts and minesweepers.
Our uninvited and unexpected black Coast guard utility vessel was the ugly duckling in the middle of a gray Pacific Fleet Task Force! I envisioned Jeff Chandler, in the movie Away All Boats, on the wing of the command ship, all squinty eyed and strong jawed, preparing to give the signal to attack.
I grabbed the binoculars, and scanned the beach. A hazy picture of bleachers filled with military observers emerged in the thinning fog. There was at least one general’s flag flying along with two foreign ensigns. It was too late now.
“Smith, take us in slowly, get us unto the beach so we can get the hell out of the way. Then you go back to the station and I’ll call on land line to set up a pick-up time. Think you can hold it steady in this surf?”
“Yes, sir. It’s not too bad; we can off-load OK.”
The ramp splashed onto the beach, the stern rose and fell with the wavelets, but Smith held us steady with his skillful use of engines and rudder. A two foot wide coil of wire, slapping in the surf about 3 feet in front of our ramp, was not a welcome mat. I moved to the top of the ramp. From the front of the bleachers about 50 yards to the right I saw a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, direct from central casting, a cigar stub in his mouth, sleeves rolled up. He was unperturbed by the sloshing water that soaked his pants half way up his calf. His combat boots cut angry deep divots in the wet sand. He stopped in front of our ramp. “Who the hell are you and where the hell did you come from?” He was steaming.
“Sir, I’m Lieutenant (JG) Marcott, CO of the Coast Guard Loran station on Ikeshima,” I saluted sharply and pointed toward the island. “Sir, I’m sorry to break up the exercises, but we received no message traffic about this. Clearly we would have never made our supply run today had I known.”
“I don’t give a damn about that,” he bellowed, “What I’m pissed about is we’ve held up this exercise for over an hour because the God damned Navy says it’s still too rough in here to land their boats!!” (His language throughout this exchange was a little more Marine-like.)
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I shouldn’t have said them. “Well sir, we’re pretty serious about our run—we’re after bread, milk and letters from home!”
I gulped then waited for what seemed an eternity. The colonel’s icy stare burned holes into my head, then suddenly he turned toward the beach and ordered, “Someone—anyone, cut this damned wire and clear a way for this man across the beach—Now! Then tell the Navy to get this damned show on the road!” Did I detect a slight smile?
I wasted no time getting across the beach, and up the road, passing units of the “red army” dug in, and waiting for the amphibious assault of the “blue army.” The Colonel’s war was about to begin.
I was headed to the CG Training Center, Alameda (TRACEN) for an interview with the commanding officer, Captain Walter Curwen. The breeze felt good with the top down on my new Fiat 850 Spider. I moved off Treasure Island into the early bridge traffic.
When I had appealed to my assignment officer a few days ago for a job at the TRACEN, he said. “You’ll have to meet with CAPT Curwen first. I can’t assign anyone as Training Officer without his approval.”
I met the Captain in his office. His natural smile and warm welcome made me feel good about him right away.
“Good morning, Captain, thank you for seeing me about your open training officer position.”
He gestured me to a chair, “Mr. Marcott, you’ll see in a minute why I felt it was important to meet with any officer being considered for this assignment.
“Captain, I think I have a good idea why,” I said. “I was Chief of the Training Branch in PTP before I came to the Resolute two years ago. Rear Admiral Scullion asked me in my exit interview how I felt about Alameda. I told him I was uncomfortable with their some of their methods. I suspect you’re looking to make changes.”
The captain, relaxed back in his chair, and with a smile on his face he said “Good. Then let’s talk about recruit training.” In a few moments it was clear that we were on the same page. The middle sixties were a challenge time for anyone, particularly the Armed Forces, trying to integrate young men into their workforce.
The country had grown weary of the Vietnam War. Young men of boot camp age had spent their formative years amidst youth protests movements, and anti-war militant’s open hostilities toward their parent’s middle class values. It was easy to embrace the norms of counterculture groups. They demanded individual freedom in all things, and flaunted their disdain for authority figures.
Of course, the Coast Guard had no magic source of recruits. Those who reported to Alameda came from: troubled urban centers, pleasant suburbs, and quiet patches of remote countryside. The last sound heard by some was the gavel of a judge who told them their choice was the military or jail. Others heard their fathers telling them to get out and not bother to come back, or the cries of their mother who reluctantly gave up their youngest, but glad they would be saved from the gang warfare that threatened all her children.
On the other hand, many had enlisted to get the GI Bill that would pay for them to go to college later, others didn’t know what they wanted after high school, but thought the service was a good place to learn a trade. Some came because having received their masters degree, their student deferment had run out. They reasoned that joining the Coast Guard would be better than being drafted.
Every week seventy or more of these young men, the good, the bad, and the ugly, were dumped into the caldron of open bay living in double-deck bunks, and gang showers with yelling company commanders who made sure they could do nothing right.
To tackle the Training Officer job, my first priority was to spend time meeting with the key players: the company commanders, the assigned Navy Chaplains, and Dr. Dennis Short, a Psychiatrist, and a Commander in the Public Health Service Commissioned Officer Corps, and Chief of the TRACEN Medical Division. They did not have a history of always working well together.
I learned two key things from these meetings: (1) Conditions had been much worse than I had suspected, and (2) With very few exceptions, the people directly on the firing line, the company commanders (CC’S,) were ready and willing to embrace change.
The meetings did wonders to improved relationship. By sharing their perspectives, the “good guys” began to trust each other and often devised a mutually agreed upon course of action. The CC’s were, at times, surprised with the “tough line” of the Chaplains. The Doctors professional observations and advice was welcomed by both. In separate sessions with the CC’s, he taught them observations techniques, what behaviors to look for, and how to describe them in terms beyond “the kid just doesn’t have his shit together.”
I can’t fault anyone in the sixties who was trying to do right by their recruits and still meet the demands of their service. But, for whatever reason, the Marine Corps boot camp methods, which worked for the Marines, appealed to the Alameda Training Officer. It is my personal opinion, he had carried it well beyond the Marine Corps model, as though he was driven to out-Marine the Marines.
Poorly performing recruits were all dealt with as disciplinary problems. Placed in a separate X-Ray Company, they had undergone demanding physical fitness routines, marching drills, sleep disruptions, inane work details, and constant harassment. When the X-Ray company commander felt they were ready to “square away,” he returned them to regular training. I doubt if any recruit had left X-Ray company feeling better about himself or the Coast Guard.
We adopted a new a philosophy that gave every recruit the benefit of the doubt that he had volunteered, for whatever reason, to join our Coast Guard company and wanted to do well. If he was not performing, we looked for the cause and then dealt with him appropriately.
We retained X-Ray Company, for there were still some with serious discipline problems, but we did away with the insane climate. More importantly we established a Special Company, where a recruit needing a more targeted remedial program which might include counseling or as we later found out was a major problem—remedial reading, he could get it.
I remember a recruit from a ranch in Montana. He had graduated from a small one-room school and the twenty friends and relatives who had attended his graduation were the most people he had ever seen in one place at one time. The Coast Guard Recruiter had driven him to the airport, and put him on a plane for San Francisco.
I can only imagine what he must have thought coming into SFO. He managed to get a bus to Alameda and worked his way to Government Island, only to be dumped into the mob scene with more weird people than he had ever seen in his life. He was not a discipline problem! He was overwhelmed!
We pulled him out of training for a week, provided a little adjustment counseling, and when he was ready, he performed well, graduated and moved on to the active fleet, a proud Seaman Apprentice.
The flagship of our reforms was a reading program run by a first class petty officer who held a masters degree in remedial reading. Joseph Streuffert developed and ran one of the most successful programs in the country, and went on to his PhD, teaching in an eastern university.
Boot Camp in the sixties could have been the dream laboratory for sociologists and psychologists. But, I doubt they could have done a better job than the terrific Coast Guard petty officers who successfully turned these recruits around in eight weeks. After one week “down time” they turned around and did it again–year after year.
The Cape Knox, one of three 95 foot patrol boats that shared Harbor Entrance Patrols (HEP) was on station at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. We were anchored in Lynnhaven Inlet. The bay was calm with long easy swells.
The operational rules during the Cold War in the late 1950’s required all commercial vessels bound for the U.S. to provide the Coast Guard Captain-of-the-Port (COTP) at least twenty-four hours advance notice of their arrival. The HEP vessel was one member of the Coast Guard team that conducted this mission in Norfolk. The others were a Coast guardsman at Cape Henry Light with long range binoculars, and a man aboard the pilot station where commercial vessels picked up a licensed pilot to navigate the Baltimore or Hampton Roads channels. For the most part, it was not difficult for the team to identify incoming shipping. Most patrols were routine. A notable exception—the day we “arrested” Jacques Cousteau.
Petty Officer Barker, my Quartermaster, was on the bridge making chart corrections, when the FM radio crackled alive.
“Coast Guard HEP, this is Cape Henry. We have one unidentified vessel approaching from the east: dark hull, white superstructure, with exposed deck machinery, approximately 150 feet long. She’s crossing just south of Kiptopeke at Cape Charles turning toward the Baltimore channel.” That meant she was about fifteen miles away and well outside the normal approach to Thimble Shoals Channel—too far to make a visual identification.
“Roger that,” Barker answered. “This is CG 95312 responding from Lynnhaven anchorage.” I heard him call away the anchor detail and I left the paperwork on my cabin desk and headed for the bridge. By the time I got there, the anchor was coming up, and the engines were ready to go.
“What do we have, Barker?” I asked.
“Unidentified, heading for Baltimore Channel, Captain. You can barely see her with binoculars because of the haze.”
If a ship did not take a pilot aboard and the weather prevented direct contact, she was classed as “unidentified.” With no ID we had to assume she was also unexpected.
“As soon as the anchor is up, set an intercept at two thirds speed for now.” Visibility was bad, but we had seen much worse. Chasing an unidentified ship in dense fog is not for the fainthearted. To intercept, you intentionally establish what is aptly known as a collision course.
It was a simple stern chase. She was plotting dead ahead making only seven or eight knots. I increased speed to full, and the Cape Knox responded, pitching slightly into the swells.
As we closed to binocular range, I could see that she indeed had a lot of topside deck equipment, several being small cranes. One of the larger cranes took nearly all the space on the open fantail. I finally made out the name, Calypso. A quick call to Group Norfolk confirmed that she was “unexpected.” I could see nobody on deck, and as I moved the binoculars to the yard arm on the single mast, a blue, white, and red vertical flag filled my binocular lens. Then it hit me, could this be? The Calypso? French Flag?
“OK guys, I think we’ve got something here. This might be Jacques Cousteau, the oceanographer,” I announced. We slowed to match the Calypso speed as we came along side, standing off about twenty yards. I grabbed the bullhorn.
“On the Calypso! This is the United States Coast Guard. You must stop your engines, slowly move out of the channel, and come to a complete stop. This is the United States Coast Guard.”
They responded immediately, and I moved out of the channel with them. As we both came to a dead stop and started drifting, a tall gangly man moved from the wheelhouse to the portside deck, which was at about the same level as our ship’s deck. Now only about twenty feet apart, I could see he was about fifty years old, and had a sharp angular face made leathery from years of outdoor exposure, set off by lightly tinted aviator sunglasses that rested atop his dominant nose. He had a generous amount of swept-back graying hair. I had no doubts now. “Captain Cousteau?” I ventured.
“Yes, Captain, I am Jacques-Yves Cousteau.”
“Sir, the Coast Guard did not receive advance notice of your intentions to enter U.S. waters. Our law requires 24 hours’ notice. I am sorry for the delay, but you may go no further until your agent has filed.”
“Thank you, Captain. My navigator suspected that may be the problem. This was a late decision to divert to Washington, DC, for a meeting with the National Geographic people. We neglected to file. I am sorry. We have already made the necessary contacts and the request should be processed soon.”
“Thank you Captain. You may remain adrift if you think it will not take long, or move a little further east of the channel and anchor. Either way, I must stay with you until you are cleared. Your choice, sir.” I had seen him enough on TV, that I was not surprised how easily he used English.
We stood on our main decks, chatting in a most casual way about some of the Calypso’s equipment and its use for oceanographic research. To my surprise, I discovered that she was built in Seattle, Washington, as a British yard minesweeper, decommissioned after the war in 1947, and refit for Cousteau as a research vessel in 1950.
My crew by now had joined me on the main deck and were taking in the conversation and living in the moment of meeting Cousteau in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. Captain Cousteau explained that the Calypso only made 10 knots, and carried a crew of 25.The cranes on the fantail were for moving diving bells, scientific equipment, as well as a small boat.
We received message traffic in less than an hour that cleared them to proceed to Washington, DC. I said goodbye, and my whole crew waved as he pulled back into the Baltimore Channel on his way to the Potomac River. So, maybe I didn’t “arrest” Jacques Causteau, but I “pulled him over.”
“Let’s head back to Lynnhaven Anchorage, Chief,” I ordered.
At the end of the day, back at anchorage, the setting sun was building a golden backdrop silhouetting the Norfolk and Newport News skyline. The diehard fishermen in the crew claimed their favorite spots on the deck and made a distant cast, hoping for the best, as they buzzed about the Calypso and Jacques Cousteau. Chief Miller and I, both with freshly-filled pipes, leaned against the after rail enjoying the evening and watching the crew. “Well, Captain, I think the troops had a good day today.”
“I think we all did, Chief. It’s not every day you get to ‘arrest’ Jacques Cousteau.”