Reflections on a 1930's Enlistment

by Robert L Smith

 

Looking backward to the Coast Guard of the Depression ......

I joined on the 28th of December 1930 at a time when enlistment in any service was impossible because of the Depression--rich men couldn't buy their sons in; but I had a cousin who had enough brass to make 101 trombones by himself. I was accepted with the promise of an appointment to the Academy. I had a "blue" enlistment--the contract was on blue paper, good from the time of enlistment until my 21st birthday, with either party able to break the contract.

It was suggested that since there was a Radio School starting in a few days, I should get a taste of life before the mast. And so . . . the school. I made Seaman 2d while at the school. Never held Seaman 1st. Had a crow within five months.

There were nine of us in school. Two or three times a month a CRM would take us to the parade grounds and try to teach us squads east and squads west. A pretty tough chore. I had a major's commission in the junior ROTC in high school, so I knew more than the Chief, and told him so. Brash stuff for a Seaman 2d. Anyway, for the rest of the school, I did the drilling!

Bangor, some 25 or 30 miles up the Penobscot River, had been a thriving port like Portland in the days of ships of little draft, but, again like Portland, had fallen into disuse when the ships got bigger. But the Penobscot was still, officially, navigable water, so the CGC KICKAPOO was charged to keep the stream free of ice. We did it often enough so that the ice was never so thick that we had to blast our way through; rather, we plowed it.

A number of the crew, younger, foolish (and that included me), put on skates and made like dolphins playing in front of a ship. It was a matter of great pride to actually touch the bow of the KICKAPOO while crossing in front of it. Ah, to be young and foolish again!

The New England Division, in winter, probably represented the hardest duty of any service, any location. We took pride in it.

I remember once when we had in tow a trawler, homed in Fall River, that we had picked up on the Grands Banks off Halifax, and we kept an easterly course for five days because we didn't dare turn sideways to the seas.

Speaking of trawlers: We hd authority over all vessels within U.S. waters, and over U.S. vessels in all waters. The ships carrying booze were all of foreign registry; Panamanian was the most popular. They were very careful to stay just outside our jurisdiction, unloading to speedboats, which were much faster than ours. Our mission was to shadow the rummies to make contact with the speedboats impossible. We played real cat-and-mouse games during the night hours.

I remember the Great Potato War. (I was tempted to say "Potatoe" since that is the way I was taught but, in time, I remember what happened to Dan Quayle!).

Time is important, especially to a rum runner. We had shadowed one for several days and, finally, in an act of desperation, she came close. The rummy had prepared a number of slings by slipping a small line through a potato, and trying to sling these over our antennas to pull them down so we couldn't report our position. The KICKAPOO was a coal burner and our boat deck was higher than theirs. Our black gang provided us with enough coal so that for several minutes we threw coal at them as they tried to entangle our antennas. Finally, they got tired, or defeated, and withdrew.

Coast Guardsmen and the crews of the speedboats shared a sort of fellowship. On shore, we went to the same speakeasies, often sitting at adjoining tables, talked, and sometimes bought a round.

When I was on the OSSIPPEE, I threw a two-striper out of the radio shack. The OSSIPPEE was tied up at the dock, and I was on watch (which continued in port if there were at least two RM's on board). The Exec. wandered into the shack at one o'clock or a little later, in a real lubricated mood. I was reading, strictly verboten, but a usual practice at night when the log showed every three minutes, "NO SIGS" [No Signals]. I grew impatient as he talked on and on and asked him to leave. Several times. Finally, I grabbed him and tossed him out of the shack. The next morning I was on deck, charged with assaulting an officer. My defense: General Regulations stated that no watchstander should tolerate interference with his watch. The two-striper was interfering with my watch and I did what was required. Case dismissed, but I was transferred in two days.

 

 

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