It was 1949 and these are some of............................


by Don Gardner

Webmasters Note: Portions of this story may appear elsewhere on this website as shorter, stand-alone stories.

One quiet Saturday afternoon, Chief Sawyer returned to the CG-83312 unexpectedly . . . and drunk. After rousting me out of the sack and, in a voice louder and more irritating than normal, he ordered me over the side to "soogie" diesel oil stains off the hull.

Standing on a "camel" with a swab in my right hand and holding on dearly to the boat’s scuppers with my left, I tried. When this didn’t work, I got some "gedunk" from the hawser locker and poured it on the swab, but I could not exert enough pressure to remove the oil. I was worried about getting knocked off the camel or being crushed against the dock.

It was obviously futile to remove diesel oil stains from the hull without sandpaper or a paint scrapper, but Sawyer continued to insist. "I need a float to stand on, Chief." A float would provide a more stable platform and permit me to use both hands.

Sawyer shouted down, "You aren’t trying. Use more elbow grease!" There was no reasoning with him. He was punishing me for some unknown, unexpressed offence. Anger suddenly boiling over, I pulled myself up on deck and started below. Sawyer went into a rage and ordered me to get back on the camel. I refused and made an obscene remark to him.

"I’ll take you to the district office Monday and we’ll see who’s in charge here!" he bellowed. The threat of disciplinary action was not enough to make me apologize or return to work on the camel.

When Monday morning rolled around I was in my dress blues ready to go when he came aboard. Word was brought to me that I was to change into my dungarees and "turn to," the trip uptown was cancelled. I was relieved that the confrontation at the district office would not occur, for my behavior had shown childish immaturity, but Sawyer had abused his position as officer-in-charge while under the influence of alcohol and must have realized this when he sobered up.

Thanks to Sawyer, I was growing up quickly.


Radiotelephone Operator

Sawyer noted my interest in radio and designated me the boat’s radiotelephone operator; I would copy and receipt for our messages when we were underway.

When the CHEROKEE or MARION were out, I often heard their key clicks on 2670 kcs when they called Norfolk Radio, NMN, and curiosity gnawed at me to know what they were saying to each other. My ambition to be a Radioman was born then.

Everyone has their own "magic" to discover; mine was the world of radio communications, a great blessing to find so early in life.

Sailboat Aground

One evening, bouncing around in a choppy sea off Cape Henry, Virginia, and anxious to get inside the harbor to smoother water and a rest, we heard a two-masted sailboat sending a MAYDAY, reporting he had run up on a beach and stuck fast. The sailboat skipper told Norfolk Radio he had no idea where he was but thought he was off the coast of North Carolina. From the strength of his signal, we suspected he was quite near us. Sawyer directed me to ask the skipper to describe the flashing sequence of the nearest buoy he could see, for each lighted buoy has its own sequence on a local area chart.

"Two short and then two long flashes" was the reply. Sawyer consulted the chart for southern Chesapeake Bay and located the buoy—the sailboat was about an hour steaming north of us at, or rather, on Parramore Island. We passed this information and our position to Norfolk Radio and soon the district duty officer sent us a message to "proceed and assist."

Arriving on scene later, Sawyer evaluated the problem, then directed me to call one of the lifeboat stations north of us to ask them to come down and help—we needed a motor surf boat to take two tow lines tied together through the breakers to the beach. It took all of our crew and the lifeboat station’s boat crew to secure a towline on the sailboat. I missed all the excitement at the beach, for I had to stay behind to stand radio and anchor watch.

Eventually, we pulled the boat free and towed it to a yard in Norfolk where the owner wanted to check the hull for damages. Since the skipper, his buddy, and their wives were drunk at the time of the accident, a respectable sum of money was left behind for the crew as a "thank you."

Sex and the Unreluctant Virgin

A Seaman was transferred to the CG-83312 who last name was too difficult to spell or pronounce, but it was Polish and ended with "ski," so that’s what we called him.

Ski had a knack with girls—an actual make-out artist. He wasn’t much to look at, nothing physical distinguished him from other men, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why women were so crazy for him. Within a few weeks of reporting aboard, Ski was making love to a half dozen women and managed to become engaged at the same time.

I went on liberty with him one night, hoping to learn the secret of how to talk to girls. Cruising on Granby Street in Norfolk, just in front of the 5th Coast Guard district office at the post office, Ski spotted a Navy bus loaded with people of the feminine persuasion who were waiting for the bus to fill so they could be driven to the Navy base for a dance at the enlisted men’s club. Like a wolf, Ski searched out his prey within the herd, er, group, then attacked with . . . conversation.

I was so embarrassed, standing on the sidewalk beside Ski with a bus load of girls looking at us looking them over, but within a minute (maybe a minute and a half), two girls got off the bus. We took them to a beer joint to chat them up, but I was tongue-tied and just sat there, too shy to engage in intelligent conversation. After what seemed like half a lifetime, I made a feeble excuse, left, and walked back to the boat at the foot of York Street. None of Ski’s lessons ever took hold.

Ski’s "secret" was simply to talk to girls with confidence. I could have done this, too, if someone had given me a cure for keeping my knees from knocking together when I was around girls . . . and perhaps something to unfreeze my brain.

How I got engaged to my wife in Bermuda after knowing her for 10 days is something I can’t explain; perhaps it is because Coast Guard radiomen can get the job done when the transmitter is warmed up.

The York Street Fleet Landing

The dock at the foot of York Street in Norfolk offered the barest of facilities: a telephone connection, shore electricity, and a water line to refill our two water tanks. The 83-footer did not have a shower and water had to be hand-pumped, even to flush the heads. For those of us who were single, we could walk uptown in a few minutes. One distinct advantage was the fact that we were alone and free from the military discipline of higher commands.

There was one serious drawback, however. The Navy used the landing float astern of us to pick up and discharge passengers for the run to and from the naval hospital across the river at Portsmouth. We got along well with these guys in the boat crew; once we took a boat coxswain out with us on a SAR case, and occasionally fed them. But the problems were with the ships anchored near or moored at Craney Island who used the landing. Many times drunken sailors would miss the last liberty boat and sleep in our wheelhouse when it was cold outside. We were supposed to make them leave if we discovered them, for they often vomited all over the deck.

One Saturday night, Ski returned from liberty and found a Navy sailor who resisted Ski’s efforts to throw him off the boat. A fight broke out. I called the shore patrol office to send someone to remove their man, but they said Saturday night was their busy time and it would take quite a while to get someone there. I didn’t know what to do for a moment. I couldn’t let a shipmate get beat up, so I took an unloaded .45 from our armory and rushed up on deck to find Ski rolling around on deck fighting with this guy. The Navy guy didn’t feel at all threatened by my 118 pounds, but I cracked him on the head with the butt end of the weapon a couple of times, just hard enough to discourage him. The fight stopped, but he made retaliation threats. The next day, Ski and I worried the sailor might bring back his shipmates on the afternoon liberty boat for a rumble, but it didn’t happen. When the story leaked out to Sawyer, he went to the district office and got us transferred post-haste to the buoy base at Portsmouth, which was near his home.

We single guys quickly adapted to our new surroundings. One benefit was the convenience of using the showers and washing machines at the barracks. Additionally, we were near friends on the buoy tenders and could visit with them, and make new friends, too. All in all, not a bad deal, except we single guys had to catch the ferry to Norfolk to go to the burlesque theatre.

Gaiety Burlesque Theatre

"Ladies and Gentlemen, come right in and see the lovely Miss Dovey. She’ll thrill you, amaze you, and tease you. The price of admission is less than one whole dollar." (It was 99.)

The words of the barker enticed Vester Barber (a new SN) and me. We often went to the Gaiety Burlesque to see, among other delights, the comedians, and we remembered their routines and punch lines.

Our favorite routine involved two comedians who played poker, each raising several times before drawing. The "first banana" threw his five cards away and drew five more. The "second" did too. After each raised several times, the "first" called and asked the "second" what his hand was. The reply: "One Jack and a sharp razor."

The "first" retorted, "That beats a full-house anytime!"

Yes and I must have discovered a hundred uses for that punch line.

"We have to paint the deck this afternoon."

"Who says?"

"The Chief."

"That beats a full-house anytime," and off we would go, laughing and giggling for an hour.

The Gaiety had other attractions, too. Some of the girls were quite healthy, and I decided that I could definitely enjoy burlesque even if there were no comedians to entertain us.

Stuck in the Mud

One particular story about Sawyer reminds me that words spoken in haste or anger always seem to come back to haunt you. It was like this:

Late one afternoon, we were proceeding up the James River to check on the "dead fleet." Engineman 2nd class Pete Hagar was on engine room watch, I was steering the boat from the flying bridge while the remainder of the crew was at evening chow in the galley below. Heading westward across a long line of buoys, which stretched into the bright, low evening sun, I was supposed to turn to starboard after passing the last buoy and follow a new line of buoys northward.

Sighting the next buoy was difficult because of the distance between buoys, the glare coming off of the water, and astigmatic eyes (but mostly because of lack of attention on my part), I turned at what I thought was the last buoy. Going about 12 knots, the boat immediately began sucking down into the mud.

Before I could stop the engines and put them in reverse, Sawyer had climbed the ladder from the mess deck and jumped up to the flying bridge and, with a mouth chock-full of ice-cream and apple pie, some of which foamed out of the corners of his mouth, began screaming at me, simultaneously pushing me aside and taking control of the boat. He backed us off without any trouble. His words to me were mostly unintelligible, but the gist of the one-way conversation seemed to focus on the fact that I was a moron for running his boat aground. No argument on that point—I should have been more attentive.

Since no damage was done, Sawyer’s attitude mellowed after making a few more jokes at my expense within hearing range. I was forgiven, his attitude seemed to say, because he was such a great guy.

Several hours after attitude-change-time, I was back on the wheel as we approached the buoy base at Portsmouth. In the darkness we slowed for a construction barge anchored in mid-channel while work on the tunnel under the Elizabeth River from Berkley to Portsmouth was in progress and we had to go around their fore and aft wire anchor cables carefully. Sawyer relieved me, for it was tricky getting around the barge, especially on a dark night.

I saw someone on the barge waving to us. "Hey, Chief, a man on the barge signaled us to go to our starboard."

"I can take this boat around that damn barge anyway I want to!" He turned to port. Suddenly a tug towing a barge loomed out of the darkness. Sawyer turned the wheel hard port frantically to avoid colliding and ran out of the channel and grounded. Really HARD aground!

Our leader, hero, and Officer-in-Charge of a fine Coast Guard patrol boat was in a sticky situation. He tried backing with all the power the two 600 HP Sterling Vikings could muster, but they could not pull us from Elizabeth’s grasp. When the MADRONA was sighted coming up the channel making for the base, Sawyer asked me to get them on our radio and request a towline. The MADRONA declined. Fortunately, the tide rose soon thereafter and we were able to pull free from an acutely embarrassing situation.

Going aground twice in one day was quite a record . . . even for us.



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