A COAST GUARD STORY
Ocean Station November - Rescue of the Crew of the Giovanna Lolli Ghetti
By CWO Charles D. Williams, USCG(retired
©2004, Charles D. Williams
Printed By Permission
MELLON IN BACKGROUND WITH THE SMALL BOAT LAUNCHED AND UNDERWAY
Photo courtesy of the author
For my Father
Darwin D. Williams
March 15, 1916 – February 21, 1974
To all those unsung heroes of the U. S. Coast Guard both past and present that chose to spend a part of their lives saving others from peril. And especially to all my shipmates who sailed with me in the Coast Guard Cutter Mellon and to Independent Duty Corpsmen everywhere.
The focus of this story is a search and rescue operation which took place in February 1974. It is about one chapter in my twenty-seven and one half year career in the U.S. Coast Guard.
I think every life has a defining moment. A moment that decides the direction the rest of your life will take. My moment came on March 19, 1957 when I joined the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves. In the telling of this story I will include background on how I happened to end up in the Coast Guard, what made me want to become a Hospital Corpsman (Medic) and the events that led up to my being present at this place in time. Along the way I will endeavor to introduce you to some aspects of life in the Coast Guard during my time in that service.
The Coast Guard - How and Why We Joined Each Other
In the first part of 1957 I was attending my final year at Sacramento Senior High School in Sacramento, California. Like most of my friends I was from a lower middle class blue collar family and like most of my friends I was bored with school and not getting along particularly well with my parents. High schools in the fifties were mostly vocational schools where you learned things like drafting, wood and auto shop or where you were being prepared to become movie ushers, service station attendants or short order restaurant employees. Only 5-6% of high school graduates were going on to college and we all knew who they were, not us. So our general dissatisfaction led to talk about dropping out of school and running away from it all as a group. We used to make grand plans during our lunch breaks about piling into our cars, those of us who had them, and hitting the road on one exciting adventure or the other. As it turned out we always managed to find a flaw in our plans that prevented us from carrying them out. It usually came down to how we were going to accumulate enough food, gas and lodging money to finance our adventure. Then one day someone got the bright idea that we should join the military on the “buddy system” so we could all go through training together and hopefully be stationed in the same place.
The next day we cut school and went to the Post Office to see the military recruiters. There were seven or eight of us and right away we had problems. Some of the guys wanted to be Marines. Others wanted to drive Army Tanks and a couple liked the Air Force. One of my friends and I were into the early days of SCUBA diving and we wanted to join the Navy and be Frog Men, Under Water Demolition Team or (UDT). We talked to the various recruiters and some of the guys even took the AFQT Armed Forces Qualification Test. Those of us who were under eighteen were told we would have to get our parents permission to enlist and there were also physical exams to pass. Each day that we went back we were fewer in number. Then to add insult to injury the Navy Recruiter told me and my diving buddy that we could not just join the Frog Men, now known as the “Seals“, we had to join the regular Navy and take our chances on being selected for UDT training. We told him we would think it over.
As we left the Navy Recruiting office I happened to notice a sandwich sign standing in a stairwell. On the sign was a picture of a beautiful white power boat, a “Forty Footer“ I would later find out. It was going under the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge at high speed with a big bow wake and a rooster tail behind.
Her flags were snapping in the breeze and on the Coxswain’s platform there was a sailor in a dress blue “Cracker Jack” uniform with his neckerchief and bellbottoms flying out behind him; it said join the U.S. Coast Guard. We had never heard of the U.S. Coast Guard but we were about to. We walked through the door next to the sign and inside in a small office, sitting behind a gray government desk was a sailor that looked remarkably like the guy driving the boat. He was a First Class Boatswains Mate and hailed from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, an area where service in the Coast Guard is a tradition. This guy was slick; he could have sold snow cones at the North Pole. In his soft Southern Drawl he relegated us with tales of Coast Guard daring do and rescues at sea and about the great white ships that were almost like luxury liners (talk about gullible) however he did make it all sound very appealing. He also told us that we would be joining an elite service that required a ten percent higher score on the AFQT than any of the other services, I think this was true at that time.
Well, he sold me, so I went about doing what ever I had to do to get signed up. I took the test and passed, I took my physical and I filled out the enlistment contract for my parent’s signature. The signatures were the problem but only a minor one. I did not plan on telling my parents. Fortunately the people who owned the business next door to my Dad’s electrical shop were both friends of the family and Notary Publics. My folks frequently had me bring documents over to be notarized so I just forged their names and slipped the enlistment papers in with some of their other business forms. Done deal. Now in all fairness to my Father, he found out what was going on when the recruiter called my house to ask a question and got my Grandmother on the phone. She went nuts and when I got home my Dad was waiting for me. He told me “I can stop this but I’m not going to”. Thanks Dad.
A SIX BY EIGHT GOES TO BOOT CAMP
So, a process that had started in January with me and several of my buddies visiting the military recruiters culminated on March 19, 1957 when I raised my hand and took an oath to defend this country. When I did I was standing alone. Well, it was not the end of the world. What I had joined was a six by eight reserve program. You did six months active duty for training followed by seven and one half years in your home town reserve unit for a total of eight years. The Coast Guard had two boot camps at that time, one in Alameda, California and the other in Cape May, New Jersey. I was allowed to choose where I wanted to go and I picked Cape May. I figured if I was going to go into the service I might just as well see some of the country
During the first week in April the recruiter drove me and two other guys from Sacramento to San Francisco bought us a steak dinner then put us on a plane to Washington, D.C. In those days there were no jet airliners so it took about three days to get across country. After a twelve hour lay over in D.C. we boarded a smaller airplane to Philadelphia and had about an eight hour wait there for a train to Cape May, New Jersey. Along the way we had picked up additional recruits. When we arrived in Cape May on April 10, 1957, at 5:00 AM in a cold pouring rain, some of the meanest people I had ever seen loaded about forty of us on a Coast Guard bus bound for the training station. And so began one week of forming company followed by twelve weeks of hell and my relationship with an organization that would shape the rest of my life.
Coast Guard boot camp in the fifties was in its own way just as rigorous as the Marine Corps. If you were not in class you were in one kind of PT (physical training) or the other or at the range or rowing surf boats. You ran or quick-time marched everywhere you went and corporal punishment for infractions was not unheard of. At the time we were going through boot camp we actually had two ex-Marine Drill Instructors. To make matters worse the movie showing in Cape May was “The D.I.” starring Jack Webb. I think our boot pushers brought back a whole bunch of new ideas from this movie because shortly after that some of them started wearing Smokey the Bear hats and carrying swagger sticks.
GROTON AND HOW I PICKED MY SPECIALTY
The six months reserve program called for the completion of boot camp and a month long training cruise on the 311 foot Coast Guard Cutter Unimak. This was followed by two months of advanced seamanship training at the Coast Guard Training Station in Groton, Connecticut. I got through boot camp fine with the exception of first aid training and I guess that is the ironic part of this story.
During our regular first aid classes in boot camp I just could not get interested in the subject. Everything else I was learning seemed so much more exciting. And the First Aid instructor was not all that inspiring. So I flunked. Well, if I wanted to get out of boot on time my only option was to take make up classes at night during what little free time I had. In the final analysis I’m really glad this happened. The make up instructor had been a Navy Corpsman assigned to the Marines during the Korean War. This guy showed me the Medical Corps in a whole new light. He was just as inspiring as the other guy was boring. Under his instruction we saw how really important it was that we learn first aid and he made the Corpsman Rate come alive.
We were told that there was no more important job in the Coast Guard than that of an Independent Duty Hospital Corpsman and that it was the closest you would ever get to being a doctor without having an M.D. This time I passed first aid with flying colors.
About half way through advanced training our instructors began prompting us about selecting our enlisted specialties. At that point in time I was still not really sure what I wanted to do. You could be a Gunners Mate or a Boatswains Mate or a Damage Controlman or a Quartermaster. There were dozens of specialties available. I finally made up my mind while I was on a weekend liberty (a pass) in New York City.
I was walking down the street in Times Square when I came upon a crowd of people. I pushed my way to the front to see what was happening and saw a man in convulsions with a serious head wound. He was lying in a pool of his own blood and no one was doing anything for him. Using my recently gained first aid knowledge I took charge of the situation. I wrapped my fingers with a handkerchief and made sure his airway was clear, I sent someone into a nearby restaurant to get some cloth napkins. I used the napkins and direct pressure to control the bleeding and I guided his convulsions the best I could to prevent him from further injuring himself. When the ambulance crew arrived they told me I had probably saved his life. I don’t know if that were true but everybody was slapping me on the back and congratulating me and it sure felt good. Right then and there I decided that I was going to be a Hospital Corpsman. I also found out something about myself that day that has served me well throughout my Coast Guard Career and has seen me through numerous emergency situations. I am able to respond in these kinds of situations without regard to what’s going on around me. I don’t have to think about it, everything seems to be happening in slow motion, my training kicks in and I do what I have to do.
THE SIX PART OF THE 6 X 8 PROGRAM OVER - I RETURNED HOME
As it turned out I did become a Hospital Corpsman. When I returned to my Reserve Unit in Sacramento I took out the appropriate correspondence courses and after studying during weekend drills and summer training at Coast Guard medical facilities I became a Third Class Hospital Corpsman. I also finished high school and took some college courses while working at various jobs in the sales and supply end of the Electrical Industry.
I BECAME A REGULAR
By 1963 Things were not going all that well in my life. I was not getting anywhere career wise, Vietnam was starting up and then President Kennedy got assassinated. The Electricians went on a long strike and the contractor I was working for laid me off. At that point in time the only place where I really had anything vested was with the Coast Guard. So I figured why not? And in November of 1964 I switched from the Reserves to the Regular Coast Guard and reported to my first duty assignment at the Coast Guard Dispensary on Government Island in Alameda, California.
The intervening years between November 1964 and October 1973 included a wide variety of training and duty assignments where I continued to hone my medical skills. I served at the Alameda Training Center Dispensary, attended Navy Hospital Corps School in San Diego, did a clinical rotation at the Coast Guard Academy Hospital in Connecticut and then returned to the clinic in Alameda. During this same period I also worked the graveyard shift at a civilian hospital emergency room in San Leandro, California. From 1966 to 1968 I served as an Independent Duty Corpsman aboard the 180’ Coast Guard Cutter Basswood home ported first in Hawaii then Guam and deployed to the Western Pacific and Vietnam. After this tour I rotated back to Alameda where I supervised the Out Patient Department. After about nine months I requested and was assigned to Restricted Isolated Duty in a very remote area of the Southwest Philippine Islands. I was there from 1969 to 1971. After the station was turned over to the Philippine Government I was reassigned to Norfolk, Virginia where I stayed for about a month and then got my orders changed to the Coast Guard Academy Hospital where I worked in the Out Patient Department.
IT BECAME TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT MY CAREER - I GOT MARRIED
While I was at the Academy I brought my fiancée over from the Philippines and got married. A year or so later our son was born.
Now with a wife and son I decided that I had better get some additional training and seek promotion so that I could better provide for my family. Up until that time I had not thought much about it. I took only the training needed and the promotional examinations required to qualify for the overseas and sea duty assignments that I wanted. I had made Petty Officer First Class way back in 1967 and at the same time had turned down an opportunity to go to OCS (Officer Candidate School). I had not even put in to take the Chief Petty Officer examination the first couple of times that I was eligible.
I got my wishes filled in two ways, one in the form of orders to the Navy’s Preventive Medicine Technician (PMT) School at the Naval Regional Medical Center (NRMC) in Oakland, California the other was placing high on the Chief Petty Officer Advancement List. I graduated from PMT School in September of 1973 and in October I reported aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Mellon in Honolulu, Hawaii.
I was conflicted by these sea duty orders in a number of ways. I had just completed a rigorous training program that qualified me to serve as the Preventive Medicine/Environmental Health Specialist on one of our larger shore facilities. This was, in fact, the kind of assignment that I had requested. My Father had had a massive coronary while I was in PMT School and the doctors did not know how much longer he would be with us. I would have liked to have been somewhere that would have allowed me to visit him during his last days. I suppose I could have put in for a hardship assignment but that’s not the way I do things. I also had a new wife and an eighteen month old son I wanted to spend time with. My rational at the time was that I had spent four of the past six years overseas, two years at sea including Vietnam and two years of Restricted Isolated Duty in the Southwestern Philippines. Let somebody else take this sea duty assignment. On the other hand I was thrilled to be going aboard one of the largest and newest Cutters in our fleet. As far as I was concerned being a Chief Hospital Corpsman on a High Endurance Cutter was the best job in the Coast Guard Medical Department. Had I never married, I probably would have attempted to continue serving in this capacity until they put me out to pasture due to old age. However, staying at sea most of the time is not very good for your intimate relationships or raising kids.
THE CGC MELLON
Courtesy of Fred's Place
The Coast Guard Cutter Mellon was a proud ship. She was big, 378 feet in length (378) and pretty in her white paint with the orange and blue racing stripe and she was new. The Mellon was only six years old when I reported aboard. She was a modern multi-mission platform and she had already proven her worth as a warship during a tour of service with Squadron Three in Vietnam. At that time the Mellon and her sister ships in the Secretary Class of Cutters were the largest U.S. ships propelled by both diesel engines and jet turbines. The 18,000 h.p. jet turbines were very similar to those which power B-52 bombers. These engines would push her along at about 30 knots with a range of about two thousand miles.
In addition to this unique power plant the Mellon had 13 foot variable-pitch props, the largest of any U. S. Ship of the day. Operating on her diesel engines, the Mellon was capable of cruising 12,000 miles without refueling. To you landlubbers that’s more than half way around the world. The Mellon could go from all ahead flank (full speed) to stop and then all astern (back-up) in her own length. She also had a bow thruster that could be used for maneuvering the ship. Using the variable pitch props and the bow thruster you could actually bring her to the dock sideways and moor between two ships that were already tied up. Our armaments included a five inch deck gun, machine guns, mortars and state of the art torpedoes. This ordinance was targeted using electronic, radar and sonar fire control systems. We also had a tennis court size flight deck capable of carrying a helicopter and/or landing and re-fueling one. These features gave the Mellon superior Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. A side note: running ninety laps of the flight deck was equal to three miles. If you don’t believe it ask my knees. That is how I used to stay in shape at sea. It was great back then but it sure hurts now.
The Mellon’s missions during my watch were many and varied. She manned Ocean Station November in rotation with other West Coast and Hawaii based ships. Ocean Station November was located between Hawaii and the Mainland. It was an invisible grid on the Pacific Ocean a thousand miles from the nearest land. We would drift back and forth across this grid for a month at a time.
We carried weather scientists with us who took many kinds of weather readings. They would send up instruments in weather balloons that measured atmospheric conditions and they measured the ocean temperature and currents. This information was then used to predict storms and weather patterns. Their work is now accomplished by satellites and weather buoys. All transoceanic flights had our radio frequencies in case they had an in-flight emergency over the water requiring them to ditch. That had not happened since the fifties. So, on June 30, 1974 Ocean Station November was closed. I was present for three November patrols including the last one.
One of the other things we used to do on November was provide medical assistance, as able, to sick or injured merchant seamen in our area. In fact during my first couple patrols I felt as though I were riding in a great big white ambulance taking me from one seagoing medical emergency to the next.
I was often put aboard foreign merchant vessels to treat injured folks or sometimes we would transfer a sick seaman from his ship to say a luxury liner that may be transiting our area and heading for port. When we were not on ocean station we made sixty-seven day Fishery Law Enforcement Patrols to the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. One of our primary missions where ever we were was Search and Rescue.
Life for a Chief Petty Officer on board one of these new cutters was pretty darn good. There were sixteen Chiefs assigned to a 378, seventeen if you happened to be carrying a helicopter and flight crew. We had our own mess and we slept in two man staterooms. We were the onboard technical experts in our various specialties and the byword on the ship as with the rest of the Coast Guard was, if you wanted to know something, “Ask the Chief”.
My position as the Chief Hospital Corpsman, I felt, was even better. Although I took muster with the Administration and Supply Division, I reported directly to the Executive Officer. I was the entire health department with the exception of a short period of time when I had a junior corpsman assigned to assist me. I held daily sick call where I treated sick and injured crewmembers. I made daily sanitation inspections of the living and food storage spaces. I inspected the galleys, mess decks and food handlers. I was responsible for assuring that the potable water was properly treated. I also held classes in first aid, sanitation, and hygiene and casualty control. Maybe one of my most important roles was that of a counselor. I was the “Doc”, I took care of their health, I had a private place, Sickbay, where they could come and discuss their problems, personal or otherwise, and they knew that it would be just between me and them. So, by default, I was the father confessor and keeper of my crew’s secrets and personal problems.
The sickbay on a 378 was comprised of a lot of medical equipment fitted into a small space. My treatment area included an operating table and surgical lights. There was a Picker portable x-ray machine attached to the bulkhead (wall) that would extend over the table so you could shoot x-rays. I had a Polaroid film developer which allowed for rapid development of the x-rays.
I had a small area set up as a lab with a microscope and small centrifuge. There were both large and small autoclaves to sterilize instruments and surgical packs. I had a work counter and many lockers and cabinets to store my pharmaceuticals as well as dressings, instruments, surgical packs and medical texts. There was also a refrigerator to store injectable serums, plasma and other drugs requiring refrigeration. Sickbay included a two bunk ward adjacent to the main treatment room and a bathroom with a shower and Jacuzzi tub. We had a Gomco suction machine, a wide variety of IV fluids and just about everything you might need to perform emergency surgery. I had two laporotomy packs, for exploratory abdominal surgery, which I always kept sterile and ready just in case a situation arose where they were needed. The rest of my empire included a locker across the passageway from sickbay that held our NBC warfare equipment as well as a good size medical supply storage space in the forward part of the ship. We carried a lot of medical equipment and supplies. Enough to support a major medical emergency and/or a doctor if one were assigned, as there had been in Vietnam. During my tenure, except for radio assistance, I was on my own.
Maybe this would be a good place to tell you how it felt to be on your own as an Independent Duty Corpsman. It was pretty darn scary. Many times during my six plus years on Independent Duty I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat as some “what if” scenario played through my mind. When that happened I would get up and refer to what ever medical texts I might have available looking for answers to the problem that had awakened me. When it came to life and death medical emergencies you could never know enough.
Well, here I was back in Hawaii. It was the second time for me and the first for my wife. Everything we owned including our car was in transit and we were staying in TLA quarters waiting for a leased housing unit to become available. Our temporary lodging was a Second World War vintage hotel. It was in Waikiki just one street off the beach which was okay but it was surrounded by new high-rise hotels which made this two story relic look even more like a dump than it was. It had doors with jalousies that opened directly into an open courtyard with no security. As luck would have it the day after I reported aboard the ship it was scheduled to leave for underway/refresher training. This is something our cutters did every year. This training period was a month long for major cutters and although we were not going to be far away the operational term here was “underway”.
The ship was moved from its normal mooring place at the Sand Island Coast Guard Base over to Pearl Harbor where a large number of Navy and Coast Guard Instructors would come aboard and put you through your paces. You were trained, drilled and tested in all the ships various evolutions and most of it was done off shore. During this training you could not count on getting home most nights because on those periods that you were not actually out overnight, you started so early in the morning and got back in and tied up so late at night it was not practical to go home. So, my little Filipina wife and my baby boy were alone in wild Waikiki.
We did have one scare during this period when a burglar, probably an addict, kicked in all the jalousie doors on our floor of the hotel and ransacked the rooms. He/they really trashed our room and got away with some jewelry and a small amount of pocket change. Thank God this happened in the middle of the day when my wife had taken our son out in the stroller for a walk and to get a bite of lunch. Her only other complaint was that when she did go outside she could hardly walk ten feet without a tourist asking her to pose in front of a palm tree so they could take a picture of her. I could not blame them. She was pretty, twenty-three, stood 4’10”, weighed maybe ninety-five pounds and had long black hair down to the backs of her legs. She was an Island girl; these were just the wrong Islands. Anyway she thought it was funny because all of the people who were taking souvenir pictures of her had probably been in Hawaii longer than she had.
By the time underway training had ended we had secured housing in a nice duplex in Pearl City. Some of the other Mellon crew members lived in the neighborhood and in no time my wife met some of the other wives and established a support system to help her over the hard spots while I was away. My family was settled in the best that they could be, now it was time for me to go back to sea. This would be the last sea duty tour for me and the last of the four ships I would sail in during my Coast Guard Career.
Those of you that have been there will know what I am talking about when I say, once you have sailed the seas it never leaves your blood. It will always be there just below the surface that longing to return to the sea. The smell, the feel of the rolling decks beneath your feet, the potential for new adventures just over the horizon and the camaraderie of your shipmates, that’s what going to sea, is all about.
AN OCEAN STATION NOVEMBER PATROL TO REMEMBER
I was back, the underway training and drills had finished in early November and I was becoming familiar with my new ship and crew. Our patrol schedule had allowed me to spend some time with my family during the Holidays. This was a good thing because starting with our ocean station patrol in January I would be away from home 192 days in 1974. Since we were leaving on January 22, the first part of the month was spent getting ready to get under way. For me this meant I had to make sure all my crew members who needed physicals or dental work got it done. I also had to make sure that my medical supplies were stocked up and that I had everything I would need for the patrol. This is always a critical time because if you don’t think of it and get it done when you are in port it is too late, because when you are at sea what you see is what you’ve got.
The morning of January 22 finally came around and as they threw off the mooring lines I waved goodbye to my wife and son who I would not see again for another month, actually thirty-four days in this instance. It was winter time in Hawaii just like in the rest of the states and it is often cooler than the tourist brochures would lead you to believe. However, this was a fair morning probably in the upper sixties with a mild breeze. When we reached the sea buoy the ocean swells were about four feet which gave the Mellon a nice easy gait. We were heading a thousand miles to the Northeast so this would pick up some by the time we got on station which would take four days plus or minus depending on our speed and weather conditions.
I like the motion of the sea and I like the smells associated with ships at sea. The smell is a not unpleasant mixture of humans living and working in close quarters, food being prepared in the galley, the sea air and the stack gas from the diesel engines. Nothing else smells like that. At sea my food tastes better and most of the time I was able to sleep like a baby. And I am very, very fortunate that I have never suffered from seasickness. The first thing that happens after you get underway is the setting of the sea or/underway watch. The next evolution was an abandon ship drill. And maybe a man overboard drill. After that you would pretty much settle in to your daily underway routine.
The routine on Ocean Station could be pretty monotonous unless you had some kind of emergency or the other. And most of the time you didn’t. The day started with reveille then chow call for breakfast which was followed by morning muster on the fantail.
After muster you would report back to your regular duties or to your watch station if you had the watch. In my case I held sick call at 0800 and then I would make my round of inspections and write reports of conditions found with recommendations for corrective action. I would hold food handlers inspections before the noon meal. After lunch everybody would report to quarters on the fantail once again, this was also known as “Officer’s Call”. At this muster the division officers would pass “the word” make any general announcements they had or present any information the Commanding Officer may want passed to the crew. After quarters if we were going to have any training, instructions or a drill this is usually when it would take place.
At 1600 (4:00PM) the crew would secure for the day except for the duty section/watch standers. Shortly after that the evening meal would be served. During their off hours the crew relaxed in a number of ways. Some read books or worked on correspondence courses for advancement or maybe worked on some hobby. Others might exercise in the balloon shelter or run laps of the flight deck. Since we did not carry a helicopter on ocean station the flight deck was free for our unique brand of volley ball which was the source of a lot of work for me.
So how do you play volley ball at sea? You use a tether ball and a piece of shot line long enough to allow the ball to go past the out of bounds mark. One end of the line was tied to the tether ball the other end to the top of the net. The hazards involved in this sport were helicopter tie-downs on the deck. The deck itself which was non-skid (ground up abrasives mixed in the paint). Line burns between the fingers and on necks from the shot line and, the motion of the ocean. Say you took a mighty leap at the net to block the ball and maybe you get a foot in the air, at the same time the ship may drop three or four feet so when you came down the distance to the deck could be four or five feet. I had to care for lots of twisted ankles and a lot of skin torn off of hands and knees. However, the morale was more important than the injuries.
Another thing we all looked forward to was the evening movie. There were movies shown in the wardroom, the chief’s mess, and the First Class quarters as well as on the crew’s mess deck. Friday nights were “make your own pizza nights”. The cooks would lay out all the ingredients and the crew would fix their own pizza. Occasionally, weather and sea conditions permitting we would have a barbeque out on the weather decks (outside). That was pretty much life on Ocean Station November. This particular November Station would, however, prove to be a little more exciting.
As I recall our steaming time out to November was routine. We were probably on station around 30 January. When we arrived on station what would usually happen is we would go to one edge of the grid as determined by the sea conditions; i.e., current and size and direction of waves. Then we would run the engines with just enough turns to keep way on, forward motion, and keep us out of the trough. When we got to the other end of the grid we would steam back and do it all over again. On dead calm days, which did not happen that often, we would shut down the engines and just drift.
The first of two medical emergencies and a major search and rescue operation that would take place on this patrol happened on 3 February when a nineteen year old seaman showed up for sick call complaining of severe right hip joint pain and running a temperature of 101.2. After taking a long history, doing a white blood count and a Gram Stain on his urethral discharge it was my presumptive diagnoses that he was suffering from a long term untreated case of Neisseria Gonorrhea Perhaps as far back as May of the previous year. And he was now presenting with symptoms of Gonococcal Arthritis secondary to the untreated infection. The patient was spiking temperatures between 101 and 103.4 over the next twenty four hour period. After radio consultation with Public Health Service Physicians I administered the drugs that were ordered and kept them advised of his progress. At some point it was determined that we should try to evacuate him. We were able to contact the merchant vessel American Reliance which was transiting our area in route to Honolulu. They had a medical person aboard capable of administering injectable medications. So, on 10 February we transferred my patient to the other ship to be admitted to Tripler Army Hospital when they arrived in Port.
I had no sooner got this patient transferred when we received a call for assistance from a Norwegian merchant vessel in our area with a sick crew member aboard. This patient was a 27 year old Norwegian National. When I examined him on his ship he was semi-conscious and breathing with some difficulty. After consulting with USPHS Hospital San Francisco it was recommended that we bring him on board Mellon for treatment. The patient had been diagnosed with Asthma 15 days earlier in Japan. He had been given some kind of medication, type unknown, and was returned to duty. The medication had run out in three days. I started an IV and then administered 250 MG Aminophyline IV over a period of fifteen minutes in accordance with instructions from the USPHS Doctors. This seemed to pretty much relieve his symptoms.
His breathing improved and he gained consciousness. After I convinced him he had not been abducted by space aliens he perked up and took nourishment in the form of a bowl of soup. As luck would have it, on the following day, we were able to transfer this patient to the Luxury Liner Canberra which was bound for Honolulu.
I LOSE MY DAD AND The "Giovanna Lolli Ghetti" Incident
After these two incidents life went pretty much back to normal aboard the ship until 21 February. On the 21st everybody was ready to head home and we were all eagerly awaiting our relief ship which was scheduled to arrive at first light the next day. The first indication I had that it was not going to be a routine day was the Executive Officer coming down the passageway with one of those dreaded yellow slips from the radio room. You did not want one of these addressed to you while you were at sea because that is how they informed you that something had happened to a member of your family. I thought damn! It must be my Dad. It wasn’t. It was for one of our young crewmen whose father had died. The XO asked me if I would talk with the young man and see what I could do to console him. I spent a couple hours with him and did what I could to comfort and help him through his grief. Later that same day the XO came back with two more of those yellow messages. One informed me of the death of my Father. The other one informed me that an Italian super tanker had exploded and sank approximately 900 miles Northeast of Honolulu. And that we were proceeding at best speed to assist in the search and rescue of the forty-one crewmen that had been on board. Using the Jet turbine engines our ETA would be sometime before noon the next morning.
I guess this was a mixed blessing because I had little time to consider the loss of my father. All I could think about was the SAR case. And what I was going to do with forty-one casualties? Well, explosions meant fire and fire meant burns. Also Getting off a ship in an emergency was always a dicey situation and prone to all kinds of injuries. Last but not least being in the water, even relatively warm water, any length of time could lead to hypothermia. So, I spent most of the night putting together and sterilizing burn packs and gathering other emergency medical supplies that I would most likely need. I put much of this stuff into a pack that ended up weighing about sixty pounds, that way if need be I could take it with me to another location. And this is precisely what happened.
The Giovanna Lolli Ghetti had unloaded her cargo in San Francisco and was bound for Sumatra for another load of crude oil.
It was speculated at the time that vapors in the empty tanks were somehow ignited causing a series of explosions. The ship listed to forty-five degrees and sank rapidly. They were not able to send an SOS because one of the first explosions took out their radio room. The Norwegian freighter Tamerlane was twenty-two miles away and saw the explosions in the night sky. She radioed an SOS which was picked up by the Mellon. The Tamerlane then proceeded to the scene and started to pick up survivors.
When we arrived on scene at 11:50 AM, debris, oil, survivors and bodies were spread out over eight square miles of ocean. The survivors and injured crewmen were being put aboard the Tamerlane who was first on scene. It was decided that I should go to the Tamerlane to asses the injuries and prepare the survivors for evacuation to the Mellon and transport back to Honolulu. It may sound easy but getting from one ship to another in the open ocean has its hazards. Our small boats of the day were twenty-six foot motor cargo boats. They were heavy, had excellent sea keeping abilities and were well suited to the task. However, putting them in the water in relatively heavy seas was something else. Sea conditions run from number one (flat calm) to number 10 (the perfect storm or a typhoon). On that day swells were running at about eight to ten feet. To launch the small boats in these conditions you had to create a safe environment. The Skipper would steer the ship in a large circle and this would flatten the swells inside the circle allowing you to lower the boats with relative ease.
MY YEARS OF COAST GUARD TRAINING AND EXPERIENCE PROVE THEIR VALUE
I was on the first boat over. When you are on your ship it seems very large, after all 177 people live and work on board. However, when you are in a small boat on the open ocean and look back at your ship from a mile away it looks like a toy. I was in the life boat but getting in the boat was the easy part. Getting out and scrambling four stories up the side of a large merchant vessel was something else. The Coast Guard has some of the best small boat coxswains in the world and it would take a good one to pull this off. Timing and seamanship are everything. A twenty-six foot boat in ten foot seas is like riding on a roller coaster. One minute you are on the top of the wave the next you are at the bottom. If the coxswain does not make his approach just right he could crash the small boat up against the hull of the freighter. Once he gets into position he has to try and hold it, again without hitting the ship. Otherwise he has to keep coming around until he gets it right.
So once the coxswain has you in position how do you get aboard the freighter? You use something called a Jacob’s ladder. All ships have them in one form or another. Basically it is a rope ladder with wooden rungs that can be rolled down the side of the ship so you can climb up. We made ours with reinforced dowel rungs and nonskid surfaces. The one on the Tamerlane was a little different. It had flat rungs that had been painted with white enamel paint and, I’m sorry but, it was as slippery as snot on the preverbal door knob. It also was not as long as I might have liked. I worked out a lot in those days and I was pretty strong and that turned out to be a good thing.
When the boat was at the bottom of the swell I could not reach the ladder at all. When it was at the top I could only reach up about two rungs so I decided to stand on the gunwales to give myself a little extra reach, a dangerous maneuver in itself. Once you commit you have to go. If you miss or slip you can be crushed like a bug between the small boat and the ships hull. A number of Coastguardsmen have been killed or injured this way over the years. I rode the swell up and down several times before I finally went for it. As I grabbed and felt that slippery rung one thought went through my mind. Oh! s---t I have sixty extra pounds strapped to my back. What I should have done was climb up first and then pull the medical pack up with a piece of line (rope). Well, obviously I made it but as I look back, it gives me a little chill when I think what could have happened.
When I got to the top of the ladder a couple of the Tamerlane’s crewmen hauled me and my medical pack over the ships railing. One of the ship’s officers was there to meet me. I introduced myself as the medical person from the American Coast Guard ship. While he led me aft where the living quarters and bridge of the freighter were located he filled me in on the situation with the survivors as well as the casualties. One crew member from the sunken ship was still missing, seven were already dead when they had been found, two were severely burned, of the remaining thirty-one some had minor injuries and some were suffering from hypothermia. The officer took me to a good size compartment or large stateroom that I figured was some part of the crews berthing area and I actually smelled my patients before I saw them. There is something unmistakable about the smell of burnt human flesh. Flash burns are terrible things they are caused not just by flame but rather by super-heated flame under pressure, in this case exploding fuel tanks.
These guys were in bad shape and I knew that if I managed to save them it was going to be pushing the envelope of my medical knowledge and abilities.
THE CAPTAIN WANTS TO KNOW
I had just started to lay out my equipment when a messenger came down from the bridge and told me that my Skipper Captain Ben Stabile wanted a status report. So, I stopped what I was doing and went to the radio room and gave him the same information that I had received when I came aboard. I also indicated that the two burn victims were pretty bad and it was going to take some time before they could be transferred. At the same time the Captain informed me that they had been in contact with a Russian Fishing Vessel, the Novikov Priboy. He said they had a doctor on board and that they would arrive at 3:30 PM which was only about an hour and a half from the present time.
I was thinking to myself what would a doctor be doing on a fishing vessel? Either Russia has too many doctors or this guy is some hack who can’t cut it in the medical community. On the other hand I needed all the help I could get so I decided to just try and stabilize my patients until the doctor arrived and see what he had to contribute in terms of more definitive treatment. When I got back down to my patients I found one of the other crew members in a lot of pain with a badly dislocated shoulder. I gave him an injection with a sedative/muscle relaxant and told him I would return in a little while to see what I could do to put his shoulder back in place. Then I returned to the burn cases and after taking their vital signs I administered morphine and started intravenous fluids and monitored their progress until the Russian doctor arrived.
While I was doing this it seemed that every fifteen minutes my Captain would have me brought up to the bridge to give him additional status reports until I finally got a little testy with him over the radio. I said “skipper, who by the way was on the short list for Admiral, I can’t very well take care of my patients if every few minutes I have to stop what I am doing, come three compartments forward and four decks up to talk to you. When there is something to report I will let you know. This was not a politically correct thing to do and I don’t recommend it for those planning a long successful career in the military service. The truth was that I was up to my neck in burned people and I was trying to concentrate all my efforts on keeping them alive. The interruptions were frustrating. When the Russians arrived things became even more frustrating until we got the language problems straightened out and figured out who was going to do what.
THE RUSSIAN DOCTOR
The Russian doctor turned out to be an older gentleman who spoke no English. He had brought a younger man with him who spoke only rudimentary English to act as a translator. I attempted to tell the doctor that I had already administered morphine as he went about breaking out his medical equipment. I don’t think he got the message or at least it did not register at that time.
I was shocked to see how far behind they were in terms of their medical supplies and equipment. He pulled out a hand full of various sized glass syringes and steel needles and had one of the Tamerlane’s people boil them on the stove. We had not used those kinds of syringes and needles for fifteen years. Everything in the States came in sterile pre-packs and was disposable. I had factory manufactured sterile burn dressings already impregnated with antibiotic medications and large burn dressings which I had sterilized before coming over from my ship. I offered him the use of these things but he was not familiar with my stuff so he chose to use his own. His burn dressings consisted of WWII vintage roller bandages which he placed in a basin he then took out some vials of powder that looked like penicillin and poured them into the basin added water and mixed the whole thing up with his hands.
When the boiled syringes came back from the galley the doctor gave our patients some kind of injection. After which he proceeded to take some blood pressure readings. I had never seen a blood pressure cuff like his. It came in about four pieces. However, I guess it worked because as he was reading the numbers, I learned some Russian expletives. It seems that he finally figured out what I had been trying to tell him earlier about the morphine. And he realized that he had just duplicated that treatment with his injections. One thing I knew for sure was, now, these guys were feeling no pain.
The thing about flash burns is that they are so hot that they instantly peel and blister the skin. They disintegrate your clothing except for any thick or constricting parts like seams, belts, elastic in underwear, watches. These will burn deep into your flesh like branding irons. In the parts of your body where bones are close to the surface like your fingers or the cartilage that forms the ridge of your nose these can also be super heated and do damage from the inside out.
This pretty much described our patients from the waist to the upper body including their heads. Their fingers were split open like hotdogs that had been left on the grill too long and their noses were split right down the middle. After much broken English and a lot of medical sign language it was decide how we should proceed. One of our main concerns, other than just keeping them alive, was preventing infection during the three day trip back to Honolulu. So it was decided that debridement of the devitalized tissue would be necessary. The doctor took one patient and I took the other. Using surgical scissors and forceps we carefully removed the pieces of clothing that were adhered to the burns and then trimmed away as much of the dead tissue as possible. This probably took a couple of hours. When we were done we dressed the wounds with antiseptic burn dressings. He used his and I used mine, after which I wrapped both patients in sterile sheets and blankets for the transfer to my ship.
BACK TO THE MELLON
Once the patients and other survivors were ready to go I radioed my Captain and gave him a final situation report and let him know we were ready to start transferring people to the Mellon. He said he would send over the boats. As I recall it was just about dusk when we loaded the last of the small boats. I remember one of the boat officers, a young Ensign, as I proceeded to load seven bodies in his boat. He said, eyes as round as saucers, “Chief, I’ve never seen anybody who was dead before”. I told him it is never pleasant but if you are going to make a career in the Coast Guard you had better learn to deal with it. He turned a couple shades lighter but he kept a stiff upper lip and did his duty.
Everybody on the Mellon did their duty. After all, rescuing people on the high seas is an all hands evolution and teamwork is what makes it work. While I was treating survivors over on the Tamerlane the crew of the Mellon had not been idle. Using the numbers I had provided to the Captain things were already in motion to make our guests welcome and as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. One of the voids, a space with no specified use, was opened. We used it to store new clothing in the form of Coast Guard work uniforms in all sizes that were kept on board specifically for use by survivors. This way they could have fresh clean clothes when they came aboard.
The crewmen that ran the ships store rounded up soap, toothbrushes, razors and other personal care items for each of them. The men in operations berthing gave up their bunks and slept on the deck or hot bunked with somebody on watch.
In the galley the cooks dusted of their Italian recipes and prepared pasta dishes. The guys up in communications set up phone patches so the survivors could make calls to loved ones in Italy and let them know that they were okay. Our engineers kept everything running at peak efficiency and the deck force lowered and operated the small boats with great skill. Unfortunately some of same young men on the deck force were going to get a closer look at their first dead people. I only had two body bags on board so the seamen had to construct body bags for five of the deceased using dodger material (a thin plastic coated canvas).
As it turned out the bodies were going to present us with a problem or two of their own. We could not leave them out on deck for three or four days. They needed to be refrigerated but our food chill boxes were too small and had they not been it would have presented us with a sanitation problem. That left no choice but to use our large freezers which presented an altogether different problem. Many of our cooks, mess cooks and stewards were Filipinos and most Filipinos are superstitious. Having corpses in the freezers spooked them so bad that none of them would go near the refer decks so we had to get other crewmembers to break out the chow for meals.
After I got my patients aboard our ship I inserted urethral catheters so they could pass urine, checked there vitals, checked their IV’s and made them as comfortable as possible for the three day ride to Honolulu. The Skipper put the “Birds” on the line, jet turbines, and off we went on our way home. I settled in for a long ride which I spent in sickbay with my patients catching cat naps in a chair when I could. I was concerned about one of my patients who was in a bit worse shape than the other. I passed that word to the XO who passed it to the CO and he did some of his magic. The next word that I got was that an Australian Air Craft Carrier was leaving Pearl Harbor with a Coast Guard Helicopter and a Navy Doctor on board. As soon as they got in range they would launch the helicopter with the doctor. Actually this was only going to buy us one day but what the heck one day was one day.
When the Helicopter landed a Navy doctor that looked about twenty-five showed up at my sickbay. He took a quick look at my patients, said there was only room for one and asked me which one I wanted to send. After that he went to the ward room to get a cup of coffee while the chopper was refueled. That’s the last I saw of him.
We put the more serious of the two burn patients in a litter and loaded him on the helicopter and they took off. We would not get to Honolulu until the next night.
When we pulled into our berth at the Sand Island Coast Guard Base the following evening the dock area was a zoo. There were ambulances and the press corps was there in large numbers as were officials from the Italian Government, Big Shots from the Coast Guard Fourteenth District Office, God knows who all else and of course our families. I had no appetite for the fanfare and hullabaloo. I had barely closed my eyes in the past five days and all I wanted to do was hug my wife and son and catch up on my sleep. Then I would put in for some emergency leave to visit my Mother and do what I could to comfort her as well as deal with my own grief following the death of my Father.
After I had made sure that my remaining burn patient as well as the other survivors and the bodies of their shipmates were put ashore and passed over to the proper authorities, I secured sickbay, put on civilian clothes and slipped down the gangway and past the media people. I found my wife and baby boy and we went home. Let the others reap the glory. My satisfaction came from knowing that most of these sailors had lived to talk about their battle with Neptune and that I had had a hand in it.
After A few months had passed I found myself standing in ranks in the hot tropical sun watching as my Commanding Officer was awarded the Order of Merit by the Italian Republic. Captain Stabile was later transferred to Washington D.C. where he became Admiral Stabile and was eventually appointed Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard.
Me. I stayed on the Mellon for two more November Patrols, three Alaska Patrols, a yard period, another refresher training period, an ASW exercise with the Navy and a few more SAR cases. We were underway so much when my kid started to talk he didn’t call me Dada he called me “Bye-Bye Ship.” In October of 1975 I was transferred to the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama. I guess somebody had reviewed the Report on the "Giovanna Lolli Ghetti" incident and decided, after the fact, that my actions were worthy of recognition. So, about a year after I reported to ATC Mobile, in a ceremony held in the main hanger I received the Coast Guard Achievement Medal with Operational Distinguishing Device. After three years at ATC I was transferred to the Seventeenth Coast Guard District in Juneau, Alaska where I was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer and served as Chief, Health Services Branch. I served in that capacity until I retired from the service in 1984.
My only regrets are that I can’t go back and do it all over again.
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