Ainu Autumn

by Pat Glesner


Fall and I arrived in Northern Japan at the same time. And a lovely, rainbow autumn it was: cider, carved pumpkins, a harvest moon, and golden Tamarack stretching into distant hills. On lazy afternoons in those waning days of 1988, the crew combed the nearby beach for glass fishing floats and other treasures, or parked themselves in front of the TV and watched the Chunichi Dragons and the Seibu Lions see‑saw battle for baseball's World Championship. In the evenings the smell of burning leaves wafting over the fields and mingled with the odor of cow manure.

Autumn In Japan

At the end of October the station celebrated Halloween and the season with a "Gijin party," attended by many of our local friends. About the same time Typhoon Ruby's far reaching skirt swirled over Hokkaido, leaving us a taste of what was soon in store: waves of icy rain and a cold, hunting wind washed over us, rattled the station building and drove us close to the hearth. This soon broke though, giving us crisp, Ainu Summer days that carried us through the middle of the month.

Thereafter, Mother Nature didn't seem to want to settle into one mode. We'd get two or three days of warm shirtsleeve weather, and then two or three days of cold before the cycle started all over again. Unfortunately, LORAN Ops at Hokkaido was about as predictable as the weather, and had been for years. It had been over five years since the station last put together three months of 99% on-air and in-tolerance.

During the last week in November it seemed as if winter had finally arrived. Monday the 28th started off with sheets of icy rain and a strong, cold wind blowing off the Pacific. On Friday it turned to snow, and by early Saturday morning we had two inches on the ground. But by Saturday afternoon the storm and the snow were gone.

And so Monday arrived, warm and sunny. The station van was gassed up and loaded, ready to haul our skipper, LTJG Todd Watanabe, and Senior Chief Art Odgers and Chief Jerry Beneke to the Obihiro airport.  The chiefs were off on a boondoggle, a CPO conference in Tokyo; the "old man" was taking care of some dental problems. So I was left in charge, with all the other high power gone. "Jack" Sato, LORAN Station Hokkaido's interpreter for the past twenty-five years had also recently retired, and had not yet been replaced. If I had to conduct any business with the locals in the next week, I would have to do it with the help of Shishi, our cook, or DC2 Greg Ackley--"Chumley"--a young man with good command of Japanese, on his second tour at LORSTA Hokkaido.

I don't know if the skipper had begun to trust me in the few weeks I had been there, or if he was leaving me with just enough rope to hang myself. In any case, he left me with a short "to-do" list: repair storm damage to the station, conduct a pre-mast investigation on an incident involving our only bad boy (who had gotten himself in trouble for the fourth time in as many weeks), and of course try to keep our good run going: 15 days on-air and in-tolerance as of that morning, a recent record.

  Coasties on shipboard and LORAN duty share the same adage: "It's hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer panic."  The wailing of sirens usually signaled a LORAN crisis. That week trouble arrived in a more subtle and odorous way. One of our engineers, MK2 Dennis Ezekiel, walked into my office that Monday afternoon in hip boots and a heavy-duty raincoat, absolutely covered with muck. "Zeke" looked like he he'd just stepped out of a cesspool, and he pretty much smelled the same way. And he was unclogging the discharge side of our "water purification system."  Our drinking water, befogged even on the best days, had finally gone completely to pot.

A quarter of a century earlier, Coast Guard planners selected a 100 hectare section of land near the mouth of the Tokachi River on the southeast side of Hokkaido as the site for a new LORAN station. They designed and constructed it to be as independent as possible; however, they did not completely severe dependence on local Japanese infrastructure and resources. For instance, although our power was commercial, if need be we could run independently on generators. 

  An outside source also provided raw water, filtered on station. Waste water was treated and then dumped back on the Japanese countryside. For these functions, there were two nearby streams. One oozed out of a murky swampland, coursed through farm fields, barnyards and cow pastures, gurgled through culverts, and slogged over quicksand and clay before it slowed to a mere trickle below our lower pump house and dam. Its waters were home for none but the appropriately named "sh*t fish." Even the Japanese wouldn't eat them.

Not half-a-mile away another, pristine creek sprung up, and cascaded and rippled over beds of glistening gravel and polished stone as it meandered majestically through virgin woodland and peaceful meadows. Several miles downstream its waters were drawn into placid, man‑made pools: nurseries for fry trout that would someday stock other rivers and streams in Japan. It wouldn't even have surprise me to hear Sapporo boast that it drew the water for its Classic, 100% Fine Malt beer from our delicate little stream. But ... from which of these two runs do you suppose we drew our drinking water?

  As you've undoubtedly guessed, our water came from the first of these streams. From the Lower Pump House we pumped water from the pond to the Upper Pump House where it passed through two sand filters and was chlorinated. Our engineers felt the problem stemmed from the filters. They had been in use for so long and were so saturated that they simply pushed old, stale, foul and thoroughly polluted scum through while filtering new, fresh dirt out.

  We usually had an emergency, fail-safe system: a distillery, routinely used to purify cooling water for our transmitters. When that was running normally there was enough surplus to supply the mess deck with a few extra gallons of pure water a week. But that plant was also out‑of‑commission.

  What goes in must come out. So where do you suppose our waste water went?  Why into our delicate little creek of course. The engineers assured me that this was absolutely no problem though. "It's good enough to drink" they told me, which didn't mean much considering what we did drink. But in this case I was inclined to believe them.

  First we strained "potable" water through 24 bodies to get most of the large chunks out, and then we ran it through another organic sewage treatment system. Those little bugs did the job -- I guarantee it. It not only passed the down‑wind test, it was even odorless inside the plant. And that impressed me. There were towns over there you could smell long before you reached them!  The toughest part about going on liberty was the aromatic wait at the Yoshino train station.

All this reminded me of Mark Twain's observation on St. Louis drinking water: "they let it sit in the glass until the mud settles out. Then they stir it up and drink it."  If we left things the way they were that was prospect we faced, of drinking brown water until at least the following spring. Or we could have taken a clue from our recently departed corpsman "Zippy," strictly a beer man he‑‑water never touched his lips.

  "The word 'dysentery' mean anything to you?" he had asked me, Bud in hand. "Think about where that water's been. There's a dairy farm upstream. And, need I remind you, cows produce more than milk!"

  During the mast investigation our delinquent crewman, who had been charged with drinking beer while in a restricted status, also used this defense: "surely you don't expect me to drink water!!?"

  I much as I liked it, I still didn't see beer as the answer. I missed my coffee, and dry brushing my teeth and rinsing with beer seems a terrible waste of beer. And so I directed the engineers to continued looking into the problem.

Further investigation proved that the engineers first guess was partially right: we definitely had soiled filters. Civil Engineering's "maintenance program" calls for replacement of the sand every three years; however, according to our records, it's been thirteen since last they were touched. To rectify the problem we couldn't just go down to the beach and scoop up a few bucket loads. We had to use several different grades of a special silicate sand, from very fine to course, tiered on top of sized and layered gravel.

  When we opened up the filters we not only found the crud we expected, but we also discovered that they hadn't even been put together properly. One of them had sand in it, and that only of one grade, and the other was mostly gravel. Since the filters were paralleled, that meant most of the water was taking the path of least resistance through gravel. When we put them back together this time we did it right. We got several bucket loads of gravel and used wire mesh to grade it (pebbles, stones, rocks and boulders), while Chumley went off in search of a "Japanese Sandman."

  While the engineers worked on our material needs, I took off for the Obihiro airport, to pick up Lieutenant Colonel "Rod" Pruss, a Catholic, US Air Force chaplain, a man who would spend three days administering to our spiritual needs. Upon arriving at the station Father Pruss walked into the head to freshen up. Moments later, the sound of running water was almost instantaneously drowned out by a boisterous shout, followed by a few other choice adjectives describing the foul substance splashing into the sink. Afterwards, we discussed our water problem and the crew's religious needs over the only liquid then currently adequate for quenching one's thirst. For the remainder of his visit Father Pruss was strictly a beer man.

  After two days of hard work we were ready to start pushing water through again. The result?  Even after completely flushing the storage tanks and pipes, the water looked and smelt pretty much the same as it had before. So I called a war council to analyze the problem and decide how best we could handle it.

For this second go around, taking a scientific approach, we gathered up several empty pickle jars and collected samples from various sources around the station. Three of these showed clear: water collected just upstream from the pond, water from the spring behind us (source or our delicate little creek), and the discharge from the "rose room" (sewage treatment plant). Three others were a murky brown: pond water, water from the upper pump house, before filtration, and lastly, filtered drinking water. Since the water from the pump house was no more brown than the pond water, that eliminated one of our first ideas: a broken water pipe. Also of interest, and a clue, was the fact that the color did not settle out of the water.

  Next, HS1 Dennis "Doc" Mellick  tested each of our water samples. This showed that the most drinkable water was the filtered and chlorinated water we are using (but only because it is chlorinated.) It may have looked and smelt bad, but at least it was safe. As for the unappetizing coloration and odor, we brainstormed this: a four day storm and several days of cold weather preceded our troubles. This caused a heavy run-off from the fields above us, which in turn dumped an unusual amount of mud and organic material into our pond. The resulting organic soup precipitated the formation of brown algae, a harmless though not altogether palatable vegetation, normally kept in check by sunlight and running water. The conditions here were now perfect. Our pond was not only relatively stagnate, but a veneer of ice formed over it right after the storm, thus effectively sealing out sunlight.

We passed on our results of our investigation to FESEC. They agreed with the findings, and added another possible cause: the pond has not been flushed since the dam's construction twenty-five years before. After that much time it had to be heavily silted. And we drew our water from the bottom of the pond.

As a solution (or at least a partial solution,) FESEC suggested we open up the flood gates and drop the pond by a foot, breaking up the ice and stirring up some current flow, while flushing some of the silt and brown algae laden waters out, leaving room for several thousand gallons of fresh, clear water from the stream above.

  I wish I could report that crystalline water was pouring out of our pipes when Watanabe returned; however, I cannot. Not until spring did our water return to its normal, murky, semi-translucent self. On the plus side, our good run had continued during the Skipper's absence. We now had 22 days on-air and in-tolerance, a recent record.


Pat Glesner is a former Coastie and a Technical Writer-Editor for the U.S. Army -TACOM

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