Alcatraz Disguised

By John J. Murray



The following story was compiled from two newsletters printed in the North Coast New York Coast Guard Assn. and confirmed by a telephone interview with the author John J. Murray, WO, USCG retired.  Mr. Murray turned 86 on Sept. 30, 2001.

At 82 I have almost total recall of the year 1937.  I was a surfman at Buffalo Lifeboat Station and about a month at Oswego LBS during the river floods on the big rivers.

I enlisted on the 7th of January, 1937.  A surfman was paid $60 a month whereas new enlistees in the Cutter Service started at $21 a month.  We had a great first class cook and we ate very well on $22 a month per man which meant most months we each got $12 back from the unspent mess money.

At Buffalo LBS, serfmen worked 12 hour days with a 4 hour pier or tower watch added to the workday.  During the watches I had to punch a time clock every 30 minutes.  During the winter of ’37 I missed one half hour punch and got restricted for 30 days.  And it was not unusual to be awakened at any hour of the night to go on a rescue call or to drag for a body.  In 1937 we picked up 54 bodies or body parts due to suicides, murders, accidental drownings, etc.  The worst was finding a drowned child, working on the body with the Schaefer prone pressure method or the Howard-Sylvester method and having the hysterical parents pulling at us to save the child.  

Drills were held almost every day that included beach cart drills, capsize drills, pulling boat drills, fire drills, etc.  Capsize drill entailed the skipper at the steering oar with an 8 man crew taking the 26 foot lone Monomoy self-bailing surfboat out past the break wall and capsizing the boat.  The crew stowed the oars beneath the thwarts and stood on the gunwale and pulled the boat over.  We then had to right the boat, climb back in, retrieve the oars and row on command.  Surfmen were allowed one 24 hour liberty every 8 days.  The LBS regimen at Buffalo was very strict and restrictions to base for minor infractions were not uncommon.   

One day in mid summer of ’37, three of us were on the weather side of the boat house working with picks and shovels when BM1 Windy Brown came over and told us to go get some buckets and rags and start cleaning the old man’s house.  We started to move but Norman Mantell said “I ain’t going!”  Windy admonished him and said ”Mantell , you’re off your rocker and you know what the old man will do!”  The other surfmen and I went along with Brownie and did what we were told.  Buffalo LBS didn’t earn the nickname amongst the crew as Alcatraz camouflaged for nothing.

The next morning, a Saturday I believe, the old man and Mantell out in front of the station breaking up a curb about 50 feet long, 16 inches above and 12 inches below the ground all day in the sun with the sweat pouring off of him.  He didn’t quit until the job was done.  The next day he was shipped to Galloo Island.  That 12 pound sledge hammer must have gotten pretty heavy and raised a few blisters on old Mantell.  Of course I new then that the pin stripe warrant Bos’n who ran Buffalo then was not like skippers at most LBS.  I remember that a warrant named Jackson who ran Charlotte outside of Rochester was much beloved by his men as was MacCune at Oswego.

In our 8 man pulling boat crew I was stuck with the bow oar being the light man at 148 pounds.  On the way back to the station from a time trial run we were all pooped.  I caught a crab and hit Joe Takach in the back of the neck with both hands wrapped around the oar.  Brownie  who had the steering oar screamed and swore at me and told all hands to ship oars.  We were about ¾ of a mile from the station slip.  He then ordered me and Mantell amidship and had the two of us row the crew back to the station.  Mantell was really pissed. 

The month I spent at Oswego LBS under a CWO by the name of MacCune was literally a vacation compared to Buffalo. I remember a Saturday when I painting a lifeboat inside the boathouse when I saw a shadow obstructing by work.  I looked up to see the skipper watching me and he asked “What are you doing, Murray?”  It was obvious but I answered “Just finishing the job, Captain.”  He then said “We don’t work on Saturday young fellow, clean your gear and knock off.”

I returned to Buffalo and studied Morse Code, passed a radio correspondence course successfully and when I could confidentially copy and send about 10 words a minute I applied for CG radio school.  The old man threw me out of his office.  Somehow Division HQ in Cleveland got wind of this and sent my orders for radio school in New London, CT.  20 years in communications and operations followed.  I retired in 1958 as a Warrant Officer Radio Electrician.  

Today’s “Family Affair” service members would never understand the hardships, the disciplines, and the low pay allotted the Coast Guardsmen in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s.  Today with helicopters, rescue is almost always a piece of cake and that’s wonderful.  But I wonder how today’s kids would handle what we went through uncomplainingly. 

This Story was submitted by:

CW0-2 Ed Green
Asst. Supervisor                                       
Marine Safety Detachment Massena     
"Gatekeeper to the Great Lakes"
P. O. Box 728
180 Andrews Street
Massena, New York  13662-0728


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