White Angel

by Jim Gill

 

One of my fondest memories of the U.S. Coast Guard was an event that occurred not while I was on active duty, but long after I retired....................

In 1969 I was delivering a small cargo ship from San Francisco to Saipan. The vessel belonged to the Trust Territory of the Pacific and flew the pretty blue banner with six gold stars in a circle--the flag of Micronesia.

The ship was the HAFA ADAI (pronounced like Half-a-Day) and had recently been dug out of the bone yard (the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet) after over twenty years of storage. Needless to say, the condition of the ship left much to be desired. The crew was a good bunch of guys, all Micronesians, but very little English was spoken. All in all, an interesting challenge.

We left San Francisco in weather I would not have chosen, but there was the usual old urgency to get somewhere by some impossible date, and off we went. It was February and a fine Aleutian storm was descending on the coast. The forecast, however, was for the storm to pass to the north and diminish. Instead, it came straight on and strengthened. One day out and we were getting bashed. The wind was around 70 knots from the northwest and seas were topping thirty feet.

That night a freak sea broke aboard and tore open number one hatch cover. The next one wrecked the starboard lifeboat, driving it through its chocks. By dawn we had things in hand however, and with the weather steadily improving, we resumed cruising speed. Then, some bad news.

One of our sailors came down sick, vomiting blood and unable to get out of his bunk. One look and I knew we needed medical assistance. I got on marine single sideband and called the Coast Guard. There was the usual banter back and forth discussing various possibilities when Ocean Station November broke in. They had a doctor on board.

We cranked on a few extra turns and headed for a rendezvous point with the cutter MINNETONKA. It would be a 250-mile run, which was easier to say than to do, for amongst the equipment that had either quit or been damaged by the storm--radar, direction finder, loran, and gyro compass--we had little remaining to rely on. I managed to get some good sun sights and MINNETONKA advised they would help with their radar when we came into range.

Arriving at the appointed position, there was no Coast Guard Cutter to be seen. The weather was sunny and clear except for some heavy rain squalls here and there. Where was our benefactor? We fretted and waited. Suddenly, out of the nearest squall appeared an unforgettable sight. Freshly bathed in the rain, glistening in the sunlight against a rainbow backdrop, was a beautiful white ship . . . the MINNETONKA!

The spectacular appearance of MINNETONKA out of the rain squall was only a preamble to the arrival of the boarding party. Each man was freshly shaven and wearing spotless uniforms. To a man they were pleasant, polite, and obviously dedicated to their work. Their Commanding Officer, CDR Donaldson, I knew quite well in years past. The medical boarding party consisted of the doctor, the Chief corpsman, and a Yeoman first class to take care of the paperwork. Our patient, Jose Cepeda, was in bad shape with bleeding stomach ulcers. An air evacuation was impossible, so in the end we decided to carry on to Hawaii. We received a lot of medication and instructions as to his care, then the boarding party departed. The rest of the story is routine; we arrived at Honolulu, Cepeda was transported to hospital and we went on our way.

After many years of offering and rendering assistance in the Coast Guard, this was my first experience on the receiving end. To many people, this may seem to be a small and insignificant event in the scheme of things, but to me it was extremely rewarding.

Return to Coast Guard Stories