Becoming a Surfman in 1938


John Merrill





            In 1938, Surfman was an enlisted rating in the United States Coast Guard.  The rating was equivalent to third class petty officer for pay and other purposes.  Since Congress in 1848 had established the first Lifesaving Service stations along the New Jersey coast, there had been generations of surfmen who manned the small stations located generally along our shores, including the Great Lakes.  In 1915, the US Revenue Cutter Service and the Lifesaving Service became the US Coast Guard under the Treasury Department.  Until the 1940s, one entering the Coast Guard had a choice of the Cutter branch or the Lifesaving branch.


            The stations were small and usually consisted of a building with runways for the boats to be quickly launched in response to an observed distress or call for help.  The space above the boathouse or attached to it provided the quarters.  Eight or ten men comprised the typical station. “Functional and pleasant” usually described the station. In 1938, if one lived on or near one of the Great Lakes the Coast Guard surf stations were an indigenous part of the scene.  That was true for the author until a chance meeting in April of that year.  The economic picture at the time was described in the press and radio as a recession, and the author was part of it.


            The chance meeting was in Buffalo, New York, where manufacturing was in a cutback mode.  In a dentist’s waiting room a friend told me of his brother’s successful Coast Guard career.


            The following day, I visited the Coast Guard’s local office and filled out an application for enlistment.  Several months later on a rainy Thursday 21 July, upon returning home I was greeted by my mother who said that the Coast Guard had called. She informed them that they must have the wrong number because I had not mentioned my application to her.  I rectified the situation, and the yeoman at the Coast Guard office informed me that I should come to the office in the early afternoon to be sworn in.


            The yeoman was ready with several sheets of printed material, the bottom of each to be signed when understood.  He made it abundantly clear several times as the papers were signed that there were no promises or guarantees about anything, including being transferred out of the Coast Guard’s 9th district which covered Lake Erie and Lake Ontario where I would be assigned initially.  I signed the three-year enlistment papers.  Surfmans’s pay was sixty dollars per month.  In addition, the Surfman received one dollar per day subsistence. The yeoman was sincere, and even then I appreciated and would remember his “no guarantee” comment in the thirteen years ahead when Lake Erie and Lake Ontario were thousands of miles away.


            By mid-afternoon, I was in my 1937 Ford coupe driving the mile or two to the Buffalo surf station located just inside the breakwalls that protect the harbor.  The station was larger than the others on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario as it had a large machine shop for extensive repairs to the various surf station boats.  The Cutter branch built and maintained a secondary voice and code radio station on the surf station premises.  The US Coast Guard 125-foot cutter Crawford was stationed a mile or so away.


            I was provided with a bunk and a locker in a large dormitory on the second floor of the main building.  The eating area and kitchen were on the first floor. A wing of the building provided quarters for the commanding officer and his family. The commanding officer was usually a warrant officer addressed as “Captain.” That afternoon, I also recall being asked by one of the senior petty officers to demonstrate my swimming skills. The first class petty officer seemed pleased with my performance and on several occasions in the following weeks asked me to demonstrate swimming for others.  That fine summer evening, I helped stand watch in the steel tower that overlooked the harbor and provided a view of Lake Erie flowing north into the Niagara River.  Fort Erie, Canada viewed with the field glasses seemed near enough to be touched.


            At this time, the Coast Guard had about 8,000 members. For the year, there were to be only ten new surfmen for the entire 9th district. This meant that the majority of the men at the Buffalo station were sort of old timers.  I recall in particular a man of considerable bearing and presence who after twelve years was the number one surfman at the Buffalo station and a first class petty officer.  During the weeks that I was at the station, he served as sort of unofficial mentor and role model, remembered to this day. The group had their characters; one was called Big City, and another Soft Shoe, and one whose path would cross mine over many decades was called Ducky.


            These first days as a surfman were busy.  In the summertime with both Great Lakes steamer traffic and pleasure boats (power and sail) plus public beaches, the Coast Guard surfmen were busy day and night.  I was quickly made part of the activities and in addition to the routine work, day and evening watches, I participated in two lifesaving efforts that were successful. In addition to other hands-on learning experiences, the culture, lore, and understanding of the Coast Guard began.


            Early, I came to know about the United States Public Health Service, the Coast Guard’s medical support. Signing the papers and becoming indoctrinated into the work pattern was not difficult but the medical shots and their impact on one’s immediate health were memorable.


            After three weeks of on-the-job training, there was a rumor that I would be transferred the next day.  As the workday neared the end, I timidly approached the Captain and inquired, Would I be transferred? The answer was “tomorrow.”  I was to be assigned to the Coast Guard Surf Station at Presque Isle, a peninsula just west of Erie, Pennsylvania, jutting out into Lake Erie.  When the Captain learned I had a car, he said take it to the gas pump, “fill it up and go.”


            The following morning, I drove southwest along Lake Erie, a new surfman on his way to report to the Captain at Erie’s surf station. I didn’t realize it then, but the die was cast from the first weeks at the Buffalo station and a brief exposure to the secondary radio station and its operator who became a longtime friend and later a colleague.  I didn’t want to be a surfman.  I wanted to be a radioman and learn about electrons and the like.


Presque Isle


            The peninsula moves away from the mainland, then gradually doubles back until the end of it is across from downtown Erie. This provides a large landlocked harbor, Presque Isle Bay, with access form the lake through a short channel.  The Erie surf station was located on the peninsula side of the channel with the station’s boat ramps running down into the channel.  A short distance in back of the station a small arm of the Bay provided additional boat dockage and access to the channel and the lake for other station boats.  The station also had the usual steel tower, which provided good visual coverage of Presque Isle Bay, the channel and out to the lake. Adjacent to the station, the US Lighthouse Service had a keeper’s quarters for a lighthouse located on the channel entrance from the lake and a foghorn located close to the beach about a mile away.  In the immediate vicinity of the station there were a few modest houses occupied by some of the career men at the station and their families.


            During most of the year Erie is a busy port with commercial lake freighters a common sight, an excess of pleasure craft both motor and sail during the summer months, and in 1938 more than twenty commercial fishing vessels moving out into the lake each morning and returning in the evening to be accounted for by the look-out in the station tower.  In the winter, there were many ice fishermen and iceboat enthusiasts on the bay to look after.


            The Captain was a chief warrant officer who had brothers either at or in charge of other stations in the 9th Coast guard District. The captain’s daughter was married to a Coast Guard surfman located in a station on Lake Erie further west in Ohio. I was the junior person and was at the end of the watch list.  The Captain’s assistant was a career first class petty officer.


            The quarters over the boathouse consisted of rooms for two men, with a large meeting room at the end of the hall; kitchen and eating area were combined at the rear.  The Captain’s family quarters and office were in a separate dwelling about thirty feet in back of the station.


            My roommate was another new surfman a year or so older than I who came from Pennsylvania.  He was unusual in that he had attended college before enlisting. Overall he was a good shipmate. His last name was Fox; his nickname at the station became Sly. In 1942, I would hear talk of his bravery in making small boat landings with troops at Guadalcanal in the Pacific.


            With a small complement of men and the station required to be always prepared (Semper Paratus), days off came every ten.  The exact time was twenty-three and three-quarters hours off every ten days.  Thirty days of annual leave was also a privilege.  During the early months of my enlistment, in regard to leave the words “the ink isn’t dry on your papers” were heard.


            Being number 10 surfman included relieving the cook when he had his day off. How does a novice cook for ten others on a wood stove? Surfmen were always hungry. Starting a fresh fire in the wood cookstove early in the morning was a problem.  I soon learned to start the fire using pieces of old rubber automobile tires: no odor and a quick fire start. I don’t recall complaints from my occasional spell as a cook, but it was a busy 24 hours and always a challenge.


            I participated in projects like the long slow process of topsoiling a newly constructed 500-yard rifle range not far from the station.


As the weather cooled, inside painting at the station was in order.  I quickly learned that supplies in the Coast Guard were sometimes both marginal in quality and marginally available. The white enamel interior paint required the use of an electric hot plate with a large bucket of warm water with the can of paint sitting in the heated water to make the paint liquid enough for brushing. That’s the way it was, and it was not considered a problem.


            I also learned quickly that the path from surfman to radioman had several obstacles. Becoming a radioman would immediately mean a transfer to the Cutter side of the Coast Guard, as there was no radioman rating in the surfman hierarchy.  The first step was a total memorization of the Surfmans’s Manual, a sizeable tome. Once memorized, essentially verbatim, a hearing (a kind of quiz) on the contents was held by the commanding officer to determine proficiency. By mid-October, I had achieved this milestone. Next, to be considered for assignment to radio operator school in New London, Connecticut, there was a required six months’ correspondence course.  The course included mathematics and electricity fundamentals. Having only one day off every ten days, I successfully completed the entire course in a little over a month. This also included working all the problems in one of the electrical textbooks.


            At one point while working on the textbook problems, I needed help. I drove over to Erie and made friends with the radiomen on the Coast Guard cutter Crawford, which was stationed for the winter when Lake Erie was frozen at the pier in downtown Erie. This was my first interaction with members of the Cutter side.


            November provided experience with a strong fall storm out on Lake Erie.  One weekday at mid-morning, the word came of a downed aircraft in the Lake just off Erie. For this search, the self-righting, self-bailing Coast Guard motor lifeboat was the vehicle of choice.  The bow of the motor lifeboat is covered and rounded with a cockpit forward big enough for one person to stand in.  As the lifeboat made its way from the channel out into the stormy lake, I was in the cockpit equipped with sea boots, southwester, oilskins and a Turkish towel for a muffler. This was a good introduction to the fury of one of the Great Lakes. Four hours or so of a continuous drenching by both cold lake water and rain and no plane or wreckage to be found, then or ever, made a good comparison for a trip I had made around Cape Hatteras in a storm several years before. Lake Erie can be tough.


            That fall, the long evenings also provided an opportunity for a slow and memorable read of War & Peace.


            Inspection of rooms on Saturday morning was important. The bed had to be made up in a particular way and wrinkles on the top blanket were not allowed. One of the other surfmen, Adams, had recently acquired a black Scotch terrier named Soogie. The dog was gentle and playful and could jump on the bed easily and joyously wrinkle the blanket. Just prior to inspection one Saturday morning, the dog jumped up on Adams’ bed and Adams in a loud voice exclaimed to the dog “the next time, I’ll sell you for a quarter.” A few minutes later, I made the transaction. On my next day off, I brought the dog home to Buffalo.  His ultimate destination was to be a comfort to a blind person living in western New York.


            There were workdays, ice chopping-days, and days off when getting off Presque Isle was an adventure in itself and sometimes returning to the station after a severe ice storm was exciting. There were winter night beach patrols with Lake Erie frozen in all directions. I recall many nights on the beach patrol around 10 PM when I would observe a commercial plane high overhead, maybe bound for Detroit. As I always carried a three-cell flashlight, I found that if I would blink the light skyward, the pilot would respond. We never really communicated but the plane always blinked back.


            At one point during the winter, I decided to have two consecutive days off.  This was achieved by making a request and waiting for twenty days instead of ten. The noon of the departure for the 48 hours of liberty finally arrived. However, the weather decided differently. The lake flooded and essentially closed the road at the head of the Presque Isle peninsula.  The commanding officer decreed that I was on liberty. Crestfallen, I retreated to the station galley where there was always coffee, conversation and commiseration.  A very practical and experienced Motor Machinist 1st class (Red Thomas), said “Get your car.” He crawled beneath it and attached a piece of canvas beneath the four corners of the Ford’s engine. He then said, “Go.” I got off Presque Isle via the flooded road, removed the canvas and had a great 48-hour liberty.


            A final remembrance from a fall night beach patrol is not easily forgotten. The patrol went up the beach in the sand at the water’s edge for about a mile and then turned inland for about fifty yards. There located on stilts and reached by several steps was a small shelter, keypunch post for the time clock carried on the patrol, and a crank-type telephone for reporting back to the lookout tower at the station. Adjacent to the shelter was a large foghorn maintained by the United States Lighthouse Service. One particular night, around 2 AM, I arrived at the key post, punched the clock, made the phone call and was poised at the top step to leave the shelter. The foghorn made an unexpected blast and I plunged earthward.


            As the winter wore on and ice thoroughly invaded lake and bay, rumors could provide a basis for some barracks-type humor. In the 9th Coast Guard District, the absolutely least desirable surf station was the station on Galloo Island. The island is in the far eastern reach of Lake Ontario and well out in the lake. Sometimes a surfman returning from his day off would be confronted with his sea bag packed by his roommate and orders to be transferred to Galloo Island immediately. Only at the last moment would he be advised that it was only make believe.  The laughs and the relief felt by the victim helped to take the chill out of a mid-winter day.


            Towards the end of the winter season, I recall a comment by Spike Lehman, Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class and senior surfman at the station. One day, Spike commented to me from what he could figure out from his reading, Germany was close to giving some kind of trouble.


            I remembered Spike’s comment the following September. Early in April, orders came for John Merrill, surfman to be transferred from Erie Station to the US Coast Guard Training Station at Fort Trumbull, New London, Connecticut, to attend a six-month course at the Radio Operator school. I pointed my Fort coupe towards the heads of the peninsula and then to New London.


Beyond the Surf Station


            When this surfman became a Radioman 3rd Class after completing the New London training in October 1939, the Coast Guard directed my path away from the Great Lakes….and into the war.










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Merrill In Print June 16, 2004

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             Fort Trumbull and the Submarine, Publishing Directions Avon, CT, 2000


             Looking Around: A Short History of Submarine Periscopes, Publishing Directions, CT, 2002


             History of Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) Submarine Radio Communications, Publishing Directions,

             Avon, CT, 2002


             Submarine Bells to Sonar, Publishing Directions Avon, CT, 2003


             Submarines, Technology, and History: Selected Articles by John Merrill, Infinity Publishing,

             Haverford, PA 19041, 2004