COAST GUARD GROUP/AIR DETACHMENT - BERMUDA

By Don Gardner

 

As everyone who has met a Radioman knows, they are strange people . . This is the story of one such Radioman who during the early part of his career was assigned to Coast Guard Group/Air Detachment, Bermuda......

Immediately after graduating from radio school at Groton, I was transferred to Norfolk Radio (NMN) for an interim assignment to gain watch-keeping experience. The Commanding Officer, a Chief Warrant named Denisov, was a crusty old Russian who had the Russian code posted on the door to operations. I don’t know what he expected—I was having enough trouble copying International Morse Code.

Normally, after completing several months of duty, new graduates arriving from radio school in the 5th CG District were transferred to one of the ocean station vessels tied up a CG Base Berkley—INGHAM, ABSECON, and CHINCOTEAGUE, or the MENDOTA, which was home ported in Wilmington, NC. When Denisov told me I was going overseas, my first thought was that I was getting shafted.

Bermuda, I thought, was thousands of miles away. When I asked about the location of Bermuda, no one could say. I was sad to leave the States, even though a tour of "overseas" duty would no doubt be adventurous and exciting.

According to orders, I reported to the Naval Air Station at Norfolk for transportation aboard one of their PBM seaplanes that made regular flights to Bermuda. After several days of menial work, which consisted mostly of wiping down the Admiral’s car, I managed to get on a flight.

The flight to Bermuda was long, loud, and uncomfortable. The "seats" consisted of a cushionless metal bench on both sides of the "boat" (as aviation liked to call their seaplanes). PBM’s are not sound-proofed either so that when we landed about five hours later, I was almost deaf from the engine noise; in fact, the loud roaring in my ears didn’t go away for several days.

As I walked from the seaplane ramp toward the Coast Guard barracks with that infernally heavy seabag on my shoulder, RM1 Calvin Randall was the first Coastie I saw. He knew another Radioman was coming in on orders and was cruising on his motorbike looking for me. After exchanging greetings, Cal escorted me to the Coast Guard barracks and helped me settle in; then he took me to the Navy Administration Building where I reported to the Coast Guard duty officer at the Group Office on the second floor.

Chief Thompson was my new boss and put me on watch with Cal to break me in. I soon came to like, respect, and admire Cal, and I envied his efficacy in communications and his expertise at sending and receiving Morse—he had a sweet "fist"*, which was easy to copy, even at higher speeds. After a couple of watches under Cal’s careful instruction, he declared I was ready to go on watch by myself.

This is a scary proposition for a prima donna so recently out of radio school. After a few watches alone, confidence began to grow to such an extent that I looked forward to going on watch and to face the frequent challenges of search and rescue communications.

Group Office Bermuda

The Commanding Officer of the Group Office was a CDR Lawrence; the XO was LT Quamme, a mustang officer; LT Rose, and two ENS fresh out of the Academy. CDR Lawrence was the only aviator in this group, and for some strange reason, it was thought this was a good arrangement. The Air Detachment was subordinate to the Group, which made for tricky relations. It seems no one at the Air Detachment liked our CDR Lawrence, who was allegedly a poor pilot.

Lieutenant Rose

Mr. Rose was our Communications Officer, an academy graduate who enjoyed the field of communications. He impressed me by being friendly without being familiar. One evening while we had the watch, Mr. Rose said Cal had served with him on the INGHAM. He admired Cal greatly and related this story concerning an event on the ship.

When the INGHAM pulled into Argentia, the Navy signal tower purposely began sending a message by flashing light at a speed the Quartermasters could not read. Cal was called to help out. He "worked" the signal tower using the masthead lights, which could be keyed similar to the telegraph keys in the radio room. When they couldn’t copy Cal, he asked them to slow down for the INGHAM’s quartermasters after making his point.

Upon completing this story, Mr. Rose asked how I felt about Cal—he knew I was from the South (after four years away from home, I still had the remnants of a drawl). When I spoke in sincere high praise of Cal, Mr. Rose knew there would be no racial problem amongst us. I still count Cal as a dear friend.

Ralph Boole

Ralph Boole, from Exmore, Va., was a classmate from radio school. We stood watches together at Norfolk Radio for a while, then Ralph was sent to the Air Station at Elizabeth City where he served for a year; eventually he was ordered to Bermuda to replace RM2 Roy Eldon whose enlistment was expiring. Ralph (RB) and I became close friends; in the evening when he was on watch, I would go up to the radio room where we would shoot the bull. He did the same when I was on the eves. On our days off we both would go to the radio room when Cal was on.

One day I had the day watch and Chief (Tommy) Thompson had to relieve me for noon chow. I had had an exciting watch and after filling my tray, I spotted Ralph and sat down across from him and began relating some of the exciting details.

"I’ve got ‘triple nickel four’ (5554) and 9148 (numbers of two of our PBMs) airborne, a Greek freighter called me with a MEDICO message, and the DUANE has got a long message for the 1st District. Here I am, going back and forth on three different frequencies trying to work everyone!"

Ralph would interject a question now and then, and I would excitedly go through each detail, how I "rogered" for the aircraft’s brief CW "operations normal" report, told the DUANE I was busy with a MEDICO message, and how I shifted the Greek to a working frequency, copied his message and made a radio schedule for the radiogram reply, which would contain medical advice for the ship’s Master, and on and on.

"How fast did he send? What kind of fist did he have?" (Greeks had notoriously poor fists on a manual key!)

"Like he was crossing two wires to make Morse!" I replied laughingly.

"What is the ship’s name and call sign?" RB wanted to know. And he had more questions.

"How did you relay the MEDICO? Did you send it to Norfolk radio or the Navy’s teletype?

"By Norfolk radio for relay—it’s faster that way."

Ralph agreed this was what he would do. Radiomen often compared notes on how they handled a situation—you can learn a lot this way and helps prepare you for almost any emergency when the subject has been thoroughly discussed beforehand.

While I was excitedly explaining to RB the details of the busy morning watch, I noticed a Navy aviation rating was listening intently to every word, although he probably didn’t understand very much radio talk. He could see our excitement and made no pretense to show he was not eavesdropping. The thought went through my mind that RB and I had jobs that were indeed fascinating at times like this, and I felt the Navy guy was probably envious.

Eventually, the Group Office was shut down; the officers were transferred and we enlisted "ground grippers" became a part of the air detachment. Within a few days we former "Groupies" were required to muster in the hangar, along with the "zoomies", to an uplifting talk about how we all should now get along together. The enlisted men did get along, it was the officers who were pi—ed off that they had to take orders from the general service officers at the former Group, especially from two ENS who were completely lost. We were called in while off duty and off base for a "pep" rally turned into an ass-chewing for all enlisted hands, and given by an officer despised by all of the enlisted men, did not serve any observable useful purpose—we were all pi—ed off, and this we were together on!

Cal Does a "Snow"* Job

All of the East Coast ocean station vessels rotated a three-week stint of search and rescue standby in Bermuda while I was there. On the day the standby Cutter was relieved, always on a Saturday, a few messages were exchanged: one message offered relief, one accepted, then the relieved Cutter would send a message with his position and ETA at his next destination, usually his homeport, which we relayed through the Navy teletype system.

Several days before putting to sea for their relief, RM1 Peterson, a long-time friend of Cal’s and a Radioman who had a reputation of being a sharp radio operator, showed up at the radio room looking for Cal.

"He’s off duty and will be sorry to miss you".

Peterson said fine, he was going to be the Radioman who sent the traffic on Saturday when Cal was on watch and was going to "snow" him.

"He’s too good for that", I bragged.

"Just you wait until we send our message; you’ll see Cal can’t keep up with me", Peterson replied proudly.

I couldn’t wait to tell Cal. "They’ll send their message around 1000; if you want to see me run this guy off the air, be here." His jaws clenched as he spoke, and from the look in his eyes, I knew he would be ready.

Saturday morning I was in the radio room waiting for the big event. Relief was offered, relief was accepted, and Cal cruised along at about 18 WPM working these guys

At last came the long multiple-addressed messages with about 40 or so words of text. Cal told Peterson nonchalantly to go ahead with the message—the trap was set and the bait taken.

Peterson began sending as quickly as he could, with Cal calmly copying the message without any trouble. When Cal began sending Morse with his speed key—at least, I think it was Morse—his former friend began tripping up and started breaking in, asking for repeats. THIS is the ultimate putdown for a Radioman.

Afterwards, Cal seemed happy with himself—he wore a satisfied grin for several days.

Lost in the Bermuda Triangle

The duty officer gave me a message to send which reported a two-masted schooner, the Home Sweet Home, sailed from Bermuda days earlier en route to San Juan, contacted the Bermuda Harbormaster once about an hour out of port and had not been heard from since. All calls had gone unanswered and it was feared they were sunk during a storm. Aboard the Home Sweet Home were two men with their wives.

LCDR John M Waters, USCG, said the Home Sweet Home had gone out in spite of his personal warning to them the night before that a large storm was moving into the area. We were ordered to initiate a search, thus beginning the longest search ever for persons missing at sea, lasting off and on for almost a month. The search area included the ocean area between Bermuda and San Juan and was widened daily to account for wind, drift, current, tides, and so forth. LCDR Waters plotted and assigned search areas to aircraft from San Juan, St Petersburg, Elizabeth City and, of course, Bermuda. LCDR Waters was a SAR expert and, so I heard, had written the Coast Guard SAR plan.

After a week with nothing found, the aircrews were exhausted from remaining airborne for so long, and aircraft maintenance was suffering, our CO, CDR James N Shrader, asked for and obtained permission to end the search. Political pressure was applied to reopen the search, which we did. Apparently someone on the "HSH" was connected.

To reach some of the search area assignments at first light, the crew had to be airborne hours beforehand and searched all day until there was insufficient light before returning. The PBMs and P5Ms held a lot of gasoline and could stay airborne many hours. Again, nothing was found and the search was secured again after another week.

And once more, pressure was laid on to resume the search. This continued for another week. Not one single piece of debris from the Home Sweet Home was ever found.

When people speak of the Bermuda Triangle, I have my own story to tell.

Jay Lloyd**

One of my friends was Jay Lloyd, an Aviation Electronicsman (AL) third class. He was good-looking, dark-complexioned, with black, wavy hair, and a smooth talker. The fact that we did not share a common religion bothered neither of us, and because some of the senior petty officers did not seem to like him, whether this was because he was a Yankee or a screw-up, I don’t know—but Jay and I were Liberty buddies.

After I left Bermuda, I heard that Jay took his discharge there and went to work for the local radio station, ZBM, as a disc jockey. Part of the job, as I understand it, was to broadcast live as a disc jockey from some of the night clubs in Bermuda, where he was once mistaken for Eddie Fisher.

Jay obtained an interview with the Commanding Officer of a Bermuda SAR standby Cutter for ZBM. Jay was met like royalty at the dock and shown around the Cutter.

Jay had been on the CGCs KOINER and KLAMATH. Oh yes, Jay "forgot" to tell anyone that he was a former Coast Guard enlisted man.

Ralph Boole (RB)

Ralph had a choppy fist. When he sent Morse, he would bounce his right foot up and down, keeping time with his sending. A near-orgasmic, wild-eyed expression would come over his face that was amusing to see. I used to kid him unmercifully at times, "Hey, Ralph, need some sex? Send a message!"

Once he was sending to the standby Cutter when I put my foot on top of his to see what would happen. Ralph stopped immediately. When I removed my foot, Ralph continued. We went through this once more and Ralph’s reaction was the same—he needed that foot rhythm. It didn’t help his Morse though.

Ralph, Charles Gordon Bray, our ET whom we called "Mr. Coast Guard" as a joke, and I buddied together. We were close enough so that when one of us found something that drove the other crazy, we would use it unmercifully. When I learned that Ralph had a hangup about "shave and a haircut, two bits," I drove him crazy. I would go "dit di di dit dit" and wouldn’t go "dit dit". Ralph fought it, but in the end he went "dit dit" to finish it. Ralph became inured to this nuisance over time, so we found something else.

An Exciting Distress

Radio watches in Bermuda provided valuable experience for a Radioman; the winters were mild, the beaches magnificent for swimming, and the food at the chow hall was pretty good. Immersion in many search and rescue missions was exciting and rewarding, teaching us to send and receive Morse code at fairly high speeds, to stay on our toes, and to be able to answer the OOD's questions with regard to communications.

Frequent emergency scrambles to intercept and escort a disabled aircraft to Bermuda (usually USAF); ships encountering heavy seas and running out of fuel, which required a tug; assisting ships who needed medical advice for an ill crewmember; broadcasting hurricane warnings, and on and on and on.

Sometimes though, the job was boring. We could go three or four days with only ordinary, common-place events happening. Thus lulled into boredom, we might suddenly be plunged into a fast-developing distress.

On one such quiet, boring evening, I got an Immediate message precedence through Norfolk Radio originated by the Commander, Eastern Area (COMEASTAREA) in New York to broadcast an SOS—the realization of every Radioman’s dreams is to copy solid an SOS, but the greatest excitement was to be able to send one—from on shore, though.

As soon as I receipted for the message, I called out for the duty officer to come in and read the message still in my typewriter. After sending the AUTO(matic) ALARM to alert all shipping and waiting the required two minutes for the radio operators to get set up in their radio rooms, I began sending:

SOS SOS SOS DE NMN4 NMN4 NMN4 BERMUDA BWI US GOVT CKNC 12 0245GMT =

ALL SHIPS AND STATIONS =

A U S AIR FORCE KC-97 ON FIRE X AIRCREW BAILED OUT APPROX 100 MILES EAST

OF CHARLESTON X ALL SHIPS IN THE VICINITY PROVIDE POSITION REPORTS TO

COAST GUARD NEW YORK OR BERMUDA =

COMMANDER EASTERN AREA NEW YORK

As soon as I finished transmitting, many ships began calling in their position reports. A signal from the SS Seatrain Georgia reported they were nearby. When the OOD confirmed they were the closest, they were requested by a message from us to proceed and render all possible assistance. The Seatrain Georgia recovered the crew from the water, except for one who perished because his parachute was on fire when he baled out.

An Air Force SA-16 Grumman amphibian set down the next to remove the survivors from the Seatrain Georgia but became disabled during the landing. Why the USAF came to the conclusion to land on choppy water to recover crew members who were already safely aboard a ship, Heaven only knows. Landing on water is done with considered caution—you don’t want to imperil aircrew unless there is an absolute emergency. Another SA-16 from Charleston to recover the aircraft, landed, put a tow line on the aircraft and towed it back to Charleston. They later claimed this as a world-record for distance for one aircraft to tow another on the water.

K W I T

Shortly after going on watch one beautiful Saturday morning, I heard the SS Elizabeth, call sign KWIT, calling San Juan Coast Guard Radio, NMR. San Juan didn’t respond to several calls, so KWIT switched to Miami Radio, NMA. He didn’t respond either. I didn’t think KWIT could hear me, but after he continued calling various Coast Guard radio stations, I gave him a call, which he responded to immediately. We shifted to working frequencies and I copied his message for the Coast Guard Captain of the Port, New York, containing his arrival time. Because of the "hash" (static and ambient noise), I had difficulty copying him, but I listened intently, trying to ignore the noise in my headphones.

The operator on KWIT had a good fist and didn’t try to go hell-bent-for-leather. He seemed to be a cheerful enough guy, with GM OM (good morning, old man), and we talked for a while; I learned that they leave San Juan on Saturday, arrive in New York and leave the next Saturday

When RB came on duty, I told him all about KWIT. We liked to "steal" traffic (one CG station is called but another answers and takes the message), and I bragged about copying him solid through tough circumstances. The next time I saw RB he told me he had taken all of KWIT’s weather messages without asking for repeats, and he in turn passed this all on to Cal, who did the same. We competed with each other in situations like this.

Cal told me the next day this guy wasn’t bothering to call any CG radio station but us. The next Saturday he called me as he was leaving New York harbor!

Radio operators around the world do not enjoy working a station who frequently asks for repeats and/or sends sloppy Morse. Coast Guard radio stations put the greenest Radiomen on watches to work the "merchies", and they have great difficulty: RB, Cal, and I were at an advantage here because we had experience. We were proud KWIT worked us exclusively—it was a professional feather in our caps.

Once I was busy with an aircraft when KWIT called. Our aircraft take priority over all normal communications, and I asked KWIT to wait for me. Norfolk radio tried to steal the traffic, but KWIT told him he was waiting for me.

The Day We Became Aircraft

As everyone who has met a Radioman knows, we are strange people . . . to others. I relieved Cal one day and he said he had ticked off Chief Lane, Tommy’s relief. How? Regulations said we should use two or three initials of our name on each message to indicate who handled the message. Cal decided CR wouldn’t do as his operator’s sine (yes, we spell it sine!), so he added a zero, becoming "CR". Lane asked Cal about it when he saw it on messages; Cal said he had just decided to do it, and zero didn’t mean a thing. Lane said nothing more.

Well, if that was good enough for Cal, and it ticked the Chief off, I decided to change my sine from DG to . . . what? My middle initial is the fifth letter in the alphabet, my home district was the 5th, and since D5G sounded like an aircraft, I went with that. I briefed RB when he relieved me. We decided to give the AL’s a number, especially those who sometimes stood watches in the radio room. RM1 Evans (EV) became E2V (P2V), RB became R4B (R4D), George Richards became G7R, and so forth. Everyone liked the aircraft designations. If they ever invent a D5G aircraft, I’m going to claim it as my own.

A Lesson Learned

The mid-watch was ordinarily relieved at 0715 in the morning to allow the single Radiomen, R4B and me, time to hit the chow line. If the relief was late, you couldn’t get into the chow hall after 0730, requiring us to go across the street and buy breakfast at the gedunk. Due to this tight time frame, I usually signed off the log quickly and raced for breakfast.

One morning, Chief Lane called the barracks after I was snuggled up in the rack and almost into la-la land. "Come over to the radio room", he ordered. Getting dressed again and walking over to the administration building was a pain in the gluteus maximus. There I was shown that I had not signed the log in ink above my typed name when I was relieved. Chief Lane gave me the happy news that he would always call someone back if they omitted to sign the radio log.

Several weeks later I was again in a hurry to hit the chow line and forgot about signing the log. I was rousted out again. Like baseball, three strikes and you are out. I may be slow, but twice at this was enough to convince me—I signed the log without fail from then on.

Years later when I was an RMCS and in charge of the communications center at the 11th CG District, RM1 Grathwohl was relieving the mid watch late. The first time I chewed him out a little, telling him he should be at work before me. Several of my men told me Grathwohl was often late coming in for the day watch, and there seemed to be trouble brewing. When Grathwohl was late again I was warm under the collar.

"Grathwohl, I have a proposition for you. Take your choice: Come with me to report this to Mr. Gaida [the district communications officer] or you can come in on your days off and make pen-and-ink corrections to a publication".

"I’ll come in Monday morning, Chief."

I could not legally punish Grathwohl this way if he disagreed, but by giving him a choice, he could take unofficial punishment that would not show in his personnel record. There are ways of getting messages out.

When Mr. Gaida asked why Grathwohl was working on corrections on his time off, I answered, "You don’t want to know, Mr. Gaida". He accepted this and never asked again; he had been a Chief Radioman once and knew that when someone says, "You don’t want to know", you damn well don’t want to know.

Grathwohl brought the publication up-to-date and was never late again.

Bermuda vs. Norfolk Weather

Behind one of the Navy barracks there was a dock you could dive off, and R4B and I bought flippers and snorkels to explore the deep (six to ten feet down was our limit). During the summer R4B and I went there often to swim.

One Christmas Eve, after having drunk way too much champagne at the Club Bermadoo, R4B and I decided to go swimming on Christmas morning. Hangovers and all, we set out for the dock the next morning, but there was a slight, cold wind in the bay and Ralph was freezing his nipples. Not being too bright, I slipped gradually into the water and nearly turned into a cake of ice. After a minute or so I got out and tried to convince R4B that he should dive in because the water wasn’t too bad, even though I was turning blue. Well, R4B was smarter than that, so I got back in and stayed a little longer, bragging that the water was wonderful, but I got out again after a few minutes. Now I can actually say that I’ve gone swimming in the North Atlantic on Christmas Day.

Ralph still wouldn’t get in, being satisfied to watch me freeze to death. Actually, the third time in the water didn’t seem too bad, but since my hangover had been cured by this time, Ralph and I went back to the barracks, dressed, and went to Christmas services conducted by CAPT Snelbaker, ChC. We really felt good about it; Ralph because he didn’t give in to stupidity and me for getting rid of a terrible headache from the hangover.

Whenever I’m bored, I get into trouble. During winter, in the early hours of the morning when nothing was happening, I would ask Norfolk CG Radio what his temperature was. Usually they would report temperatures from the 20s to the 40s. I would say, "BRRRR", then report our temperature—no matter what it actually was—as being in the 70s, with the added remark that I was going swimming after watch. I think I convinced a half dozen or so guys to put in for Bermuda, where they could vacation on a festive holiday island, the girls outnumbered the men three to one, the weather was always balmy, and where you could go swimming on Christmas Day.

 

* * * *

Return to the Coast Guard Stories