Confessions Of A Chaplain

On Duty With the Coast Guard

By Don Robinson

 

My first knowledge of the Coast Guard was as a grade schooler prior to World War II. There was a wonderful series of kids adventure stories titled Don Winslow of the Coast Guard. I was enthralled by those stories and read them avidly. When the war broke out the Coast Guard had already become a part of the Navy. Later, my father, who at various times wrote a number of different radio series for kids, wrote Don Winslow of the Navy, a 15-minute afternoon serial.(1)

So enamored with the Coast Guard was I that when it came to volunteer for military service during the Korean War, I quickly presented myself to their recruiting office. Unfortunately, they had a waiting list of over 3,000 in Los Angeles alone. I settled for the Navy, which wasn’t too bad, because I’d always wanted to be a Navy Chaplain. Of course, at that time, I was an enlisted man and served my time at Armed Forces Radio Service on the Pacific Paradise of Guam and then in a personnel office aboard a Submarine Tender anchored in 40 fathoms of coffee grounds in San Diego Bay.

I volunteered for the Navy again during the Vietnam War (some people never learn) and ultimately had my time with the Coast Guard where I served as a Chaplain at the base on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. Duty with the Coast Guard was wonderful. It is a small, proud, brave, well-trained, efficient, and a truly dedicated group of sailors whose mission included both inland and oceanic waters. They were charged with Search and Rescue, Aids to Navigation (buoys, lights and charts), and Port Security, (safety inspections of ships and patrol of harbors). Now that they are a part of Homeland Security they’ve been given larger responsibilities in interdiction and anti-terrorist activities without any increase in their already meager resources. At that time, Governor's Island was their major operational East Coast command, and a major training facility Radiomen, Electronics Technicians, Damage Controlmen, Yeoman, Store Keepers, Cooks and Bakers were taught (2) There were also advanced schools in Loran positioning and SAR, which attracted members of the other military services and foreign military personnel. Governor's Island was also the central location for AMVER, a sophisticated electronic system that allowed them to track every participating ship sailing worldwide. Keeping track of each ship’s medical potential, speed, course, and destination provided the ability to quickly assign the nearest assistance.(3)

While being a part of this great endeavor was thrilling in itself, there was also the joy of being in New York City, with all its sights and culture. This was heightened by the active participation of the U.S.O., which offered excellent opportunities to servicemen stationed in the city or just passing through.

Despite the sports, theater, concerts, Central Park, the museums, the Rockettes and Rockerfeller Center, the best part of being an Episcopal Chaplain on duty with the Coast Guard was the opportunity to be a part of the Trinity Parish staff. When the Army operated Governor’s Island as Fort Jay, a Revolutionary fortification of New York harbor, and long before there were military chaplains there, Trinity Parish had taken upon itself the ministry to the religious needs of the island’s Army residents. Before the advent of ferry boat service, every Sunday a priest would row the quarter mile from the Battery to the Island, struggling with the heavy cross currents of the East and Hudson Rivers. After two wooden chapels burned down, Trinity built a beautiful stone chapel, which they also supported with clergy, maintenance, and program funds. The Army finally brought in its own Chaplains, but the other support continued until the Coast Guard finally left the island in the 1900’s. Episcopal chaplains assigned there were considered ex-officio members of Trinity Parish. As such, I was privileged to preach in that historic church during a Lenten season and to participate in their liturgical and social functions, including the installation of the 16th Rector, followed by a luncheon at the famous New York Athletic Club. Talk about hobnobbing!

Trinity is arguably the most historic parish or church in the United States, having received a land grant from Queen Ann long before the Revolution. It is located on Broadway at Wall Street and includes an historic grave yard which seems delightfully out of place in that busy center of the financial district. Aaron Burr and Captain Cook are interred there. Imagine all the tourists seeing worshippers eating hot dogs and drinking beer while sitting on tombstones following a festive celebration on Trinity Sunday. Those crazy Episcopalians! The New York Stock Exchange is just one block down Wall Street, and the American Stock Exchange is located in a building owned by Trinity and just behind the church. The Parish offices occupy four floors atop a skyscraper next door. For years Trinity had at least nine parochial missions, which made it almost a diocese unto itself. By virtue of being elected Rector of such an ecclesiastical empire the incumbent was assured election as Bishop of New York, as well. While it still retains a relationship with those other parishes, most are now independent, except for St. Paul’s, located just two blocks north on Broadway. Trinity performs a ministry to the financial community while St. Paul’s is the worship center for those few who live in the neighborhood and was the focal point in providing aid and solace to the workers at the demolished World Trade Center.

One often wonders “what if?” I wonder what my life would have been like had I accepted an offer from Trinity to leave the Navy and join their staff. I suspect I wasn’t cut out for the Manhattan life style despite the enjoyment of living there for a short time. That’s why I turned it down. However, if I had taken it and it hadn’t worked out, they had a very progressive policy of funding a full year’s salary after leaving the staff. This allowed for additional education, sabbatical or simply the long, involved process of a job search.

Just prior to being transferred to a ship on the West Coast, I wanted the new Rector and the new Bishop for the Armed Forces to meet. At my instigation the Rector invited us all to his private dining room in the skyscraper. In addition to the Bishop and the Rector, the Vicar of Trinity, the Bishop’s administrative assistant and my own Chaplain replacement were present. As the Bishop and the Rector talked about Trinity and its ministry to the Coast Guard, I was astounded, and very flattered, to hear the Rector say that he had known many Navy Chaplain’s while on active duty and while serving parishes in the Jacksonville area, but he’d only met two whom he considered to be excellent. He included me in that number. I don’t think I’ve ever received a higher compliment.

What did I do for the Coast Guard? Well, in addition to conducting regular worship services (pan-Protestant and Episcopal), I gave moral pep talks (lectures?) to trainees, counseled many young sailors away from home for the first time and all too tempted by the evils of the Big Apple, I taught religious education classes for adults and youth living on the Island, and I intervened in numerous marital problems, sometimes with positive results. The social life was great, also. I was Secretary of a bowling league and Captain of the "Holy Rollers" team. I even square danced with a demonstration group.

I had a wonderful time with the bowling league. It was my morale building effort. After each weeks outing I awarded a mangled bowling pin to the Coastie who bowled the most below his average that week and was thus named “Klutz of the Week”. I developed a devious variety of measures by which several different people could be named the “Klutz of the Year”. However, my crowning achievement was the special door prize at the awards banquet. We touted this big item in our promotion and everyone was excited about the possibility of winning it. Of course, it was rigged so that a certain unpopular Chief got it. When we pulled his number from the hat, he eagerly rushed forward with a shout of glee to get his big prize. When the curtains parted, there it was, a very large metal locker door labeled “Governor’s Island Perpetual Door Prize”. It was his responsibility to get rid of it at some future event. I was told that the Chief got rather drunk that night and carried the heavy door home with him, only to fall on it outside his house, where he was observed sleeping it off the next morning. About 10 years later I heard from an old ship mate that it was still circulating.

My greatest adventure with the Coast Guard occurred when I convinced my Senior Chaplain that in addition to the residents and schools we also had a mission to the operating vessels stationed at the island. Included among these were tug boats, buoy tenders and harbor patrol craft, but the largest were ocean going cutters with crews of about 175 men and officers. One of the functions of these ships was to man Ocean Stations, remote points in the sea where ships were positioned as an Aid-to-Navigation and ready Search-and-Rescue resources. I finally finagled my way on to one of these for a ride to Ocean Station Echo (about 550 miles Northeast of Bermuda,) intending to return on the Cutter being relieved of its month long patrol.

Everyone aboard was looking forward to a gentle cruise and a couple days play time in Bermuda. However, our departure coincided with a heavy Atlantic storm which accompanied us as we pitched and heaved our way East, losing enough time to make our Bermuda stop impossible. I spent most of the time wedged in my sack. I wasn’t seasick, per se, just light-headed and overpoweringly tired. This wouldn’t have been so bad except that when the ship had been built some metal jetsam had been left between the double bulkhead of the stateroom to which I was assigned. As the bow of the ship lifted high out of the water and slammed down into the angry sea with a loud crack and a jolting shudder, the object rolled around in its enclosed pocket sounding like a bowling ball on corrugated tin amplified by a blaring electronic speaker system. It then reversed itself when the stern came out of the water and the screws spun freely with a horrendous whine. A stateroom from hell! I knew exactly how Captain Queeg felt when Ensign Pulver put marbles in his overhead. Sleep was impossible but imminent admission to the funny farm was not.

We were to reach to relieve the ship, which had already been at Ocean Station Echo for a month. Normally, mail and movies are transferred between the arriving and the departing Cutters via motor whaleboat, but the seas were so heavy that we couldn’t even rig lines between the vessels. The best we could do was to throw the mail sacks overboard attached to life preservers in the hope that they would float and that the other ship could grapple them in, which they did after several passes.  Mail is important. Needless to say, a personnel transfer was impossible. It looked like I was going to spend a full month at sea.

A message was sent, “Due to weather conditions beyond Chaplain’s control, Chaplain remaining aboard”. Shortly after that we received a message from the Senior Chaplain, “Your request for 30-day leave approved this date”.

Almost immediately the deck officers and the engineering officers began working on me to join their watches, assuring me that they could qualify me as Officer of the Watch in very short order, thus adding another body to their rotational cycle and giving them more rack time. I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed they were to learn that in accordance with his duties and by Navy regulations a Chaplain can never be in a position of command nor one in which he would be required to put someone on report. So much for another body on the watch list. I was the one who’d get the extra sleep. I tried to do my part by wandering the ship late at night to talk to the watch standers.

On one such late night roaming I went to the flying bridge where a lookout was stationed to visually locate other ships in the area. This was especially important since merchant marine vessels were homing on our signal and were known to set their controls on auto pilot, thereby enhancing the chance of direct collision. I found the lookout sound asleep on the deck.  I almost lost it. I came as close as I ever did to putting someone on report. Trying to control my anger and my vocabulary, I let it be known that he was putting my life and the lives of all the crew at risk and that I’d personally throw him overboard if I ever caught him asleep on watch again. Well, at least I wasn’t going to put him on report.

Three days later we were sailing around in our 10-mile circle on the glassiest sea I’ve ever seen. A messenger came running into the Wardroom to ask if I’d like to go back to the States on a submarine. There was a transiting sub headed to Key West from a deployment in the Mediterranean. We signaled them that we had a Chaplain needing a ride home. They answered that they didn’t care who it was as long as he brought along ten pounds of butter. Now I knew my true value. We sent a message back to New York, “Jesus shoes failed. Chaplain returning under water”.

Whereas the trip to Echo had taken four days, the trip home took nine. It was an old diesel powered boat whose batteries were almost totally spent. For the first two hours aboard we played an underwater war game with the Cutter, but the rest of the time was entirely on the surface. While submerged, I was surprised to learn that there was absolutely no sensation of motion; no going up or down and turning.

Amazing! The Skipper continually “ram charged” the batteries with the engines for 3 hours in order to get two hours of battery time on the propellers. One of the joys of the trip was the afternoon announcement, unusual on any submarine, that “The promenade deck is open for sun bathing.”

Old diesel submarines are not the most hygienic of vessels. They are so crowded that the crew frequently had to “hot bunk” or share their bunks with another crew member (not at the same time, of course.) Fortunately, there was a spare bunk in Officer’s Country, but I had to swing like monkey from an overhead pipe and slither through a small opening in order to get into it. Needless to say, once in my bunk I was loathe to get out. But, that’s always been the case. Their water system was such that brief showers were only permitted once a week and I doubt that laundry was ever done except in port. I had not had time to shower and change before being sent across in a motor whaleboat, so I ripened right along with the rest of the crew. They had the advantage over me, however. They knew the conditions and had kept a clean set of uniforms and skivvies available for their return to port. I debarked a fragranté and disheveled. A shining example of an Awful Navicer.

Several years later I was honored to be invited to serve as Ship’s Chaplain for a Change of Command ceremony and, again when she was turned over to Taiwanese Navy.

My dearest friend at Governor’s Island was a Coast Guard Captain, aide to the three-star Admiral who ruled the Atlantic. Captain Bailey was a true Sea Dog, and a prince of a man. He still holds the Coast Guard record for the most commands at sea and demonstrated his ship handling skills in some hazardous ice breaking and dangerous rescues at sea. Many a seaman is alive today because of his expertise. He and I celebrated a noonday eucharist on most days, and, in good weather were known to work up a sweat on the tennis court. One day he phoned my office and requested my immediate presence, telling me to be sure to bring along a King James Bible and a Concordance. I couldn’t imagine what this was all about.

When I arrived at his office, he told me that one of the Cutters in the fleet was about to have a change of command and was requesting the official turn-over take place earlier than ordered so as to meet a sailing requirement. They had sent a message to the Admiral saying: “Permission to execute Ephesians 4:22-24”. We looked that up. It reads: Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Together, Captain Bailey and I searched our memories and the Condordance until we found a suitable response. The signal we sent in return was: “I Samuel 29:10.” (Now then rise early in the morning with the servants of your lord who came with you; and start early in the morning and depart as soon as you have light.)

The British love to play this game of scriptural messages, challenging each other to decode and make appropriate responses. But then, the British are much more biblically literate than we are, so it is unusual for this to happen in our services. What a shame that we have lost this in our society. Its really lots of fun.

I’m still in touch with Captain Bailey who retired and ended his career skippering merchant marine vessels all over the world. He now plays a mean classical trumpet and leads a brass ensemble in performing liturgical music throughout the Miami area for a variety of denominations. He was my Acolyte par excellence. Bless his sea going heart and those of all the other Coasties who receive far less thanks and glory than they deserve for their many long periods away from family while keeping the sea lanes open and insuring the safety of those who go down to the sea in ships.

FOOTNOTES:

(1)  With the attack on Pearl Harbor, Don Winslow of the Coast Guard, a comic book series, became a naval officer (Lt.) almost overnight, hence, Don Winslow of the Navy. Another example is Cato of the Green Hornet radio series: Cato was described as being Japanese, but after the attack, Cato became a Filipino without anyone questioning his nationality change.

(2)  The Command and his staff are headquartered at Washington, DC

(3)   Participation in the AMVER system was voluntary.

 

 

LCDR Don Robinson, was a Chaplain in the U.S. Navy.

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 Addendum - During my four years there I took repeated advantage of such things as baseball at Yankee and Shea Stadiums; basketball, hockey, boxing, Ringling Brothers Circus, the Scots Guards and Ice Capades at Madison Square Garden; football at Meadowlands, operas at the Met and New York Opera House; concerts at Carnegie and 42 stage plays.  All for free, courtesy of the U.S.O.  Some of the plays were Off Broadway and some never made it to opening night, but many had successful runs and some were even long running hits.  Among those which never opened was one delightful comedy starring Hal Linden and Ellen Burstyn.

    It is difficult to pick out favorites, but surely one was the musical The  Rothchild’s starring Hal Linden.  It didn’t last long, partly because Fiddler On The Roof was still playing, as was an exciting Israeli review, To Live Another Summer.  Just too much competition for the Jewish milieu.  In addition to these, other productions which I especially enjoyed were: Purlie with Cleavon, Little and Melba Moore, Neil Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue, HOT L BALTIMORE, All About Eve starring Lauren Bacall, Grease, A Little Night Music, Godspell, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, with Phil Silvers, 1776 and The Fantastics..  

    One very special treat was seeing Danny Kaye in Two By Two, a musical about Noah and the Ark.  Kaye had broken his leg in a skiing accident and the hit, limited run show had been dark for two days.  When he was well enough to perform, the U.S.O. had tickets available for just two nights.  I saw it on the night of his return.  Two hilarious things happened during the performance which I’m sure were not rehearsed and which demonstrated that the other cast members let Kaye run with the show without competing with him.  In the first instance Kaye goosed his leading lady for some unknown reason.  The audience nearly fell out of their chairs with her astonished response.  The second thing was when Noah dropped his crutch.  Kaye needed that crutch to help him walk with a cast on his leg, so there was an immediate gasp from the concerned audience when it unexpectedly fell to the stage.  You could see that Kaye was more surprised than the rest of us, but he somehow turned that near calamity into one of the funniest five minutes ever seen on the American stage as he hesitantly and playfully sought to find a way to retrieve his crutch.  I’m sure it was an extemporary act, but he milked it for all it was worth.  I was exhausted with laughter by the time he mercifully moved on -- moved on to much applause, I might add.

    Probably the greatest production I saw was Leonard Bernstein’s great Mass, commissioned by the Kennedy family and staged at the Metropolitan Opera House following its highly acclaimed premier at The Kennedy Center.  It is a combination orchestral concert, musical and liturgical experience with a cast of hundreds.  It still amazes me that a Jew could have written such a moving recreation of the central act of Christian worship with the beauty and awe which characterizes this major work.  Because of its tremendous proportions it may rarely be produced in the future, but I’m sure it will remain in the classic repetiore.
 
    For me, the best of all was Man of La Mancha, that wonderfully enthralling musical about Don Quixote.  I saw La Mancha twice, long after the leading actors had left the cast and fell in love with it.  In one performance, Aldonza was played by a light skinned Negro lady who was perfect for the part, but it wasn’t quite like seeing the original.  So, when La Mancha was reprised with the original cast at the Julliard, I just had to see it.  The U.S.O. didn’t have tickets.  For once I had to pay.  I was thrilled to be seeing Joan Diner and Richard Keiley.  The cast was superb, but  Diner had taken that day off.  So, out came the wallet and I bought tickets for another performance.  This time it was Keiley’s turn to be off.  I bought still more tickets and was finally rewarded by seeing the entire original cast, including all the bit players.  While I had enjoyed the other four performances, no one did the final death scene with as much pathos and pure theatrical excellence as Diner and Keiley.  It was worth every cent (more like double-digit dollars).   That remained my favorite musical until I saw a fantastic production of Les Miserables in Sydney, Australia.

    One show which shall never be repeated was the topping of the two towers of the World Trade Center, which occurred while I was stationed there and which I watched.