Conversations With Friends

By Esther Stormer

Extracted From This *?#!*@*? Was The Coast Guard ©1985

Reprinted By Permission

As we traveled around the country the past year, we visited many old Coast Guard friends. The tape recorder was kept charged up and we had almost ten hours of conversations. Trying to decide what should and what should not be included took much soul searching. It would have been impossible to include all of it (and some couldn't have been included for obvious reasons.) The following pages contain the best of the best. Just listening to the men reminisce about the ships and stations they served on would give the most disinterested stranger a good idea of what the "old" Coast Guard was like. When asked why they stayed through pay cuts, frozen rates, low pay and months away from home, the reply became almost repetitious: “It was a job, and they loved it. Not one mentioned their retirement check. The trip turned into one long reunion with friends. Join us as we visit with the best people in the worldThe Coast Guard Family.

[Ed Note: CWO Floyd Stormer has crossed the bar.]


Stormer: Remember Bob Morgan? That was the best joke I ever pulled. I was considered pretty good at it, but that was probably my high point. Bob bought a new Hudson and promised that anyone who touched that Hudson, he was gonna kill 'em.

I was on the 83 footer, so I went down to the station one night, and a couple of us got it started—we jumped the wires; we drove it right up the street and we pushed it into Bob's garage. Audrey, his wife, was sitting by the window but I guess she never saw us. We locked the car up and about four in the morning (Morgan knew we were gonna screw with it) he got up, saw the car gone and called the police—and accused us of doing it.

The cops found it that afternoon locked up in his own garage. Boy, were they mad!

CDR Doan: We had a guy named “Sweetpea”—that wasn't his name, but that's what we called him. They put Sweetpea on guard at the gate. Mostly the guards were there to salute the officers, but Sweetpea took it as "a sacred duty." In the morning the bakery truck started through the gate. The driver had been coming in for years and would just slow down and wave. One morning, Sweetpea hollered at him to stop, but he just kept going, so Sweetpea unloaded his .45 at the back of the truck. Didn't hit the driver but sure scared hell out of him.

Stormer: We had this yeoman on the DUANE named Lewis; we were coming into Boston and had a bunch of cadets aboard. Lewis was always the Captain's talker on the bridge; so we were coming in astern of the light ships, I can't remember which two light ships, they had stages between them for maintenance. It was two o'clock in the afternoon and everybody was off stations for coffee. With all the cadets up there on the bridge, Lewis was running engine room telegraph. The Captain was a hell of a good ship handler, and I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw "full ahead." I answered the bell. We had been going about one third, full ahead she went right up between the light ships.

Actually it was supposed to be full astern but Lewis, with all the cadets on the bridge had been working the telegraph backwards, and had meant to give full astern but had pushed full ahead. I walked by Lewis' office a while later and said, "What are you doing there, Lewis?"

"Filling out my damn court martial papers, what the hell do you think I'm doing?"

When Lewis retired, they wanted him to stay on. I think he had about 30 years in. As he was leaving the ship the Captain asked him, "Sure you won't stay a little longer, Lewis?"

Lewis said, "Hell, I knew when I joined, it wasn't gonna be steady work."

Stormer: We used to take Public Health doctors on ice patrol. They had to make one trip during their career, I guess. Anyway, we always tried to scare them and mostly succeeded. None had ever been to sea at all. Then they'd go back and tell the next one how bad it was and he'd be scared before he got aboard. Then one time we got a doctor and nothing we did seemed to bother him. He could play poker, he never got seasick, we couldn't con him into thinking we were sinking—nothing. It took almost the whole trip to find out why. He'd gone to sea at fifteen and didn't go to medical school until he was in his thirties.

CBM[1] Dave Kaplan: I was stationed out of New Orleans and ran a boat that had been confiscated from the rumrunners, a 56-footer. We had telephone lines from New Orleans all the way down to the mouth of the river—it was 90 miles. We had an old guy, Joe Vann, who was sent from Base and out in a picket boat to go down someplace in Mobile Bay because they had a little boat regatta down there and he'd be patrolling on a Sunday, which he didn't want to do. It was one of them lousy jobs, you know. So they go down there and Joe said everybody was giving them liquor and Billy Head didn't drink, but he got drunker than sh - -. They were coming back across Mobile Bay and the picket boat started sinking. They didn't know why and Joe said Billy Head went nuts. He got on the radio and yelled, "Dear Lord God, somebody come get us, this S.O.B. is sinking," and he hung up! Didn't tell 'em who he was or where he's at or nothing.

All them tow boats and barges around there were calling, "Who are you, where are you?"

Then 0l’ Billy up and got back on the radio and said, "I ain't kidding you, somebody better come get us—water's getting up over the battery and I won't be able to call you pretty soon," and he hung up again.

They had a life raft on top, the engineman got up on the life raft and cut the lines loose, figuring it would float off. Finally some tug anchored his scows, tied them up alongside and took them all the way to Mobile Base. But they were on the outward side of the tug, the tug is alongside the dock and they asked Billy would it be alright or did he want him to turn around and put him alongside the dock?

Billy said, "Naw, we'll be alright, thank you." Joe says they threw the mooring lines off and the S.O.B. sunk, right there at the dock!

Joe used to tell that and he'd laugh till he cried, tears rolling down his face.

Stormer: After Sikorski left Beaver Island, Wright came over. A chief he was, a nice guy and good family man, and he wasn't used to the antics over there. So, bird-banders came over, we had the old lifeboat with the old radio on it. TR 103104 Serial No.1, they were supposed to be gone from the Coast Guard in 1941.

Kaplan: Yeah, we had the old Coast Guard made-one.

Stormer: It only had one channel, the international distress frequency[2].

Kaplan: Good for maybe eight or nine miles on a good day.

Stormer: This was a nice day; it carried too far. We went to take these bird-banders to High Island, and put the boat aground and they're out there banding birds, I think it was Benton with me. I kept trying to call the station. That was back around 1950 and there could be lots of interference, you couldn't call much of anybody and I wasn't too surprised when nobody answered. Finally, I said, "I wonder what's the matter with those S.O.B.'s.

Benton said, "Well, that G.D. Wright is shacked up again, you know, and everybody else is probably drunk".

So we sat there and told dirty stories all afternoon. I left the handset laying in my lap and the damn thing is stuck on transmission and even Chicago is picking it up!

Bob Ashdon was group commander then. We picked up the bird-banders, it was about ten o'clock at night when we got back to St. James. As we came in, let the bird-banders out and Wright was out there screaming at me something terrible! I wasn't too sure what he was saying but decided I wasn't going to stay there. So I backed her down and headed for Charlevoix, that's another three and a half hours. I figured there's no sense staying where I'm gonna get shot. I finally figured out what happened but I didn't know how bad it was. I got to Charlevoix about one in the morning and unloaded the stuff from the boat. Bob Ashdon is walking up and down the dock; I pumped the bilges, measured the gas tank—there wasn't much left—and pumped the bilges some more. I wasn't gonna get off that boat. Finally, there wasn't anything else I could do but get out. Bob said, "Well, what the hell do you think you're gonna do now?"

I said, "If you give me some gas, I guess I'll go back to the island."

"You're not going back tonight, I ain't sure you're ever going back." Then he walked down the dock again. He finally came back and said, "You better go in there and get some sleep. If you go over there tonight, Wright is gonna kill you sure as hell." That's when I knew I was absolved a little bit.

Not much happened about it. When the Coast Guard realized the radio was not even supposed to be there, they sort of forgot it.

Kaplan: Reed said the only way he got offa there (Beaver Island) was when he ran out to White Shoals and tore the bow out of the lifeboat or something, and came in and tore the picket boat up in Charlevoix, and he said he put in for transfer once a week but Sikorski would tear it up.

Stormer: So did everyone else.

Kaplan: And Reed said when he tore the picket boat up, he came back and told Sikorski, "The crash boat is next Chief." And old Si got on the phone to the district and yelled, "Get that deal offa here!"

Stormer: I was out there three years and decided I'd had enough and called Bob Ashdon. Bob said, "Alright, when do you wanta go?"

"Can't be soon enough for me."

"Get your stuff together. In 30 minutes Gallagher's coming down from Grays Reef and he'll pick you up in the lifeboat."

Kaplan: I was on Mackinaw Island one season. They had that one store—they would fly the food in, terrible food. You ate canned goods. I ate so much of Dinty Moore's Beef Stew I never want to see no more of that stuff. Canned corn beef and Dinty Moore's Beef Stew.

Stormer: Like White Shoals, everybody on watch had to cook. I was there when they abolished compensatory liberty. We used to sneak into Charlevoix, fifty miles in a boat by yourself. Then get back out without somebody catching you. Helluva place. But, we ate bread and peanut butter for dessert, no matter who was cooking. So Lewis, he was a seaman, said, "I'll learn how to make a cake."

I said, "I'll learn how to make an apple pie." So he learned how to make a cake and I learned to make pie. Everybody would sit down to eat, they'd have their pie or cake, then they'd have the bread and peanut butter.

Kaplan: The old guys on the lighthouses would tell that everybody would get chow money. It finally wound up that whoever was in charge had to pool that money and buy chow. Why they did that, each guy would buy his own stuff. There were four guys there, and they knew how many slices of bread were in a loaf, they'd mark their potatoes and if somebody got in them they were at each other's throat for sure.

Stormer: It was alright once it was all Coast Guard but when they had civilians. . . .

Kaplan: ‘Scuse me, you ever know a guy named Richards? I was stationed with him in Manistee; he said they had one guy who'd run the lighthouse, civilian dude, he said that fella got up on top, supposed to right some staging up there or something. He had a big plank of wood and he tried to hit that Chief on the head with it. Dropped it off the top of that lighthouse.

Stormer: Oh yeah, that was Greys Reef.

Kaplan: Yeah, Greys Reef . . . it just splintered that wood all over.

Stormer: He also fed them a seagull. They kept accusing him of cooking seagulls, so he fed them one. Lazanus pretty near killed me out there on White Shoals. I was cleaning the outside lens, trying to figure out how the hell I was gonna get up there and light that winter light once we were closed up. It's a round tower and the damn winter light set right on top. Everybody had sneaked ashore. Lazanus is asleep but woke up. He knew I was up in the tower but he didn't know I was trying to get up on that roof. I was leaning over the horn, it's eleven decks straight up. In those days you had to wind the weights up every hour by hand to keep the light going. I'm leaning over the top of that S.O.B. and he tripped that horn. About blew me backwards over the rail—but I just collapsed down inside.

We had a Captain come out there on inspection one time and he turned to Lewis and he asked, "How would you like some weather patrol?"

"Thank God, I have been putting in for it for three years now."

Kaplan: I don't know whether it was Clarence Land or Kee that was telling me that they had the old 25 ft. light house boats and usually one man would be on compensatory leave all the time. He said they had a seaman apprentice just out of boot camp they sent out there. Yeah, it was Kee telling me. He said, he was sitting there in the Group Office in Cheboygan and it was so damn foggy he couldn't see the porch when he hears something going chug, chug, chug—sounded like a boat motor. He said he got out there and there's this seaman apprentice tying her up—this 25-footer from one of the lights in the straits, Spec Reef or one of them. He said, "Jesus Christ boy (he didn't have nothing but an old magnetic compass), how the hell did you get in here? They won't bring the MACKINAW in and tie her up in weather like this."

The kid said, "I kept her half inch to the right of W." He didn't even know what a compass was all about and he came right up the Cheboygan River—right up to the station.

Stormer: Bob Morgan was out on Skillagalee and his wife was having a baby; he called Bob Ashdon to see if he could come in and Ashdon says, "You, if you can find a way, it's pretty damned nasty out there." He called Grays Reef and they wouldn't lower a boat to take him, he called back to Charlevoix and asked if they'd come out with the 40-footer and they said no. He called White Shoals and asked if they'd come down and pick him up and they said no.

"There ain't no way we'd get a boat in the water." Bob wanted to go ashore pretty bad so he got in the skiff and rowed in! Wound up way down by Little Traverse Bay and had to walk about 20 miles. 0l' Ashdon was mad!

Kaplan: Those guys would do anything to get off. You had to be there, what, 20 on and 6 off or something.

Stormer: I was out there when there was no six days.

Kaplan: Yeah, that was a mess wasn't it? Them guys would bring that boat in if you had 30-ft. seas rolling when it was their time off. And to go back out, you could get another day. Cheat a day, if it was too rough, so if there was a ripple on the lake it was too rough—the boat wouldn't take it. That was going out, but coming in that boat could be pounding.

Stormer: I remember Mike Marockey from Grays Reef; I went to Cross Village with the 25-footer. Mike was from Charlevoix and from the time he went ashore he never knew who he was or where he was till he got back to the lighthouse. We were loading the boat with groceries for Grays Reef and Mike had to go to the bathroom, so he stood up in the stern of the boat, I had the engine running; we were ready to go, but Mike fell over the stern. He's laying there in the bottom, the water is only six inches deep, the propellers in the mud, and he took all his clothes off and is screaming, "Save me I'm drowning!" Everybody stood there laughing at him because the water was so shallow." If he'd even have sat up he'd have been O.K., but he damn near drowned laying flat in the water.

Kaplan: We used to put the lighthouse keepers on up in Lake Superior with the MACKINAW. What the hell was the name of that lighthouse off Isle Royale—it was 65 miles out and we'd pick those keepers up in Duluth, and there was this one civilian who wouldn't take any compensatory leave; he would go out and he'd stay all six months. He'd take three suitcases full of whiskey and no clothes. He'd never change 'em.

Stormer: Like Mike, he probably never had a bath, that was the only one he had when he fell in. I took some new engines down to Skilligalee one time, Mike was there. Had them on a raft. Towed them out with the 40-footer. I couldn't get close enough there so we towed the skiff, too. That's 30 miles towing and I was worried about the weather. Me and a couple of seamen trying to pull that raft in and we were rowing for everything we had. It's blowing up pretty bad. We finally got the bow close to the beach, got some block and tackle and pulled it out of the water. I looked around and here the skiff is floating out there about a mile and a half. I turned to Mike and said, "Mike, I told you to watch the skiff."

He said, "I'm watching, I'm watching." I never told him to hold on to it.

Kaplan: They used to have people on Detour Ridge Light too. We went down to pull the keepers off one time and of course, them guys got seabags full of junk engines they gotta have repaired over the winter. They had a 25-footer and a bridle all ready on them things. All you had to do was hook the hook from the crane on it and lift it up. The old civilian keeper there, Charlie, came by. We had the TAMARACK and Henry S. was skipper. We're waiting and I have the boom swung out and all set to hook him in. He made about five passes. He would be going too fast and back it down and go ahead of it. Finally, Henry got on the radio and he said, " "Hey, Charlie, you get out there and stop somewhere and I'll come alongside you."

Stormer: That White Shoals was bad, Peterson got killed hoisting a boat out there. Then I went out to replace him. Lewis' mother died, it was blowing like hell. Johnson was in charge of the boat crew and he said to me, "You take him in—you're about the best boat handler we have—if you think you can make it!

"I'll give her a try, I think I can do it." So I took a kid named Lazanus, I got Lewis into Cross Village, went back out and was trying to get under the boom—seas were running over the deck. I was getting mad—it made me look bad. So I made about 25 passes. I said the last time, "I gotta come in fast" and give her hell. Then I realized I was too damn fast, reached down and yanked that S.O.B. astern, broke the pin right off, hit the lighthouse, the bow just laid right open, and I hung her on the hook and they picked me up. Right like that—it didn't make Johnson feel too good, but I fixed the boat.

About a month later, there's only Lazanus and me there; it was pretty good weather, so I said, "Maybe you can get in there" We were out of groceries and I sent him in—the weather went bad and I was trying to get him on the radio to tell him to go back in, but he didn't know how to use it. The damn kid kept coming. Waves were rolling right over the deck. He'd never run that boat before, never run a boat before in his life. I had the boom positioned where I thought it was good, on the south side, and I thought, "He's dead." A great big sea lifted him up and he stepped out of the cab and hung her on the hook, the sea run out and he was 30 feet in the air. I thought it was gonna jerk the bottom right out but he was hanging there nice and easy. I just pushed him in.

He said, "Hell, that ain't bad." Luckiest man in the world.

Kaplan: That Ski came in one time, he was on one of the lights out there. I was on the Mac, and he came in with the lighthouse boat. Somebody called me out on deck and said, "Swing the boom over, swing the boom over, quick." They had kingpost cranes—they're off there now.

I said, "What the hell's going on?"

"Ski's out there and he forgot to put the plug in and if he slows down he'll sink." With the plug out as long as you were running you took some of the water out of the boat. He wanted to come in but didn't dare stop. He was yelling, "Pick me up, pick me up."

Stormer: Those old fishermen used to have a self-bailer on them. What they used to do, they'd take the bilge pump and put a valve on it and then they'd run a piece of pipe and put it back in the bilge, then they'd run it back under the hull three or four feet, and when it was running it would bail itself out. So all these fishermen would run all day with that thing open and come in at night and forget it, then in the morning all they'd see was the line going into the water.

Del Reynolds: That White Shoals winter light was 158 feet from the deck. You (Stormer) painted that red stripe on White Shoals didn't you?

Stormer: Hell, yes.

Reynolds: Yeah, the peppermint stick everybody lights it once, never twice. One thing in those days we knew our trade like we knew the back of our hand. The old guard is gone—too many specialists. We did it all. Yeah, we worked hard, we played hard, but we didn't mix the two.

Doc Holbrook: One time we were standing inspection on the MAC and I had just gone into the engine room, me and this kid Garrison, and the Captain. came around inspecting; we had a dad gum dog cocked his leg and peed all over my leg! I turned around and kicked the hell outta that dog. The Captain didn't like that, you know. He was looking at me and Garrison—we had just gone to town and I got new stripes while he was drinking beer. The Captain said to Garrison, "Son, you got that red stripe on the wrong arm."

"Oh, no, sir, I'm left handed."

I'll tell you the truth, I never heard guys laughing like that. Here we are at inspection and I could have blown up a five-cent balloon trying to hold back.

Stormer: Another thing I learned on the MAC was to stand next to Phelps. He became a preacher. Stan was on three subs that were sunk as he got off. On the MAC, Stan had so many ribbons and medals he looked like a neon light. So when the district came in for inspection I always went and stood beside Stan because the Admiral got so busy looking at the ribbons, he didn't see much else.

Reynolds: That guy had the medals . . . on both sides.

Stormer: The only time I heard him swear was when we were sitting in the chief's quarters and he was mad at Meddars, a chief electricians mate. He said, "Meddars, if there's anything I want to do in this life, I want to preach at your funeral."

Meddars asked, "Why is that?"

I just want to see how you're going to f - - k it up."

Holbrook: Out in Santa Cruz, I was stationed at Monterey then, the Captain would let me take the crash boat and go to Santa Cruz. We used to go over on Sunday afternoons, this bos'ns mate and I ran around together. He was up on the bridge, and Sunny and I were in the engine room and it had red, green and yellow lights. You had to shift the gears down below. The lights changed and I didn't see them—I was busy kissing on my girlfriend, Sunny. The first thing I know, the bos’ns mate gave me reverse and I don't see it. He was gonna give it some more gas. The first thing I know was Ka-whoom. Sunny and I both went right through that hatch. When I looked again, you could look out and see the dock. Boy, that bos'n came flying down there and said, "I guess you know you done played hell now."

I had about six beers in me and had some of that smarts and didn't care by then, you know, so I said, "Let's really have a good time ‘cause I know I'm going in the brig again."

I got to the old man and for some reason he liked me—every time he turned around I was doing something for him and his wife. He asked me if I was a good carpenter?"

"I tell you what, I'll mess up the best piece of wood you ever saw."

He said, "Well, I'll tell you one thing, you are going to work with that carpenter every day till that boat is fixed, and I don't want to hear that you're not a good worker."

I'll tell you the truth, I did everything I was told and he didn't even restrict me.  

Charlie Grimm: One night me and Nick hit every saloon. It's about three o'clock in the morning and we got out of this one bar and we couldn't see the ship—they'd moved it. Then we see it and we start off across this field. All of a sudden, I'm in water—full facedown. So, I'm trying to swim. I'm going like hell. I finally get up and I'm in about six inches of water. I hear someone laughing and its Nick. He said, "Follow my voice." He keeps moving and I follow. I'm in an excavation for a foundation. I fell in red clay with my whites on. We get to the ship and cleaned up but there's an inspection in the morning and I've lost my white hat, so next morning I go to find it and there's the excavation. There's my hat, and there's my footprints. I fell right between the only place where there's no reinforcing rods sticking up. I just stood there and think how lucky I am.

Stormer: Were you there the day on the MAC when I let her off at Grand Haven?

Grimm: No, I was off at that time.

Stormer: We were down there for Coast Guard Day and we were always having trouble with that boiler down in B2. The ship was all cleaned up and it was getting dark; I was all ready to go ashore. I just can't remember who the fireman was on watch —

Grimm: Constantine. I just remembered.

Stormer: Yeah, we always used to have to light her off by hand. So, went down there and I asked, "Any oil in that boiler?"

He said, "No, I only tried a couple times."

Anyway, I guess he'd been trying to light the S.O.B. off for an hour, so there's about 100 gallons of oil in there. I wanted to set her off real quick ‘cause I had my dress whites on, so I held her back in and pushed that button and she blew black smoke all over town. Everybody on the ship ran uptown and everybody uptown ran to the ship. There was fire going up that stack for 200 feet—soot was all over the decks, all over the town. I got the hell off that ship in a hurry.

Reynolds: One time we put limburger cheese on the manifold of this guy's car as a joke. We didn't know he was going to a funeral. If we had we might not have done it—this is conjecture. Anyway, here he is in a funeral procession and the limburger is stinking up a storm.

Stormer: Remember the time Klaus Anderson drilled a hole in that chair. I was doing some office work. Smokey Joe had the right seat and I had the left. He intended to get Smokey Joe but he drilled a hole through the wooden chair right where the cheek of your butt would be, then he took a coat hanger, sharpened it real good and soldered it to the bottom so when you scooted back that thing would come out about two inches. I walked in that morning and sat down in that chair and I came up about a mile!

Reynolds: Bob Morgan and me and Shorty Goff were playing cards and I had the best hand I ever had in my life. Lil was in the hospital having a baby, and Bob got real upset because I didn't go see what was going on. Finally Shorty threw his cards down and wouldn't play anymore, so I went up to the hospital near Charlevoix. I walked down the hall and went in a door and here's Lil on the table and the nurse said, "My God, you're not supposed to be in here."

Old Doc Terr said, "He's the cause of it in the first place—let him watch."  


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[1] Chief Boatswains Mate.

[2] This may have been 2182 MHz, the International Voice medium frequency distress AM frequency. Ed.