Story #2 of Crumby Tales of the Cookie Cutter

The Cookie Cutter Cuts It

#2 Ocean Station (or, Welcome To The Coast Guard!)

By John Russell  

 

As any old salt that has made a Bravo or Charlie weather patrol knows, the North Atlantic is a place that will teach you about the power and fury of the sea. For a new guy, it is an awesome experience that will be indelibly printed in your mind.

Departing Portland, Maine for a weather patrol, I was being trained for my special sea detail billet on the starboard wing of the Bridge taking bearings on various lights and markers to aid in navigation. As we passed Portland Head lighthouse, I was struck with a sight of the most impressive lighthouse I think the Coast Guard had then, and which was to become the most welcome sight we saw on the “Cookie Cutter”—it was our greeting whenever we returned home.[1]

As we secured the special sea detail I went below for some coffee and to warm up. There was a fair swell running and, although I had spent many hours on boats at home in New Orleans, I was still terrified of the dreaded mal de mer. So far I had no symptoms and actually enjoyed the rocking and rolling. However, when I started for the ET shack, I noticed several guys hanging over the rail and looking distinctly green. One of them was another new ET. After 3-4 days he was in sickbay and in bad condition. The poor guy ended up going back with the ship we relieved and eventually was given a medical discharge due to chronic seasickness—it seems he had inner ear problems. He was the envy of many on the Cookie Cutter. I never had any problems but quickly found that those who did were used to great amusement of the old salts.

About five days out it was getting increasingly rougher; but those who had been suffering from seasickness were finally getting to the point of actually eating and functioning almost normally when the old salts started the games. Movies were shown on the mess deck on a 311—was usually the warmest space due to being located above the Engine Room. We were rolling pretty well and some of the new guys were looking green again when a foul odor permeated the mess deck. Within minutes guys started exiting quickly and “manning the rails”. I looked over at a small group that were eating from cans of smoked oysters and sardines when they could stop laughing long enough! I found out that you tended to make entertainment out of some of the strangest things at sea.

During the years 1968 to about 1974, the Coast Guard was populated by many of us who had no desire to take a walking tour of the bush in sunny South Vietnam. Understand that we of the “hippie” generation had a choice of joining, being drafted or relocating to Canada. I chose to join the Coast Guard at 17. Actually I was “convinced” by my parents, because it took their signature to enlist at that age. My brother was an “airedale” in the Coast Guard and I had the inside scoop that the only guarantee of a school out of boot camp was in the Band or Honor Guard, so that was the route I took, and for one of the few times in the Coast Guard, the inside scoop was true—all the guys I graduated with in Oscar company got schools. In the other company of about 65, only eight got a school.

I choose ET as I had always tinkered with electronics and knew that this was what I wanted as a career when I got out. The point of this criticism is that most of the Operations personnel E-5 and below were intelligent guys who felt the need to serve our county rather than dodge the draft or hide. But we were also not of the military mindset—we could be counted on to do an excellent job as long as we received the respect of others and the “Mickey Mouse” was kept to a minimum. We functioned well in an environment that allowed us to take pride and responsibility in our work and with a feeling that we were doing something for our country and, in most instances, the Coast Guard filled the bill.

There were two diverse groups in the Coast Guard at the time. The “lifers,” whose recreation seemed to be alcohol and fighting, and the “Young Turks” who were more inclined to drugs and sex. Because of this I am convinced that the Officers and Chiefs tended to run a fairly loose ship, and we probably got away with things that drove some of the “lifers” crazy. The end result was in two trips to GITMO, we got our “E” both times; in general we were a happy crew.

The Coast Guard had three tasks for manning the ocean stations. First, we were pre-positioned for possible search and rescue missions; second, we served as an aid to navigation for planes crossing the area by providing them with beacon and radar fixes; and last, we provided important weather data for the area. In most cases it was a job of extreme boredom in inhospitable conditions, which tended to make you pretty squirrelly after a while.

The Cookie Cutter

Normally the ship would stay in the center of a grid pattern that was labeled with letters and used by airline pilots to determine their position. The center grid “Oscar Sierra” (On Station) was the place we were expected to be, but this patrol was quickly turning into a mess. We found ourselves in the middle of a massive storm that many old salts were saying was the worst they had seen in their time. If you have seen the movie The Perfect Storm you might get a sense of what it was like to be on the Bridge and see waves that towered higher than the top of the mast when we were in a trough. The Cookie Cutter was a great rough weather ship.

Being an ET, we had the freedom of hanging out in most of the interesting spaces, such as the Bridge. I spent many hours during that storm completely mesmerized by the old girl clawing her way up these mountainous waves and watching the 5” mount bury itself in angry gray and white water at the bottom. In seven ocean stations, this was the only one that we were not able to stay in grid OS, due to the danger of capsizing if we attempted to come about. Only in later years did I come to appreciate the C.O. and X.O. for handling the ship so well that it kept us alive and bottom side down in this storm. The same can be said of the snipes—loss of an engine would have probably meant the loss of the Cookie Cutter.

After about 24-30 hours the storm passed and we had only 20-ft. swells for most of the rest of that cruise. Finally the longest month of my life came to an end when we sighted our relief. Along with that came the most important thing an ocean station sailor could get—mail; and movies exchanged with our relief added further to the improvement in morale. Then, listening to the engines putting “liberty turns” on, we headed for home.

I thought my first Coast Guard adventure was over. I was wrong. The seas stayed rough and the temperature got colder and colder as we neared the U.S. About one day out from Portland, the spray started freezing on the deck and more ice accumulated as we began to ride lower in the water. It was a dangerous, vicious cycle—the lower we rode the more spray we made. In calmer conditions you would simply use bats and hammers to break the ice off the ship, but with the heavy seas this was out of the question. Then I heard the dreaded, “Duty ET report to Radio”. As we (I was still in training) went in the Radio Room, the RMC was going crazy because he had no antennas that were working. NONE! We went to the Bridge and saw that the wire antennas were broken, and the whip antennas all had 5-6 inches of ice on them and were shorted. The bridge was wall-to-wall in brass by now. An Ensign asked what we were going to do about the Comm’s problem. We told him we had no plans of ice-skating while trying to beat the ice from the antennas and suggested using the PRC-59 portable radio when we were close enough. As Ensigns were apt to do, he decided to order us to repair the antennas. Thankfully the C.O. overheard this and asked the Ensign if he was willing to volunteer to help us. After thinking about it, he decided he could live without the antennas.

By the time we made harbor, the Cookie Cutter looked like a ghost ship covered in ice, listing, and low in the water. We had no radios or radar and very few W/T doors could even be opened. A news photographer was in the harbor and took a picture, which made the front page of the newspaper in my hometown of New Orleans.

At this point in my career, I was thinking that the warm and sunny area of South Vietnam might not have been so bad after all!

 

[1] Nickname for USCGC COOK INLET. (WHEC-384)

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