Courier Tales

By Paul R McKenna

Saint Elmo’s Fire — Part One

On dreary, rainy night COURIER was anchored as usual off Rhodini Beach when a fishing boat approached to within 100 yards and dropped anchor. The Officer-of-the Deck spotted the boat and instructed the Quartermaster on Watch to contact the boat by blinker. The lights affixed to our forward mast at night and the three black balls flown from the forward mast during the day were International signals to say that no one could come within 1000 yards of COURIER.

The Quartermaster beamed his signal light toward the vessel and began transmitting. Apparently the crew of the vessel went to bed after dropping their anchor and for they did not acknowledge the blinker signal.

“To hell with them!” said the OOD, “we’ve got work to do.” The transmitters were put on line on schedule and the normal routine was carried out. At times of heavy moisture in the air, flashes of St. Elmo’s fire—little lightning bolts—flicked from the antennæ in a few ungrounded areas of the open decks.

Suddenly a bolt of “lightning” arced from COURIER’s main antenna to the mast of the fishing boat. The charge went down their mast and exploded in the deckhouse, apparently in their radio. Within minutes the boat slipped it’s anchor and left the area at full speed, never to be seen again.

Saint Elmo’s Fire, Part Two

Broadcasts from COURIER for the Voice of America were an important part of the USA’s attempt to quell the voice of Communism emanating from Radio Moscow, and it was imperative that COURIER be capable of broadcasting at all times. When COURIER sailed from Rhodes to Skaramengah near Piraeius for outfitting prior to returning to the States, the receivers could still pick up the signal from Rhodes, so operations remained on schedule.

As soon as the ship was raised out of the water in the floating dry-dock, it was necessary to ground the ship to the dock, which was grounded by the water under it. No problem. The ship and dry-dock became one, and life went on. Not so! Apparently one or more of the grounds between the ship and dock came loose and St. Elmo’s Fire was dancing all over the dry-dock. The Greek sand blasters and hull scrapers ran off the dock screaming, or jumped into the water and swam away as fast as they could. It took many hours of cajoling and negotiations before the workers hesitantly returned, and then they constantly looked over their shoulders for signs of dancing fireballs.

How to Outfox the Fox

COURIER had a complement of about 20 Chief Petty Officers (at least 12 of the “Twidgets”—Electronic Technicians), and we liked our comfort. When the ship sailed for Skaramengah near Piraeius, we brought our mess cook, Pavlos, who served our meals, made our beds, shined our shoes, and cut our hair—he was the best paid barber in Rhodes. Pavlos was also very astute and knew how to protect the Chiefs from the brass. Along with other creature comforts, we also loaded aboard enough beer to carry us through the “dry spell” until we returned to Rhodes. Most of the beer was stored in the commissary spaces below deck in the fresh food reefer behind boxes of legitimate foodstuff, but some had to be at the ready in the CPO Mess.

On of the way to Skaramengah the Skipper pulled a surprise inspection—we became apprehensive when he began nosing around in cupboards and drawers. Our hearts skipped a beat when he opened the door of our enormous refrigerator, which held little else except beer. Briefly inspecting the contents, he closed the door and on his way out of the Mess commented, “I guess you Chiefs really like your Coke.”

As soon as the door closed behind him, we ran to the reefer and yanked the door open. All that could be seen was row upon row of Coca Cola, from top to bottom. Pavlos reached into the reefer and removed a can of Coke, revealing cans of beer hidden behind the Coke, on each shelf, all the way to the back. Pavlos got a big bonus that month.

When we arrived at the shipyard and tied up to the Outfitting Pier, we resumed our normal in-port routine. The poker game in the Chief’s Mess started right after the evening meal was cleared and continued until almost dawn. The Chiefs playing poker were putting quite a dent into the beer supply and throwing the empty cans out of the porthole to get rid of the evidence. Early on someone remarked that empty Budweiser cans floating alongside an American ship in a Greek port may be prima facie evidence that someone on that ship was drinking beer. If the empties are spotted by the OOD or the Captain, they might search for the source; so it was decided that when emptied, the can would be filled with water and tossed out of the porthole to sink, eliminating evidence of illegal consumption.

Upon getting out of the sack the next morning we heard a great hooting and laughing coming from outside the ship. We went up on deck to see what the commotion was and were surprised to see that sometime during the night the tugs had towed the ship into dry-dock. Looking over the side into the now completely dry dry-dock, we saw a pyramid of empty beer cans directly below the porthole of the Chief’s Mess. Trial by court-martial came to mind and, even more disastrous, our beer cache would be found and confiscated.

But when we went down into the dry-dock to clean up the “evidence”, we found another pyramid of empties directly below the porthole of the Chief Engineer’s quarters.

No one in authority mentioned the empty beer cans on the floor of the dry-dock, and Pavlos made some handsome tips for carrying out garbage bags full of flattened aluminum cans.

Hot Stuff

Anyone who has been associated with COURIER knows that the Radio Frequency (RF) we generated often caused problems on or off the ship.

Approaching the ship at pier side, the hairs on your head and body would suddenly stand at attention while you were trying to figure out why your car radio just died? This is disconcerting to newcomers assigned to the ship, and visiting strangers. In fact, new crewmembers to most ships fresh from “boot” camp are sent to find “left-handed monkey wrenches” or “buckets of blue steam”, but on COURIER newcomers were introduced to the “magic old timer,” who could cause a fluorescent light to light by drawing his hand over it. When it was extinguished the light was handed to the newcomer who tried the feat only to draw an arc of RF because he failed to close the circuit.

The LCVPs stored on deck were constantly in a state of disrepair due to small fires to some of the deck wood caused by stray RF. Even George Stewart, the Boatswains Mate, got zapped in the hand one day—the RF went right through the flesh part of his hand between his thumb and wrist; as it passed through, it cauterized the wound and left a “tunnel”. After that, George’s favorite trick was to astonish his drinking mates by passing a toothpick right through his hand.

Don’t Pee Here

The main transmitter on the ship consisted of tubes, relays, wires, capacitors, coils and numerous “twidgetry”, all contained within a small room-sized compartment. The transmitter was fully enclosed by wire mesh screening, and the door was equipped with an interlock that would immediately shut down the transmitter when opened. Maintenance on the transmitter had been completed, the door closed and locked, and right on schedule, the transmitter was turned on. The Voice of America people in Washington impressed upon the operators of COURIER’s transmitter the importance of not going off the air for any reason. I think they informed us it would cost the taxpayers more than $1000 for every second we were off during scheduled operations. Needless to say, the interlock on the door to the transmitter would not be activated unless there was a major disaster.

As the technician on watch was checking his dials and meters, he heard an unusual noise and looked around to see what was amiss. To his horror he saw the ship’s mascot, a small dog, was sniffing around inside the transmitter. Apparently the dog had wandered in while maintenance was being performed and looked like he was sniffing for a place to pee. That necessary body function performed in that place would be the last time he would ever pee.

The technician called the Chief, the Chief called the Warrant Officer, the Warrant Officer called the VOA representative, and they all put their heads together to figure out how to get the dog out of the transmitter without interrupting the broadcast. Someone called the cook and got a piece of meat to the transmitter room and, after what seemed an eternity, they coaxed the dog to the door where one person yanked the door open, another grabbed the dog, and then the door was immediately slammed shut. The transmitter was down for no more than two seconds and everyone hoped that that brief outage would go unnoticed.

Let There Be Light

The Greek Orthodox Archbishop of the Dodecanese Islands, whose seat was in Rhodes, prevailed upon the Commanding Officer to bring him to the far reaches of his diocese so that he would minister to his flock on the most Eastern of his islands, the Island of Kastellorrizo. The Archbishop had never been there because the only means of transportation, less than two miles off the Turkish coast, was by local Caique (a small fishing boat) and the Archbishop suffered from mal de mer whenever embarked on a small boat. After pulling many strings and calling in many favors, Captain Prinz, received authorization from Coast Guard and Voice of America Headquarters in Washington to sail to the island.

With the Archbishop and his entourage, including the Nomarch (Governor of the Dodecanese) and a troop of Greek Boy Scouts, COURIER departed on a fine summer’s day from Rhodes harbor. The voyage was uneventful and we arrived at Kastellorrizo that afternoon, planning to anchor in the picturesque grotto-like harbor. Unfortunately, our fathometer had much difficulty in finding any part of the harbor floor that was less than 600 feet deep—our anchor chain was only about 150 feet long.

The harbor was surrounded by steep mountainous hills except for the narrow entrance. Even the town was perched on a hill and the only pier in town would not support the bulk of the COURIER. At long last the fathometer discovered what was apparently an underwater mountain peak at a depth of about 60 feet. With great precision, we dropped the anchor on that peak and, when we were certain the anchor was holding fast, secured from Special Sea Detail and sent the Archbishop and his party ashore.

The Archbishop and his party returned in late evening and everyone except watchstanders turned in for the night. At almost midnight the OOD sounded the General Alarm and all hands manned their emergency stations. A strong wind had developed and the ship was drifting toward the mountainous shoreline. Captain Prinz arrived on the bridge, relieved the OOD, and ordered the anchor hoisted. The 1st Lt. on the foc’sle reported over the phone that, “the anchor is fouled on the bottom and cannot be raised.”

In shock, Captain Prinz turned and looked at the fathometer, which was registering 100 fathoms of water (600 feet) under the keel. His reply to the 1st Lt. was, “We only have 150 feet of anchor chain not an elastic! Get that damn anchor in now!”

The main engine was keeping the ship from grounding, but we could not maneuver with the weight of the anchor fouled “on the bottom”. The 1st Lt. on the foc’sle was having a difficult time with the anchor winch, which was smoking with the strain of trying to hoist the anchor, and was additionally hampered by the fact that the flashlights of the men on the anchor detail provided insufficient light. He sent a man below, who briskly returned with fluorescent tubes that were parceled out to the detail. Then in a booming voice that could be heard all of the back to the bridge, the 1st Lt. shouted, “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” At which time the detail held up their fluorescent tubes and shook them, flooding the foc’sle with blinding light.

The Archbishop and the Boy Scouts were gathered under the bridge on O1 deck when the foc’sle suddenly became awash in brilliant light after the Godly command from the 1st. The Archbishop, the Nomarch, and all the Boy Scouts fell to their knees, made the sign of the cross, and began shouting Kyrie Eleison (God, have mercy).

They were not aware that the transmitters were on line broadcasting VOA programs and, as usual, the ship was bathed in RF waves, which illuminated the hand-held fluorescent tubes.

At exactly midnight the anchor suddenly broke free and the anchor winch began hoisting rapidly. However, at that moment the lights in the town of Kastellorrizo and on the Turkish mainland less than two miles away were suddenly extinguished. Captain Prinz looked at the chart of the area and moaned, “Oh no!” The chart indicated there was a cable between the Turkish mainland and the town of Kastellorrizo. The Greeks and Turks have been archenemies for centuries, and the fact that a Turkish power plant was supplying electricity to a Greek town was a monumental act of diplomacy. The thought that the first American ship to visit the islands in modern times had severed this cable might be considered an act of war had not escaped Captain Prinz’s attention—at that moment he was certain that his career in the U.S. Coast Guard was at an end.

Postcript: The anchor had been dropped onto a sunken Caique and became enmeshed with the boat. When the wind picked up, the Caique was swept off the mountain peak and was suspended above the bottom, giving the impression that our anchor was fouled on the bottom. The Turkish power plant stopped generating power to both the Turkish and Greek town at precisely midnight every day.

Captain Prinz retired from the Coast Guard as a two-star Admiral.


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