By Jack A. Eckert
The enlisted man is stupid,
However he is clever and sly,
And bears considerable watching
- Army Officer's Guide - 1863
The author of that rather blasphemous passage must have influenced the upper management of the U.S. Coast Guard Shore Establishment. The problem was and is that the Shore Establishment, i.e. Lifeboat Stations, etc. is the world of the enlisted man. Duty in this part of the Coast Guard is not required for the Academy Officer. Regardless that attitude still permeated the shore establishment. The enlisted man was not to be trusted.
It is apparent that even with the typical 12 or 13 man lifeboat station, there wasn't enough supervision to insure that each junior enlisted man did his job.
The Watch Tower At Merrimac River LBSTA - 1949
The lookout watch that was stood on almost every station was extremely boring and monotonous. On the strict station that the author was on, the routine was to climb the tower stairs, enter the 8' x 8' tower room through a trap door and relieve the watch. In theory the watch was supposed to log all vessels in and out of the harbor in the rough log, time of departure and time of arrival. All telephone calls were routed to the station through a primitive PBS switchboard. The ship to shore radio was monitored and if a call was received, the officer-in-charge was notified and he would handle all of the radio traffic. When not otherwise engaged, the watch was required to scan the waters with the binoculars. Reading matter was not allowed on watch except for the current lesson of a man's CG correspondence course. At night, the only light permitted was a flashlight to write in the log entries and to check the time.
Inside The Tower - 1949
Given that the watches were split between six men, and one or two would be off duty at all times, a large proportion of the time would be spent in the tower. For example when I returned from liberty at noon I would stand the noon to four watch, the dogged 6 to 8 watch, relieving the 4 to 6 man for a half hour for chow, then back in the tower for the the mid to four watch, up at 5 for reveille and cleaning stations before breakfast, then back into the tower for the 8-12 at night, sleep four hours and then have the 4 to 6 in the morning, relieving the 6-8 morning watch for chow. Often I would start the cycle again with the noon to four, ad infinitum, until my liberty times rolled around after six days like this. As far as work was concerned, the working day was 5-7 for cleaning, 8-12 drills, maintenance and upkeep, 1-4:30 the same and chow at 5. The rest of the day was mine if not on watch. The mid watch did not sleep in.
A lot of tower time, a lot of drills ands work time and precious little rack time. It was very difficult to stay awake. Obviously the six or seven senior people who didn't stand watch wouldn't spend their time checking up on those who did work and stand watches. Sometimes the OinC or his BM1(L) assistant would try to sneak up the tower stairs to catch the watch asleep, reading or committing some other mortal sin. One of the guys loosened three of the stairs and you could hear the stairs creak. When I would hear someone unexpected on the stairs, I would walk over to the trap door and stand on it. That stopped the sudden surprise of the trap door opening suddenly. Maybe the Army Officer's Guide was right after all.
Lost in antiquity is the origins of the infamous "Detex" Time Detector Clock. It was our tether. It had to be punched every 30 minutes. You were allowed five minutes either side of the due time of the punch. If you missed the punch you were in serious trouble. At Merrimac River on the first offense you received a verbal warning and a letter in your personnel record. The second offense was an automatic two week restriction. The third offense begat a Deck Court which was done by mail. The OinC wrote a letter to the district and a couple of weeks later a letter would come back awarding you thirty days restriction, two hours extra duty for each day of restriction and the loss of a months pay. I guess that draconian practice stopped with the advent of the UCMJ. At least the officer court-martialing you had to then hear your side of the story. The Deck Court was abolished.
The Clock As Displayed At The New Merrimack River Station - 2003
The clock was indestructible. It was pounded on, pounded with, drowned, dropped from the tower to the sidewalk below and no matter what, the damned thing still kept ticking away. You couldn't hurt it short of a nuclear burst. "I accidentally dropped it when I attempted to put in the key before I had a chance to turn it and the clock stopped" or some other lame excuse like that just didn't wash. Once the assistant OinC forgot to wind the clock when it was open and the clock stopped the next morning. The man on watch didn't notice it and just kept punching away every half hour. The noon to four watch, his relief, noticed it right away. The assistant OinC went on his two days off at noon that day and the chief, who had just came in off his two days off, wanted to court martial the both of them. Eventually the storm abated and the man who was on watch only lost one liberty.
Mechanically, the clock contained a printed paper disc that was changed every day. The disk had radial lines coming from the center with the various times of the day printed on the interior and exterior circles. When the key was inserted and turned, an indentation was made in the paper. The disc turned with the time. A close inspection was made to see whether or not each indentation "cut the line" every half hour. Simple Enough! After the clock was opened at 4 in the afternoon, the old disc was checked for completeness, signed and dated and put in a pile to send to the district periodically. A new disc would be installed after the clock was wound, the time showing on the face was checked for accuracy and the disc time was set to match the face time. With this complete, the clock was returned to the tower.
The key to open the clock was similar to a handcuff key. A lot of them floated around in the ranks. When the clock was opened, the inner dial circle was perforated at the time the clock was opened. This prevented the clock from being defeated that way. There was about a 15 minute window when the clock could be opened around the scheduled opening and the perforation wouldn't show. In order to defeat the clock, the criminal opening it had to make sure the clock would be opened on schedule, open the clock, turn the internal clock to the time when the punch(es) were/was missed, punch it with the correct numbered key, reset the dial and close the clock. Not an easy task under the circumstances. I have no idea what the penalty was for tampering with the clock. Maybe forty lashes, maybe death at the stake.
There were ten punch keys in a set. Each one would punch at a different position on the dial. The keys were changed at the punch station at irregular intervals. They were lead sealed in place so they couldn't be removed.
In those days we paid so much attention to that damned clock that often other things were missed. Maybe that is why those inhuman tethers were finally done away with. Staying awake under the conditions we lived with wasn't easy. We all were tired much of the time and the monotony of the watches never abated. That tether, the Detex Time Detector Clock, forced us to stay awake. It was more demanding than a wife.
Return To Coast Guard Stories