TAPS FOR THE FIR
by Charles W Lindenberg
LCDR Robert W Nutting, Commanding Officer, USCGC FIR, raised his arm in a brisk salute to the admirals--VADM A. Bruce Beraan, Commander, Coast Guard Pacific Area, and RADM Joseph E. Vorbach, Commander, Thirteenth Coast Guard District.
"Permission to decommission the FIR."
"Permission granted." And with that, the admirals and their contingent departed the United States Coast Guard Cutter FIR for the final time.
In March, 1939, President Roosevelt promises legislation to relieve the railroad situation. In Friday Harbor you can buy a one-pound can of Gold Shield coffee for 25 cents; beefsteak went for 25 cents per pound, and a brand new Ford V-8 DeLuxe was yours for $769, equipment included. On the 22nd of the month, at Moore Dry Dock Company in Oakland, California, the FIR is launched, at the cost of $389,746.
Originally built for the U.S. Lighthouse Service as a 175-foot coastal lighthouse tender, she was commissioned as a Coast Guard Cutter October 1, 1940 after the two services merged. Until her retirement, FIR was the sole remaining buoy tender of her class. Passing from the ranks of an active vessel she transfers her title as oldest commissioned cutter to the USCGC Storis, which now may wear her hull number (38) proudly in gold letters. FIR wore her gold "212" numbers since May 27, 1988, subsequent to the decommissioning of the USCGC Ingham.
In the spring of 1940 FIR arrived at the Coast Guard Buoy Repair Station in Salmon Bay near the Ballard Locks where she lived for all but one year of her 51 years of service. Her job was to provide lighthouses and lightships with coal for their boilers, potable water, food and mail. During World War Two she, along with the other Coast Guard vessels, came under the jurisdiction of the Navy, receiving a coat of gray paint, .50 caliber machine guns, a 3-inch gun and depth charges. FIR stood picket duty, towed gunnery targets and patrolled the waters of Washington and Oregon.
In 1951 her triple expansion steam engines were removed, and a pair of 38D 8-1/8 4-cylinder Fairbanks Morse Diesels moved in, coupling their combined 1,350 shaft horsepower to the twin bronze screws through reduction gears. Then in 1974 two maneuvering rudders were added, and in the early 1980's, a new boom and A-frame replaced the aging hydraulic system. The living spaces were modified to include female quarters. FIR kept pace with the electronic age with five computer work stations, two radar's, several receivers and transmitters, a thermal imaging scope for damage control along with a computerized telephone system. The old transmitters and archaic receivers of the Morse code era are long gone, as was the radio room itself.
Throughout all the modernization FIR retained many of her 1939 Lighthouse Service fixtures, such as oak banisters, wardrobes, and screen doors opening onto the weather decks. She may have changed to accommodate the times, but she never relinquished her proud heritage.
Maintaining and servicing buoys means long hours of hard, and often dangerous work. The buoy's anchor, tons of cement with chain attached, hangs suspended alongside her low buoy deck. Taking continuous bearings, the ship maneuvers into the exact position matching the buoy's charted location. On command, the huge anchor is released and plunges to the bottom of the sea, pulling row after row of heavy chain, clattering off the steel decks after it. The freshly painted and serviced buoy, laying on its side on deck, is then hoisted aloft with the boom, swung over the side and released. The ship backs away and another aid to navigation is back on the job.
Initially the bearings were taken with lead line and sightings from the bridge deck. Now Global Position System satellites provide much more accurate, and quicker, fixes. The buoys, once lighted with acetylene, were updated to storage batteries and then to solar power. FIR lived long enough to witness these transitions over the years.
Not all Fir's work was routine buoy and lighthouse maintenance. In 1949 she removed the crew of the M/V ANDALUSIA which ran aground and caught fire near Neah Bay. In 1962 and 1966 she helped with the recovery of downed aircraft in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. During a major fire at Todd Shipyard in Elliott Bay she was called upon for assistance.
In 1985 she received a Unit Commendation for her work after the 833-foot ARCO ANCHORAGE went aground in Port Angeles spilling 239,000 gallons of crude oil, then in 1988 FIR covered for the USCGC IRIS so the latter could assist with the EXXON VALDEZ's spill in Alaska.
In 1972 FIR hauled 600,000 Chinook salmon fry to Squaxin Island to seed the local waters. She has also been a fixture at Seattle's Seafair and Portland's Rose Festival.
FIR's final project was to do what she'd originally been built for--to renovate and restore the Cape Flattery Lighthouse on Tatoosh Island, an appropriate ending to her long and distinguished career, which ended October 1, 1991, 51 years to the day after she was commissioned.
The day was perfect; blue skies, a very slight breeze--just enough to ruffle the many strings of flags adorning the FIR, STORIS, IRIS and FIR's replacement, MARIPOSA, all gathered together at the NOAA dock at Sand Point. An estimated 400 to 500 people showed up for the ceremony, many of them ex-FIR crewmembers. After an open house aboard, the spectators took seats on the docks as the Coast Guard band from New London, CT played the national anthem.
LCDR Paul A Schumann, USNR, gave the invocation. Then LCDR Nutting of the FIR presented the Oldest Commissioned Cutter Award to CDR Philip E Sherer, Commanding Officer of the USCGC STORIS.
VADM Beran took the microphone and spoke of the FIR's history; places she'd been, things she'd done. RADM Vorbach then told of the ship and her crew, who were indeed the heart of any ship. He asked everyone in the audience who had ever served aboard her to rise. A great number stood, looking around, searching for familiar faces, smiling and waving as shipmates recognized shipmates.
Nutting then spoke of FIR's career, reading several entries from her past logs. Like the time the bridge deck was awash in heavy seas, or the time they hauled coal to a lighthouse and the crew had to carry the sacks up the hill, since the lighthouse's crane was broken. He turned and looked over his shoulder as he praised his crew, his voice failing several times, calling them the heart of the ship.
Then it was time to ring down the curtain on FIR's career.
Nutting turned to his assembled crew standing at ease on a platform built up on the FIR's buoy deck.
"Attention to orders."
In preparation for decommissioning, each department head reports the status of his department. The First Lieutenant saluted.
"All decks secured. All cannon balls have been taken ashore, cannons are spiked, sir."
The Engineering Officer was next.
"The shafts have been locked and the tiller lashed amidships, sir."
Nutting turned next to the Operations Officer.
"The galley fires have been doused and ship's chronometer allowed to wind down (two things which are never allowed to happen aboard a living vessel) and all rations commuted, sir."
Nutting returned his salute. He addressed the crew.
"Ship's crew, lay ashore."
One by one the men and women of the USCGC FIR stepped to the Officer of the Deck, saluted, stepped up onto the gangway, saluted the National Ensign at the stern and walked ashore, accompanied by the loudspeaker announcing their name and hometown. After they were assembled on the dock, Nutting turned to the remaining watch.
"Strike eight bells." (This signifies the ending of the watch.)
One of the crew struck the large brass bell mounted in front of the wheelhouse two . . . four . . . six . . . eight times, then slowly walked to the halyards on the flag deck.
With a catch in his voice, the skipper ordered the colors lowered. A member of the band on the dock detached himself from the group and walked behind the assembled audience. He raised his instrument to his lips. Taps, played slowly and mournfully, echoed off the black hull and gleaming white superstructure of the buoy tender. The national ensign at the stern came slowly down. The Coast Guard ensign, then the commission pennant slid down the main mast, and on the bow, the triangle of blue with white stars was hauled in. The colors folded, the watch reassembled on the buoy deck. Again, Nutting dismissed them, and again, to the announcement of their names and hometowns, they lay ashore, one by one. This time, after saluting the Officer of the Deck, they simply stood for a moment looking astern; there was no longer a flag to salute.
Executive Officer LTJG Scott D Pisel saluted his skipper.
"Permission to lay ashore, sir."
Pisel walked to the gangway, stepped up, stood for a moment facing aft, then joined the assembled crew on the dock.
LCDR Robert W Nutting stood alone on the buoy deck. He looked for a long moment up the mast . . . at the wheelhouse . . . back along the decks of his old command. Then, without a word he, too, stepped onto the gangway, and for another long moment, gazed aft to where the empty staff stood, then stepped ashore.
The FIR was decommissioned.
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