Gum Shoes and Ice Breakers

By Ted McCormack

 

 

My leave after Boot Camp was cut short by a telegram ordering me to Elizabeth City, North Carolina to catch a Coast Guard logistics flight to Thule, Greenland. Once there, I was to report aboard the USCG Icebreaker Southwind for further assignment to the USCGC Westwind. The latter vessel was undermanned, so the Coast Guard was using that opportunity to send more personnel to the ship. Unfortunately, the Westwind was somewhere between Thule on the west coast of Greenland and Kulusuk on the east side of that icy land, so I was assigned TAD aboard the Southwind.

USCGC SOUTHWIND

On the appointed day, I found myself in an uncomfortable webbed seat of a Coast Guard C-130 for a two-day flight to Greenland with another Seaman Apprentice and a third class cook, both also bound for the Westwind. After reporting aboard the Southwind, I was assigned a rack, and given a very quick introduction to shipboard routine. At least they showed me my Abandon Ship Station (after telling me that I would freeze to death before being rescued) and told me to stay out of the way if General Quarters sounded.

The Southwind was in the eastern Arctic on a "short" trip to escort ships that resupplied the Distant Early Warning radar stations in Greenland. She had recently returned from a long voyage to the Antarctic, so the crew was anxious to return to their home port at Curtis Bay, Maryland for an extended overhaul. The cutter had gained some recognition by returning from Antarctica via West Africa, thus circumnavigating the globe, which was rare for a Coast Guard vessel to do.

As a "new boot" aboard the Southwind, I was anxious to fit in and be accepted as one of the crew, even if only for a short time. But try as I might, I was shunned by all of the Deck Force except for the other SA who was my travelling companion. Both of us were assigned some of the worst jobs imaginable during that short period. Each night, I would wonder what I had done to deserve such treatment. Before I could find the answer the Westwind dropped anchor on Greenland's east coast. The three of us then caught a flight to Kulusuk and joined our ship.

The Westwind returned to Curtis Bay about a month after the Southwind's voyage had ended. Both cutters docked across from each other, and I noticed that several of the members of the Southwind's Deck Force looked surprised to see ,e as the ship tied up. Several nights later while I was sharing a beer with shipboard friends at a local bar, some of the Southwind's Deck Force came over to explain their treatment of me.

In the late 1960s, the Coast Guard, like the Nation's other military services, was beginning recognize that a growing percentage of their personnel were using or experimenting with illegal drugs. Since the Southwind's voyage to Antarctica included port calls in the Caribbean, South America, and Africa where marijuana and other mind-altering substances could be easily purchased, I was told in confidence that several of the crew had taken drugs as a distraction from the routine duties and hardships of their long sea voyage.

It was also related to me that taking drugs often made the user a little paranoid, and certain members of the Southwind's crew were fearful of being discovered by the authorities. Naturally, when three unknown sailors suddenly appeared aboard ship one day, suspicions were aroused that we were Coast Guard Intelligence (CGI) undercover agents sent to infiltrate the crew. So the Deck Force decided to ignore us as a precaution. I guess I was lucky that was all they decided to do.

Unfortunately, that was not my last experience with CGI. After serving on the Westwind for 14 months, I went to Yeoman's School at Governors Island and was assigned to the Fifth Coast Guard District Office in Portsmouth, Virginia after graduation. While I was at school, the Westwind had made its trip to the Antarctic via South America. Shortly after reporting into the district office I heard that she was scheduled to stop in Norfolk, Virginia before ending that long cruise at Curtis Bay.

I decided that I would drive out to the Norfolk Naval Base where the Westwind was to dock to see some of my friends and hear how the trip had gone. As I pulled up to the pier where the icebreaker was to tie up, I saw a large crowd of uniformed and civilian personnel, several with German Shepherd dogs. As I got out of my car, a man whom I recognized from the Fifth District Office as a CGI agent came over and asked me what I was doing there. When I told him, he wanted to know the names of the people that I had come to see. My mind suddenly went blank, but I managed to mumble the names of a couple of chiefs. Then he strongly suggested that I get in my car and drive away from that pier as fast as I could. Needless to say, I tried not to attract any more attention while speeding away.

Some days afterward, the agent told me that consular officials in various South America ports had intelligence that certain transient U.S. military personnel were making large drug purchases over the past few months, and suspicion naturally fell on the crew of the Westwind. The day that I had picked to visit my shipboard friends, the cutter was to undergo a surprise search for drugs. Because I had suddenly shown up at the dock, someone might have thought that I was there to pick up a special package from South America.

I later found out from a friend on the Westwind that the search of the ship that day uncovered only a small bag of marijuana in the bilges. If any of the crew had purchased drugs in South America, they were consumed during the voyage or tossed overboard as a precaution.

 

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