Slightly Irregular

Otto Freytag

[When Otto sent this story to me several years ago, he did not wish to have his name revealed, in spite of my objectionsI thought, and still do, that his accomplishments during his life should be credited. Out of respect for him, however, his name has not been revealed until recently when Otto Crossed the Bar.]                    Ich Dien - Don Gardner

I was born in Germany and came to America twice, once legally and once illegally. 

My mother and father divorced when I was 1 and dad later remarried a wealthy German widow (he knew how to pick ‘em). Since I knew only my step-mother as a mother, I always called her mom.

My father, a para-legal (amtsgerichtsekretar*), was a reserve officer in the German army. In 1913-14 the war drums were beating, so the three of us, my father, mother, and I, went to Brazil in early 1914 to scout the country with a view toward establishing a millinery business, since quite a large number of German immigrants were living there. On the way back to Germany from Rio de Janeiro on a British ship, the SS Araquaya, World War I began and the British instead took us to the Isle of Wight, where we were interned.

In those days, being interned meant living in a hotel or with a British family. As soon as we were settled, my father took most of our money and his papers and went "over the wall," going to the harbor area, where he stowed away on an American ship bound for New York City. Later my mom and I were moved to London and lived with an elderly British couple in their home.

Dad shoveled coal for a fireman who befriended him, brought him chow, and took care of him. Another sailor sold dad an extra set of seaman’s papers. When the ship arrived in New York, dad waited a few days, then walked calmly off the ship, flashed his seaman’s papers at the gate and went uptown, where he got a job as a waiter in a German restaurant on 3rd Avenue. Dad sent money back to London, where my mother and I had been moved. After accumulating enough money, the British let her buy passageway to America. I would like to comment here that while interned, the British people treated us very well.

In the meantime, my father made friends with another German, and when my mother and I arrived at Ellis Island in 1914, this friend told Immigration that my mother was his sister and I was his nephew. In those days it was easy. America wasn’t at war with Germany at that time, and as we had "family" in the U.S., there were no problems gaining entrance.

The first American thing I remember was someone giving me a penny Tootsie Roll. I can still remember how wonderful it was.

My mother was able to go into the millinery business in New York. She had a smattering of English, but the majority of the owners were Jewish and could speak German. Mother made very good money for those days. After the war, she wanted to return to Germany, where she had been a famous milliner, to recover her various properties and visit her mother and brother. In pre-war money, mom had an overall value in property of over a quarter of a million marks. My father first, then my mother and I returned to Germany, along with my sister who was an American by birth. In no time at all the post-war government paid her in almost worthless marks, which, due to post-war inflation, was enough money to buy a pound of butter. Mother packed up and returned to America, then my father, sister, and I in 1923. This time I came in legally with a passport and a visa (I still have it).

When I was 13, and had a year in public school, I was sent to Upsala College and Academy in East Orange, New Jersey. That was a ball! With no one to tell me what to do, I fouled up so bad that school authorities wrote Dad he would have to arrange outside lodging because I was a disruption in the dormitory. A girl I knew had a brother who came home for Christmas 1925 in uniform. I thought he was in the Navy, but he corrected me: "No, I’m in the Coast Guard".

I asked what that was. He said the Coast Guard "chased rumrunners and rescued people."

"That’s for me," I said.

In January 1926, I was at Base One in Atlantic City ready to ship in. I told the recruiters I was 21, was born in New York City, and my parents were deceased. The truth of the matter is that I was born in Hamburg, Germany, both parents were alive, and I was 15-years-old! I looked older than my age, but I was lucky to enlist. Fifteen ex-Navy WW I destroyers had been turned over to the Coast Guard, 200 75-foot patrol boats, and 20 125-foot patrol cutters were built and added to the fleet, all needing crews—they took anyone.

Several Interesting Incidents

In 1929-30 my wife and I were at Misquamicot Beach, Rhode Island, one Sunday when a fellow started hollering for help. I quickly swam out and told him to hang on while I tried to bring him in. He said, "No, here!" and he hauled up a girl he was trying to bring in. I swam back with her to the beach, got a group of people together and performed Shaffer Prone Pressure on her (the accepted method of resuscitation of the day). In about five minutes we had her breathing again. A man who said he was a doctor took her away in an ambulance. My wife is my only witness—there is no record of this rescue in my record, but I never thought any more about it except the feeling of relief when the girl started kicking.

In 1937-38, the USCGC INGHAM made the Bering Sea Patrol and docked at Dutch Harbor, Unalaska. Across the harbor about 500 yards was Navy Radio Station NPR. One night about 7 PM I just came out of the shower and had my pants on when General Quarters was sounded and someone on the bow yelled "man overboard!"

I looked down and saw a kid hollering for help. I was about ready to jump when a Gunners Mate 1st class made a seat on a line and lowered me down. What made it so tricky was that a williwah had blown up and the wind sometimes got up to 60-70 mph; waves were coming in pretty high. When I was lowered down to the water, I saw that this "kid" was a woman. I asked her to hold on, but she said "Here!" Then she brought up a man who was unconscious, and with his mouth wide-open, water was splashing in. I put him between my legs and put my arms around the woman. It was too much of a load to lift all, so someone hollered that they would come around from the other side of the dock with the motor sailer. Waves were bouncing us up and down, but after more than a few minutes the boat arrived. It took some maneuvering because of the wind, but Piezek, the coxswain, got the man aboard first, then the woman. When they got me aboard ship I was ice cold and beat it to the shower. The cold water felt hot, and while in the shower the doctor came down and poured two ounces of brandy for me. I can still taste it. Then a hand reached in and handed me a pint of bourbon. It seems our boys had rescued the skiff and it’s cargo.

We kept both in our sick bay overnight and their clothes went through our laundry and drier. The next day Mr. and Mrs. Inks thanked me.

Here comes the fun. At the radio station they were having a big party. The couple we pulled aboard the INGHAM, plus a Radioman who was pulled out of the water by the crew of a 165-footer, had rowed from the radio station in a small skiff to the liquor store and bought 13 pints of bourbon. On the return trip the williwah hit and swamped the boat.

The Chief Yeoman told me I was getting a royal screwing—he was in the wardroom taking notes when this came out: There would be no report of a rescue on my record, no commendation, no nothing. Why? Because our skipper was at the party and an investigation would bring this out, which would put him in a bad light.

Now I had rescued three people and had nil to show for it on my record, but I did not complain or do anything—the skipper was a heavy-drinking Irishman named Michael J. Ryan, now deceased. CDR. Ryan was later transferred from the INGHAM to Chief of Staff, 13th Coast Guard District; a month later I was also transferred to Seattle, where I worked in the communications center, a shore job with $1.95 a day extra for living expenses.

When the first Chiefs exam in nine years came along in early 1941, I took it, but was so excited that I fouled up royally. Believe it or not, the next month came and another exam. I "made the hat" this time and feel I know who may have pulled the strings.

I had a month of mid-watches where traffic was light and we could BS with the Navy and Army operators on the telegraph—I had to learn to become a landline telegrapher for this. The Radioman on watch was the only person in the District Office at night; if a distress or other alerts broke that involved local units, the on watch Radioman called the Chief of Staff at home to report the details, who in return would tell the Radioman what to do. Sometimes when I called, he would be so drunk I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I would hear his daughter or wife tell him he could call later.

I knew what should be done and would order an 83-footer from one place or maybe a unit from another to converge on the scene of trouble. Sure enough, an hour later he would call and ask how the case was going and I would tell him I had done what he had ordered, giving him details regarding the patrol boats and cutters. He would say, "OK, let me know whatever else comes up." I never told him what I had done, always what he had ordered. As a result I wound up with good marks and made permanent Chief.

During World War II, my cousin, Carl Kretzschmar, was in the North Atlantic on a German submarine while I was on convoy and escort duty there. It would have been interesting had we met as POW’s, one way or the other. I’ve wondered often what it would have been like to depth charge his submarine, or if his sub had torpedoed my ship. My answer: I am an American, and if fighting Germans meant killing them, I would not hesitate. My father and mother were upset about World War II but had no use for Hitler. They were proud that I was in the service and, of course, hoped nothing would happen to me.

Carl was captured by the British during a land attack on a submarine base in France and was interned in Britain. I sent him a package with coffee and cigarettes, and when I met him in 1976, he told me he swapped the cigarettes for Scotch whiskey with the British soldiers. As late as 1948 I was sending clothing and other items to various relatives in Germany, mostly cousins and an aunt. A cousin wrote back asking if he could do anything for me; I told him the last town my birth mother lived in and ask if he could help her in any way. Germany has a system where as soon as you move into or out of a town you register with the police; in that way they can keep track of you as long as the files are alive. My birth mother was in the Russian zone, but my cousin said he could get a pass and look her up if possible to do so.

Later he wrote that he had found her, that I had some half-sisters and –brothers, but my birth mother was OK and said she did not need help—we should let sleeping dogs lie.

Convenience of the Government

On June 1946, while serving in the 7th CG District, all temporary officers were called to the district office and were busted back to our permanent enlisted rate "for the convenience of the government" and discharged. The following day I received travel, leave status, and re-enlistment allowance, and to my surprise was re-appointed as Warrant Officer. I found out that I was the only person in the 7th CG District that was re-appointed to WO.

From a broad broken stripe to a narrow broken stripe, I was directed to return to Jupiter, Fla. as the Commanding Officer of a Direction Finding Station. My boss, LT McAdam, was busted back at the same time but not re-appointed. He said, "Now I’ll work for you." No problem—he had been an excellent boss, and now stayed on duty as a Chief Radioman.

Somewhere back at Headquarters I felt that someone on the reviewing boards spoke up for me, so I never felt cheated. I had come into the Coast Guard as a dumb Seaman and retired at age 45 as a commissioned warrant officer. No medals, but I was satisfied with my career.

I made WO and CWO twice. The first time at the new radio station at Meadowdale, Washington (NMW) on 4 September 1943, to rank from 20 August 1943, and made CWO November 1944 on the USCGC TAMPA. At that time there were no officer grades called W-1 through W-4

I made permanent WO September 1948 at CG Radio Station (NMJ) at Ketchikan, Alaska, then was later transferred to CG Headquarters in Washington, DC. Now begins the so-called joker.

Headquarters is billet structured. If there was a billet open, they filled it. In the meantime the Career Compensation Act (we called it the Career Complication Act) set Warrants up as W-1 (WO), W-2 through W-4 as CWO. After a year, a WO is moved to CWO (W-2). Lo and behold, I have my year in and no movement to W-2. Reason: no billet! What does personnel do? They paid me as a W-2. At the time I thought it was a real Irish promotion—no rank, but I got the pay. In due time someone retired, so I made temporary W-2.

In June 1954 I made permanent W-2 at Westport Radio, but the joker was that time as W-1 being paid as W-2 did not count toward W-2! When it looked like I would not retire as W-4 because of this foul up, the communications officer at Headquarters put me up for LTJG; I was on the list when I retired because there was no billet for me.

After WW II was over, I had some clout as a CWO and went to personnel at Headquarters in person to change my place and date of birth. Not a growl was heard from anyone. My personnel records were changed in 15 minutes.

When I read back over this story, I don’t consider it too well—it sounds like this guy was one big BS artist. My story is true, however. When I’m gone, you can print my name.

One last thing: I think the Good Lord had some fun with me, sending me all over the world and having me start one place and wind up at another.



Return to Coast Guard Stories