USCGC KUKUI (WAK 186)

 Workhorse of the   Pacific

By Jim Donahue

Reprinted from "Evening Colors - October 2002" By permission of the author.

My only sea duty in 30 years of service in the Coast Guard was aboard the CGC KUKUI (WAK 186). Like her sister ship, CGC COURIER (WAGR-410), it was a unique vessel in many ways. Whereas COURIER was retrofitted several times, KUKUI remained as originally designed, a Maritime Commission Cl-M-A Vl type coastal freighter. Constructed by Froeming Brothers, Inc., Milwaukee, WI, it was commissioned on March 11, 1945. It was later acquired by the U.S. Navy and then transferred to the Coast Guard to be permanently assigned to the Fourteenth Coast Guard District and homeported at Base Sand Island. 

KUKUI's primary mission was logistics, maintenance, repair and construction of the LORAN Stations throughout the Pacific. Three hundred and thirty-nine feet in length, KUKUI and COURIER were the largest vessels in the Coast Guard's inventory for many years. Usually deployed often months at a time, KUKUI re-supplied the many LORAN "A" and "C" Stations including chains in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii, and those stretching south to Eniwetok Atoll. The KUKUI complement included the only civil engineering billet afloat. Often the civil engineer would be dropped off on a remote island with a maintenance and repair (M&R) crew for LORAN station maintenance, repair, or construction purposes. When the project was completed the detachment would then re-embark on KUKUI as it made its logistical run back to Honolulu from a WESTPAC deployment.  

USCGC KUKUI

I reported on board KUKUI in late December 1969 to serve as its last civil engineer. Plans were well underway to decommission it within two years. The remaining LORAN chains would then be re-supplied by buoytenders and aircraft. Fortunately I had more than five years of shore station design and construction experience. But little did I know that I could have left all the theory I had been taught in college behind me. The assignment aboard KUKUI entailed nothing more than the effective use of plain nuts and bolts, hammers and saws, and concrete and steel construction. I just had to make things happen with my own handpicked crew. Also, I needed to brush up on the navigation, communications and seamanship that I was taught six years previously in OCS as I was also assigned as the "ops boss" and navigator. I would soon discover that this assignment was an engineer's "dream come true." The years of studying mathematics and physics served me well for both my civil engineering duties and celestial navigation. The KUKUI's tracklines often ran between LORAN Stations, so electronic fixes were very poor; thus we relied heavily upon navigating by the sun, moon and stars.

Many of our stops across the Pacific were at the sites of historic WW II battles. Being a World War II buff, I was able to visit the beaches and battlegrounds where many brave Marines and Army soldiers, Navy and Coastguardsmen lost their lives to help keep our world safe and free. French Frigate Shoals, Kure, Midway, Guam, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Saipan, Eniwetok and Kwajalein Atolls, along with Bataan, Sangley Point, Subic Bay, Yokosuka an,d Taiwan were regular stops during a typical WESTPAC. The Philippines, Japan, and Taiwan afforded us some play as well as work. R&R was held in these ports which provided the crew with many sightseeing and shopping opportunities. We certainly enjoyed the great taste of Japanese, Philippine and Chinese cuisine and beer. I think my favorite beer was San Miguel - brewed and bottled in the Philippines. Back then quality control was unheard of and some bottles "went down" like water while others often promised us a potent "buzz." Meanwhile, we purchased beautiful Chinese and Philippine handcrafted furniture, pottery, china and clothes as well as stereo equipment and cameras made in Japan for ourselves and our loved ones back home. The buys were phenomenal, as the exchange rate back then was 360 yen to the dollar. KUKUI had three large storage holds that were nearly empty as we completed our WESTPACs, and we could store many personal effects amongst the heavy construction equipment.

We also carried a USPHS doctor aboard KUKUI. He was a new medical school graduate, gaining some first-hand medical experience. One of the most harrowing experiences was when we were backloading heavy construction equipment at a LORAN station. One of my construction workers, EN1 Baker, was severely injured when a towing cable snapped and wrapped around his leg, almost severing it between the hip and knee. Our ship's doctor,  LT Jerry Pittman, caught the next "Mike" Boat (LCM) to the beach. Although new to the profession, "Doc" Pittman responded admirably to the emergency and stopped the profuse bleeding. He stitched up Baker at the LORAN Station. We had to leave Baker behind but in the very good care of the LORAN Station's HM3. Later that week a flight arrived and returned him to Tripier Army Hospital, Honolulu, HI. Miraculously, and with exceptional medical care from "Doc" Pittman and the station's corpsman, Baker's leg was saved and it eventually fully healed so that he was fit for full duty.

Hazardous duty? Some of the time. Demanding duty? Most of the time. Rewarding duty? Yes, all of the time. A good friend of mine and a fellow KUKUI shipmate, now retired RADM John Tozzi had seven or eight tours of duty at sea during his 30-year career - including two commands of WHEC-378's. He often recalls his tour aboard KUKUI as one of the best he ever had. Over the years I have met KUKUI sailors who all say the same thing. Once I had a discussion with CAPT Wayne E. Caldwell (CGA '48; now a retired VADM). He also had been assigned aboard KUKUI as the civil engineer. It was no surprise that our "sea stories" were so similar that it was as if time always stood still on KUKUI. The technology and mission had never changed much during its 25 years of service. Neither did its ports-of-call. This was a ship that demanded much from its crew. It was a vessel that had a truly "non-compartmentalized" crew. Whether you were a seaman, fireman, cook or supply clerk; an electronics technician, radioman, yeoman or a storekeeper; a steward or a commisaryman; or one of the "snipe" ratings, we always pulled together as a team to get the job done. And I had it best of all. When I went ashore the C.O. gave me carte blanche authority to handpick my own M&R detachment. I selected the very best volunteers available - which wasn't difficult to do. It was almost like having my own "mini-Seabee" unit. We worked hard and, when the day was over, we would often relax with a good meal prepared by the LORAN station cooks and sip a few "brewskies" on the beach before we turned in at night. This reflected the ultimate in teamwork. It was Total Quality Management before we knew it as such. We empowered our petty officers; asked for and adopted their suggestions, whether they were an E-2 or an E-9; and praised their work when the job was completed. That made good management sense, and it worked extremely well. Teamwork is what got the job done, done right, and done the first time. We had to, for we had no time to spare.

The crew always took great pride in their accomplishments and when we returned to Base Sand Island we knew we had earned our "Bravo-Zulus." No personnel decorations or medals for us back then. We were just doing our jobs. The decorations were for meant for those Coast Guardsmen that had more hazardous duties such as fighting in Vietnam or saving lives at sea. That was only fair and we fully accepted it. Yet we knew that we were doing our part during the Vietnam War. Our mission was to help keep the LORAN Stations 99.99% operational so that all the military services could safely navigate the Pacific Ocean. And we did it exceptionally well.

February 29, 1972, was a sad day for KUKUI shipmates - present and past. After more than 25 years of faithful service, our cutter was decommissioned. The work the LORAN re-supply mission would now be done by personnel stationed ! aboard buoytenders and in HU-16 and C-130 aircraft. It was a matter of economics. 

Yet many emotions were felt as the final KUKUI crew turned their trustworthy vessel over to the Philippine Navy at ceremonies conducted at Base Sand Island. Our CO, CDR John C. "Gus" Guthrie, and XO, LCDR Roger Bing, saluted smartly  to Philippine CAPT Ponciano T. Bautista and his crew as they disembarked KUKUI at the outermost sea buoy of Honolulu Harbor. The newly commissioned RPI ship MACTAN (TK-90) then made tracks west to its new homeport in Subic Bay.

It certainly was the end of a wonderful era, tradition, and supply ship. Anybody that has served aboard KUKUI will always remember it well. Recently I learned that MACTAN is still a Philippine Navy ship homeported in Subic Bay. The ship is still reliably and safely plying the waters of the Pacific while serving its country's sailors well into its 57th year. Amazing!

Now reunions are the "stuff' that good memories are made of. They are meant for sailors to relive their glory days of yesteryear while renewing long-term friendships. I have never seen a KUKUI reunion, per se. Nothing like the famous COURIER reunions that are held each year. However, I've hosted a few KUKUl "mini-reunions" that have reunited some of our 1970 -71 1 wardroom. The KUKUI "mini-reunions" have kept at least 10 of us in touch after all these years. Retired RADM John Tozzi, CAPT John Guthrie, CAPT John Miner, CAPT Don DeBok, CDR Harry Messenheimer, LCDR Bill Clark, LCDR Bryan Genez, LTJG Steve Riddle, CWO Leo Sermersheimer and myself have been able to "rub elbows" and recount "sea stories" several times. Also, former RM1 Sarra eventually went on to OCS and eventually "caught up" to me in rank before we both retired as captains a few years ago. I've even run across a few of the crew over the years - YNC Coulter, CWO Whitehouse, CWO Snodgrass and YN3 Tryder to name a few. They all have fond memories of serving aboard KUKUI.

Meanwhile, the new CGC KUKUI, a state-of-the-art buoytender, with minimally manned crew, was commissioned a few years ago and is now homeported at the Integrated Support Command (ISC) Honolulu, HI (formerly Base Sand Island). Also a wing of the ISC's Unaccompanied Personnel Housing was dedicated as KUKUI Hall in the spring of 1994. Both reflect the rich history and tradition of the CGC KUKUI (WAK 186)

Anybody who has served aboard the KUKUI (W AK 186) can send your names, addresses, e-mail addresses and phone numbers to me at jameshdonahue@earthlink.net I'll compile a "KUKUI Directory" that we can all share. Who knows, maybe some day we can eventually have a KUKUI Reunion

Retired USCG Captain Jim Donahue, P.E., who resides in Arlington, V A, wrote the the story. He served aboard KUKUI when he was a LT from December 1969 to July 1971. He was the Operations Officer, Navigator and Civil Engineer - the only Civil Engineering billet afloat. KUKUI was the same hull design as the COURIER. This article is adapted partly from an article that he authored for the December 1992-January 1993 edition" of "Pacific Shield."

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