Marijuana Moorings

By Jack A. Eckert

 

In my third year working in an out-of-specialty tour as Commanding Officer of Ship Training Detachment Three, normally a two-year tour, I contacted Headquarters to get a handle on where I might be transferred in the summer. While my team and I were working the 82-footers in Seattle, my fourth new boss wanted to revamp the training concept we were operating under. I didn’t feel like changing a program that was quite successful, but the handwriting was on the wall. I had considered asking for another year, but this development convinced me not to.

The detailer told me they were going to move me back to the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, but I objected.

“All of you West Coast types are alike and now it’s your turn to go east.”

“Whoa,” I said, “look at my record of service. I have served for all but seven years on the East Coast. I have been on the West Coast for only four years and would like another tour in the Bay Area to build some equity in my house. For the past three years I have been on the road approximately 42 weeks out of the year and would appreciate staying home for a couple of years.”

In late April 1974 the team was in Santa Barbara, Calif. training the CGC POINT JUDITH when I learned I had orders for Group, San Francisco as Deputy Group Commander. This was better than I had hoped for. I had worked the 82-footers and the two tenders on Yerba Buena Island (YBI) where the Group was located, and it looked like the assignment would be interesting.

There was a problem recruiting a relief, but finally a LCDR  who I knew as a student at the Navy Damage Control School in Philadelphia, showed up. After two weeks he relieved me.

As I drove through the gate at YBI, the sentry, with his hat on the back of his head and wearing dirty whites, asked me my business. I told him I was reporting aboard for duty. “OK Bud, park over there.”

My shoulder boards on my dress khakis were clearly in evidence but he didn’t offer a salute. There are times that people have to play the role; he didn’t, but I certainly intended to.

My first order of business after I talked to the Group Commander was to run down the Station Executive Officer, a reserve LTJG, who I asked what the hell he was running. “The District Commander lives on the compound on the hill, and I am not too sure he would have appreciate getting the same greeting I got.”

The JG laughed it off. “We run a relaxed station around here. Don’t worry about it.”

 I saw his boss, the station CO, who I knew from the another unit and also was senior to. He replied that he didn’t want discipline problems and went along with the XO’s philosophy. I am not a crotchety individual but I saw where I soon would become one. There were going to be some changes.

This was a big operation by Coast Guard standards. Geographically it covered from Fort Bragg to Half Moon Bay and back up into the Sacramento Delta. There were six 82-footers, San Francisco, Fort Point, Rio Vista, Lake Tahoe, and Pt. Reyes Stations; in addition, there were manned and unmanned light stations, two loran stations, a buoy depot, and an industrial facility. I guess I got the job because of previous experience on lifeboat stations and lighthouses as well as being knowledgeable of the patrol boats, large and small.

All together there were sixteen operating units and some 900 personnel, officers, enlisted, and civilians. There was a full-blown Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) that was larger and had more traffic than the 12th District RCC across the Bay. There was an active Coast Guard Auxiliary supporting Group operations on weekends and holidays. The 82-footers were constantly employed and smaller boats, 40-footers, 44-foot MLBs, etc., were out it seems more often then they were in. The industrial facility not only supported the two buoy tenders but also provided support to the rest of the small cutters and stations in the district. There was plenty to do.

The Group Commander was a Marine Inspector on an out-of-specialty tour of duty. He was a great guy, very laid back, who took the troubles of the Group in an easy-going manner. When he was in, we talked daily. He told me he was glad I was there and a few things could now get done.

The civil turmoil generated by the Vietnam War had not yet abated. San Francisco was a hotbed of anti-war, military haters, which adversely impacted on the military.

There were also serious personnel problems. The Coast Guard lowered its standards during the Vietnam War to fill billets, and many were nearing the end of their service obligations. There were at least a dozen criminals, misfits, and ne’er-do-wells at Station San Francisco and on the 82-footers, people who normally would not have been enlisted in the first place. Many of them had been bounced from unit to unit, a common practice in the mid-seventies. Eventually these misfits wound up on the larger shore facilities, and where those shore units took the Father Flanagan view, “There is no such thing as a bad boy,” morale and performance slackened considerably.

One day I learned that one of the Officer-in-Charge of one of the 82-footers missed movement when they were called out. I probably wouldn’t have learned of it had not his Executive Petty Officer, a BM1, been high on drugs and running the boat.

Not coincidentally, a WAVE married to an EN2 on one of the 82-footers made an appointment to see me, concerned not only for her husbands’ safety, but also of the harassment he was receiving from the O-in-C and the XPO of that boat. She hinted at some of the problems. I told her that I would certainly look into the matter and see what I could do.

I summoned that O-in-C to my office and asked him what was going on, specifically why he missed the movement of his boat when he was in Bravo-Two (two hour standby). He said he was home and couldn’t get to the boat.

“Why? Isn’t that your responsibility?”

The Chief informed me that the reason he couldn’t make the boat was because he had no transportation.

Again I asked why?

“I don’t have a driver’s license.”

Again, “Why?”

“Because I lost it!”

“Why did you lose it?”

“Because the Judge took it away for a year after my third DWI.” He then proceeded to tell he was not responsible for getting to the boat on a recall because he had no transportation his XPO was perfectly capable of running things.

I ended that conversation by telling him that henceforth, until his license has been returned, he had no transportation problems getting to the boat when it was recalled from a standby status because he would be living aboard.

“YOU CAN’T DO THAT!”

I coolly replied, “Either that or a Special Courts-Martial!”

“Why me, none of the other YBI O-in-C’s have their licenses either!”

Just what I wanted to hear. The problems were deeper than I expected.

To follow up on the WAVE’s problem, I had personnel pull the service records of both the EN2 and the BM1 XPO. The EN2’s record was clean as a whistle except for some recent derogatory entries made by the O-in-C. The BM1’s record was full of Captain’s Masts, Summary and Special Courts Martials, over a long period of time at many units. Most of the convictions were drug-related.

After consulting with the Group Commander, who agreed that we had to do something, I transferred the BM1 to the Group and assigned him to mowing lawns and gardening work. The EN2 was reassigned to the industrial facility where he turned out to be a pretty good man.

Other misfits kept surfacing, everyone an administrative burden. Getting them out of the Coast Guard became an all-consuming effort.

The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, had been on a deliberate campaign for at least three years to remove the “Chicken Sh-t” from the Navy. Rigid dress codes were abolished, read that dungaree liberty, and so forth. Naturally the Coast Guard followed suit. Morale was less than average for the Recruits, SAs, SNs, PO3’s, and Ensigns. These policies, in my opinion, destroyed the effectiveness of the middle level, i.e., Commanders down through Chiefs and Senior Petty Officers. There were floating crap games and gang wars on some of the larger naval floating units. Chiefs and officers drank more than ever. The enlisted forces were almost in shambles; isolated pockets of good attitudes and competency were becoming few and far between. There was a dislike of anything military, particularly in the Bay Area, as a reaction to the Vietnam War. Pride was shot. The PO, CPO, and Officer’s Clubs were doing a booming business. The men were becoming clannish, developing an unhealthy siege mentality.

My name and rank was on every 12th District lawyer’s calendar; one after the other they paraded through the Group Offices. Gradually we were able to unload nine or ten of the real headaches by giving them a General Discharge (vice an Honorable Discharge) conditional upon their waiving their veteran’s benefits.

These actions began to be noticed by the station crew. If a man turned out to be a problem and the station was reluctant to do anything about it, he was transferred to the group where we waited for the inevitable slip-up, then he was nailed to the cross. Not a nice way to do business, but it was effective.

Unofficially we knew that drugs were coming on to the station and distributed to the Navy. Internally we had the runner who brought the stuff in and who was distributing it. Without reference to sources, we were aware of a shipment coming in through the airport and that a locker was being used there for the exchange of money and drugs. Then the gumshoes became involved. Everything blew up and the guy walked. We had been working with the Navy and the police and had our man nailed, a pimply faced, twenty or something DC2 who looked like a real wimp. He got away from us, got a quick transfer, and that was that,

There were drugs on the station and a lot of alcohol was being consumed in the crew’s quarters. We were trying to stamp it out. Possession, regardless of quantity, initially got a bust and a fine. Second time through it was the Navy Brig. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion the man sent to the Brig was out on liberty that night. We weren’t getting rid of alcohol use, just driving it underground. From my standpoint it was a plus; at least I didn’t have to smell it and it wasn’t being flaunted openly. Our Navy counterparts were having the same grief.

In six months there was some progress, however slight. Then the girls came. First it was one or two who fit in. We were not allowed to use them as YNs, SKs, or HMs. They were to be permitted to strike for anything they wanted. We put them on S&Q (Subsistence and Quarters) and had them live off base as we had no accommodations suitable for them.

Then the floodgates opened and we got about 30, all SA’s, all fresh out of high school and boot camp. No female petty officers. We were instructed to use them as we would any other sailor. They were to live aboard. What fun. Not only were we running Marijuana Moorings but now we had a “Bawdy House” too.

Petty Officer’s wives would complain they didn’t mind their men standing watches because that went with the territory, nor did they mind their drinking on duty, but what they did mind was having their husbands on the station with young women with no one watching them. These calls weren’t fun and I didn’t like receiving them. Relying on the barracks Master-at-Arms to watch over things was like asking the fox to look over the henhouse.

The problems worsened. Two girls got pregnant; one had no idea how the father was, the other did, and I immediately transferred her to Rio Vista to get her out of there. I talked it over with our Personnel man and the Group Commander and together we decided to spread the girls around. It was not a good idea to have so many concentrated at YBI.

Our overall work quality was beginning to suffer too. The first girls were workers, but as more reported aboard, we found they were conning the men into doing their work. I walked into the mess deck one day and found the Chief Master-at-Arms working in the Scullery doing dishes. I asked him nonchalantly what was this all about.

“Oh, I am helping ‘her’ out.” “Her” was necking with one of the boys in the far corner. This was mid-afternoon when people were supposed to be working. Almost everywhere I went, I saw boys and girls sitting around, “chatting.” We only had a few at YBI working for the Group; one who was quite pregnant who worked as a receptionist and another we put at the Buoy Depot under the watchful eye of a mature Chief Warrant Officer. Other than the obvious problem of misplaced priorities, there was inadequate supervision on the station after liberty was granted.

Coast Guard movers and shakers misjudged the difficulties inherent with integrating the sexes. It sounded good and was “politically correct” for the times, but once these young men and women left the rigid structure of recruit training, the working Coast Guard was not equipped to deal with them. The door to military women had been virtually closed since WWII. there was a smattering of SPARs around but they were way too senior and older to be of any help. Little was done in the way of laying the groundwork for integration, and life became difficult for those who were attempting to maintain good order and discipline. There were a few problems on the outlying units but all in all they weren’t too bad.

The O-in-C of the 82-footer stationed up North at Fort Bragg managed to run the boat aground at the entrance to Noyo Harbor. I got stuck with the investigation and uncovered a bag of worms. It seems the BMC was working part-time as a Mendocino County Deputy Sheriff and would only be aboard the boat when someone was coming for a visit.

The 82-footer was a mismatch for the type of harbor Noyo was and the local work it performed. A 44-footer would have been more suitable. I made another trip to Noyo in civilian clothes and had a few cool ones at a bar where you could look out a window 40 or 50 feet above the harbor entrance and have a panoramic view. Did I ever get an earful.

Watching the 82-footer going in and out was more interesting than TV. I heard vivid descriptions by several people of the day the boat grounded, how tows were being handled, ad nauseum. We had a mess on our hands.

After I completed the investigation, I gave the O-in-C the benefit of doubt regarding the grounding. He really had the wrong hardware. I couldn’t relieve him with somebody else from the group as four of the five remaining O-in-C’s didn’t have driver’s licenses, so he had to stay.

After checking with the District to make sure I was on firm ground, I put on my dress finery and with one of my officers drove up to see the sheriff. I told him quite nicely that the chief couldn’t work for him as this was a conflict of interest; he could not be a federal and a local law enforcement officer at the same time. I had a copy of the applicable portions of Title 14, USC with me and gave it to the sheriff. As this conversation progressed, he brought in some of his senior people. None were pleased. The sheriff agreed to terminate the chief however. I had my eye on the rear view mirror until we got out of that county -- post haste.

Once a month the Group Commander, or I, together or alone, would make a swing around the Group. This took four days when Lake Tahoe was open. The outlying units for the most part were pretty good. It was a nice way to get away from YBI and the station problems for a while, one of the better aspects of the job.

As the Deputy, I was empowered to conduct Article 15 (Captain’s Mast) hearings and mete out limited punishment. The GC would perform this duty when necessary but didn’t have the stomach for it. When he was gone, I would do them. Most were for possession or AWOLs. 

After the girls came it was impractical to restrict anybody. If you gave them extra duty someone had to watch them. I hated busting them. If they were sent to the Navy Brig they might be out on liberty the night of their arrival. The only thing left was money. They could be fined up to $300, and I would do that, but suspend all but $25.00 on the stipulation that if they appeared at mast within six months for any reason and they were found guilty of the offense charged, they forfeited the $275, plus an additional $300. It’s amazing how the masts dropped off after that. I wish I could have talked the Station CO into approaching things that way; we could have minimized our grief considerably.

This was the first in my long career that I had ever been at a place where a “Reign of Terror” had to be instituted. It is strange how conditions force you into approaches to your job that you would prefer not to take.

The BM1 we pulled off the 82-footer got in trouble again and was also due to reenlist. I talked this over with the GC and we decided not to recommend him for reenlistment. This brought about a legal storm. He had in about 14 years and went to the District Legal Office to try to overthrow our recommendation. This occupied several days of our time. One afternoon as I was departing YBI to go home, he followed me closely out on to the bridge and then to the freeway. He would pull up evenly with me then drop back and hang on my rear bumper. I really got concerned when we went through the Caldicot Tunnel. He made every indication he was going to push me off the road and into the wall. I got away from him and kept going, with him on my tail. At Lafayette I took the off ramp and drove up to the door of a Ford Dealer and went into the salesroom. The BM1 saw he couldn’t do anything further and kept going.

At work the next day, I told the Group Commander what had happened and called the District Legal Office to tell them about the actions of their client. The BM1 was transferred that day to Terminal Island in Long Beach. I called the XO at Terminal Island and warned him about the man and that we did not recommend him for reenlistment. The XO told me that he didn’t care what kind of trouble the man had been in, it might have just been a personality clash and they would start him off with a clean slate, which included reenlisting him. This was ludicrous. I learned later that the BM1 had been on his best behavior for about a month and then he got in trouble with drugs. It was the times.

Just as they had during the Vietnam War, the hippy culture was taking boats out into the shipping lanes trying to block naval vessels from proceeding to their moorings. As was the custom, we put patrol boats out to ward off these protesters. They seemed to want to bait our boats too. I became so concerned that I had the 82-footers take down their 50 caliber machine guns as a show of that kind of force played into their hands. We weren’t badge carrying marine police in those days, we were sailors with dungarees and Dixie cups on.

My family was growing up, my oldest son graduated from high school and my wife began talking about my retirement. She was concerned about the drug problems in the community we lived in and felt it was time for me to get out. In spite of the hassles with the assignment, I really didn’t want to retire at that time. I wasn’t too far away from another stripe and I knew this assignment wouldn’t last forever. As the saying goes, “be careful of what you wish for, your wish may come true.”

Eventually, I decided to submit my retirement papers. There was a waiting period as the papers wove through the mill; at each level they stopped at for review and endorsement, I received a telephone call asking me if I were serious. I had half a dozen chances to stop the retirement, but didn’t. Other than the occasional call, I did my daily work.

I also went on a job-hunting campaign and lined one up a few months before I was scheduled to retire, which eased my mind considerably.

At the time I submitted the papers I didn’t know the Group Commander was angling for an OCMI job in Louisville, Kentucky, a job coming open in the late summer of 1975. For obvious reasons the district did not want both of us to leave at the same time. Unfortunately, he lost his chance for the job. He was a good guy and I regret my retirement hurt him.

Gradually the days fell off the calendar. I had about 70 days on the books, so I took ten of them towards the end to help my wife get things arranged to move and sell the house. I came in for a few days to clean up a few details. The officer assigned to relieve me was not due for a couple of months so there was no sight relief. Now I began to realize that a major part of my life would be left behind for good. It sunk in and I was a bit sad about it all.

On my last day the group had a farewell ceremony on the parade ground. I was to give a short farewell address, which I did. Everybody was mustered and the guests were seated. They sent somebody into my office to get me as I was still on the phone and was signing some last minute papers. After the formalities, we adjourned to the CPO club on Treasure Island for a farewell party.

It was a nice send off. We heard the usual predictions that we would starve, we wouldn’t last six months and we would be dead, a certificate for a sanity hearing (only a crazy man would move from California to Wisconsin willingly), a power saw, a hardhat from the company I was going to work for, and a general roast. My wife and I were almost the last to leave the club. It was difficult to say goodbye.

When we drove out the gate at Treasure Island, the Marine sentry rendered a sharp salute. As we started up the grade to the Bay Bridge, I took off my hat and threw it in the back seat. That was the last salute I ever gave and received as an officer in the Coast Guard. My new life was about to begin.

 

 Epilogue

My career, which had begun so erratically as an immature 17-year old man-child, was at an end 26-1/2 years later. I never dreamed in those early years that I would ever attain to the grade I retired at. Good fortune seemed to follow me, in spite of a few set backs here and there. I loved most of my assignments, hated some, but was never indifferent to any of them. I was liked on some units and anything but popular on others. I don’t think I was ever in the forgotten middle. Through opportunities my career afforded me, I developed a knack for teaching and training others and had three tours of duty where that was my principal job, one as an enlisted man, the other two as an officer.

One of the high points of my career was being the chief engineer on the same ship type I was the lowliest fireman on. The job I liked best was being the station engineer at the Sturgeon Bay Canal Station as an EN2. The job I grew on the most was as an Instructor at the Groton Training Station Engineman School. The job where I considered myself to be the most effective was as CO of the STD-3. I became an SOB of the first magnitude in the last job, the one I am writing about, and hated to leave on that note. 

 

A Final Word

The outfit I joined in 1948 was manned by a lot of tough guys who had gone through WWII. They didn’t talk much about it. The Korean War came along and began a golden age for the Coast Guard. There were many large cutters, more numerous smaller cutters, tenders, patrol boats, and icebreakers with an abundance of useful and necessary work to perform. Search and Rescue and marine safety were the primary missions, and the people were so oriented. There were a lot of tough, dirty jobs, and when you left one there was no guarantee that you would not go to another.

About 1958 or so the outfit began to change. A lot of the isolated duty and lousy duty jobs were discontinued. Brighter people were recruited who didn’t follow blindly. You had to have some intelligence to lead them. Those of us who didn’t change with the times were left behind.

The Vietnam War brought trauma. The military people, including Coasties who have historically been treated with respect, were now in disfavor because of this unpopular political war. As the war waned, the bread and butter jobs of weather patrol, ice breaking, lightships, etc. began to fade. In the early 1970’s the service seemed to be going into decline. The mission focused more on law enforcement, and another breed of cat was recruited. Simultaneously, women entered the service in large numbers before the service learned to absorb them.

The 1974-76 period was probably the low point of the times and why I left and went into a new life. I am proud of my career and my association with the Coast Guard and have been moderately successful because of it. Would I have been as successful in today’s Coast Guard? I can’t answer that, but I believe I would have given my best.

The gloom and doom predictions of my retirement party were wrong. I never did use the certificate for a sanity hearing. I am still in Wisconsin.

And that is where I will end my story.

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