MY COAST GUARD LIFE DURING WW II
By James C. Wynens
This reminiscence counters the general rap about the Coast Guard that one must be six feet tall in case the ship sinks .... ad nauseum
Due to my small stature, I've had to bear the brunt of descriptive identification. In grammar school the kids labeled me "Tidbit," and in high school it was "Pee Wee," which followed me through college. Even now childhood acquaintances that have been lucky enough to weather the storms of life will refer to me by the name of "Peewee."
I contacted the "Hooligan's Navy" in September 1943; two weeks before the local draft board requested my presence. German submarine activity along the East Coast had me convinced that the Germans would invade any day. Having grown up a country boy, I figured I could get my best licks in on home terrain. The Coast Guard's mounted beach patrol sounded like a winner.
Two days before my eighteenth birthday, my parents bundled up their youngest, finagled gas ration stamps, and we headed down to the port town of Savannah, Ga. My cousin, who was already in the "Coasties," was our advisor. In Savannah we were instructed to go to Charleston, SC. My father, a veteran of the Philippine Insurrection in 1899, was determined to avoid my going to the Pacific islands. Then, too, my brother, piloting an A-20 bomber, had recently been killed; my oldest brother was in the Army medical corps stationed in Trinidad; and another brother was a flight instructor; so, my father's concern was understandable. After eating all the bananas I could hold and drinking a quart of milk to bring my 120 pounds up to the minimum requirement, I was sent to St Augustine, Florida for boot camp where I began training for life away from momma and papa.
How to wash clothes was explained only to the extent as to where to do it. The use of Clorox was learned by trial and error, resulting in yellow whites and spotted dungarees. After boot camp it became simpler--we towed the clothes behind the boat on a lanyard, but sometimes they became shredded.
The first boot camp assignment was guard duty. Mine was on a wooded vacant lot. In five minutes German spies became secondary to the mosquitoes. We couldn't smoke, so I resorted to an old woodsman's trick--a smoldering handkerchief between my feet.
My first parade on Navy Day was memorable. With fixed bayonets, we marched down the main streets of St Augustine and making the company commander real proud, when suddenly this bayonet and rifle sailed like a spear by my ear and landed almost in front of the company. A fellow in the rear had laced his leggings on the insides of his legs, and the hooks caught and tripped him. The firing squad for him was my first thought.
During practice, a few days before, I had dropped my rifle and had to run with it over my head for what seemed to be an eternity. A fellow made this mistake later and got the idea for using silicone lubricant. He associated Florida sand, Vitalis, and sweat as the causal agent for rifle dropping when they were mixed.
The garbage detail was the most undesirable. It gave you an idea of the life styles of the various levels of personnel. Spirit bottles were more abundant at some barracks. Our truck picked up the SPAR barracks first. This was before plastic bags, so everything was loose. From there to the administrative building, their high volume of paper would form a thick layer to walk on when packing it all down.
Boot camp was survived in spite of crossed oars in boating and a host of other inconsistencies.
After boot camp we became more "salty" and specialized in short cuts when we could get away with it. Why paint a deck with a brush out of a five-gallon can when you could pour the paint in a puddle and spread it out? Just be careful not to let it run over the side or there would be a much larger paint job. I know from experience.
My first duty assignment was the PICAYUNE, CGR-1502, a 55-foot former yacht, stationed at the mouth of the Mississippi River as an obstacle to a possible German sub attack. The Cajun-country crew gave me the moniker "Georgia."
We had an unusual arrangement among the nine-crew members. To lessen the number aboard at any one time, we rotated liberty in shifts of three men off and six on. The consensus of opinion among us was that it would use up a forty-eight hour liberty just getting to civilization and back, so the C.O., who was also in the rotation, authorized a letter for us to carry for three liberty periods, which covered most of a week. It was a practical solution for nine men on a 55-footer, with nothing solid to walk on and within touching distance of each other . . . or so we thought.
Every third week I could catch the train in New Orleans and be home for lunch the next day. The rest of the crew had it even better, being from Cajun country and already close to home. Then replacements came aboard. One boy from Detroit got "canned" on the seven-day liberty. We figured it was a streak of bad statistical probability and that the Navy just didn't understand our unique situation--after all, I had made it through more than a dozen bus and train station MP checks without incident. If an MP frowned on the letter, I would explain it to him in naval terms and he would reluctantly let me by. At the Atlanta bus terminal, on a return trip from home, a big SP checked me. He said, "Seven days liberty? A liberty is forty-eight hours." I knew I had been torpedoed.
I spent the night in the old Atlanta stockade and felt fortunate to still be alive by morning. I was carried to the Naval Air Station brig at daylight, where I was issued dungarees with a big "P" in front and back. It quickly became apparent to me that my fellow inmates in the cramped cellblock were "big time," and I wondered how my possible AWOL would cut it with them. They had already started fighting at daylight.
Their main spokesman issued orders to scrounge cigarettes and cigarette butts while on work detail and smuggles them back into the brig.
We were marched with our hands behind our heads to chow hall. The two shotgun guards and two pistol guards kept well away from us. As we marched into the huge chow hall with our hands behind our heads, hundreds of people became silent with all eyes focused on us. A shrill voice in the multitude broke the silence.
"There's OLE Pee Wee! What they got you for, Pee Wee?"
I thought, "Uh-oh, hometown! The news is out."
The news did spread. No less than half a dozen of my high school classmates paraded by me while I was on the work detail driving a wheelbarrow. They probably remained at the Naval Air Station for the duration.
Back in New Orleans my C.O. was greasing the wheels. He was somewhat of a wheel himself, being on backslapping terms with the Admiral of the Eighth Naval District and a socialite/outdoor sportsman. But most important, he needed me because my incarceration upset the liberty routine, especially the one going on liberty, which was his shift.
After I unloaded my pockets of contraband cigarette butts (life insurance) in the brig, they dropped me off at the train station right at departure time. And who was "Sponge" at the entrance door? The same fellow that got me the night before. I outran him and grabbed the train that had started moving.
The liberty buses between New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi met halfway between, affording the C.O. a chance to give me brief instructions. The last thirty miles was by boat. My boat was waiting in the middle of the river for me. The first thing I heard the crew say was "Hey, Georgia! What kind of bird never flies?" Thus another nickname . . . "Jailbird."
We changed our liberty passes to the legal forty-eight hours; it took three pre-dated passes to cover us for six days. And you know what? A fella from Pittsburgh made the mistake of showing the SP the wrong pass and got canned.
Soon afterwards, the CGR-1502 was decommissioned and returned to the owner, Mr Nickleson of the Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans.
In December 1944, I went to loran school in Groton, Conn. and on to Rehoboth Beach, Del. for further training. Our barracks were located in the DuPont's beach home. From there I joined Loran Units 390, 80, 203, and 349 at Guam, Marianas Islands; Ulithi, Caroline Islands; and then from Guam to Oshima Island, Japan in September 1945 aboard the AK-98.
Building quonset huts in the islands was an experience. A screwdriver, hammer, and lots of salt tablets were the main necessities. Digging the septic tanks in the coral took the best out of you. A couple of minutes in the pit on a jackhammer were about all a person could stand.
Captain of the Head on Guam was interesting. The pit under the canvas-covered frame house required attention several times a week. A mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel was generously poured in and a match set it off. It required expertise to get everything right or the whole place would burn down, which happened several times. The enjoyment was watching someone in a hurry rise up a little singed and blistered. The same results were achieved aboard ships equipped with the deck-mounted trough with toilet seats and water running through to carry "it" off. Some joker would set paper on fire when most seats were occupied and drop it in the trough up stream.
While on the subjects of heads: During the occupation of Japan, Stars & Stripes newspaper would report weekly which military unit sported the latrine with the most holes. Some were reported with over 100 hole accommodations!
I was introduced to a "cherry picker" (crawler tractor with a boom) to move building materials. Wearing only cut-off fatigues and work shoes, we were almost naked, even to shaved heads, to obtain relief from the climate on Guam. When a cargo net or pallet was loaded with sacks of cement, you could expect a broken bag. At day's end you had a crust of cement mix all over your body, from head to foot.
Everyone who has participated in atoll living can easily remember the extremes to entertain yourself. There was Tokyo Rose, radio music, such as Don't Fence Me In, which got monotonous, and that's about it. At Ulithi in the Caroline Island group, there were some chickens living wild. To trap them, it was standard procedure at bull sessions to chew coconut meat then spit it into a bucket, which was used for bait. We didn't have real grain.
Seashell hunting was interesting, too -- goldringers and the big spotted ones were the most sought after.
The ground radials from the base of the antenna lay with the topography on top of the ground due to the coral and in some places three feet above the surface. An energetic Japanese pilot from Truk or Yap would make a nuisance of himself by setting off air raid alerts--five times one morning. We would have to carry the machine guns across the field of radials at a run. A regular obstacle course.
During the occupation of Japan, we docked at Yokosuka with loran station materials aboard. The dogs and their handlers were quartered on the dock while the ship was off-loaded. Cold weather necessitated that the handlers heat the dog food in five-gallon pots. It smelled so good, Japanese asked for a sample. The word spread and within an hour there were over a 100 lined up begging for food--it tasted like corn beef.
The Japanese were friendly and helpful. You couldn't tell, other than by the devastation around us, that a few weeks previously we had been at war with them. Liberty was restricted to certain areas. We would, for a pack of cigarettes, get a guide who would bypass restricted areas. Every street was patrolled by MP's. The general population would inform us by shouting "MP" when they came close to where we were. The MPís were very efficient at locating contraband booze. First they would tap you with their sticks to locate a bottle, then a little harder to break it.
Floating logs in Tokyo Bay, which had been used as a deterrent to landing craft, had washed ashore. It was at one of these spots that the world's largest liberty party had congregated to catch their ship's liberty boats. Some of the Missouri's crewmembers, plus many other ship's liberty crews, were in attendance. Three of us "Coasties," unidentifiable in jungle green fatigues, got on a narrow dock ten feet above water. Fighting between marines and sailors started all around us. I saved a sailor from being brained by another sailor with a two by four; I in turn was attacked by the assailant who (lucky for me) tripped over a log and fell headfirst into the drink. That log caused over a dozen to trip into the water. They would fall head first, become disoriented in the clear water and swim around underwater before surfacing. Liberty boats would pull them in. I enjoyed that show.
While in Japan, one of the crew printed "Georgia Bulldogs" on the back of my green GI fur-lined jacket. English-speaking Japanese printed the Japanese phonetic symbols on the jacket. It was interesting to hear the Japanese after I walked by say, "GHEORGEI BUELDOGES."
Release from Service
When the ban on granting discharges to loran operators was lifted, I got my orders to report to Long Beach in 45 days and to get there the best way I could. After a week of talking to merchant ship captains (I wanted to go by the way of Australia), a seat on a plane to Honolulu by way of Guam became available. On leaving Japan, the plane circled Mount Fujiyama several times, delighting the passengers. From Honolulu to San Diego, I painted heads on the USS Badoeng Strait *(CVE-116), then on to Savannah, Ga. by train.
The very last thing before you could be discharged was a medical check, which included a urine test. In the crowded sick bay, someone knocked over the table loaded with our samples. That problem was solved in short order--what didn't spill was mixed and divided among the unfortunate that lost theirs. We must have been a healthy lot because I never received notice to the contrary.
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