A COASTIE…AND PROUD OF IT!
A postscript to the Owasco Chronicles……….
It was 0945, 23 April 1969 and the Owasco was making her way up the Thames River. Fifteen minutes later at precisely 1000 hours the first line was made fast, the whistle blew and the colors shifted. After precisely eleven months, three days and one hour, the Owasco was home. The Academy Band was waiting on the pier. Speeches were made by Adm. Arthur Engel, superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy, retired Commandant Adm. Roland and the Mayor of New London, Connecticut. In spite of the rousing welcome by these dignitaries and the citizens of New London, most of us with leave had but one thought…… home.
I returned one week later to pick up my seabag, say my farewells and pick up my transfer orders. As I was walking down the pier I heard someone call my name from the quarterdeck. It was my operations officer, Lt. Nicolai. I returned to the gangway and saluted. My salute was returned and the Ops sort of growled at me. “You’re not going to say goodbye?” I wasn’t aware he was aboard and felt embarrassed. I had the privilege of serving with two of the finest sea-going operations officers during my stint in the Guard. Frank Nicolai was the first. We exchanged farewells; I saluted one final time and was on my way.
My orders were to report to Group Cape May as a member of the commissioning crew for the last of the 210 Medium Endurance Cutters built. I was looking forward to it. The USCGC Alert was going to be the newest ship in the Coast Guard and I was excited to say the least. Living and working on a ship built in the mid-forties wasn’t exactly a week at the Ritz Hotel and I knew this new ship would strike quite a contrast. I was not disappointed. Added to this was the fact that I just finished sewing on my second class QM stripes. The time I spent at sea with the Owasco and the time spent in Viet Nam gave me confidence. I was confident of my abilities as a Quartermaster and wore the uniform with a renewed sense of pride.
The Alert was in the process of having the finishing touches completed in Curtis Bay and we were about three weeks away from seeing her for the first time. During this time orders were arriving for two and three day refresher training courses for her crew. I found myself with travel documents for a three day LORAN refresher at Newport, R.I., then to proceed immediately to Norfolk for another two days of radar plotting with the final stop at the Philadelphia Naval Yard for a two-day damage control school.
It was on the flight from Norfolk to Philadelphia that I experienced a magnitude of anger I’ve only felt a few times in my life. Obviously, after spending as much time as we did in the temperate climate of Southeast Asia along with the constant sun reflecting off the sea the entire crew of the Owasco had tans that were well beyond the norm. I was certainly no different. Wearing dress whites made it appear even darker. The plane lifted off from Norfolk and once we got to our cruising altitude the usual peanuts and soft drinks were being served. One sweet and very attractive stewardess kept making eye contact with me. At first I thought it was my imagination…..no; there it was again only this time with a slight smile. Finally it came my turn to be served. I smiled back and asked for a Coke. She sort of pushed the cart ahead of her and knelt down next to my seat. She pointed at my flat hat and asked,“You're Coast Guard aren’t you?” “Sure am,” I replied. “Well, you have the greatest tan I’ve seen in a long time. Where are you coming from? The Caribbean?” I gave her my greatest smile and said…”No, I just returned from almost a year in Viet Nam.” The smile immediately left her face. “But you’re in the Coast Guard.” “Yes miss but we’re there too.” With that she immediately stood and with the most venomous sneer said, “Well I hope you didn’t kill too many babies.” She never looked my way again for the entire flight. I even carried my own empty Coke can off the plane.
I arrived at the Philadelphia Airport in a rather foul mood and bumped into one of the Alert’s Seamen heading for the same destination. We grabbed a cab to the main gate. The orders stated to report to one of the receiving buildings with an obscure name and number. Not knowing the layout of the base I told the Seaman to follow me and entered a brick guardhouse just outside the main gate to ask for directions. Sitting behind the counter was a young Marine private doing some paperwork. “Excuse me private, I need some directions.” The Marine looked up with no expression, and immediately went back to work on this obviously important document. I waited about 15 seconds and tried again. “Private, all I need is some directions.” Still stewing about my incident on the plane 2 hours earlier I must have raised my voice a bit. Another short look only this time he said “I told you I’d be with you in a second Coast Guard.” The “Coast Guard” was emphasized with a condescending tone. I felt my blood pressure begin to rise and was about to enter into a verbal tirade when from out of an office door just behind the private appeared a giant in khaki. Attached to this giant was a grizzled weathered face with a scowl mean enough to come in a close second to a Chief Bosun. I wasn’t certain of his rank but those Marine stripes and rockers took up most of his sleeve. He looked at me for a split second then bellowed one word. “PRIVATE!” (I heard the windows vibrate and I think I noticed some mortar fall from between the bricks.) The Private jumped to his feet, did a 180 and snapped to attention.
The Sergeant pointed at me and went on….”Marine, I want you to take a long hard look at that Coast Guardsman. First, those two black chevrons means he outranks you by three full grades. That means that he may accept your apology if you do it quickly before he decides to put you on report. Second, take a long look at those ribbons over his left breast pocket. The first one is called a Combat Action Ribbon. You don’t get that by playing games with Marine privates in Philadelphia. The first one in the second row has two stars. He’s probably seen it more than once. Put plainly Marine, he’s been places you can only hope to get to. Now, do your damned job!”
The private spun around and was as white as my jumper. I gave one last glance to the Sergeant and he winked at me as he disappeared back into his office. The Private apologized profusely and I think he gave us directions. It’s a good thing the Seaman was listening because my head was far to full of myself to hear anything. We made it to the proper building but the Seaman had to keep holding me down on the way. My chest was puffed out with so much air my feet kept leaving the ground. I forgot about the stewardess. Damn I felt proud.