The Secretary Comes Calling

By Ted McCormack

 

My first duty station out of Boot Camp was the USCGC Westwind, a 269-foot icebreaker sailing out of the Coast Guard Yard, Curtis Bay, Maryland. I served aboard her from August 1969 until November 1970, and my sea-going career consisted of two voyages to Greenland and one patrol to the Great Lakes. My last trip on the Westwind was Arctic East 1970, a "short" trip north to conduct oceanographic studies on Greenland glaciers in support of the International Ice Patrol.

USCGC Westwind Courtesy of Fred's Place

The Captain of the Westwind was a mustang, a former Radioman who had worked his way up through the ranks to four-stripes. He wanted so much to become an admiral, and he saw the Westwind as the vessel that would help him to reach that coveted star. Any thing that brought glory to the Westwind would also reflect positively on its captain. The crew of that cutter had many adventures with him in quest of fame, and this is the story of one of those episodes.  

By Arctic East 1970, my longevity had made me one of the senior SN's on the Deck Force, but in that brief period aboard the Westwind I discovered that working outdoors in extreme weather conditions was not for me. Shortly after leaving on that patrol, my chit to strike for yeoman was approved, and I traded my tattered foul weather jacked for a clean new one. I was elated!  No more freezing mid watches, using salt water to wash away rust stains, endless chipping and painting, chain lockers, mess cooking, or the thousand other indignities heaped upon a non-rate on a Coast Guard cutter. I thought that I would end the cruise tucked away in a nice warm office working "normal" hours and wearing pressed dungarees. The captain of the Westwind, however, had one last surprise for me.

One Monday, about the middle of our voyage, we pulled back into Thule, Greenland and tied up to North Star Pier in the shadow of Mount Dundas for some liberty and to replenish our supply of perishables. At quarters the next day the word was passed that the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV), John W. Warner, would be on board the Westwind for the noon meal on Sunday. The crew was told that the Secretary was enroute home from a European inspection tour, and he had decided to stop in Thule for a brief visit to personally thank the Coast Guard and Military Sealift Command vessels that supported the annual resupply of the military bases in Greenland. Since the Westwind was SOPA (Senior Officer Present Afloat), we were to be the host for the SECNAV's visit.

My service in the Coast Guard coincided with a period of great turmoil in the Nation's military. The Viet Nam War was still raging and issues such as drugs, respect for authority, discipline problems, and retention affected every service, including the Coast Guard. During this period many policies to address those and other concerns were put in place by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the Chief of Naval Operations. He also tried hard to improve the life of enlisted personnel in the Navy, and generally the Coast Guard followed his lead, often reluctantly. His famous "Z-Grams" relaxing rules related to beards, hair lengths, civilian clothes and so forth were very popular. Working hand-in-hand with Admiral Zumwalt was Secretary Warner, a former third-class petty officer in the Navy and later a Marine lieutenant during the Korean War. Both men were seen as heroes to many lower enlisted rates in the sea-going services. So to have the Secretary of the Navy onboard the Westwind could be seen as quite an honor, especially for someone trying to make admiral.

The captain of the Westwind, however, decided that two months at sea had taken a toll on the cutter's appearance, and a visit by such a distinguished person required a new paint job. All hands, including Academy cadets on their summer cruise, turned to with paint brushes and rollers, working 24 hours-a-day, since the sun never sets at that time of the year in Greenland. Some said they even saw Chiefs and LTJGs wielding paint brushes during the mid watch. And none of the ship's departments were exempt, including the ship's office. ENs and BTs worked side-by-side with QMs and YNs as the Westwind received a cosmetic repainting from the waterline to almost the top of her mast. Since there was no time for chipping and priming, we painted right over rust stains and salt spray. Did I mention that all liberty was canceled, too?

By Sunday morning at the end of four very long days, the Westwind looked as clean as when she had left Curtis Bay a few months before. To gaze upon her was to be blinded by the acres of fresh white paint. The Captain was so pleased that he ordered a complete turkey dinner for the noon meal as a reward to the exhausted crew. There were also rumors of "maximum" liberty before we departed Thule in search of more glaciers.

As the appointed time, Secretary Warner came aboard the Westwind with the head of the Military Sealift Command, a Navy admiral, in tow. However, instead of spending time admiring the new paint job while going directly to the captain's cabin, the Secretary of the Navy asked to inspect the enlisted berthing areas below decks. Much to the shock and horror of the Westwind's captain, Secretary Warner took a particular interest in the living conditions of lower rated personnel afloat and ashore, and he wanted to see how the Coast Guard measured up.

If one could picture the forward berthing area of a vessel which was home to about 60 men that had not been cleaned in four days, you would see what greeted the Secretary of the Navy and the rest of the inspection party. The round-the-clock paint job had caused the captain to suspend the daily routine of laundry, emptying trash cans, cleaning the decks, and other normal cleanliness duties.  Needless to say the odor was overwhelming, and the area looked as if a tornado had passed through leaving behind unmade racks, over-flowing trash cans, and piles of dirty clothing everywhere. The forward head was even worse, and as the Secretary of the Navy passed through those compartments, he was entertained by the strains of the popular Arlo Guthrie song, "Alice's Restaurant," sung by some unseen Coastie sitting on the commode. In the forward rec deck, a petty officer, whose Van Dyke beard made him look like Lucifer himself, rested in his skivvies while recovering from an unauthorized hang-over. At some urging, he finally rose to salute the inspection party. Fortunately it was not with the hand that held a large, half-eaten turkey leg.

Throughout his visit below decks, Secretary Warner was heard to mutter comments to the Westwind's captain about the filth, the smell, the inhumanity of such conditions, etc. As he headed up the ladder to the fresh air, the SECNAV said that he had seen enough, and the party proceeded directly to the captain's cabin for lunch.  

After the Secretary departed, the Westwind immediately got underway; so much for liberty. Later, the scuttlebutt from the stewards serving lunch was that the entire meal was pretty "frosty," and not much conversation went on around the captain's table. The exception was the lecture given to the red-faced commanding officer of the Westwind by the Secretary of the Navy about the need for the Coast Guard to address the living conditions of its personnel  aboard ship.

After several days' exposure to the elements, the Westwind's new paint job quickly faded and the rust spots reappeared. For a few hours, however, we were the prettiest white ship in all of Greenland. John Warner went on to become one of Elizabeth Taylor's husbands, as well as one of Virginia's Senators, and he currently is the ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The captain of the Westwind never made admiral, and he retired a few years after rotating off the icebreaker. After Arctic East 1970, I received order to Yeoman's School at Governors Island, and left the Westwind the day before she departed for an eight month cruise to the South Pole. I ended my Coast Guard career about 23 years later as a Reserve LCDR. I still have nightmares about applying white paint outdoors to a bulkhead in below-freezing temperatures.

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