The Storm of 1962

or Chuck Upchucks 

By Charles L. Umpstead


As I returned to the SASSAFRASS on this March morning, I noticed the wind was picking up and the tide had flooded so much that I had to literally climb the gangway. The first order of the day was to change into my uniform and get to the CPO mess for the morning coffee. No sooner had the coffee been poured that I received orders to warm up the engines—there was a tug that had lost his barge and we were going to proceed and assist.

Before we got underway however, the tug reported back he had his tow. We secured the engines and the ‘black gang’ started the work that was laid out for them. I returned to the CPO mess for my delayed coffee. Suddenly, a loud BANG was heard throughout the ship. Then another. Two mooring lines had parted and no longer could we stay at the dock. THE STORM WAS ON.

Without hesitation I returned to the engine room and had the engines started again. Within a few minutes, we were underway. The word was passed throughout the tender was that FIVE FATHOM LIGHTSHIP off Cape May was heading for protected waters and we were to be its escort. The storm was upon us and was now a menace to my stomach and it’s contents. I decided to lie down, but after more bouncing around, I had to get up and go to the head to offload breakfast.

Returning from the head, I tried to comfort my ill feelings. The Engineering Officer, Mr. Scruggs, summoned me the check out the steering engine, which was making a noise. While I as working at this, the seamen were removing the towing hawser from stowage under the compartment we were in. I am not feeling well and those guys looked like they were enjoying every minute of my discomfort.

My recollection is that we had a really rough night, which continued throughout the next day. Very few crewmen were up and about on the second day, but I did run into one of the hawser-toting Seaman who asked with a smile on his face, “Chief, are you seasick?”

My immediate reply was that he never had to ask me that again, If my teeth are in my pocket, I am sick.

That evening men started to move about. Someone turned the TV on. Through a very weak and fuzzy signal, the Philadelphia 11 o’clock news was reporting marshal law was declared for Cape May and everyone was evacuated—the National Guard was patrolling the streets. This put the crewmen living in Cape May in a frenzy of worry and agitation, and someone reported this news to the skipper.

A request was made that we go to port to check on their families. The Captain began to rant and rave and wanted to know who turned the TV on, as though it was a crime. I think the long rough hours had gotten to him.

We moored at 0200 and liberty was granted to these men whose families lived in Cape May. Everyone found their families; most were in the fire hall at Rio Grande, a few miles north of Cape May. (We lived in Rio Grande and my wife wondered if she should have called to be evacuated. If she had they would have moved her three blocks west. Our worst loss was a garbage can lid.)

After the crew was reassured regarding the safety of their families, we got underway. It was a long time before we tied up again; most of the aids to navigation were off position or missing. When we moored again, the clean up had just begun from the destruction along the shore. I had taken 8mm home movies, which were of poor quality because of improper lighting adjustment, but you can see some of the houses built on pilings were now so high off the ground you would have to use telephone pole spikes to get up to them. In an intersection between Wildwood and North Wildwood, sat a two-story home with it’s bathtub on the street beside it.

In Cape May a section of concrete road had been lifted and turned sideways, sand had been piled beneath it so that it sat higher than the roadbed it had been taken from. Sand on other parts of the road was four- to five-feet high.

The forces of nature are strong; sometimes so strong they can make you cry, or worse—upchuck.


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