Here was a chance to live an alternative life style............


by Ken Smith

Webmaster: A portion of this story appears elsewhere as a short story on this site.

Potangeras Island, Ulithi Atoll, the "Paradise of the Pacific," and all those lovely native girls. What more could a nineteen-year-old fellow ask for? Well, for one, I had to share them with other young studs, and, two, I was a long way from home—in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—and in the Coast Guard! How’s that for a bummer?

And I haven’t even mentioned the rusty old Quonset huts, the humidity, or the red ants that bit you on the rectum while doing your duty in the "head," or most of all, the damn radio skeds.

This very small tropical island was inhabited by a LTJG, an Engineman and his Seaman striker, a Boatswains Mate, a Hospital Corpsman, a Cook, and eight Electronic Technicians—fourteen "Coasties" who ran the Coast Guard Loran Transmitting Station at Ulithi. If you count the Radioman . . . fifteen.

We were a sorry lot. Because of the extreme heat and humidity, we wore cutoff dungarees and Japanese sandals . . . nothing else.

Because the Radioman held skeds with Guam Radio (NRV) four times a day, he never had a chance for more than four hours off at a time during the daylight hours, and he was always moaning about his terrible lot in life. Also, in the year 1950, an ET was supposed to be able to copy code at 10 WPM for advancement to Second Class Petty Officer. Well, this idiot ET3 (me!) wanted to be an ET2, so I spent some of my off hours in the radio shack practicing my code into a dummy load, with help from "Sparks."

When I could sort of manage 10 WPM, Sparks suggested I sit in with him and try to copy along on his sked. Gee, I thought, that would be fun. (I can’t believe I was that dumb and couldn’t see what was coming.)

After a few of these "lessons," he asked if I would take the noon sked so he could make a trip to one of the neighboring islands. I said, "no way," but he claimed it would be a piece of cake because there is never any traffic on Sunday. Besides, I was copying fine—the Radioman at Guam would slow down for me. This was enough bullshi- to convince me to do it.

By the time the fateful Sunday arrived, I was a wreck and scared to death. About an hour before sked time, I started practicing and watched the clock count down to the witching hour, as the sweat flowed off my body. Precisely at 1200 hours, with a trembling hand, I sent to NRV that I had a priority message and that I was going to send at 10 WPM because I was an ET.

The operator at NRV immediately acknowledge and told me to go ahead. I sent the message (a weather report) and he acknowledged receipt, then said he had two messages for me. I almost died!

One of them turned out to be some kind of commissary inventory shipment order full of numbers, and I’m trying to copy this in longhand because I couldn’t type. I’d get behind and ask him to repeat all after a certain word, then he would start again. I could hear the disgust in his fist. The problem was, he’d start at 10 WPM and gradually speed up to his normal speed.

I don’t know how long this went on, but I’m sure he was as frustrated as I. My scribbled longhand copy was covered with sweat droplets. Somehow it finally ended, and I still had to type it up on a message form by the hunt-and-peck method—a chore in itself.

I doubt I’ve had a more traumatic day in my life. After a few weeks of cooling off, I was conned into doing it again. Can you believe it? I seem to remember it went a little better—but I still had to copy in longhand.

The crowning touch came some time later—the Radioman’s tour was over and he was being rotated back to the states. The "old man" informed 14th Coast Guard District they needn’t send a replacement because he had an ET whom could "do it." There I was, screwed again.

In hindsight, my "Baptism by Fire" wasn’t all that bad. Six years later, in 1958, I decided to become an amateur radio operator ("ham") and the Morse code element was a piece of cake. No FCC code test could have been worse than that first day on a "live" key at NRV3 working that "lid" [poor operator] at NRV who couldn’t keep his code speed down. I’d still like to meet that Dit jockey for not being nicer to a poor, struggling ET who was out of his element. I’ll bet some of you RM's are laughing your heads off!*

When the S—-* Hit the Fan

* Read "Scopie"

I was fast asleep, laying in my "rack," with a fan blowing down the length of my naked body, dreaming of girls back home. Suddenly, the world started shaking and somebody was saying, "Come on Smitty, time to go on watch." How I hated those words!

The mid-to-four watchstander, having done his duty, now hit the rack, leaving me to get to the loran hut before something went wrong. He was supposed to return to his watch until I got there, but that wasn’t the way we did it at Ulithi. Putting on my cutoff dungarees, and "Jap" sandals, I headed out into the dark for the 100-yard walk to the loran hut.

For those of you lucky "Coasties" who have never had the pleasure of serving on a loran station, I offer this brief description of the scene: The hut was a rusty seven-year-old Quonset; housed inside were two 100,000 watt transmitters, one operating and the other in standby mode. Inside a double copper wire-screened room stood two timers, six feet high and four feet wide, with a metal-edged desk attached across the front. Also present was a wicker chair, and a 12-inch fan was on the floor. And last but not least was the gooseneck desk lamp that sat on the timer desk.

This was no ordinary lamp. Somewhere in its past the reflective metal globe had become loose and some enterprising ET had soldered the globe to the lamp socket, which meant, to change the position of the reflector, you had to twist the gooseneck itself to get the light to shine where you wanted it. And herein lies the sad tale.

As I entered the loran timer "screen room," I was blinded by the lamp; the reflecting globe was turned out to face the room instead of face down, and this was more than I could handle at that hour. I grabbed the gooseneck with my sweaty hands and started to twist it to the desired position. My bare, sweaty legs were pressing against the medal edge of the timer desk, and the next thing I felt was a tremendous electrical shock. I was propelled backward, ripping the lamp line cord from the timer, fell over the wicker chair and landed on the floor.

The dog tags around my neck flew out and the fan grabbed them—the fan wound itself up to my face and twisted my head to one side and stopped turning. It sat there, humming, and the dog tag chain was now choking the life out of me. I was stunned and didn’t know which end was up, but the immediate concern was to be able to breathe.

Somehow I got one arm to move and miraculously was able to reach the power cord and gave it the biggest yank I could muster. It was enough—the fan stopped humming and backed up a bit, enough that I could breathe again.

There I lay, almost paralyzed and afraid I was going to die. We had a signal button that sounded a klaxon horn, but that was out of reach. As my senses and mobility slowly returned, I was able to unwind my dog tag chain from the fan and gradually brought myself into a sitting position . . . and just sat there.

While surveying my situation, I decided I wasn’t dead, so on shaking legs I got up, turned the chair upright and sat down. I wondered whether to blow the klaxon. If I called for help, they’d either be PO’d for arousing them out of their comfortable sacks or, worse yet, they would laugh at me. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, I sat there feeling sorry for myself and wondering who-in-the-hell did I tick off to get me sent here.

I finished my watch and suffered no ill effects, other than a nice welt on my neck from the chain. The next days I took that damn lamp apart and fixed the shorted wire. If we had had a spare, that f&*2ing lamp would have been deep-sixed off the reef.

Occasionally I see one of those lamps and a cold chill runs through me . . . even after 44 years.

Out of Gas

One of the things you soon find out on a remote station is that things are done in a routine manner. I suppose that is the "military way," but it also stems from the fact that there isn’t much that can happen to change your routine. And so it was at this Pacific loran transmitting station.

Laundry was done on a certain day by one of the native boys, the supply plane came on Thursday (if we were lucky), the loran transmitters were switched on Saturday, and the station was fueled on Friday. The routine never varied, week by week, month by month, ad infinitum. It was always the same . . . except once.

In the wee hours of this Saturday morning, I was on scope watch but, half asleep, dreaming about things back home. Suddenly the timers went bananas, the transmitter went off the air, and the lights faded out. This wasn’t an entirely unheard of event. It had happened many times before because the equipment was getting old and tired. The ET's had been trained by the Engineman to start up a diesel generator and put it "on line" to avoid "off air" time. It was much faster than running to the barracks and waking an Engineman to get him to do it.

I ran to the generator hut where the four diesel generators lived. By the light of my battle lantern, I looked at the control panel (one for each generator) to determine which had been on line and switched it off line; then started the next generator’s "pony" motor, put it in gear to roll the big generator over, which caught right away with a big clatter and roar. Increasing throttle, it was brought up to produce a nice 60 cycle output voltage, then I shut the pony motor off. Immediately as soon as I switched the generator "on line," the damn thing wound down and DIED. There I was, in the dark again with TWO dead generators.

I went to the next one in line and repeated the same procedure, and just as I cut that one "on line," the same thing happened again. I was frustrated by now and couldn’t figure out what the hell was wrong. I repeated the start up procedure on the last generator and, you guessed it, that one went bye-bye too.

Fifteen minutes had gone by now. Fifteen long minutes off the air and I was panicked. I ran to the barracks and shook Stan the Engineman first class awake. As soon as I told him the station was without power, he started ranting and raving about "damn ET's" and that he had taught us how to start the generators, and what the hell had I screwed up now? And on and on. I tried to answer him but he wasn’t listening to a "stupid ET."

We ran to the generator hut and, while I held the light, he attempted to start a generator. It wouldn’t start. So he tried another, and another, and the last one, with identical results. About this time, his Engineman-striker showed up and stood there looking sleepy and stupid. This guy was a goof-off if ever there was one.

Stan turned to him and said, "You did fuel the station today, didn’t you?" With a look of a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, the striker admitted that he had forgotten this small detail.

Stan went nuts. Barking orders to the goof-off, they jumped in our weapons carrier and headed for the fuel dump at the end of the island where our fuel was stored in 55-gallon drums. As soon as they returned with a drum, they began pouring the fuel in a tank. Stan ran inside to start the generator, but it was not easy—the lines were dry. Eventually a generator started.

I ran back to the Loran shack and began the transmitter restart procedure. This takes about four minutes due to built in time delays. By now we had been off the air for more than 30 minutes. This was unheard of!

The timers finally settled down and the transmitter came back on air and our slave station was able to get back in sync.

How this fiasco was handled officially, I have no idea. I never say anything in writing but it seemed as though some heads should have rolled. Mine didn’t, so what the hell.

I’ve never put this story in print before and, I suppose, after 45 years it has become academic as those in charge may no longer be with us.

So, Semper Paratus, unless you have a goof-off in your crew!

Going Native

During the normal course of events, a PBY brought supplies each week. To receive the supplies, we traveled 12 miles across the lagoon in our small outboard powered boat to the airstrip on Falalop Island. Our Boatswains Mate, Engineman, and off-watch ET's usually made the trip.

Ulithi lies only nine degrees above the equator, causing us to have two different seasons—one hot and humid as you would expect, and another not quite so hot, but with more cloudy weather and rain; and this cloudy, rainy weather caused a big problem for our supply plane.

If the cloud ceiling was below a certain level, they would not descend through the clouds and, therefore, couldn’t find our island or the airstrip. To compound the problem, this weather pattern often was the spawning ground for typhoons. On those occasions, we couldn’t get our boat off the island because of high surf breaking over the reef. Because of these problems, on one occasion we went six weeks without supplies and mail. No cigarettes, no toothpaste, no toilet paper, or food. These are the essentials of life! So I went native.

The native diet consists of fish, coconut meat, papaya, and taro root. Being a native New Englander, I loved fish, and the natives had more ways to cook fish than you could imagine. The simplest way was to toss the fish into the fire. They didn’t gut their fish either, you just ate around the body cavity. Sometimes they rolled the fish in large "elephant ear" leaves and buried them under the coals of the fire and steamed them this way. Either way, they were delicious. But they couldn’t get over the fact that I would not eat the eyes. "Smitty, you no eat eyes? May I have?" They’d pop them out with a finger, slurp them down and say, "Moo mi (very good)." I ate in the village often but never could do fish eyes.

Native cigarettes were something to behold, and even more of an adventure to smoke. They each carried in their purse (men and women alike), a pouch of "tobacco" and torn strips of newspaper, about 9 X 9 inches square. The tobacco consisted of little kernels of something that looked like what we kids in New England used to call "Indian tobacco." The paper was creased along one side, with the tobacco dispensed from the pouch into that creased groove, one kernel next to another, for the length of the paper, then was rolled up, western-style.

Lighting one of those "cigarettes" was something to see. They flared up like a torch and you had to quickly blow out the flames. Talk about nicotine slaves! I never realized how bad my nicotine addiction was until I smoke one of those and enjoyed it. Desperate men do ridiculous things.

When things got really critical with our supply situation, it was decided the PBY would do an airdrop. This was one of the days the plane could land, but we couldn’t get off the island. They came over at about 500 feet and dumped out five packages with parachutes, which all landed in the ocean. Bomber pilots they weren’t. So it was back to the fish and the "Roman candles" for another week.

LCM . . . Sunk!

In the summer of 1951, we received a used World War II LCM, which was a replacement for the old, worn out "Duck" we had been using to make our weekly crossing of the lagoon to the air strip for our rendezvous with the supply PBY. I don’t remember if the buoy tender that supplied our fuel towed the LCM, or whether it sat on their buoy deck for the 340 mile trip from Guam. In any event, we had it, the pride and joy of our C.O.

The water over the reef was far too shallow to bring the LCM ashore, so it sat at anchor off the reef, on the lagoon side of our island. The LCM really made the 12 mile trip across the lagoon a pleasure, compared to that wallowing old "duck."

One evening after chow, I walked down to the beach to contemplate my navel. It wasn’t the beautiful type of evening you normally associate with the tropics, as there was a storm brewing. The lagoon wasn’t peaceful looking, but badly riled up by the impending storm. Suddenly it dawned on me that the LCM seemed to be riding very low in the stern. It was anchored stern to the wind and waves because that was where the mooring bollards were. As I watched for a few minutes, I could see the waves washing over the stern and it was slowly sinking.

"The M-boat is sinking, the M-boat is sinking!" The Boatswains Mate didn’t believe me and made remarks about being too late for April Fool’s Day.

"OK, if she goes down remember, it’s your butt, because I told you."

"Oh, for Christ’s sake, I’ll take a look."

When we got to the beach, he took one look and started screaming, "The M-boat is sinking, the M-boat is sinking!" as he ran back to the mess hut. Everyone not on watch ran down to the beach, including the CO. It was getting dark, so someone was dispatched to bring our weapons carrier down to the beach so we could use the headlights to provide some light. The CO asked for volunteers to man our 18-foot skiff for the row out over the reef. Four of the best oarsmen among us, plus one of the young native boys, manned the oars, and the rest pushed the boat down to the water. Our Engineman manned the "sweep" oar.

All went well until we reached the edge of the reef. The surf was really crashing over the reef edge and we had to get through this without broaching. We bided our time until we studied the wave sequence, picked the right time, and gave it all we had. We made it, but it was a hell-of-a-ride.

Upon reaching the LCM, we scrambled aboard and had the native boy hold the skiff’s bow painter. We didn’t want the skiff tied to the LCM for fear of both going down. The Engineman pulled the rear engine compartment hatches, and it was instantly apparent that she was a goner. The water was about even with the top of the engines. We began grabbing whatever we could salvage, like fire extinguishers, tools, lines, and so forth, which we threw into the skiff.

"She’s going down" someone suddenly shouted, and damned if she didn’t . . . right from under us, in a hundred feet of water. We dove for the skiff and scrambled aboard.

Out next problem was getting back to shore in one piece. Now that we were facing the beach, the weapons carrier headlights were blinding us. We yelled and hollered to turn the lights off, but, of course, no one could hear us through the roar of the surf. We got one wild, "surfboard" ride back to the beach, didn’t broach, and all hands were accounted for—very wet, but otherwise OK.

I wouldn’t trade these experiences at Coast Guard Loran Station, Ulithi, for anything in this world.


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