Winter Frolics On The Great Lakes

-or-

 Just A Routine Day In The U.S. Coast Guard

  By Jeff Lindstrom

In 1967 BMC Leslie Rex Henley was a boat coxswain at CG Station Mackinac Island, which was a unit in Group Charlevoix, Michigan. Back in those days the lighthouses were manned, and each year around the end of November, (which was the end of the shipping season) a logistics run was made to close the lighthouses for the season. This involved picking up and transporting the crews and their gear from the lights back to the station at Mackinac Island. The times of these runs varied according to ice conditions in the northern Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, and in the Straits between those lakes. The weather conditions are hardly ever good at that time of the year. Many other units also conducted log runs to and from the lights, but this story is about one of BMC Henley's experiences from CG Station, Mackinac Island.

 

At the end of the shipping season in 1967, BMC Henley was the coxswain of CG-40527 when the log run to close the lights was conducted. Three Lake Huron lighthouses were involved in this log run: Poe Reef, Spectacle Reef, and Martin Reef. Martin Reef was the last light to be shut down that day.

 

BMC Henley had about 15 people on board when he left Martin Reef lighthouse. He had lost one engine during the operations at Martin Reef, and due to sea conditions and freezing temperatures the boat started to ice up. He called the station on the radio and advised them of his situation, and then the boat’s radio failed and he lost all communications.

When the station lost communications with BMC Henley, BM1 James Rambus got underway with a 36-footer to search for the 40-footer. Due to terrible sea and icing conditions, BM1 Rambus also lost communications with the station, and he had to return to the station. Upon his return he learned that BMC Henley had called the station via telephone after he made it to Cedarville, on the shore of Lake Huron in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Fortunately, two years before this incident, BMC Henley had set and pulled the buoys around Cedarville prior to being transferred to Mackinac Island, so although the buoys had been pulled for the season, he remembered where the shoals and rocks were and made it safely into Cedarville. They headed toward lights they saw at a dock and were in the process of tying up the boat when the owner – who happened to be a retired Coast Guard Captain - saw them and rushed down to the dock to find out what was happening. He brought everyone into his home. The time was about 2200 hours, and the Captain had been shutting off the lights to retire for the night. The Captain’s wife fed everyone hot coffee and bacon and eggs.

When BMC Henley called the station to report his situation, he learned that CG Air Station Traverse City had launched helicopters to search for them because they were so long overdue.

The Captain then called the Sheriff’s Office, and they sent a deputy to take everyone to a motel for the night. But not everyone went to the motel. Boat crewmember George P. Ness, an Engineman, along with the engineers off the lights, spent most of the night making successful repairs to put the engine back in service. They could not, however, fix the radio.

The next morning BMC Henley and his passengers got underway in the 40-footer. After leaving Cedarville they encountered heavy seas, fog and icing conditions. BM1 Rambus also got underway in the 36-footer so he could locate them and lead them back to Mackinac Island. The 40-footer still had no radio.

The station contacted the last southbound lake freighter, which was headed for Chicago and had cleared Detour Island at the lower end of the St. Mary’s River. They asked the freighter for assistance. The freighter picked up the 40-footer and the 36-footer on radar and directed BM1 Rambus to the 40-footer. Although BM1 Rambus’ 36-footer was also icing up badly, he found them and led them back to Mackinac Island.

When they arrived at the station, BMC Henley was covered with ice from head to toe, and he had to be pried off the helm of the 40-footer.

                      

Rex Henley recently stated: “I remember that I was way the heck off course, and without the help of the steamer, their radar, and communications with Rambus, I figured I would have been between a rock and frozen hard place. Seems like I had about 12 personnel on board and no Boatswains Mate to relieve me. Anyway, when we made it to the dock, I remember docking with my elbows as my hands were so cold they would not function, and when we got inside the station they had to cut the hood off my coat so I could talk to Lt. Luedke, Commander, Group Charlevoix. Mr. Luedke was shouting over the phone to ‘…put Chief Henley on!’  Because of the ice, they were really having a hard time getting the hood off in order for me to get the telephone to my ear.

“I was young at that time, and I thought I was tough and didn't need any medical attention, Well, I should have done that so this would have been documented. This was one (probably the worst) of many incidents of this nature during my eight years in the Ninth CG District, and four years at Mackinac Island & St. Ignace as Officer in Charge at both stations.”  

Rex Henley retired as a BMCS in 1973, and Jim Rambus retired as a BMCS in 1985. Donald Luedke retired as a LCDR in 1973.

Jim Rambus and I have remained friends through the years. I was a Group Yeoman at Charlevoix at the time of this incident, and he contacted me via e-mail to ask if I remembered anything or knew anyone that could help Rex, who was having problems with medical conditions that resulted from his exposure to the ice and cold temperatures during this incident. Through a cooperative effort of several people over the Internet, we were able to connect Rex with Mr. Luedke, who provided Rex with statements and documentation to help him present his claim to the VA.

Rex, Jim and I agree that it’s important to get stories like this documented into the history of the Coast Guard, which will not only benefit the Coast Guard but can serve to educate the public about what the Coast Guard does. Published histories like this can also provide a foundation for today’s Coast Guard men and women, and for those Coasties of the future, to reflect on former Coasties’ experiences and to add their own experiences to continue the proud history and traditions of the United States Coast Guard.

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