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My Life In the Coast Guard
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Chapter 1
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Chapter 3A
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Chapter 3C
Chapter 3D
Chapter 4
Chapter 5A
Chapter 5B
Chapter 5C
Chapter 6
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My First Unit

U.S. Coast Guard Station Saginaw River

 

        I chose a search and rescue station for my first unit because it was one of my deepest desires to save human life at the risk of my own. But I never liked one of the mottos of the old life-saving service which is, "You have to go out but you don't have to come back." I've never been a person who likes being told they have to do. I have a brain and I can think for myself therefore I should be intelligent enough to know what needs to be done. I don't believe that human beings are expendable in any circumstance, so as far as I was concerned the not having to come back part was wrong. The search and rescue station that I chose for my first unit was Coast Guard station Saginaw River in Bay City, MI. The station was a totally new building that had been completed about a year before I arrived. The old station was a Lighthouse on the Saginaw River that the Coast Guard had abandoned. Everybody told me it was a creepy place to live in. I never got a chance to see it up close but it looked creepy enough from the middle of the river while sailing by on our 41 ft. utility boat. Everybody the station was pretty nice and I got along well with everyone except Chief Fuller and Petty Officer Dekel. Chief Fuller was from Texas. I've come to learn that people from Texas display a certain attitude, somewhat stubborn with an air of independent arrogance. Only people like this could come up with the phrase, "Don't mess with Texas." Petty Officer Dekel on the other hand was extremely arrogant to the point he was difficult to work with. He did a tour of duty in Vietnam with the Coast Guard and he made sure that you knew it the minute he met you. I don't have any photographs of these guys because I didn't want to waste the film on them.

Sign

 

Saginaw River Station

        Most of the rescues at the station were what is commonly referred to in the Coast Guard as AAA tow jobs. In other words Joe Schmoe goes out fishing on the weekend with his buddies and runs out of gas. I'm sure in some cases it was done deliberately, knowing that all they had to do is get on the radio and we would come out and tow them home. We were also responsible for ice rescue in the winter time which was a completely different affair. The year prior to my arrival all of the Coast Guard stations in the Great Lakes held a competition to see who could come up with the best ice rescue vehicle. Some stations purchased ATV's and outfitted them for missions, while others tried snowmobiles, but our station was the most innovative. We built an Everglades type airboat and reinforced the bottom of the hull with four inch and a half in diameter aluminum pipes welded together in groups of two that ran down the length of the hull. It not only reinforced the hull, but it also acted like the runners of a sled. A survival compartment was fabricated in the bow of the boat that took engine coolant and ran it through an automobile heater core, which provided warmth for hypothermic survivors. The engine was not an aircraft engine as is commonly used in the Everglades of Florida. Instead it was a short block Chevrolet engine with a propeller attached to the crankshaft. When a competition was held station Saginaw River won the event hands down. On completely smooth ice the airboat could reach speeds of 85 miles an hour. However ice on the Great Lakes is seldom smooth for any long distance. When ice forms on the Great Lakes it expands which results in the formation of pressure ridges that can rise up to 20 or 30 feet tall. These pressure ridges make ice rescue difficult for any vehicle because of the obstacles that they create. The ATVs and the snowmobiles couldn't handle large pressure ridges of this kind. In addition the ice isn't thick enough to support the weight of these vehicles at all times during the winter, but our airboat had no problems with any of this. If the ice couldn't support the weight of the airboat it would fall through the ice and behave just like a boat in water. I thought the airboat was the neatest rescue vehicle we had. Unfortunately I only got to drive it once.

Airboat
Airboat

        As for the work I had to do, there was a lot of scraping paint, sanding metal till my arms hurt even with a power sander and of course painting everything in sight. That's what you do when you are at the bottom of the ranks. I also stood a radio watch at night on duty days which led to my first altercation with Chief Fuller. It was really late one winter night and I had the radio watch. I had spent the day working harder than usual and was really tired. The radio room was constructed with a chest high L shaped counter that nearly encompassed the entire room. Underneath this counter fluorescent lights were placed which allow you to turn the overhead fluorescent lights off and see the station grounds clearly out the windows.

Radio Room
The Radio Room

  I found the strobing of the fluorescent lights to be very irritating to my eyes and annoying so to give my eyes a rest I closed them and placed my head on my arms at my desk. It was this precise moment that Chief Fuller decided to drop by the station and saw me in this position. The next thing I knew I was placed on report for sleeping on watch. There was a captain's mast held for me whereupon I was pronounced guilty and restricted to the station for two weeks. During my restriction to the station we went to Sebewing, MI. via the 41 ft. utility boat for a celebration of Coast Guard day with the Sebewing fire department.

        Chief Fuller challenged the fire department with a contest to see who could set up their main firefighting equipment faster and get the other guy wet. We won the contest and afterward a fire hose battle ensued where I took a direct hit in the face from the fire hose you see here. The pressure of the water lifted my eyelids off my eyes and the pressure forced it's way behind my eyeballs. Very painful.

41 ft. UTB
41 Ft. UTB

        Coast Guard Air Station Detroit MI. sent a helicopter out for the event as well. We put on a basket hoist demonstration from 150 feet for the public and I was the lucky guy who got to ride the basket up. The demonstration didn't work out completely as planned because the wind blew the helicopter in such a way that I wound up on the left side of the helicopter and nobody could tell if I had gotten into the basket or not. This resulted in the basket being dragged like a tea bag through a swimming pool with me in it. I swallowed a lot of water on that one and hit my head on the belly of the helicopter on the way up. It was a blast though. The following winter Coast Guard policy changed and we were no longer required to stand an active radio watch during the winter. As a result of this policy change a berthing area for one person was built out of lumber in a closet adjacent to the radio room so that the person who is sleeping there would be able to answer the telephone if it rang. I'm not certain if this was the reason my captain's mast was removed from my personnel record but I found out two years later that it had been removed.

        The most alarming case I encountered at station Saginaw River occurred during an ice rescue mission. I was standing radio watch at the time and was about to be relieved when a phone call came into the station concerning the sighting of three flares near Pinconning, MI. The way the rules were laid out for ice rescue is that if three flares were cited by the reporting party we got underway. So we hitched up the airboat and took off for Pinconning running red lights and siren the whole way. We created such a scene on the highway with a king cab truck with Coast Guard emblems on the doors, towing behind us a large airboat painted international orange, that by the time we arrived at the boat ramp to launch the airboat, we had a line of cars following us nearly five miles long. When we arrived at the boat ramp nearly 100 vehicles filled the parking lot. After we launched the airboat the coxswain for the mission selected his crew and then blasted out of the area to go look for the flares. I was selected to remain behind with the truck. A short time after the airboat departed the parking lot began to empty out when people began to realize that there wasn't going to be much to see. The airboat had been underway for an hour and the parking lot had completely emptied when a Lincoln Continental pulled into the parking lot and a high rate of speed. I mean this vehicle came in so fast that when it bottomed out in the potholes of the road you could see sparks coming from the underside of the vehicle. I could also see that the car was full of people. There was a reservist who is with me seated on the passenger side of the front seat and I was sitting behind the steering wheel. When I observe this I brought it to his attention. Then the Lincoln Continental pulled up behind the trailer which was still attached to the truck and parked in such a way as to prevent our escape. Then the driver of the Lincoln Continental flipped their headlights to bright nearly blinding us in the process. That's when I knew I was in trouble. I was looking in the left rear view mirror as a man got out of the Lincoln and walked up to my driver's side door. As he was walking up to the vehicle I was scrambling to find anything I could get to hit him and all I could come up with was a clipboard. I didn't want to be trapped in the vehicle so I unlock the door just as he came up to me. He placed both his forearms on the car door and shoved his entire body weight against it preventing me from leaving the vehicle. As he did this he looked me square in the eye and said, "Hhhhiiii." The smell of alcohol nearly caused me to puke as I continued shoving on the door, only now I'm exaggerating my body movement to indicate to my partner that this man is keeping me from getting out of the vehicle. When he saw this he opened his door and came around the front of the truck. When the drunk saw this and saw how big my partner was he backed away from the door and let me out. This guy was bald with an ear ring in his left ear and he looked like Mr. Clean. By now my heart is racing as the man begins to tell me that he didn't think anybody was going to come out as a result of his call to the station. I then pointed out the yellow strobe light that was mounted on top of the airboat and told him that we had an airboat out there that was looking for the people he had reported. I also informed him that we had a helicopter on the way to aid in the search. This man was so plastered he could hardly talk. Regardless of his intoxication he got back into his car and drove away. I then informed the station via radio what had just transpired and the station dispatched a police officer to the boat ramp in case he came back. About 30 minutes later the helicopter we had called out of Detroit arrived and upon descent into the search area the helicopter began to ice up in the low lying clouds, which caused the helicopter to abort its mission and return to Detroit.

        My first boat crew consisted of Dennis Hrdlicka who was my coxswain (boat driver) and Wally Butler who was the engineer responsible for the mechanics of the boat. These two guys were constantly playing practical jokes on each other and irreverently cutting up any chance they could get. Consequently Chief Fuller hated them, but I thought they were the greatest. Chief Fuller was so focused on military bearing, so inflexibly rigid he wasn't going to allow anyone any slack. Everything had to be by his book. Also on my crew was a young woman named Laurie Roberts (aka Strawberry). At the time we met she was a Seaman and I was a Seaman apprentice. When you work in a small crew like this and all four people have found mutual respect and admiration for each other, tight bonds are formed and the crew functions as one living entity. For me there is no experience quite like this and I have only encountered this experience three or four times in my life. The majority of these occurrences were in the military. The reason why this is so, has to do with the environment your job puts you in. Nobody who works in an office building has to rely on the guy in the next cubicle to save his life or watch his back. The whole world would be a different place if everyone who went through high school could experience this just one time, because once you've experienced this kind of teamwork you never want to lose it.

Wally and Dennis
Wally Butler and Dennis Hrdlicka

Strawberry
Laurie Roberts

        I will never forget the morning our cook Michael Curran was told that his efforts cleaning the stern of the 41 footer were not good enough.  I was cleaning the engine room and I had a chance to see the work he had done and it looked OK to me. He had used a scotch brite pad and some scouring powder to do the job like we all did, but the Chief didn't like his work. More correctly the Chief didn't like him. The next thing I knew Mike was out there leaning over the stern with a sander going over the entire stern with it saying, "That'll show that son of bitch." Boy you should have seen the sparks fly when they found out. Fortunately nothing happened to Mike.

Michael Curran
Michael Curran

       It was one of the first bright and sunshiny days of early spring we were told to make the skiff ready for search and rescue. This skiff was nothing more than a john boat with a small outboard motor on it. Fireman Dallas and one other machinist were told to put the boat into the water and take it out for test spin.

Fireman Dallas
Fireman Dallas

We had just received these new survival suits that are referred to in the Coast Guard as Mustang suits. They were very sharp to look at, but I wouldn't want to be caught dead in cold water with them on. I didn't know it at the time however. Fireman Dallas and his partner were told by their superior officers not to wear these suits but they did it anyway. They returned to an ass chewing and the following day at morning muster Chief Fuller told me to go to the equipment locker and grab eight of those new suits. I came back with my arms full of survival suits and he told me to drop them on the Quarterdeck in front of him and fall back into ranks. He then picked up one of the suits and held it up to everyone and said, "How many of you think that this suit would save your life in water conditions like today?" None of us had any prior experience with these suits, so eight people raised their hands and I was one of them. I figured that the Coast Guard wouldn't buy defective survival equipment and these suits looked so sharp and modern I trusted they would be alright. Everyone who raised their hand got a suit and we immediately commenced a cold water drill. Chief Fuller was well-known for putting us in cold water drills, but all the occasions prior to this we used our Bailey suits, which are commonly referred to as Gumby suits because that's who you look like when you put one on. The Bailey suit is a dry suit, it doesn't let any water in. The Mustang suit is a wet suit and it lets water flood in.

        After we got into our suits we were instructed to drag a john boat out on the ice in our slip until we fell through the ice. When this happened the cold water flooded the suit I was wearing and I was immediately incapacitated from the cold. I could hardly move as the Chief ordered us to get into the john boat. Everyone had gotten into the boat but me because I couldn't move. It was then that the Chief asked me if I was alright. I told him I was in pain and he asked me what hurt. At that moment I was feeling tremendous pain in my rectum so I told him my ass hurt. He evidently thought there was something funny about my statement so he asked me to repeat myself as if he couldn't hear me. I repeated myself louder the second time and everyone got a big laugh at my expense. I didn't know it at the time, but every muscle in my body was shrinking because of the cold. That's why I was feeling pain. The Chief then told me to swim to the john boat and get in it. When I finally managed to get to the boat I tried to pull myself in, but was unable to because the suit was full of water. It took the effort of three people to pull me into the boat. Then the Chief announced via the bullhorn on the truck for the skiff to come over to our john boat and tow us to the middle of the Saginaw River. He used the bullhorn instead of the radio to give these instructions so there would be no recording of his radio transmissions at Coast Guard Station Group Detroit.

        Most of the people who were in the boat with me had just come from boot camp. This was their first unit and they didn't want to appear incapable. As a result of this they possessed a natural inclination to overextend themselves. Once we had been towed out to the middle of the Saginaw River the chief announced over the bullhorn for us to jump into the water and swim back to the station. There were two women on board with us and one of them said, "I don't think I can do this." I told her that this was a drill, that it was not a rescue mission and if she didn't believe she could do it she should stay in the boat. I then jumped overboard into the water and began swimming to the station. About halfway there I began to experience extreme pain in my hands due to the fact that the wet suit gloves that I was wearing had holes in them and were flooded with cold water. I stopped for a moment and thrust my hands into the air to let the water drain out and I began to work my hands until blood came back into them and warmed them up a bit. After the pain had subsided a little I began swimming again until the pain returned and I was forced to repeat the procedure. When I stopped for the second time I noticed something very odd. I had developed tunnel vision. Everything in my peripheral vision had turned to a milky fog. The only thing I could see clearly was what was directly in front of me in the center of my vision. That's when I knew I was in deep, deep trouble. At that point I called for the skiff to come pick me up.

        When the skiff arrived Fireman Dallas tried to pull me into the boat, but my suit was so full of water he couldn't get me in by himself. He then jumped into the water to try and help me and was immediately incapacitated by the cold. When I recognized that Fireman Dallas could do nothing to help me I told the person driving the skiff that I only had seconds of consciousness left. I told him to forget about getting me into the boat and that I would hang onto the side of the boat while he drove it to shore. I figured that he would steer a course that was the shortest distance to land but he didn't. Instead he drove the boat deep into the slip and up on shore. As we were motoring along it became apparent to me that if I lost consciousness and lost my grip on the side of the boat my legs could easily be run over by the propeller, so I was hanging on with all I had. When the skiff beached inside the slip I tried to crawl out of the water on my hands and knees and was unable to move. The Chief saw this and panicked. He and another Petty Officer ran down to the water and dragged me out. Each of them grabbed an arm and stripped me naked in front of everyone who was present. They wrapped an army blanket around me and put me upstairs in the berthing area and left me there unattended. As I laid on the bed the cold blood in my body began to circulate more freely and I began to shiver like I never had in my life. I thought I was going to die because it appeared to me that I was experiencing status epilepticus which is the medical term for a constant state of seizure. I thought about the other people that were still in the water, I realized that I had been the first person out of the water and that there were other people who were being exposed to the cold longer than I had been. Shortly after this I heard a tremendous commotion in one of the berthing areas adjacent to mine. There was panic in their voices and I heard someone turn on a shower. This was a mistake because the Commandant of the Coast Guard the week prior to this drill had changed the policies concerning the treatment of hypothermia in this manner. No longer were we permitted to put people in warm showers. Instead we were supposed to break out some heat packs and wrap the person in a blanket. The reason for this policy change was due to the physical damage caused by rapid warming of a hypothermic body. While all of this was happening around me Petty Officer Bollinger came into my berthing area, picked up the phone and dialed the radio room. He asked them what the water temperature was and they initially refused to tell him. It was then that he began screaming at them on the phone demanding to know what the water temperature was. Finally the radio room reported that the water temperature in the Saginaw River was 36 degrees. I found out later that the person who had been put in a shower had actually managed to swim all the way to shore. She was a skinny little girl from Florida who had just arrived from boot camp.

        When I woke up the next morning every muscle in my body hurt and it took me three days to recover. I could hardly move. I was completely exhausted even after a full night's sleep, but it was my duty day so off to work I went. When I got to work I passed the Chief on the way into the station. As we passed each other he said, "You really scared me Coggy. Don't do that again." As if all of this was my fault. I had an opportunity to speak with Petty Officer Bollinger who was there when I was stripped naked in front of the crew. He told me he was terrified by what he saw when they took the mustang suit off of me. I asked him why and he told me that I was so blue he couldn't see the hair on my chest. Now I have to tell you that I am a very hairy guy and I have very dark brown, almost black hair. I also discovered that day that the young woman from Florida who had been put in a shower was on sick leave until further notice. She had been taken to the emergency room where it was determined that her right pectoral muscle had nearly been torn off from the drill. Her husband was an ex-coast guardsmen who had served on buoy tenders for four years. Consequently he had a tremendous amount of experience about the Coast Guard and he knew that this drill was BULLSHIT. He came down to the station later in the day and tore the Chief a new asshole in front of the whole crew. I could tell he was very close to planting a couple blows on his chin and there wouldn't have been a single person on station who would've stopped him. So what resulted from all of this? The Chief was promoted to Senior Chief and transferred to Coast Guard Station Corpus Christy, TX. I was pissed because this drill was right out of the scientific notes of Joseph Mengela. The only consolation was that at least he wasn't in a place where he could freeze anybody.

 

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