Out of the Blue

Cape Knox New photoMid-air collisions of small private aircraft off the Atlantic Coast were not unusual summertime incidents. Most of them were small spotter planes, hired to locate large schools of Menhaden, then guide fishing boats to the catch. It was a competitive business in the lower Chesapeake Bay and off the coast of Virginia. It was all about fishing and big money.

I had just left the Cape Knox for home on a late summer afternoon. We were the Bravo-2 standby SAR vessel. As soon as I got home, Carol told me she just got off the phone with the District. We had been recalled. Two of the menhaden spotters had collided fifteen miles off the Virginia Capes a week ago with no survivors. The search had been called off three days ago. But, now someone reported flotsam in the vicinity; we were ordered to get underway and investigate.

I made it back to our Little Creek pier in half an hour. I could hear the quiet rumble of the Knox’s four Cummins engines from the end of the pier, and barely see a shimmering heat wave rising from the funnel. They were ready.
As soon as I stepped aboard the OOD reported, “Cap’n. The ‘312 is ready for sea.” I overheard mild grumbling from some of the crew about false alarms. Nothing plunges crew morale more than being forced to drop dinner, interrupting an already restricted family life for a false alarm. We had had our share of them lately. It was bad enough never knowing on any SAR call if you would be back in three hours or three days.
“Very well, let’s get underway. I turned to Chief Miller, my executive officer and said, “Take her out Chief.” A capable ship handler, he cleared the pier, spun the ship expertly to a northerly heading to enter Lynnhaven Inlet Channel that led into Chesapeake Bay. During the slow transit, I looked over the chart and planned the first leg. As we cleared the #2 Lynnhaven Inlet buoy, I ordered, “Come right to 090 degrees, increase speed to 12 knots.”
Had this not been a rescue mission, it could have been a relaxing summer cruise. Normal SAR missions, almost by definition, didn’t start with this kind of weather. The sky was clear blue, and the hot summer sun was made tolerable by the refreshing breeze created by our 12 knot speed. The prow split the long slow swells as we peacefully made our way in the flat calm sea. Everybody except the engine room gang was on deck, making preparations for the mission.
I looked up from the chart and said, “When Cape Henry Light is abeam, Chief, change course to 105 degrees. That will take us to the crash site.”
“Aye, sir. Course 105.”
“Barker, get this SITREP (situation report) out to the District. SITREP-One: Underway Cape Henry. ETA on scene one hour.” When Cape Henry Light came abeam, Chief Miller changed to the new course and I settled in for the smooth ride and started laying out possible search patterns on the chart.

BOOOOMMM!

“Damn, what was that?”
Heads spun toward the sound of the explosion—the sky—and we all knew what it was.
“Cap’n, that jet is in trouble,” the Chief said, as he pointed skyward to two Navy fighter planes heading out to sea. They were probably out of Naval Air Station, (NAS) Oceana. One was losing altitude fast. Suddenly his ejection seat exploded straight up, the powerless plane continued east toward an Atlantic splash down.

His parachute opened like magic. We watched the pilot descend beneath his white chute, framed against the blue sky, his yellow one-man raft, tethered to his ankle, bounced in the air beneath him. He was going to splashdown practically at our feet. Vacationing hundreds who lined the water’s edge at Virginia Beach watched all this unfold.
“Barker, take the helm.” I ordered, “Chief, get the district on the radio and let them know what’s happening. See if we can get Oceana on UHF.” I knew the CG District RCC did not have Ultra High Frequency voice radio, but we did. That could be a good thing. I didn’t need someone 15 miles inland second guessing me now. As the chief managed the radios, I glanced up to see the bailing pilot’s wing man circling. I was sure that he had already reported the incident to his home base.
Meanwhile, the chief struggled to handle two separate conversations, with RCC and Oceana, on two different microphones. He was trying to explain to RCC, that he was not talking about our flotsam search, but a new mission—a man was falling out of the sky! It was just too much. It was turning into an Abbot and Costello routine.
“Chief,” I said, “cut the district off, tell them we’re too busy right now and we’ll explain it all in a few minutes.”
He looked surprised, but breaking into a smile, he said, “CG District Five, this is 95312. You do not understand. We are ceasing all communications this frequency now, explanation will follow. 95312 Out!” He loved it, and so did I.
By now, the pilot had hit the water, deftly gotten into his tiny raft, taken his shoes off, and was swatting at flies as if he were enjoying a relaxing day at the beach. I lined up for the approach. The crew had a ladder over the side, ready to assist. The raft was only 200 yards dead ahead. The wing man made a low fly-by executing an impressive wing roll in salute and headed back to NAS Oceana.
We soon had the Navy rescue helicopter visually and were in direct radio contact. “Coast Guard ‘312, this is Navy Rescue,” the chopper pilot’s voice shook from the helo vibrations. “When you retrieve our man, we recommend you get underway at 5 knots. Clear your after-deck space and I’ll approach from the stern with a sling. Pick-up should be easy.”
“Roger Navy Rescue, I’ll head 270 degrees, 5 knots. ‘312 standing by.”

I met LTJG Joseph Walter, USN, as he scrambled onto the fantail, wet, but seemingly none the worse for wear. We shook hands. “You OK?” I asked.
“Just a little scratch on the chin, I think from a loose buckle when I ejected.”
“Great! What happened?”
“We had barely taken off and I had an explosion and engine flame out at 3000 ft. I tried several restarts, then ejected at 1800. Great to have you guys waiting for me, though.” He laughed.
The pulsating thump of the helo blades was getting closer, the approach looked good, the dangling rescue line moved over the fantail. The crew made sure the static line touched the deck first then moved to assist our new Navy friend into the rescue horse collar. Raising his arms to get the collar in place, he shouted over the noisy chopper, “Hey Captain, did you go to the Coast Guard Academy?”
“Yea, I did.”
“You don’t happen to know Charlie Millradt, do you?”
I couldn’t believe it! “Yeah, I do! Charlie graduated in ’55, two years ahead of me.”
“How about that! Charlie and I went to high school together in Milwaukee. I went to Annapolis, and he went to the Coast Guard Academy.” As Joe was being lifted off the deck, dangling like a puppet on a string he yelled, “If you talk to Charlie, tell him I said you Coast Guard guys are OK. Thanks, Cap’n.”
Fifteen minutes after his flame out over the Atlantic, LTJG Joseph Walter, USN was back in the NAS Oceana operations center having a cup of coffee. I turned to the Chief and said, “OK, Chief. Now, where were we when the Navy so rudely interrupted?”

Holiday Exchange

In mid-July I was invited to share the O-bon Festival with a village family. A major holiday, this “Feast of the Dead,” is celebrated for eight days in Japan; on Okinawa it is limited to three. It marks a reunion with the spirits of the dead family members who return to the world of the living for a visit.

 

Ryukuan tomb
Wealthy Family tomb

The eve of the first day was a time to visit family tombs. Every family has one. It may be a simple small cave dug into the hillside, or an open jar of bones placed in a marked natural alcove in the side of the hill. The wealthy often built a concrete structure that might have been more expensive than their house. A standard design had a turtle-shaped dome and a small door similar to the tunnel entrance into the more familiar Eskimo Igloo.

Copy of Bone Urn
Poor family tomb

In a different era, it was the job of the youngest unmarried woman of the family to enter the tomb and cleanse any remaining flesh off the bones of departed family members. The bones were then placed in decorative vases in the rear of the tomb, cleansing the spirits for their visit to the earthly world and making room for more family members. Cremation has begun to eliminate this ancient practice, although I have heard that some traditional families in rural areas might still practice this.  Ikeshima? I don’t know.

I arrived in the afternoon of first day of the feast, when the family gathers for a meal in their shrine room (chashitsu, a small formal tea room) in their home. My hostess welcomed me with gracious bows as she pointed for me to enter. She wore a beautiful kimono of colorfully patterned silk, her hair meticulously piled high on her head, held there by several large combs. A broad sash, obi, circled her waist several times. I bowed in return, thanked her, “Domo arigato gozaismasu.” She smiled at my more formal “thank you very much,” not just “thanks.”
I placed my white bucks (I was in tropical white uniform) alongside the row of getas (Japanese wooden sandals) on the single step leading into the raised chashitsu. The room was small, 9ft x 9ft, with no furniture except the low table in the middle of the room. The purity of the atmosphere was enhanced by the pale off-white light that filtered through the rice paper sliding doors, and the strong odor of incense that burned in a small dish in the Tokonoma.

SONY DSC
Illustration only of Tokonoma. this is not a picture of the one in my home visit.

The Tokonoma, a shrine-like recess in the wall, was decorated with a single vase with long pussy willow-like branches that stretched high above its rim on one side next to the burning incense. A  vertical scroll with large hand-painted Japanese Kanja characters that said “something suitable for the season,” hung on the back wall. The Tokonoma was unquestionably the focal point of the room.
I was seated at one end of the table facing the shrine. Four family members were seated, two on each side of the table. The guest of honor’s place was opposite me where he would be framed by the Takonoma at his back. Others, when looking at him, would then see him as if he were included in a three dimensional religious scene. In this case, of course, the seat remained empty, having been reserved for the expected ancestral spirit. There was a small dish of cut fruit set at each place—including the empty seat of honor.
The ladies spoke in subdued tones, half Japanese, half English, trying to explain key points of the holiday. I had a basic idea what to expect, but when the moment came, I confess that I entered a whole new dimension.
One of the women at the other end of the table suddenly thrust her arms out over the table, palms down, and let out a loud SSSSHHHH. Everything stopped. She continued the SSSHHH-ssshhh gradually lowering the volume as well as her hands until they were touching the table.

There was a long pause, and then she whispered in a barely audible voice, “Ghosto come.”

When I saw the intensity on the face of the others as they directed their attention toward the empty seat, I just knew that all of them felt a new presence. For a moment, I wasn’t sure about me! The rising hairs on my arms sent me into a physical shudder.
Part of me wanted to get out of there, part of me wanted to stay. Low level conversation in Japanese continued for a while as we ate the fruit on our plates. I was no longer involved. I found myself thinking, “Are they talking about the spirit— or talking to him?”
After an eternity of fifteen minutes or so, the ceremony was over. We thanked each other for the opportunity to share the O-Bon, and I returned to the station. The religious rapture I saw on the faces of the Japanese ladies when the spirits arrived reminded me of the look on elderly Italian ladies kneeling, reciting the rosary, in the wooden pews of St. Bernard’s church at home. Though each communed with a very different Great-Spirit, they both seemed at peace in their own world.

The second day of O-Bon was more like a family reunion, where they exchanged gifts and payed homage to their ancestors. The final day was a time for gay festivities, shows, and dances that lead up to the final send-off. Sugar canes were cut to length and placed outside the tomb as walking sticks to assist their ancestors in their return journey to the land-of-the-spirits.

In return for the wonderful O-Bon experience, I invited a small group to share an American holiday. I always considered Halloween and Thanksgiving as uniquely American, but I ruled out Halloween as too close to O-Bon. They might think we were “making fun of it.” So, the Mayor’s party of six joined us for our “Coast Guard Loran Station Thanksgiving Holiday Dinner.” The four women were dressed for a special occasion in their colorful formal kimonos. The men wore suits and ties.
Our skilled cook took pleasure in preparing a traditional meal. We had a huge carved turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, dressing, the whole works. While the mess hall lacked traditional decorations beyond a centerpiece of fruits and nuts, the aroma of roasting turkey and pumpkin pies stirred hints of homesickness in many of our young crewmen who were thousands of miles from home.

Our guests joined our key petty officers and me at a head table. After the round of normal bows, they shook hands, and then giggled with their fingers appropriately covering their mouth, lest they offend.
The women looked nervous as they watched and copied the mayor’s every move. They all seemed overwhelmed with the abundance of food, and confused by the complications of using knives and forks.

Everyone was intrigued. They all enjoyed the taste of turkey, ham, and all the veggies, but they loved the pumpkin pie. Their animated expressions and rapid Japanese chatter told me they understood and enjoyed our house-boy Seiji’s rendition of the “Story of American Thanksgiving.”
When the ritual cigars were offered at the end of the meal, the women, seeing the Mayor take one, did the same. By the time I noticed, they had already followed the mayor… and lit up. I didn’t want to embarrass them, so I said nothing. After three or four puffs, lots of smoke, and a few coughs, one lady ceremoniously placed her cigar in an ashtray, the others followed. They very graciously took it all in stride. It was a great day for everyone.

Ikeshima Village

I don’t know 350px-Okinawa BWwhere the mule came from nor how it got here, but seeing several of my crew huddled in the field next to it, I was suspicious. I had been invited to this demonstration just moments ago. “Sir, you are needed at the crest of the village road.”

Ike Shima Ariel BW
CG Loran Statin, Ikeshima, Okinawa, Japan

As I approached the hill, I saw a line of onlookers standing in a row facing away from the road and into the sugar cane field. A young man I didn’t recognize was behind the mule with the reins over his shoulder, and gripping the wooden handles; it was a Grant Wood painting come to life.
“OK guys, someone tell me what’s going on here.” After a moment of awkward jockeying, they tapped a spokesman who stepped forward.
“Well, sir, aahh… we are trying to show everyone that there is a more efficient way to get their fields ready for planting.” He bit his bottom lip, waiting for some response from me. He continued, “Well, you know how these farmers do everything with a short handled hoe and sickle?” Again getting no response, he launched into a rapid fire sputter.

“They work these tiny plots only to put all the crops together for sale afterwards and if they just took the walls down we figured a plow could save a lot of time—and backs too.” Long pause for effect, then. “That’s one of our Marine friends from the main island behind the plow, sir he’s from Georgia and he really knows what he’s doing we’ve got things all ready to go, sir.”

Blog pic M Boat Beach
LCM: Transport for man and (likely) beast

So, this was a set up. They had been waiting to spring this little show on me as well as the village Mayor and a group of farmers.
“So, how did this Marine friend, his mule, and his plow get from Okinawa to Ikeshima?” I asked. Silence. The whole crew shook their heads, and hunched their shoulders in collective innocence.
“I don’t suppose it’s possible they were transported here in our LCM?”
A swallowed response from one, still shaking head, “I guess… well…it…it is possible, sir.”
“Well, these people came out to see… something. You better get this show on the road.”
The young Marine in civilian clothes, grabbed the plow handles, back in his element, and tossed me a casual salute. He yelled out some “mule command” and the pair of them took off. They moved at a steady pace, plowing a single furrow that ran the length of what was formerly three separate plots.
The size of sugar cane fields on Ikeshima was deceiving. What, at first, seemed to be a few large fields were, in fact, many small plots. Each farmed by a single family and separated by low hand-built stone and coral walls. The fences were hidden deep in the tall canes, but you could see them from the air. The bamboo-like clusters poked skyward, as if they sprouted from ice cube trays to form a quilt of green.
When harvested, the entire production of the island was pooled and sold at market in Okinawa for the benefit of the whole village. The fishermen do the same thing with their catch. The village was governed as a commune. The fruits of individual labor were willingly shared. Everything was for the common benefit.
The newly created rectangular plot was about fifty yards long and twenty yards wide. The villagers were suitably impressed by the Marine and his mule. They bowed, hands folded prayer fashion at their chests. They clapped politely and engaged each other in animated conversation. They seemed amazed and thankful. No more back breaking effort for Papa-san and Mama-san. Planting would be much easier and probably ten times as fast. My crew was back-slapping the Marine, and smiling at each other. I was proud of them, and told them all, “Great job, men. It looks as though you have made a major impact on the people of this village.”
The following day—the walls were back in place. The farmers worked their separate plots, bent low, putting the finishing touches on the plowed furrows with hand-held hoes. We had not made a single difference.
It was the culture!
In Vern Schneider’s novel, Tea House of the August Moon, he mocks the early occupation of Okinawa by the American Army. One of his characters, Colonel Wainright Purdy III, declares, “My job is to teach these natives the meaning of democracy, and they’re going to learn democracy if I have to shoot every one of them.” His first order of business was explaining democracy to them and that it was now in their hands. Everyone cheered.

He was delighted until his interpreter explained that during 800 years of foreign occupation the Okinawans had learned to cheer whoever was in charge, no matter what was said. A scenario, perhaps, not unlike our mule-plowing demonstration.
The 1958 book The Ugly American by William Burdick and Eugene Lederer was required reading for prospective Loran station commanding officers. It is a collection of short essays that were serious critiques of America’s ability to win the hearts and minds of a foreign population.

At the time, their target was our policies and actions in the Far East before the peak of our Vietnam involvement. The authors maintained that our arrogance and ineptitude along with not making any effort to understand the language, culture, or the true needs of the people we were trying to help, contributed to major failures.

Their book was about the Far East and our fight against communism in the late fifties, but when I think about our decade plus of Near East involvement, I wonder if it isn’t time to break out the Ugly American again.”
Every man on the station could cite numerous cross-cultural experiences. For me, the most dramatic came through invitations to swap holiday experiences. I joined a village family as they celebrated the O-Bon festival, and a group of villagers shared our Thanksgiving dinner on the base. You can read about that interesting experience in my next post..

Morehead City

Mr. Wheeler opened the side cargo door of the North American furniture van parked in front of 110 Gull Harbor Drive. Kimberly bounced on her toes at the top of the driveway, her tiny fists quivering against her chin, watching his every move. He hooked the off-load ramp into place then disappeared into the van. In a moment he reappeared at the top of the ramp holding a red tricycle high over his head. “Well, lookie what I found here, Kimberly”
“Oh Mr. Wheeler, you have my bike! You have my bike!”
Knowing how a move could affect a child, he had made a production of loading her tricycle last. “Now see right here is where I’m putting your bike, and when you see me in a few days, it will be the first thing I get out of the truck.”
I had been transferred from Alameda, California to Morehead City, North Carolina. Every North American van we passed on the five day cross country trek triggered a peep from the back seat, “Do you think that’s Mr. Wheeler, and he has my bike?” You have no idea how many vans North American owns.

We had bought a spec-house, in a new development on Bogue Sound. Other than ours, there was one other occupied house and one empty one. It was only 8a.m. but the rising summer sun and North Carolina humidity would soon overcome us. You could rub your thumb and two fingers together and feel the air. The odors wafting from Bogue Sound at low tide settled over us in what would become a new twice-a-day experience. Mr. Wheeler and his local pick-up crew arrived early, and made quick work of offloading our household goods. We waved goodbye as his van pulled away shortly after noon.
Early in the process of setting up the new house I needed a hardware store. I checked with our only neighbor, Tom.
“Well, if you want a real hardware store, you are probably going to have to go to Beaufort. I don’t think there’s anything in Morehead that will help. “It’s easy to find, can’t miss it. It’s right on the main street.” Then he added, “By the way, Dick, that’s pronounced Bow’-furt (long o). In South Carolina it is Byou’-furt. Folks will know you’re not from here if y’all get that wrong.” He laughed and waved me on.
“Thanks, Tom.”

The highway into Morehead City was lined with ice cream parlors, beach souvenir shops, insurance offices, sundries, and dress shops—most in single story buildings that looked more like homes than retail shops. Set back twenty yards from the road, they were painted blue-grey with porches that held white painted rocking chairs that invited you to “sit a spell afore y’all move on. Thanks for commin’ by.”
The dominant feature of Morehead’s business district is a single railroad track that runs like a boulevard the full length of the main street. The intersections with crossing streets were sparsely landscaped with a few bushes plopped into jagged red lava stones in a vain attempt to distract you from the depressing view of a rusted railroad track running down the middle of your main street atop a mound of grey stone chips.
I crossed over the bridge to Beaufort. Tom was right. The hardware store was obvious. I parked directly in front; I was the only car. When I got to the front door, I knew why. A grey cardboard sign scotch-taped to the door had neatly blocked out red crayon letters, “BLUES ARE RUNNING–BE BACK TOMORROW” It was the middle of the afternoon on a regular weekday—the owner had gone fishing.

Of course, there was a certain quaintness to a town with family restaurants named Sanitary Fish Market, and Cap’n Bills where cute Southern waitresses, with charming accents, kept your hush-puppy basket filled, and left you with a cheery “N’ya’ll come back and see us again, ya hear.”

It was a town with people grounded enough to shut down their business because the “blues are runnin’”, and who saw nothing strange about a railroad track in the middle of main street. It was a town with three and a half hour Sunday church services. A town whose men celebrated Thanksgiving by sitting in duck blinds from the break of dawn, while the women prepared the traditional family dinner that the men were often late for, or even missed.

The permanent population of 8000 seemed content to let Morehead remain a summer respite for the people from Raleigh, New Bern, and the North. During the season, vacationers nearly tripled the population, and when they went home the locals fell back to their parochial roots of fishermen, farmers, and small businessmen.
They were always friendly, and openly expressed their appreciation of the Coast Guard. But, Carol and I soon discovered that if we couldn’t talk about basketball, the bible, or tobacco, (maybe even in that order), any extended conversations would be limited. As one lady expressed it, “We just lo-o-ve having y’all here, but you do know that y’all never be one of us, right?”

Kimberly did not react well to my first rescue call. When Carol told Kimberly, “Kim, daddy will not be home for awhile, maybe a few days. He had to take the Chilula to try to find a man lost at sea.” Kim’s response was crying, gasping-never-ending crying. When we were at Alameda, I had come home from work at the end of the day just like any other dad. Carol tried everything to console her.
“Just think, Kimberly, how happy that man is going to be. He’s probably been scared all night. He’ll be so glad to see daddy’s big Coast Guard ship coming toward him to save him.”
Through gulping, shoulder heaving sobs, Kimberly’s angry response was, “Why didn’t the man just take a flashlight!”

We enrolled Kimberly in nursery school which helped some, but she needed companionship at home too. A dog. That should do it. A nice little beagle that could grow with her— Disaster!
She and the young pup, which we called Sailor, never hit it off. He scratched and nibbled at her; she poked and jabbed at him. When she wanted to go out to play, she begged for us to keep the dog inside, when she played inside, the dog had to go out. We often found one of them under her bed, and the other on top. This was not working. It was worse. One of them was going to have to go. We gave Sailor away to a nice family (any one that would take him) and we had peace again. The second dog was a loving black cocker spaniel who became a member of the family for fifteen years.

One evening, while I was reading the newspaper waiting for Carol to announce dinner, I leaned up from my recliner and yelled to Carol in the kitchen, “Hey, Babe, did you see this article on the front page? They’re going to cut the ribbon for the opening of the new A & P tomorrow. The high school band is going to play in the parking lot. Do you want to go?” Carol leaned back from the stove and peeked into the den.
“Reeeely? Are you kidding me?”
“Oh, my God, Carol, I felt an honest tinge of excitement there!” I put the paper in my lap and just stared ahead for a half-minute. “I feel like I’m in an episode of ‘Mayberry, RFD.”

The Pamir

German sail training ship Pamir
German sail training barque Pamir

 

Early on the morning of August 10, 1957, the Pamir, a four hundred-foot barque, the last commercial sailing ship to carry cargo around Cape Horn, had just cleared the harbor of Buenos Aires. With her subsidizing cargo of barley stowed below and all her square sails set, she was beginning her 7000 mile journey home to Hamburg, Germany.
The permanent crew of thirty-five professional seamen and fifty-one young teenage cadets, ages fourteen to seventeen, had not been home since July. Everyone was anxious.

Eighty-six souls on board—only six would ever see home again.

I had reported for duty on the Absecon in early September as a deck watch officer. It was great to see my old roommate, Ron McClellan, again. He helped me get my gear into the quarters we would share on the second deck.  They had been used by the Navy for temporary aviators’ quarters when they operated the ship as a seaplane tender. We had a small gray metal desk with a fold down top and a few drawers crammed alongside a metal bunk. We were bombarded by the constant hum of the circulating air vents, and the dank smells that emanated from the Chief’s head across the passageway. As the most junior officers aboard, the Ensign Locker, as the rest of the ship called it, would have to do.
The ship was preparing to sail for Weather Patrol on Ocean Station Echo in the mid Atlantic, halfway between Bermuda and the Azores.
Long lines of crewmen moved nondescript containers hand over hand from trucks on the pier, up the gangway, through narrow passageways, to storage in the bowels of the ship. Engineers clustered on the fantail like children on Christmas morning, hovering over their prized shiny metal pieces carefully removed from straw packing. Huge white balloons and large tanks of helium, and other strange tools for weather observations had already been brought aboard.

On Friday, at the end of my first week aboard, the Absecon slipped cleanly from her berth to begin her five day journey. As we cleared Cape Henry, the Captain set our course to take the ship just past Bermuda and on to Station ECHO.  Before satellites, the National Weather Bureau assigned four weathermen to each patrol vessel. Their weather observations on these patrols were the primary source of weather forecasting for the U.S.

I passed through the wardroom just as one of them was briefing our navigator, LT Jim Fleishell, “As of the eighth, that tropical storm is now Hurricane Carrie, a Category IV, packing winds of 155 MPH. She’s headed just south of Bermuda. Looks like a tough trip.” I watched the wardroom steward scamper back to the mess deck. I knew that in a matter of minutes even the engineer on watch in No. 2 engine room would have the scuttlebutt—the Absecon was headed directly into a hurricane!

By Tuesday we could read the telltale signs. Wind streaks danced like pinstripes on a gray ocean, keeping time with the 30-40 mph gusts. White caps formed, only to be blown flat, like truncated pyramids, spitting their frothy spray downwind to hang above the trough. The eerie music of the wind in the rigging got louder and changed tone with the wind’s speed.

Ocean swells mounted larger and longer. Agonizing human forms, ignoring the pelting rain and wind, bent over the lee rail praying for relief or death—a few not caring which.
As sixty foot waves towered and moved swiftly beneath us, the ship rose like an express elevator, then balanced on the crest, bow and stern sagging under their own weight, as though she were waiting for an unseen force to break her back like a giant snapping a twig over his knee. Screws thumped loudly as they flailed in the free air, the rudder, with no water, was useless. Then the wave slid quickly beneath us leaving the 2600 ton flat bottomed ship to plummet, released by the hand of God, to crash with a shuddering thud into the bottom of the next trough.

The ship quivered in a vibrating fit that seemed to last forever only to have the merciful moment of stillness interrupted by the following crest collapsing tons of angry green water, hammering the foredeck, nearly back to the bridge. The ship buried her nose into the next wave, courageously climbed the steep wall at an eerie angle, only to repeat the action over and over again. Carrie was my first hurricane—ooh, that she would be the last.
On the 16th of September, an upper level shear turned Carrie northeast. The unusual move would now spare Bermuda and the U.S. East coast, but it would take her directly into the northbound path of the Pamir. Even reduced to a Category I with winds just below a hundred miles an hour, she was too much for the Pamir.

“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. Four-masted barque Pamir
in severe hurricane–Position 35 degrees, 57 minutes North
and 40 degrees, 20 minutes West–All sails lost–
45 degree list–ship is taking water–danger of sinking.”

W did not get much sleep with the roar and vibrations of all four engines straining as our ship pounded into still heavy seas in an overnight dash to the Pamir’s position.

The Pamir sank 680 miles west-south west of the Azores. She descended to the Atlantic graveyard, 12,000 feet below the still churning surface, confirming her place in history as one of the greatest sea tragedies of all time.

The world was now eager to follow the fate of fifty-one young men, who on Friday were giddy in the romance of sailing a square-rigged Cape Horner. On Saturday, they were scared, cold, and alone in the storm-tossed sea, clinging to life itself, desperately wanting only to get home. The once proud hull of the last Cape Horner took men and boys with her, and released others to fend for themselves.

Merchant ships were reporting their on scene ETA’s and offering whatever assistance they could provide. The U.S. Air Force at Lajes in the Azores promised an air search as soon as weather permitted. Ron and I were taken off deck watch rotation to handle increased communications and direct all search activity. With seventy ships and twenty aircraft from fifteen different nations, over nine days, it was touted as the largest sea search in history, a record at the time.

The U.S. Merchant ship, Saxon, had recovered five survivors. Buoyed by her success, we rotated extra volunteer lookouts. Finally at sunset, an hour away from when we would have to secure for the night, our lookout spotted a badly damaged lifeboat three hundred yards off the starboard bow. A lone survivor slumped on the after thwart, arm weakly strung along the gunwale. The boat was badly broken, barely floating.
Survivor boat 001 - CopyGunter Hassalbach, a twenty-two year old Pamir crew member, was a pitiful sight sloshing in water up to his armpits. His face and lips were swollen. He’d had had neither water nor food for over three days and was exhausted from the sheer effort of staying alive. He said he was one of twenty-five men in the boat at first. There had been eight with him that morning.

Transfer Gunter to Il de France
Gunter transfers to the Antilles

The next day, we rendezvoused with the French Ocean Liner Antilles, and transferred Günter to her where he received treatment from her doctor. He was later flown home from Puerto Rico.The following year, the Absecon, sailed to Europe as part of the cadet practice squadron. We diverted independently to Hamburg where we were honored by the German Government for our effort in leading the Pamir search. They presented the Coast Guard with a large oil painting of the Pamir and the Absecon received a bronze plaque to mount on our ship.