News & Views

Ikeshima Arrival

I fingered the slim strip of paper with the indecipherable Kenji characters for the umpteenth time. I was about to step into the foreign world of Okinawa armed with nothing but these instructions for a taxi driver to get me to the Yakina village boat docks.

I pushed open the double doors with my B-bag and stepped into the hot August sun and saw long line of yellow taxi cabs. The first cab scooted curbside to a tire squealing stop directly in front of me. The driver bounded out, grabbed my bags, threw them into the trunk and took the paper strip from my outstretched hand. I watched as he fingered the wrinkled sweat stained two inch paper strip. I wondered, “Is the Coast Guard the only service too cheap to provide instructions on a full sheet of paper?”

We drove past business strips with unattractive two to four story block buildings, whitewashed to a eye squinting white. Some had recessed balconies, New Orleans style, with wrought iron fences. Storefronts displayed garish circus-like banners of bright red, yellow and green Kenji characters advertising their wares.

Street lamp poles sprouted from the narrow sidewalks, far enough away from the curb to be pedestrian hazards. Their lights hung in an arc over the streets. Sagging wires stretched across the intersections with horizontally hung traffic lights, green to red, left to right. Odd mini trucks and bantam cars filled the streets, leapfrogging each other with every change of the light as if they were in a frenzied race to get out of town.

My mind was clogged with survival thoughts: How will I ever understand these people? Will anyone from the station be at the boat basin in Yakina? If I miss a scheduled departure, will I have to stay overnight? Where? What kind of shape is the station in? What is Ike village like? The people? God, I miss Carol already! How am I going to make it for a year?
Just then, we capped a rise that revealed a panoramic view of the east coast of Okinawa, exposing a chain of islands on the horizon, a few miles across the small bay, the northernmost being Ikeshima, my ultimate destination.
A thin line of white clouds joined the low islands to separate the blues of sky and bay. It was a scene like a travel brochure that promised an island paradise. A few red roofs and white houses peeked through the green tree clusters as the road curled downhill toward the fishing village of Yakina. The paradise image was soon destroyed by the unwelcome smell of fishing docks. The soaring temperature and stagnant air did not help. High concrete walls squeezed the road. Cement-block houses, with no pretense of architectural design, ugly stains bleeding through their bad whitewash, clustered in protected enclaves.

The docks were busy. Fishing boats, twenty to thirty feet long, were moored the length of the pier. They had low freeboard and open decks. Some had small cockpits on the afterdeck for the engine housing and an open wheel house.
Workers arranged their gear in the shallow well-decks while women, squatting on the pier, knees fully bent, feet flat, repaired damaged nets. They could work in this position with broad brimmed straw hats providing their only shade, for hours on end. One boat was unloading her foul cargo into a miniature truck for transport to market.
The island hopping taxi boat was filling up with passengers and cargo. Men and women in casual kimonos or shorts hauled their shopping trip bounty onto the boat. Children, typically in student uniforms of black pants, white or black shirts, and beanie ball caps, covered the landscape like Maine black flies. Everyone wore rubber flip-flop sandals. Passengers found space among wooden boxes and unattended cargo of chickens and goats in open crates. I found a bench seat near the stern. I was the only non-Asian, wearing a service dress khaki uniform to boot, and I did not turn a single curious head.
The taxi-boat had wooden poles crudely mounted vertically on the sides with a sagging canvas awning stretched between them like a canopy on a four-poster bed. Passengers pushed, shoved, even stepped on each other, as they found space. The Japanese politeness I expected had, apparently, been suspended. Animated motions and raucous high pitched Japanese voices filled the air as everyone squeezed into seats on the deck and cargo boxes. Some even perched atop the rail hanging onto the awning poles to keep from falling overboard.
The taxi-boat captain controlled our departure time based on his estimate of the state of the tide. Neither a clock nor shouted pleas moved him. Shallow reefs and sand bars between the islands lay in wait to punish those who ignored nature’s time. Our captain misjudged it.

We weren’t ten minutes into the trip when a loud scraping sound of the bottom crunching in the sand and coral, brought the boat to an abrupt stop, engine running. Passengers lurched forward, grabbing their flying packages, chicken crates, and each other—we had just run aground.

Arguments ensued, everyone talking, the coxswain shouting directions.
Suddenly, four men passengers jumped over the side into water up to their thighs and began pushing the boat backwards. The captain shifted to full astern, engine whining, the churning propellers now making a frothy, dirty sand and coral backwash swirl around the volunteer salvage-assistants. As we slowly moved off the sand bar, the captain cut the engine, and people settled down, accepting the grounding as just another glitch in their crossing. The men jumped back into the boat, their wet clothes dripping on everyone, and we were on our way again.

As we approached the Ike village pier, my spirits lifted with the sight of a grey Coast Guard jeep and a chief petty officer standing beside it. Chief Armstrong, wearing a tropical khaki short uniform with an overseas cap, saluted smartly. He was tall, and thin with a deeply lined and tanned face that made him look older than his years. He wasted no time hanging around the village. He grabbed my bag threw it into the jeep and said, “Hop in, skipper. You’ll have plenty of time to explore the village. Let’s get you out to the station.”

How Khrushchev Changes My World

It was August 1960. Carol and I sat in the American Airlines lounge at Idlewild Airport (later named JFK International). We talked quietly, self-isolated in our morose bubble from the faceless people around us. It was hard for me to look at her when we did talk; moist eyes were not suitable for an officer in uniform. We had been married a little over two years and we now faced a one year separation.
After twenty-two changes of orders in the last four months, thanks to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, I had finally been dropped from the international political whipsaw. I now held orders to be the Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard LORAN Station Okinawa, Japan. My footlocker, however, a victim of the fiasco, was aboard a U.S. Navy transport being delivered to the other side of the globe—Naples, Italy.
The garbled PA announcement sounded like they called my flight. I turned in my seat to face Carol, a strained smile on my face, “Remember, although I’m boarding this plane for San Francisco in a few minutes, you cannot believe I’m really going to end up in Okinawa until you get a post card from there.” She smiled back weakly, gave me a publically presentable kiss on the cheek, and said good bye. I turned and walked toward the boarding ramp. I never looked back.
My initial orders were to station Tarumpitao in the Philippines. But, I was a designated standby emergency relief, so I attended LORAN school one cycle early and my orders read “….unless relief is required elsewhere earlier, report for duty to the CG LORAN Station Tarumpitao Point, Philippines Islands. “Unless” was the key word.

I had focused on Trumpitao. The station was located on the western tip of the island of Palawan in a heavy jungle area. I exchanged letters with the current CO who shared a few photos and gave me a heads-up as to what he found to be important concerns: Keeping the jungle from encroaching on the grass air strip, the station’s lifeline; preparing for the inevitable raid from hostile Borneo Pirates (an active tribe of headhunters from nearby Borneo); and avoiding the poisonous cobras that were often found on the station, most recently, one wrapped around the door handle of the CO’s quarters.

I could prepare for the first two. I would keep hacking away at the jungle, and give the pirates whatever the hell they wanted. They usually took food and a small weird selection of “trinkets” for souvenirs. It was the King Cobras that gave me pause.

My first change of orders came two days before I completed Loran school. I was now assigned as the PCO of a new Loran C station that the Coast Guard was building at the site of Rite 3. That was the classified code name for a secret location that the headquarters message assured me, “I would know when I needed to know.” The people at Loran school couldn’t even answer my question, “So, do I pack a fur parka or pith helmet and shorts?”

Eventually, I knew I was going to L’Estartit, Spain, on the Mediterranean coast in the crescent of the Spanish, French, and Italian Riviera. I was to report during the last phase of construction in July and be the CO when it was commissioned. It would eventually be a family station, a two year assignment, and I could bring Carol over probably for the second year.
That is, until the NY Times Headline on May 1 1960.

“Soviets Down American Plane;
U.S. Says It Was Weather Craft;
Khrushchev Sees Summit Blow.”

President Eisenhower issued statements that our U-2 spy plane was a “weather observer” that had navigational problems and inadvertently drifted over the Russian air space. Then Premier Khrushchev, in one of the great diplomatic “gottcha” moves, revealed that he had in fact captured our pilot and his pictures of their ICBM sites. Colonel Powers was now in a Russian prison. The Eisenhower administration, greatly embarrassed, caught spying and lying, needed to lay low, especially after Khrushchev’s speech, “….U.S. must not build another military base on foreign soil…”

After twenty-one go-nogo changes to my orders, Carol and I were on leave at her family’s house on Long Island, only a few days from my departing for Spain, Then, the Western Union man came to the door. Of course, the message was for me, “Report without delay to CCGD3(p) for change in orders”. Carol and I made the short drive to New York City without comment. Carol cooled her heels in Battery Park while I seethed my way to the third floor of CG District Office. Now I was going to Okinawa, Japan.

I gazed out my window seat in the Boeing 707 across the tarmac to the large terminal windows knowing that Carol was among the crowd watching the takeoff. Cross country flights with the new jet powered passenger planes, only in their second year, still drew a crowd who cheered each takeoff in amazement.
I had a short stopover in San Francisco and a long flight to Honolulu where I met with a few other Loran CO’s for a two day logistics briefing from the 14th District engineering staff. Then on to Tokyo and a short welcome from the Commander, Far East Section. His yeoman handed me a piece of paper and said, “Sir, this has instructions in Japanese for you to show the taxi driver. You’ll have to catch a local taxi-boat from Yakina Basin to get to your station. Good luck, Sir.” Finally–I was on the last leg to Okinawa. I thought, “If our marriage stood up through this transfer, we were meant to be.”

At the Tokyo airport I stopped at the magazine counter, picked up a picture postcard of an Okinawan Shinto shrine and its famous Torii Gate and scribbled a short note, “Finally on a plane to Okinawa for last leg. Wish you were here. See you in a year. Love, Dick.”
My footlocker arrived in November

There Goes the Castle

I headed my Toyota out of the CG Air Station in Washington DC bound for the Smithsonian Castle. I needed to get Ambassador Elliot Richardson there for a dinner speaking engagement and I didn’t have much time. I never understood Washington traffic. Why were people snarled inbound on the 14th street bridge? They were supposed to be getting out of D.C. not trying to get back in.
The light rain didn’t help. At the slightest sprinkle, cars, like automatons, merged into tight jams. Drivers had fought hard for their own precious space, and they were protecting it. I was blocked out of the only exit I knew, two lanes over, not enough time. Now I was headed into unknown territory, downtown Washington at dusk. When I glanced at the Ambassador to explain our situation, I saw his head swivel to the right lamely pointing at the familiar red castle as it passed down our right side, a quarter-mile away. “I think that’s where we are supposed to be going,” he said as the castle faded out of sight. No Shit!
“Sir, I’ve been forced out of the exit lane and we are headed into the heart of DC. I don’t know the city well. Could you help me with directions?”
“I’m sorry, he said, “but I don’t know the city at all. Someone picks me up in the morning. I sit in the back seat with that little over-the-shoulder-pin-light and read the overnight mail that the driver brings with him. Now, that I think about it, I don’t think I could even find my way to work.”
Of course he couldn’t. Why should a Secretary of Defense waste away his time finding his way to work, fighting traffic while he hunts for the best rout? This man operated in a whole different world than I couldn’t even imagine.
“That’s all right, sir, we’ll make it in plenty of time. I’m sure I can feel my way around a block or two.” Did that sound convincing?
My strategy was to go far enough north, then head east for a few blocks and turn south. We should run into the Mall and then I’d be home free. It was working…for a while. Without warning, my street split into four lanes. The right and left lanes offered exits to the Mall, the center two continued to a down ramp that disappeared. Blocked out of an exit again, I entered the short tunnel, and then I saw the sign, “Welcome to Virginia.”

I don’t know how that happened. I tried not to react and hoped the Ambassador did not see the same sign. He didn’t. I calmly felt my way into a return loop, crossed the 14th Street Bridge back into D.C. again, successfully this time, just like it was the plan. I don’t think my passenger was even aware.
This could have been the end to a good story, except, I was not at the front entrance to the Smithsonian Castle when I did find it. I was on the back side, no obvious way to get in. I spotted a uniformed guard walking the perimeter, and I pulled to the curb.
“I’ll be just a moment, Ambassador,” I said. I jumped out of the car, called to the guard, explained the situation, and asked if he could help. He could. I returned to the car, opened the front door for the Ambassador and said. “Sir, this guard knows exactly where you are to be and will escort you there. It’s been my pleasure to meet you sir, good luck with your speech.” No sweat…fifteen minutes to spare.
On the way home, I envisioned what the Washington Post headlines could have been: “Coast Guard Captain lost for hours in endless loop from DC to Virginia: Ambassador Richardson late for Macmillan honors.”
With apologies to Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well.

The Doodling Ambassador

Ambassador Elliot Richardson was one of the distinguished members of a Coast Guard Academy Advisory board. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1975-1976, and still carried the title. He was better known to Americans, however for his earlier rolls in the U.S. Government. President Nixon had appointed the Harvard Law graduate as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) in 1970. He later served as Nixon’s Secretary of Defense and Attorney General. In 1974, rather than follow Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, he resigned.
Rear Admiral William Stewart, the Chief of the Office of Personnel, and I flew via Coast Guard aircraft from Washington, DC to the Academy for a whirlwind day of briefings for the committee. I was the chief of Training and Education Division and therefore the Admiral’s chief staff officer for Academy affairs. The Ambassador and several other DC politicos flew with us.

The meeting was held in the Henreques Room of Hamilton Hall. We were surrounded by the library’s walnut and glass-front bookcases and large mahogany tables. I watched the Ambassador who sat at the end of the table of Advisory Board members. There was a Spartan handsomeness about him. His hair was neatly parted, and combed in a modest pompadour. He wore dark horned rimmed glasses. His straight lined thin lips receded modestly to set off his square cleft chin. He looked like Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch playing Ambassador Richardson.

He appeared to be more interested in the magnificent Aldis Brown murals of historic Coast Guard battles that encircled the room above the bookcases than the business at hand. Of all things–he was doodling! His ink pen swirled, stopped, checked, scratched, reversed, and blocked every figure and form known to man in a never ending tribute to nothing until his 8 x 10 notebook paper was filled with artistic gibberish. I was disappointed that this distinguished visitor paid such little attention to the briefing–until the Academy briefer finished his presentation.

Following mundane comments from the other members of the committee and the Academy staff, the Ambassador unwound his lanky frame from the chair he had surrendered to nearly an hour before, and stood.

“It seems to me, from what I have been hearing, that the main issues fall into categories…..”

His slow Tennessee-like drawl silenced the room as he gave the most erudite, yet simple, summary that captured the essence of the entire meeting. He even laid out potential solutions. I couldn’t believe it! The man was brilliant! I relearned a big lesson that day… never prejudge capabilities on appearances.

I later learned that other high profile figures were famed doodlers: Congressman Barber Conable of New York, and Nelson Rockefeller. Both men have claimed that doodling kept them “more active, intellectually.” They have also agreed that Elliot Richardson was probably “the most prolific doodler on Capital Hill.” His aides fought for his doodles after staff meeting; they were collectibles. That was my second mistake of the day, albeit through innocent ignorance, I did nothing to recoup his doodle. It did not live on, but, rather, found its way into the janitor’s trash…lost forever.

After a hectic day, our Coast Guard pilots informed us that bad weather was going to delay our departure. Ambassador Richardson expressed mild concern. He was scheduled to speak at a Smithsonian Institution dinner that evening honoring former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Takeoff was delayed and progress was slow. Admiral Stewart who had guests returning with him was making alternative plans to insure the Ambassador got to the dinner on time. He turned to me.

“Dick, I know your car is parked at the Air Station. Could you high-tail the Ambassador to the Smithsonian Castle? I think it’s going to be close to get him to the dinner on time.”
“Yes, sir, of course.”

We taxied directly to the CG hanger, and the Ambassador and I hustled off the plane as soon as the wheel chocks were in place. I ran ahead and opened the front door for the him. He climbed in just in time…it was starting to sprinkle. As I slid under the steering wheel I could see the Ambassador scanning my dashboard. “This is a very nice car,” he drawled. He smoothed his hand along the tan imitation leather beneath the windshield, “Is it new?”
“No, sir. Not really. It’s a two year old Toyota Corona.”
“Well, it’s very nice.”
“Thank you, sir.” I smiled to myself thinking about his reaction to my car. It dawned on me that I had placed my distinguished passenger in alien territory….the front seat of a compact family sedan. Hell, he probably hadn’t even sat in the front seat of any car for years, much less a little foreign model. I smiled again to myself and thought, “I’ll just let him dream on of the day he might own one too.”

The trip was not over yet. We still faced rain and Washington, DC traffic . It did not bode well.

The Colonel’s War is Not Over

Having skated by the Marine Colonel on the beach in the morning when I interrupted his amphibious war game, I was a bit concerned about returning to the beach in the afternoon to pick up our M-boat for transfer back to Ikeshima. I had barely turned off the main highway when I discovered “the war was not over, and I was still in the “battle zone.”

Fierce fighting was taking place in the scruffy growth near the roadside as the blue army made progress against the red defensive positions. I could hear gunshots including machine gun fire all around me.
Suddenly a marine jumped from the downhill side of my jeep and began running alongside firing blanks over the hood at an enemy he had apparently seen on the uphill side.

I was startled, but kept going at a slow pace down the curvy dirt road, the shooter running alongside, until the enemy jumped up on the hill, the two of them now firing at each other and hollering, “I got you.”
“No, man, I got you first.”
“The hell you did, you can’t use that jeep for cover; it’s not part of the exercise.”
“Is too. You’re dead, man!” At this point an officer umpire, I presumed because of the green arm band, leaped onto the road in front of me signaling everyone to a stop. I hit the brakes, and I think I may have even put my arms in the air a little, as the marines continued arguing.
The umpire quickly settled the argument.

In his senatorial voice and boring finality he announced, “Although the jeep is not officially part of the exercise, the blue invader showed marine initiative taking advantage of changing situations. The red defender is dead, the blue marine may continue.” Without another word, he waved me to continue.

About a quarter mile further, I came upon a roadblock with an armed sergeant stopping traffic and a machine gun nest set up at the side of the road behind a small sand bag bunker. I went through my story, figuring I had an advantage now. From the top of the hill, we could see our LCM coming back across the bay for the pickup, but the sergeant was not impressed. He knew navy vessels were grey and this black LCM approaching could very well be a third country vessel trying to pick up a spy! At his invitation, I accepted the armed guard who road with me while I followed the sergeant to battalion HQ.

Oh man! The battalion commander was my marine colonel friend from the beach. I felt better when he smiled and said, “So, you’re still around here causing trouble Lieutenant?”
“I hope not sir”
“I’ve heard that your LCM was on the way to pick you up, so I’m giving you a non-combat pass that will keep you out of trouble until you get out of here.” He was laughing.
“I’m really sorry for the trouble sir”, I apologized again, “we normally get message notice for this sort of thing. I don’t know what happened.
“Where you from Lieutenant?”
“Pennsylvania, Sir. Small town in Northwest, called Bradford.”
“You go to the Coast Guard Academy in New London?”
“Yes, Sir, class of ‘57.”
“You know, there was a lad about your vintage from my home town, Upper Sandusky Ohio, who went to the Coast Guard Academy, can’t remember his name.
I smiled and ventured a guess,“Would it be Tom Matteson, sir? How many other CGA grads around my age could there be from Upper Sandusky, Ohio? Tom always reminded us that, strangely, it was below Sandusky.
“By God, that is the name.”
“Yes, Sir, Tom’s a classmate. He’s in flight school now.
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Yes Sir.” Was that the correct response?
I never had a chance to tell that story to Tom until our 50th reunion at the Coast Guard Academy. He was pretty sure he knew the Colonel’s family. Tom, retired as a Rear Admiral and Superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy. He was later appointed as the Superintendent of the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY.