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.

We’ll Meet Again

There were sacks of mail stacked on the pier when the Absecon returned from Ocean Station patrol. I had several letters from Carol. I whipped through the highlights, and then went back, not to the first one, but the last one: “Well, the mailman came today–so I guess we’re officially engaged now.” I hadn’t seen her in more than two months.
I eased my ‘57 Mercury onto the end of the car line. The loadmaster bellowed and waved furiously, moving us into position to for the next Little Creek–Kiptopeke ferry. The Del MarVa had pulled out just as I arrived. The terminal agent changed the red arrow on the clock-sign on the overhead archway: Next Ferry at 2:00p.m. I had to wait an hour.
I rolled down the window and tamped a fresh bowl of London Dock pipe tobacco into my favorite straight stemmed briar. I sucked at the Zippo flame, staring down my nose at the growing circle of embers. The rising cloud of smoke encircled my head, spreading its soothing aroma of freshly lit tobacco. With my pipe clinched in my teeth, I surrendered my body to the plush white leather seat, leaned my head back, and thought about Carol’s letter.
She had written that she had rushed home from work every day, and rifled through the mail until she found the orange postal notice for an insured box. “Mom,” she whooped, “The package came. I’m going right back out to the post office. See you in a bit.” Her mailman was still out on the route.
She backtracked what she knew was George’s route. She had known him for years; she babysat for his children. She spotted him, bag over his shoulder, on Henry Street. She tooted the horn and slid her old Dodge coupe alongside the curb. She popped out, waving, “Hey George. Do you have my package?”
“Just this little box from Herf-Jones,” George said, giving her the prize with a smile.
Carol ran home, tore into the box, and yelled, “Mom, it’s here! It’s here! My engagement ring!”

We had missed the traditional moment when many cadets got engaged—the ring dance. Amid the strains of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White and Unchained Melody, beautiful women in colorful gowns, and handsome cadets in dress whites, swirled by, whispering quietly to each other. Flickering lights, reflected from a rotating crystal ball followed the dancers like flitting moths.

When an engaged couple strolled up the ramp to stand beneath the crown of a giant plaster replica of our class ring, nearby dancers paused to share the moment. The cadet presented his miniature, a traditional engagement ring for all service academy graduates, and kissed his fiancée while they accepted the smiles and quiet applause from the dance floor. Carol missed the moment. She got her ring by proxy, from the mailman, while I was at sea.

The sounds of revving engines, and the staccato thumps of car doors jolted me back to reality; parents were herding their kids back into their cars.
In a practiced routine, big trucks were stacked inboard to outboard on either side of the centerline engine room cowling. The cars followed in rhythmic double bumps over the steel ramp, all according to a weight and balance plan orchestrated by the loadmaster.
The Princess Anne, pulled out, and headed north toward the Kiptopeke terminal on Cape Charles. I knew the crossing would take an hour and a half, so I squeezed out of my Mercury and made my way topside for a ham sandwich and some fresh air.

The sea was calm. The bright blue sky sported a narrow band of wispy clouds on the horizon. People had migrated to the open topside deck to enjoy the beautiful October day. A few couples strolled hand in hand, glancing at those who were snuggled on the rows of benches. A handful of obnoxious kids circled the perimeter in imaginary chase. A growing flock of seagulls swooped and squawked at each other, fighting for the best position over the wake to snatch bread crumbs tossed into the air by giggling teenagers. Sailors were clustered in random groups, noisily sharing their plans for their liberty weekend.

A few remained aloof, retreating to remote benches, their necks crunched deep into upturned P-coat collars, like turtles, deep in private thoughts.
We pulled into Kiptopeke on time, 3:30p.m.
A wolf-pack formation of cars headed north on U.S. 13. One by one, drivers broke off while the big-rigs blew by us like we were out for a Sunday drive. Seven hours to go. With one short stop for a snack, I could probably make it to Roosevelt, NY before midnight.

Finally, a welcome sign alerted me that the Delaware Memorial Bridge was ahead. I had been on the road for four hours. I crossed the bridge, and within a short time merged into heavier traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. Hunger pulled me into the first Howard Johnson’s Plaza. There were no other choices. They had an exclusive contract. If you were going to eat on the Jersey Turnpike, it was going to be at Howard Johnson’s.

At some point, I became aware of a faint odor that triggered thoughts of home. I cracked the window. Oil! Through the latticed power-line towers, I could see the distant silhouette of tanks: flat, short, tall, thin, and onion domed. They formed a dark base that sprouted tall chimneys. Clouds of billowing smoke rose from some while others stood as silent sentries with red blinking aircraft warning lights. A few flickered candle-like flames.
In the darkening twilight, thousands of white lights built their Etch-a-Sketch profile of tangled pipes, and cracking towers. These huge refineries stood unaware that they owed their birth to the oldest refinery in the world, the Kendall Refinery, back home in Bradford, Pa. I felt a little smug.

My exit to Staten Island was coming up. I crossed the island to the 69th street ferry, and then checked the cheat sheet I had taped to the dashboard. Follow the Belt Parkway to Southern State, then Exit 21 to Nassau Rd. I pulled into the Berlinghoff driveway at 65 West Roosevelt Avenue a few minutes after 11:00p.m. It had been a long day.

I perked up when I saw Carol running to the door to greet me. Her mom, in her bathrobe, stood behind her. She chatted with us amicably: “How was the trip? Are you enjoying the ship? I’m excited for Carol. I’ll see you at breakfast.” Then, in a polite move, she said goodnight and went off to bed. I was so tired that within a few minutes I was headed to the small bed in the attic, and Carol to her bedroom. It wasn’t even midnight.

Oh yeah–she was wearing her ring. So, I had missed the bended-knee-slip-it-on-her-finger moment too. But, although the seahorse tails and eagle wings of her miniature have rounded to smooth gold over fifty-eight years, the magic of the ring still works for us.

Welcome Aboard

New military wives learned very quickly that they didn’t just marry their husband, but his service as well. The Coast Guard is not just an employer. It is a social mechanism that governs behavior. It is a family imbedded with norms, steeped in history, honored, and respected. New Coast Guard wives undergo a different experience than, a new bride of a University of Michigan engineer who goes to work for Haliburton, or a University of Pittsburgh pharmacist who takes a job with CVS.

Neither of them may ever have to adjust to their husband’s employer to the same extent as Coast Guard wives need to adjust to the Coast Guard.
Wives did not generally realize that they could be a significant factor in their husband’s career. If not in the early years, it certainly was true as you became more senior. It was not unusual to have your superior comment on your wife in your official performance report, particularly as to your potential for promotion or command assignments.
Florence Ridgley Johnson, the wife of a well known Navy Admiral, had been down this road before. In 1956 she wrote Welcome Aboard: A service Manual for The Naval Officer’s Wife. Her book was issued to all graduating cadets and was a dog-eared staple in every officer’s home.


Official call on the XO
Official call on the XO

Carol and I met our first social obligation when we made our official call on the Absecon’s executive officer, Commander (CDR) Ernie Challender and his wife. While I had been aboard for a year, CDR Challender told me he and his wife would wait until after our wedding and would be “at home” and wished us to call for dinner.
We both read over the Welcome Aboard chapter: Calls, Made and Returned, particularly for the etiquette of calling cards. We both had engraved cards and knew to look for their calling card tray, probably on a side table near the front door. We confirmed that I would leave two of my cards and Carol one. A gentleman calls on everyone in the house; a lady only calls on the lady of the house.
The social call, actually a pleasant custom practiced in sophisticated society of the 19th and early 20th century, still observable in old movies, had pretty much gone the way of top hats and knickers–except in military society. It was actually a convenient means for military families to meet others and become acquainted with their new surroundings, while still retaining a semblance of a “rank and order.”
In a way, I miss calls. There was something civilized and mannerly about them. I dislike how far society has moved away, at times, regrettably, dragging me with it, toward informality. I don’t like casual dress for every occasion. I’m closer every day to removing ball caps from total strangers who sport them at the dinner table while eating in even the better restaurants.

After one trip around the block to avoid being early, I parked in front ofthe Commander’s house. I was wearing my best (only) blue suit, white straight wing tip collar shirt and regimental tie. Carol looked as pretty as ever in a checkered straight skirt and white blouse. With her sparkling eyes and smile, she was going to be an instant hit with the XO and his wife. We moved onto the porch, smiled at each other, took a short breath, and I rang the bell.
The commander answered the door.
“Well, good evening Marcotts. You must be Carol.” He was wearing a blue sport coat, gray trousers, and a plain red tie. Built a little too stocky to cut a neat military figure, the sport jacket fit his grandfatherly image better. He raised one eyebrow, curled his lip into a tight smile and said, “Come in, come in. Welcome.”
“Good Evening, sir.”
“Good evening, Commander, “Carol said, “So nice to meet you.”
The Commander, his head a little too big and square with loose jowls that bobbled as he talked with his eyes, smiled and completed introductions to his wife who had just entered from the dining room. Mrs. Challender wore an attractive casual dress, her slightly graying hair pulled back in a bun. She flashed a welcoming smile and motioned us to the living room, suggesting cocktails. We all had one. (The book said one was OK.)
The Challender’s homey style and genuine warmth helped us respond comfortably to all the normal get acquainted questions. We enjoyed a pleasant conversation that continued when we moved to the table for dinner. When we were finished, Carol helped clear the table and Mrs. Challender brought out dessert. Reaching for the coffee pot on the side board, she hovered over Carol’s cup, and said, “Of course as a good Coast Guard wife, I’m sure you like coffee.”
“Of course, please.”
Carol did not drink coffee. Her family did not drink coffee. They never had it in their house. She hated it. It was too late now for me to bail her out. She left her cup until it passed a touch-to-the-lips test while we continued table talk. Then, in a single move, Carol picked up the cup, tipped her head back and drained it to the bottom in several audible gulps like it were medicine. The always responsive perfect hostess, Mrs. Challender rose and smiling poured her a refill. “I guess you do like coffee.” Carol finished about half of her second cup, in smaller doses this time, obviously feeling it was OK to leave some as a signal that she had had enough.
The Commander escorted us to the door as we thanked both of them for the lovely evening. I surreptitiously placed our calling cards on the small silver tray on the entrance hall table. I had notice several cards on it when we first came in. As we walked toward the car, I turned to Carol with a slight laugh, “What’s with the coffee bit?”
“God! That was awful!”
“Hon, you didn’t have to do that. You could have just said ‘no thank you;.”
“Didn’t you hear her? She relates coffee drinking with being a good Coast Guard wife. I didn’t want to mess up you career on my first outing. AAUUGH!”
It was all Florence Ridgley Johnson’s fault.
Welcome Aboard.