February 5, 2023

Tales from the attic: The Hooligan Navy

Sam Smith - For every American male of my age there lay waiting just behind the blind curve of the future the attention of his draft board.  I was certain, for reasons I could not articulate, that the military would find me weak, cowardly and ridiculous.

 There was nothing, however, to be done about it. One heard a few stories of a male passing his 23rd year without being snagged but these verged on the mythic and so even as I was happily pursuing a journalistic career I was preparing for it to come to an early and sudden halt.

I carefully investigated various possibilities and eventually settled upon application to Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. I had assumed that the Coast Guard – aka then as the Hooligan Navy – had let me into their officer candidate school because of my heavy sailing experience. It turned out they were looking for public information officers and though ending up as one of their top ranked students I wasn’t assigned to a ship. I was sent to Saint Louis.

St. Louis was the home of the Second Coast Guard District which covered inland waterways from Pittsburgh to Denver. For the next year and a half, it would be one of my jobs to explain what the hell the Coast Guard was doing in St. Louis. The official spiel I developed went like this:

The Second Coast Guard District covers all or part of 21 states from western Pennsylvania to the Rockies, from the upper part of Alabama to the Canadian border. Within its borders are more than 5,000 miles of navigable water, mainly the Mississippi and its tributaries. There are also 103 lakes of more than ten miles in length that fall under USCG jurisdiction. There more than a quarter of all the aids to navigation in the country to be found in the 2nd District. We board 25,000 small craft for safety inspections each year. . . .

My unofficial spiel went like this: “The Mississippi River is much harder to guard than, say, Massachusetts, since it has two coasts.”

Well, how do you guard the coast of the Mississippi, Ensign Smith? “Listen, wise ass, you don't see any of it missing, do you?”

I was also aide to the district’s commander, Admiral OC Rhohnke. It was an easy task and when Admiral Rohnke was assigned to Washington and he asked me, "Is there anything I can do for you while I'm there, Sam?" I said, "Yes sir, get me on a ship."

On my next trip to DC, I stopped by the assignment office at Coast Guard headquarters. "My name is Smith and I came by to see how my transfer was coming." The lieutenant commander looked at me, pondered a moment, and without referring to any document, replied, "Smith, Smith, Sam Smith, you want to go to sea, right?"

There were only three thousand officers in the whole service and at that moment I knew I had joined the right branch of the military. In the Coast Guard if you didn't know someone, you knew someone who did. This after all, was the service in which just one family, the Midgetts of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, provided over two centuries literally hundreds of its members to the Coast Guard and its predecessors, the Revenue Cutter Service and the US Lifesaving Service. Seven Midgetts earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal and three the Silver for rescues.


My assignment came through: Bristol Rhode Island, operations officer and navigator aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Spar. Bristol sat in the upper reaches of Narragansett Bay, whose huge bite out of the mainland gives Rhode Island its jagged border.

The Spar, one of the newer ships in the Guard, had made Bristol its home for most of its 20 years. The people of Bristol considered the ship their navy. As one of the five officers on the ship, I was invited to make myself at home at the Elk's Club, and otherwise quickly integrated into Bristol's social life

In 1957, the Spar had circumnavigated the North American continent, making the first deep draft voyage through the Northwest Passage in the company of two Canadian Coast Guard cutters. Not since Raoul Amundssen crossed the top of Canada aboard the vessel Gjoa had any ship succeeded in this venture.

The Spar was 180 feet long. Unlike most Coast Guard cutters that were painted barn siding white, the buoy tenders had black hulls and white superstructures. The Spar was equipped to break ice and her rugged construction and towing ability made her an excellent heavy weather search and rescue craft. She was also used to bring fuel, water and crews to the Nantucket Light Vessel and to the several of the nearby lighthouses. But her main task was to maintain 170 buoys from Block Island to Buzzard's Bay. My main task, other than to make sure the ship got where it was going, was to put the buoys where the charts said they were.


For every buoy we knew the correct angles of three fixed shore objects such as a tower or building. On each wing of the bridge a quartermaster would take hold a sextant horizontally and read off the bearings between two of the objects. A single screw ship, the Spar was not easy to maneuver and we approached the buoy location dead slow, the quartermasters calling out their angles: "76 degrees, 13 minutes on the left -- correcting." From the other wing: "82 degrees, 52 minutes on the right -- uncorrecting." I would stand on a wing of the bridge with a chart and three-arm protractor keeping up with the position of the ship. As the position plotted over the right black dot on the chart I would tell the captain, "She's on." He would cry to the chief on the buoy deck below, "Let her go." A seaman swung a mallet to the chain stopper. Fifteen tons of sinker and buoy were released and as she settled into her position, a final check on the angles was made we backed away.

I told my crew that I was happy to run a laid-back department as long as what we were meant to do -- navigation, communications, electronics -- got done and got done right. I had only two chickenshit demands. First, regardless of what anyone else did on the ship, I wanted the operations department to salute the captain on first meeting of the day. This was a naval tradition that fell by the wayside on smaller ships, but I had sized up my boss and knew this little nicety would be worth it. The secon

d thing was that the brass on the bridge was to be kept polished. I didn't have to size up my boss on that one; he had already given me the keep-the-brass-shined lecture.


Because of her heavy weather abilities and because of the growing unseaworthiness of the Coast Guard's older search and rescue vessels, the Spar had been assigned responsibility for heavy weather rescue missions. In fact the 125 foot search and rescue patrol boat in the area, the General Greene, had been built during Prohibition and was now considered of such dubious seaworthiness that she was not permitted out in anything more blustery than small craft warnings. This humiliating restriction for a ship intended for rescue was instituted after the captain sailed halfway to Bermuda during a storm because he did not dare turn the General Greene around.

What were our heavy weather search & rescue missions like? Well here was one:

It's a Friday evening. The crew has been granted early liberty. The wind is making up to forty knots out of the Northeast. The ship is on Bravo-2 status meaning it must be ready to leave on two hours notice. The Office of the Deck has the number of every bar and restaurant in Bristol handy.

I had cancelled plans to go to a party in Providence and instead was having dinner at the Lobster Pot in Bristol, first leaving the phone number with the quartermaster of the watch. About 10:30, a waitress at the Lobster Pot comes over and tells me that the crew is being recalled. I pay the check and returned to the ship.

Lying in my bunk, waiting to go on watch, the ship seems determined to throw me to the deck. I hang on and feel the internal organs of my body trying to do the same. I wonder whether that was my liver or my spleen that took a sudden lunge in the direction of my throat. Placing my laundry bag next to the bulkhead and my life vest next to the bunk guard rail, I construct a make-shift straitjacket to keep me from sliding from side to side. Now I just roll with the ship.

To survive a North Atlantic winter gale the Spar will have to keep punching like cocky little fighter, always on her toes, always moving. She will alternate rolls of up to forty-five degrees while leaning way back and then plunging into the sea. Sailors call the motion corkscrewing. And don't like it much.

At least it isn't going to be as bad as that time we had patrolled in hurricane strength winds a radar tower the Air Force had abandoned because of the storm.

A few years earlier another "Texas Tower" had collapsed in a storm with the loss of 28 personnel. Now the Air Force apparently thought it wise in extreme bad weather to evacuate the towers and let the Coast Guard patrol them to make sure the Soviets didn't climb aboard. Circling a Texas Tower 110 miles from shore in an 180 foot ship for hours in hurricane strength winds is not a lot of fun.