U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
Interviewee: Vice Admiral Thomas R. Sargent III, USCG (Ret.)
Interviewer: Captain Fred
Herzberg, USCG (Ret.)
Date: 25 March 2004
Place: VADM Sargent’s Home
The following oral history interview was provided to the Coast Guard Historian's Office courtesy of Vice Admiral Thomas R. Sargent, III, USCG, and Captain Fred Herzberg of the Foundation for Coast Guard History who conducted the interview. In this interview, which is more of an autobiography than a question-and-answer session, Vice Admiral Sargent describes his long and distinguished Coast Guard career that began when he entered the Coast Guard Academy in 1934 and ended with his retirement in 1974 as Vice Commandant. In this interview he describes his extensive service during World War II and Vietnam but also includes much information on his peace-time career, including the decisions to paint the racing stripe on all cutters and to switch the standard uniform of the service to the "Bender Blues." His insight about the changes that have occurred over time should be read by anyone who puts on the uniform of the nation's oldest, continuous sea-going service:
"You asked me what was the difference between the Coast Guard of the old days and the Coast Guard of today and whether I approved of the changes. The changes are like from night to day. The old Coast Guard was a rough, ready semi-military outfit. Not that they weren’t good seaman and patriotic but they didn’t have the camaraderie that we have today. Our ships are legion, they’re the most beautiful looking ships afloat. Our crews look military. They are military. The camaraderie is outstanding. The changes that have been made have only been for the better. I have just one minor thought and that is I hope that as we progress in the Department of Homeland Security that we don’t get top heavy with administrators and that we make sure that our commands are given the opportunity to be themselves, to make decisions and enforce the laws the way they see them. That’s my only hope. But as far as the Coast Guard is concerned it is an outstanding outfit and I’m very proud to have been a part of it."
The Historian's Office would like to thank Vice Admiral Sargent for taking the time to give future generations a look into what life was like in the Coast Guard during this tumultuous era. Our thanks too to Captain Herzberg and the Foundation for Coast Guard History for providing us with a copy of his manuscript. It is only through efforts such as theirs that Coast Guard history will be preserved for future generations.
Please note that Vice Admiral has also written first-hand accounts of his experiences commanding the USS PC-469 and the USS Sandusky (PF-54) during World War II.
Vice Admiral Thomas R. Sargent III, USCG (Ret.) graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1938 and served a good portion of his long and distinguished career at sea aboard the cutters Modoc as a line officer and her assistant engineer, Duane (WPG-33) as her chief engineering officer, and Bibb (WPG-31) as her executive officer. He commanded Winnebago (WPG-40) as well as the Navy warships USS PC-469, serving first as her executive officer, and USS Sandusky (PF-54) during World War II. His shore assignments include the Coast Guard Academy as Maintenance Officer, service as the Chief, Civil Engineering Section of the 11th and then the 9th Coast Guard districts; Chief, Civil Engineering Division at Coast Guard Headquarters, where he supervised the development and construction of the LORAN station chain in Thailand and Vietnam; and as Chief, Operations Division of the 11th Coast Guard District. He was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral on 1 July 1967 and served as the Commander of the 11th Coast Guard District and then as the Chief of Staff of the Coast Guard at Coast Guard Headquarters. He was promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral on 26 May 1970 and served as the Assistant Commandant (the title of that office was changed to Vice Commandant on 2 October 1972) and he retired on 1 July 1974. His decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star with combat "V" device.
VADM Sargent: My name is Vice Admiral Thomas R. Sargent and I’m at my home in Lake San Marcos, California and it is the 25th of March, 2004.
I was born in Woolwich, Plumsted, just south of London, England on the 20th of December, 1914, shortly after the start of World War I. I came in a hurry because I was born in the upstairs bedroom of my grandmother’s house on Evertree Road. We lived there the entire war.
My earliest recollection is that I believe my mother put me to bed and I slept in a crib alongside of their bed, and when Dad came rushing up into the bedroom and said, “Look out the window. There is another Zeppelin over there and they’ve got him”, and so Mother reached over, picked me up and I looked at the window and there was a big object in the sky all aflame, and that’s about all I remember of it.
My next recollection was getting my first haircut. Then after the war my father and mother moved to Crayford in Kent where he worked for the Vickers’ Company as a laborer and he went to school at night and became a certified machinist. He couldn’t get a job in England but we stayed there until 1923.
Actually the area around Crayford was very quiet. We played in the streets. My cousin, Joyce Tooley, lived directly behind us and in 1922 they decided that they’d had enough of the economic problems in England and they immigrated to New Zealand. Shortly after that things changed at the house and my father and mother sold everything they had. Dad left for the United States via Kingston, Ontario. The reason he went from Kingston, Ontario Canada is because he was born in Canada and therefore became a Canadian subject as well as an English subject, and it was easier to get into the United States from Canada than from any of the European countries. Mother, my sister and I moved with my aunt to Battersea in London. Dad left in June. We left in October.
My dad was a very astute gentleman. He booked our passage on the SS Leviathan, a United States lines transport and thus we came over in steerage, right above the screws, ate at a common table with a lot of other people and had a common head, which was down a corridor quite some distance. The seven-day trip across the Atlantic was very boring but quite interesting to me because of the number of different nationalities that were on the ship.
We arrived in New York Harbor and found that the Mauritania, which was a Q&R liner, had beat us across the Atlantic and therefore the quota which was established for the entrance of immigrants was filled by them and so we were transferred to another ship and waited in the New York Harbor until the Congress allowed us in. We went through Ellis Island and finally arrived in New London, Connecticut, which was quite a change from London to New London. It was fortunate too because that was the location of the United States Coast Guard Academy.
We lived in a rooming house for a while; for a year, and then moved to a one-bedroom upstairs apartment on Sherman Street. Mother put a curtain halfway across the room so that my sister and I would have privacy and we lived there for about three or four years.
It was fortunate we were there because the group of children on that particular street were quite unusual; Italians, Swedes, Norwegians, even Armenian. We kind of formed a little club. First it was called “The New London Model Airplane Club” and we made model airplanes, then as we grew a little older we decided we’d like to form a glider club so we formed the “New London Glider Club” and pooled all our resources and purchased a set of plans for what they called at that time a “Gotha Glider”. We built it and actually flew it but then the Depression hit us and my father’s company closed up and we moved to Hudson, Massachusetts. There we lived in a small house and I started high school in Hudson, Massachusetts for two years and then that closed up and Dad was out of a job, then we moved back to New London because he was known there as a very good machinist. He worked for the Electric Boat Company.
I graduated from the Bulkley High School in New London and took the examination for the Coast Guard Academy in 1934 and entered. Sixty-nine of us entered, 23 of us graduated. We became a very, very close group.
In 1938 when we graduated we were given the opportunity of choosing any ship we wanted. I had just met Lucy; my wife, and after graduation we decided we’d like to get married so I put in for a ship which was reasonably close by. It was the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tahoe in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Well I went back and forth between New London and New Bedford on the in-port periods when I could get off and after that that became kind of boring so I got six days leave during the month of August, 1938 and we were married. It has been a delightful marriage. We have three children. At the present time we have seven grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. We’ve been married now for over 65 years.
My first tour of duty, of course, was on the Tahoe. However, when I reported to New Bedford she was not in port, she was on ice patrol. So I went to the District and was assigned to a 75-footer and I traveled around the District to a swinging ship or all the small boats in the entire District, and then the Tahoe came in and I reported aboard. I was on there for one year as a watch officer. I learned a great deal because the Coast Guard, at that time, used to be on patrol seven days in, seven days out; fourteen days out, seven days in, and that’s the way it went.
Then I was transferred from there in 1939 to the Coast Guard Cutter Modoc in Wilmington, North Carolina. There had been a complete shakeup of the entire wardroom and the commanding officer and executive officer because the ship had run aground and there was a big board investigation.
The executive officer of the Tahoe also became the executive officer of the Modoc. Captain Harold Belford was the Commanding Officer. He was a Lieutenant Commander at the time and we patrolled off the capes in North Carolina and South Carolina and did pretty much the good old search and rescue work from 1939 until the end of 1940.
By the way, the day I reported to the Modoc was the commencement of the invasion of Poland by the Nazis and it was the start of World War II. In the end of 1940 the ship was transferred for a considerable period to New Orleans for a major overhaul. We helped put degaussing systems in and repaired all the guns. We put new machine guns onboard, overhauled all the machinery and it was obvious that we were being prepared for something. We came back to Wilmington, North Carolina. We were there for only about a week and we got orders to proceed to Boston. That was in the start of 1941.
Lucy and I closed up our house and we had, by that time, my son; Thomas R., and she moved back to her family home in New London.
The ship sailed for Boston. I became a student engineer when we arrived in Boston. We were outfitted with lots of strange things like heavy weather clothing and about 40 or 50 baseball bats, which seemed to indicate to me that we were going up to the Arctic because we used baseball bats to get the ice off of the riggings.
We sailed from Boston about the 20th of May, 1941, went to Saint Johns, Newfoundland for a little R&R [rest and recreation] and refueling and then we sailed for the Greenland Patrol. Shortly after departing from Saint Johns, Newfoundland, the ship was diverted eastward to search for survivors of a convoy that had been decimated by Nazi submarines. The weather was just atrocious; it was just terrible. It snowed and it was raining; raining, snowing, sleeting, high seas. We did find a few boats but there was nobody in them and until the 24th of May I was in the engine room on watch and I think it was the twelve-to-four -- whatever time that you carried on the ship -- and about halfway through the watch, why I got a call from the bridge from LTJG [Richard E.] Bacchus [Jr], a reserve officer, and he said, “Hey Tom, you should see this great big ship over on the port side”, and then he suddenly said, “My gosh, there are airplanes coming over”, and I thought, “Something’s going to happen.” So I called the fire room and I said, “Put in the big tips. I think we’re going to have to maneuver a lot”, and about that time the general quarters alarm went off and I went up on deck to take a look before I went down to my general quarters station in the fire room and there was this great big ship. An airplane flew over and then there was a big explosion at the stern of this great big ship and so I felt, “This is no place for me”, and I went down in the fire room. I did much maneuvering and we extricated ourselves from between the British fleet and the German battleship [SNS] Bismarck.
Prior to this time we had heard, via the Fox News, the sinking of the [HMS] Hood and we realized there must be something big out there and that it must be the Bismarck, and we were very fortunate. We were at such a position that the firing of the Bismarck at these airplanes made splashes just off our bow and we didn’t know whether the British knew of our presence and whether these intrepid pilots knew who we were, so it was extremely fortunate that we got out of there.
We went to Cape Farwell and rendezvoused with the [USCGC] Northland and then went back to look for some more survivors but without any success, and by that time we were running short of fuel and we had to go back to Saint Johns, Newfoundland. We continued up to Greenland and became part of the Greenland Patrol.
We almost lost the ship once because we had orders to search for a tug with a tow and we ran into this horrendous weather in the Straits, and for some reason or other the luffa sponges in the hot well of the boilers, pieces came off of them and got into the valves on the feed water pumps and we lost steam and we were dead in the water. We had to take the pumps apart, put them back together again, and by that time the temperature of our boilers were pretty low so we took all the furniture we could find and all the crates and boxes in the commissary holes and put it in one boiler and finally got enough steam out to heat the fuel oil and start it up again. We finally ended up finding the tug and took her up into Bluie [code name for bases in Greenland and Baffin Island] West Eight, which was way up above the Arctic Circle.
We came back from Greenland in February of 1942 at which time I was transferred to Florida to attend a command course in patrol craft and then . . . oh, I might say that just before Christmas, out from the Greenland Patrol, we were ordered back to Saint Johns for R&R and fuel and supplies, and we arrived on December the 6th and of course December 7th we got the word that Pearl Harbor had been bombed and we were in the war. We listened to “Axis Sally” who was a broadcaster out of Berlin because she had the best music. She said that the Coast Guard Cutter Modoc will never arrive in Greenland again, but we fooled her and I just happened to remember that little gem.
After completing the little command course in about a month in Florida I was transferred to the Lawless Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts and we put in commission the PC-469. It was 173-feet long. She was very fast for her size, which was 22 knots. It had two big diesel engines, two screws, twin rudders and an electric steering gear. She was extremely maneuverable and we had four officers and 61 men so everybody stood a watch except the commanding officer, and in order to make the thing work right he was also the navigator. Lieutenant Commander [Richard E.] Dick Morell was the commanding officer. I was the executive officer as a lieutenant. Ken [H.] Potts, as a LT(jg), was one of the other watch officers and a brand new ensign out of the Academy; Ensign Richard Young, was the third watch officer.
We took the ship from Lawless after putting her in commission, which simply consisted of raising the commissioning pendant, to New York, then to Miami, Florida where we put on a couple of more guns and then we sailed for Key West, and this is a little gem which I think is maybe interesting to most of your Coast Guard wives. I called Lucy and said, “We’re going to operate out of Key West so why don’t you come down with Tom and we’ll get a little apartment. I’ll be back and forth after ten or fifteen days at sea.” She came down. I met her at the bus station, put her in the hotel room and said, “I’ve got to sail right away so I’ll see you in ten days.” I have never been back to Key West since because when we got to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba we were transferred to Trinidad; the British West Indies, and this is one of the big adventures of my life; one of the many. I had the four-to-eight watch as we approached Trinidad with a convoy and we tied up at Tavern Bay at the escort vessel administrators’ moorings. We were told we were going to sail two or three days later so Dick Morell and Ken Potts, who had never been to Port of Spain, decided they would like to go on liberty and so they left. I granted liberty to the crew until midnight. However, I was just about to turn in at nine o’clock that night when a messenger came from the escort vessel administrator’s office and said I was wanted up there at the office because they had a submarine that needed to be sunk. I went up to the office and as I walked in the watch officer suddenly realized I was not the commanding officer, I was the executive officer, and he outlined what was necessary. It was down at the R&O Delta; about an eight-hour or nine-hour trip, and they had this submarine they believed was underwater and they were over it with a bunch of PBYs keeping it down. It had sunk a couple of ships before that. I told the escort vessel administrator that I would sail at midnight or just before to arrive there at first light. Unfortunately all the crew came back but the two officers did not, so just before midnight I sailed with just the two officers onboard and we went down and found the location of the so-called submarine that they had underneath the water and after dropping about ten runs of depth charges I got a lot of debris up but I couldn’t recognize anything from a submarine.
Just as I was about to go back to Teteron Bay in Trinidad a PBY flew over and dropped us a message and it said that they had sighted a lifeboat with survivors in it and they gave me the position. So I immediately opened up and went to that position and there were 31 survivors from a merchant ship. I don’t recall what the name of the merchant ship was but they had been torpedoed. Most of them were terribly burned, covered with fuel oil, and I arrived just at dusk. I didn’t get a chance to take any star sights so I was relying purely on dead reckoning and the position that the aircraft had given me. Dick Young came up to the bridge and said that they had to have a light because these people . . . they had a lot of non-ambulatory people in that lifeboat. So I took a big deep breath and we rigged a flood light and I set a gun crew up forward and one aft and everybody else was assigned to getting these people out of that lifeboat. It didn’t take too long but it was a very hairy period. As soon as they reported that they had everybody onboard we doused the light and I got away from the lifeboat. We took a couple of pot shots at it to see if we could sink it but it didn’t. It didn’t sink, unfortunately, so we just left it.
About that time the pharmacist’s mate, whose name was Jim Garland, came up to me and he said, “Lieutenant, we’ve got a problem. We’ve got this radioman who is very, very, badly burned and the skipper of the ship is a diabetic and he hasn’t had a shot in almost 24 hours”, and so I made kind of a command decision. I raised the sound gear and high tailed it at full speed back to Trinidad. I was fortunate that I sighted an old wreck and had to change course because I was far west of where I thought I was. At 22 knots we finally got back to Trinidad and as I was entering the Boca . . . oh, excuse me. Before that time I also, in view of the nature of our problem, I messaged the Navy in Trinidad, opened up; broke radio silence, apprised them of my problem with the radioman and the other members of the crew who were badly burned and the skipper. During the night Garland came up to me - I was on the bridge - and he said, “You better come down. Can you come down to the wardroom where we have the radioman on the deck”, and he said, “I think he’s dead.” So I checked him over and he was; he had died. We covered him and as we entered Boca de Navios at about nine o’clock in the morning I got a message to go to Port of Spain and offload our sick and injured people. I had previously made a trip around and those who were ambulatory were on deck and those who were not ambulatory we had taken down and they were stashed on the mess deck; on the mess deck tables, and the crew was busily cleaning them off and keeping them somewhat happy. Anyway, we got back to Port of Spain, we offloaded them and I departed again for Teteron Bay. We tied up and Dick Morell and Ken Potts were waiting for us. I had been up then for about 36 hours without sleep and I just had to sleep, so I went up to the Officer’s Club and Dick Young and I just fell asleep.
We had another minor adventure in that ship. We were on a convoy. I had just gotten off watch when a general alarm rang and I ran up to the bridge and there was Dick Morell and he said, “I think we’ve got a sub up here”, and we had it. About that time the soundman said, “I hear a torpedo”, and he started to yell out, in a very quiet voice, bearings and they didn’t change. So Dick made another command decision. He said, “Well, hold on fellows. What I’m going to do is drop depth charges and see if we can divert this thing.” Well fortunately we didn’t draw enough water but I really took a nice deep breath when the soundman said that the bearings had changed 180 degrees. Unfortunately our depth charges missed the target and the torpedo hit a tanker and we lost quite a few ships that night.
I stayed on that ship. Dick Morell got transferred upon arrival in Guantanamo Bay after that little episode. I took command. I got a new officer and I stayed on there until about March of 1943. We got partial credit, I think, for a submarine off Martinique, but Ken Potts relieved me and I went to the Coast Guard Cutter Duane and actually she was in Boston at the time. I was the engineering officer.
It was a delightful ship. The commanding officer was Captain Daniel Bradbury; a wonderful seaman, outstanding man, and it was a very happy ship. We went to Casablanca in the Mediterranean and on North Atlantic convoys.
On one trip into Casablanca we were tied up to a buoy at the harbor. On one side was a British corvette. On the other side was a U.S. Navy destroyer. That was the night that the representative of the United States and the Vichy French governor I guess you’d call him, invited all the officers to a party. Well I told the captain I didn’t want to go. I didn’t feel like I wanted to go to a party but he let most of them go and he had a few reserve officers onboard. At just about 11 o’clock I got a message saying that an air raid was imminent and so Dan Bradbury called me and he said, “I don’t want to be here when that air raid comes out and so we’re getting underway”, and I said, “You want me on the bridge Sir”, and he said, “No, your end of the ship is necessary because my end of the ship has got to get out of here.” So I went down in the engine room and we got underway in a big order and I stayed down there until I felt the ship kind of roll around a bit and I went up on deck and there was that British corvette alongside of us. He couldn’t get underway so Bradbury took him with us and he finally got his engines ready and we let him go. It taught me a lesson.
I was on that ship not quite a year and then I was sent under the frigate program. The Coast Guard operator sent me five of these ships. I went to New Orleans after going through a command course and became the commanding officer of the USS Sandusky; the PF-54. Captain Ben Chiswell was my exec. He was at that time a reserve officer but he was one other officer besides an engineer who had ever been to sea before. I think five of the crew had been to sea but they were all reserves. We sailed from New Orleans to Bermuda for shakedown and by the time we got to Bermuda they were the saltiest, best crew I had ever seen starting from scratch. They were just absolutely wonderful.
When we arrived [chuckle] in Bermuda we had a little minor problem. The ship’s doctor got a spot on his lungs so he had to leave. He was transferred. The chief engineer broke his ankle and we had a couple of people with mumps onboard and I had never had the mumps so I moved out of the cabin, out of the wardroom, up onto the emergency cabin and I ate my meals on the bridge until things cleared up. After Bermuda we went to New York and eventually took a . . . oh, I got a new doctor; another doctor, and my engineer recovered from his so-called broken ankle and went AWOL [Absent Without Leave]. So he was picked up. I preferred charges against him and requested from headquarters that he be transferred immediately and I took the young lieutenant (jg) who was the assistant engineer and I made him engineering officer and it was the best thing I ever did. He was a fantastic young man. We sailed, picked up a convoy of six British AKAs [attack transports], went through the Canal and out the other side. However, on the Pacific side, when we were tied up getting fuel, the doctor came up to me and he said that he had been seasick the whole time he was onboard, that he didn’t start the war and he wasn’t about to fight it. I got so angry I said, “Get out on the dock. I’m going to pack your stuff. You’re finished”, and then I suddenly realized I didn’t have that authority. So I went over to the flagship - Captain John Ryssy was the commodore - and I told him what happened and he said, “You can’t do that”, but he said, “I’ll talk to the doctor.” So we got the doctor up there. In the meantime all his luggage had been put on the dock and I said to the Doc, “You tell Captain Ryssy what you told me”, and he repeated the same things. Ryssy turned livid and he called his doctor and said, “Call the Naval Hospital. We’re sending up a doctor who needs a hernia operation”, and he was transferred. But that left me without a doctor, which didn’t cause much trouble until some months later when I was on patrol north of Moratai in the Pacific with the flagship when the pharmacist’s mate came up and he said, “I’ve got a seaman who has appendicitis”, and he said, “It’s quite serious because he’s in quite some pain. ” So I called over to the flagship and said, “Can you send me your doctor, I’ve got a problem”, and explained what it was. The doctor . . . we slowed down, put a boat over the side and the doctor came aboard. I headed into the sea and turned off all the ventilators so there would be no . . . and it got hot as the hinges of Haiti's. The first lieutenant became an assistant doctor and wiped the front brow of the doctor. That young man recovered and two days later he was walking around the deck. The doctor did a fantastic job. It all came to a head, of course, later on when we went into Leyte Gulf at D-plus One and there was waiting my new doctor. How he got there I don’t know but he must have come in on one of the transports. But he was a good doctor. His name was Doctor Kinsey and he came from Hollywood but he was a wonderful man.
We were assigned off an airstrip as a kind of plane guide for a while since we had brought the ships in. There were no big ships in the area at all. They were all at sea. [Admiral William F. "Bull"] Halsey [Jr., USN] was heading north when [Rear] Admiral [Daniel E.] Barbey’s [USN] flagship called all the escort commanding officers over to the [USS] Mount Olympus. So we arrived there and he said, “The Japanese fleet is coming through the San Bernardino Straits. I know what their plan is. They plan to come up here and decimate us.” He said, “I have no big ships. The only thing stopping them are some baby carriers that are out there now and you . . .”, and he said, “When I give the word I want you to get underway. I’m not going to tell you how to do it but devise a plan and just engage these people.” Well it was a sobering trip back to the ship and I called all the people into the wardroom and told them what my plan was. It wasn’t much of plan. All I was going to do is open up wide, sound gear up, zig-zag, bring in all guns to bear from various times with the machine guns concentrating on the bridge and my three-inch guns concentrating on the deck, and see if we can inflict some damage on that. I said, “If we survive that I intend to go around side and I want depth charges thrown over the stern and set at 50 feet and maybe we can get their screws.” We shook hands. It was a very long night. During the night the aviators from the baby carriers - some of the carriers were sunk - they had no place to land so they had to come back to the airstrip. It was a horrendous night. I spent it on the bridge all night. These poor guys came back with half a wing and couldn’t lower their wheels and they would come in and the crew ashore would pull a pilot out of the aircraft and if it had wheels they would push it to one side. If it didn’t they would just get a bulldozer and push it over the side into the water. I turned on my two floodlights then to give them an idea of where this strip was. We were ordered to turn on all mast headlights. After that was over why Admiral Barbey called back and he said, “All bets are off. They turned around and went back.” It was a long night and a great sigh of relief, and there were a few shouts of “Hooray” around the ship. I stayed on that ship through Mindoro and Lingayen.
In Lingayen I had a rather unfortunate adventure. We were assigned an entrance patrol, what we call a “ping patrol”, to keep submarines out of the harbor. There were two ships and then we would meet in the middle and go back and forth. I made my turn in the center and I was ready for my next turn when I felt something pinch me in the back. I turned around and there was one of my firemen out of the fire room and he had a knife and he had it in my back, and as I turned around it ripped the life jacket. So I backed out; backed away from him, and while I’m trying to placate him, my talker, whom I had a quartermaster third class by the name of Wilber, realized what was happening so he called damage control central and [Lieutenant James] Jim Houlihan, my first lieutenant, came up on the bridge very quietly and as I backed away he raised his hands over the head of this young man, who didn’t notice what he was doing, and brought him down and got the knife away from me and I took the knife and of course I disposed of it. That poor man had . . . all he was doing was yelling, “You rang the general alarm just to scare me!” We transferred him to the USS Charity the next day and I never knew what happened to him. It was just a terrible thing that happens to some people sometimes.
Anyway, we finally got the ship back to the United States. We were ordered to proceed immediately and with all possible speed with a convoy to Seattle, Washington via Honolulu. At 17 knots it was wild fast trip across the Pacific. We put the ship in Seattle and found out they were going to transfer it to the Russians in Cold Bay, Alaska.
Shortly after arrival in Seattle I got a set of orders ordering me to the Coast Guard Academy as executive officer of the Reserve School. I put it in the safe because this was my ship and I didn’t want to leave it early. However, about a week after I received the orders I got a call from the district commander and he said, “Did you get a set of orders?” I said, “Yes Sir.” He said, “Well execute the damn things or else.” “Yes Sir.” So I went back to the ship. Chiswell took over the command. It was a very simple ceremony. I just got on the public address system and said, “Fellows, I’m going to leave you and Lieutenant Chiswell is going to be your new commanding officer. I wish you luck and thank you for everything you did”, and I left the ship and went to the Academy.
I stayed at the Academy until . . . excuse me now, the war in Europe ended shortly after our arrival in Seattle and then after I got to the Academy and became exec under Commander Palmer Niles, in August of course the war ended in Japan and so we disbanded the Reserve School. Well I awaited orders and then I got orders as the public works officer of the Coast Guard Academy relieving Captain Whitney Fall. Whitney Fall was a captain. He was going to retire and I stayed on that job for almost four years.
Then I went as executive officer on the Coast Guard Cutter Bibb and we went on the weather patrol. I was on there for just about a year when I suddenly got orders to Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute in New York and 18 months later I graduated with a degree in civil engineering. I was ordered first to Saint Louis at the District Office and just as I got the package in to get our furniture packed up, why I got another set of orders canceling the first and I went to Seattle, Washington and I was the district civil engineer there for about 18 months and then went to the Coast Guard Cutter Winnebago in Honolulu where I was the commanding officer. That was a wonderful ship too. I had some great people on there. The officers were outstanding and the crew was fantastic.
I had a chief boatswain’s mate by the name of [Thomas J.] Naccarato. Naccarato had been a lieutenant in World War II but he didn’t want to be an officer, he wanted to be a chief [petty officer], so he reverted back to chief. He would come on the bridge and he would say, “Captain, when we go in port at Honolulu I’d like to have all our crew in whites with good hats on and I don’t care whether they have jackets but what do you think about t-shirts”, and I said, “Chief, that’s a good idea”, and he would line those people up. He’d walk up and down, look at their hats and if he didn’t like a hat he said, “I don’t like that hat, go change it.” And then he never said “The commanding officer”. He said, “I don’t like it.” So I contacted Tom Naccarato. At one time he lived in Las Vegas after retirement and we kind of shook hands but unfortunately he just passed away this last year.
At the present time I’m the only survivor of the Coast Guard Cutter Modoc wardroom; the PC-469 wardroom, and as far as I know the USS Sandusky wardroom. It’s a sobering thought.
After the Winnebago I went to Coast Guard headquarters as the assistant chief of aids to navigation and shortly after arrival Captain [Ned W.] Sprow was transferred and I was called into the chief officer of operations office and he said, “I’ve got a couple people that I’d like to put in as the chief of that division and what do you think of him”, and he mentioned Ned Sprow. I said, “There’s no other person I would want but Ned Sprow.” So Ned Sprow came and we had a wonderful 18 months together and then I got transferred to Cleveland, Ohio as the district civil engineer and became a . . . I was only there 18 months too and then I went back to headquarters as the chief of civil engineering and that became another adventure because I not only was the chief of civil engineering but I was also the civil engineering project manager for the LORAN [Long Range Aids to Navigation] system. So I traveled all over the world on preliminary site surveys for the LORAN system. The last one, of course, was Vietnam. I was made the project manager for that and I left Jim Moreau, who was my exec; my second in command of the civil engineering division and I went to Vietnam for almost a year.
I had a group of people who were outstanding, particularly my finance officer who was a chief warrant officer by the name of Baker Herbert. He’s the man with a last name first and a first name last. When I realized we had to set up our organization I put out the word throughout the Coast Guard that I needed a chief warrant officer for a finance officer and Baker was the first one to answer. So I called him into my office - he was in the Cleveland office I guess – and we discussed things and I was very impressed with him and I said, “Baker, you really want to go? You know you have children and a wife”, and he said, “Yes Sir.” I said, “People get hurt out there”, and I’d already been there for . . . I made a couple of trips there and Baker said, “I want to be there.” I said, “All right, you’ve got the job.” Well Baker Herbert became the father confessor to all our crew and did an outstanding job. He came with me and he said first, “What do I need to do”, and I said, “Well you get yourself made a contracting officer and get yourself 25,000 dollars in 5,000 dollar checks and a pair of handcuffs and a briefcase, and then come back and I figured that would take him at least a day, and he came back two hours later and he said, “When do we leave?” We got to Bangkok, because I didn’t want to have an office in Saigon, so we opened a bank account, which was illegal at the time - I didn’t know it nor did he - but we opened a bank account. It served us very well. When we got to Bangkok we reported to the MACV [Military Assistance Command Vietnam]; to the real estate office, and I walked in with Baker and I said, “I need an office with at least three desks and a couple of chairs and a telephone”, and they laughed at me and they said, “Captain, there’s no possibility we’ll ever get that.” So I just turned to Baker and I said, “Baker, go get us an office.” About two hours later I got a telephone call at their office. It was Baker and he said, “I’ve got a two-room office and I’ve got three desks and three chairs. I got a typewriter but the telephone won’t be in until tomorrow”, and I turned to the group that was in there from the Army and I said, “We got our office. We’re in the Bangkok Bank Building”, and they never laughed at us again. It was a great group and I just valued their work.
There were a couple of things that happened in Vietnam which really deserve mentioning. The first one was Baker Herbert. He was going up to Lampang to our northern site and he got a ride in an Army C-123. It seems that they were going to make another trip into Laos but for some reason or other the plane started to run short of fuel and so they landed at some remote place up in Northern Thailand and the pilot came back and he said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” He said, “I’m trying to get some fuel and nobody will trust me.” So Baker said, “Let me talk to them.” So he went over and he said, “Charge it to the United States Coast Guard and here’s our . . .” we had, at that time, a credit card; a United States Coast Guard credit card, and he gave them the credit card and we got the fuel and the pilot came back and he said, “They gave me fuel.” He said, “Yeah, I bought it for you.” [Laughter] But he was gone so long I was afraid that he had been . . . we had no word to where he was and I got really concerned and so I had to call a few people at the airport and finally I was told he was on his final approach so we found Baker Herbert once more.
The other little story is I went to Vietnam and I was assigned a hotel room. It was an annex. I can’t remember the name of the annex but it consisted of one room with a toilet and they used to turn all the electricity off about nine o’clock at night, and then I . . . anyway, I completed my work there and called up for a car to take me to the airport. I called, naturally, the Army motor pool and a little Vietnamese gal answered the telephone and I said, “This is Captain Sargent. I’d like to have a car take me to the airport”, and I gave her the time and she said, “Captains no rate cars.” Well captains in the Army didn’t rate cars but captains in the Coast Guard and the Navy did, and she hung up on me. Well the telephone system in Vietnam was not very good and so it took me another 20 minutes before I finally got through. Another Vietnamese girl answered the phone and I said, “Let me talk to your supervisor”, and low and behold Lomca [phonetic] answered the telephone as a Sergeant and I said, “This is Captain Sargent. I need a car to take me to the airport”, and he said, “Listen buddy. I’m a sergeant, you’re a sergeant. I don’t rate a car and nor do you”, and he hung up on me again and I thought, “Oh, something’s got to change”, so I called up once more. I got him again and I said, “This is Colonel Savage, United States Coast Guard. Send my car down. I want to go to the airport.” He said, “Yes Sir”, and so I signed for the car as T. R. Salvage, and I don’t know what happened to it but it worked, and the reason I picked out the name Savage is because when I was a cadet [at the Academy] there was a certain Lieutenant Commander [Robert T.] McElligott who became a rear admiral who was a physics instructor. I was sitting in class and for some reason or other Admiral McElligott couldn’t remember my name and so he asked a question and then he said, “Mr. Savage, I want you to answer it”, and I didn’t. I didn’t even pay attention because Savage didn’t ring a bell and he yelled, “Mr. Savage”, and I suddenly realized he meant me and I said, “Yes Sir.” He said, “Put yourself on report for inattention in class.” “Yes Sir.” So that’s why I remember the name Savage [chuckle].
After the Vietnam bit I was, of course, transferred as the operations officer of the 11th Coast Guard District, which was down in Long Beach, California. My search and rescue officer was Commander [Robert] Bob Pope, an outstanding officer. When I arrived I reported in and he said, “Gosh, I’m glad to see you. We haven’t had an operations officer for sometime. Now I can go on leave”, and I said, “I’m sorry Bob but I’ve got orders to go back to Vietnam”, and so I left again.
I went back to Vietnam. We were having a little trouble on the takeover and so that had to be straightened out. Finally I got that finished and I went back to . . . I went around the world. That was the second time I went around the world because it was senseless to go back. I had to go to headquarters anyway. As [Edwin J.] Eddie Roland [later Commandant] said, “It was 12-hours difference both ways. Don’t call me.” [Laughter] So I went around the world and came back and then I had a car that I had not been able to get across country and it was in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. So I flew down to Elizabeth City, North Carolina and I drove that thing across country alone. It was quite a trip. I made it in four days.
I enjoyed my tour of duty as an operations officer. Unfortunately in late August Lucy and I had made a trip to San Diego where I had to give a talk and on the way back she got a terrible headache and we arrived home in the quarters on Terminal Island and the mail was there and we were going through the mail. She opened a little box and it said, “For your eyes only”, and it had stars on it and she handed it to me and she said, “What is this”, and I sat down there and looked and I said suddenly, I said, “I made flag.” I couldn’t realize it. I made flag and she said, “Oh, that’s fine. I’m going to bed.” So she did. Then we got up in the morning and she suddenly realized that this was quite a thing in my life and her life too and so she apologized. Unfortunately it said “For your eyes-only” so I was committed to absolute silence . Well this continued August through September. I was the operations officer and I used to go to lunch with the chief of staff, and Roger Dudley would say, “Did you get a letter”, and I would say, “No I didn’t get a letter.” Well I didn’t. I got this box. I was having my usual morning meeting with the Search and Rescue group when I got a telephone call and it was John Vukic who was a flyer and he was in Washington, D.C., and he said, “Hey Tom, its out. I know you made flag”, and I thought, “Oh brother.” Yeah, it’s not out. It maybe out in Washington but not here.” So anyway, I disbanded the meeting and I went in to see the district commander and I said, “Admiral, I don’t know whether you know it or not but I made flag”, and he said, “No, I didn’t know it. Did Roger Dudley make it?” I said, “I have no idea. He may have.” But whatever it was we were sworn to secrecy and so he said, “Okay”, and that was it. So anyway, later I went into Roger and I asked him if he made flag and he said, “No.” He hadn’t received anything and I said, “Well Roger, I must apologize”, and I explained why I answered in the way I did and we’re still friends.
Anyway, eventually I took over the district and I was only there for 18 months I guess and then I got transferred to Washington, D.C. as a chief of staff under the Commandant, Admiral [Williard J.] Smith and the Vice Commandant, or Assistant Commandant at that time, Paul Trimble. That continued for two years and then of course Chet [Chester R.] Bender was appointed Commandant. About that time I developed a cataract on my left eye and I had to have it removed so I went to the hospital up in Baltimore; Public Service Hospital. They did a lousy job the first time and I had to go back in it again and I was feeling very sad, unhappy, because here I was with a patch over my eye and I knew I was going to get transferred, and Lucy was up to see me and trying to cheer me up, and low and behold in comes Chet Bender and Paul Trimble and I said, “Well Chet, its so nice to see you” - and I have a story about Chet later on – “It’s so nice to see you.” I said, “Have you come to give me my orders? Where am I’m going: to Honolulu or San Francisco?” He looked at me and he said, “Neither. I want you to be my assistant commandant.” Lucy immediately started to cry and I was astounded. I almost fell off the bed - I was sitting there - and I said, “Well you know, I’ve got this problem with my eye”, and I said, “I assume it’s going to be okay but if I can’t I’ll let you know.” He said, “No you won’t, you’re going to stay, period.” So I said, “Yes Sir”, and that’s how I became the Assistant Commandant and later on Vice Commandant.
I’ve got to tell you a story about Chet. When I was in Leyte Gulf on the Sandusky we were anchored off of Denaget Island and I had just turned in when the quartermaster came up and said, “There’s a couple of very dirty aviators on the quarterdeck and they want to see you”, and I looked at him and I said, “You don’t talk about Coast Guard officers that way.” He said, “But they are dirty.” [Laughter] So I went down there and there was Chet Bender; a lieutenant commander, and Lieutenant Bob Cromwell - both of them of course have passed away since that time - and all I could say was, “What in hell are you doing here”, and Chet said, “I want you to meet the search and rescue detachment, United States Coast Guard of the Philippine Islands”, and I said, “Do you mean to tell me you’re flying PBYs in this place”, and he said, “Yes.” “Come on into the wardroom.” And they were filthy. They really were. They were in khakis and they were all spotted up and everything else and I said, “Take your clothes off. We’re going to wash your clothes.” So we got the laundry man up and he washed the clothes. By that time the whole crew had realized that we had a group of intrepid Coast Guard aviators somewhere ashore on this blasted island and so they got a seabag and they filled it up with everything they could think of; all canned food and candy and stuff, and we washed their clothes, let them take a shower, dressed them up and took them back ashore with everything. I think Chet never forgot that. He really appreciated that little bit and I’m sure the crew ashore did too.
Anyway, Chet and I had a great rapport together as the Commandant and Assistant Commandant, which eventually became Vice Commandant.
We had a minor problem of course and that was the [Simas] Kudirka incident. This was just after Thanksgiving, I think, of 1970. I had been at headquarters, of course, for over two years. Chet had just arrived and taken over. My father was coming up for an extended stay from Florida so I went to Chet and I said, “I need like a week’s leave”, and so he gave me a week’s leave and just as I was getting ready to depart on leave a message came in and it indicated that the Coast Cutter Vigilant was tied up alongside of the – oh God, I wish I could remember the name of that ship. I’ve got it on the tip of my tongue but I can’t think of it - a USSR ship and they had a possible defector, and I took the thing and I said, “Chet, this doesn’t look good. I’m going on leave so I’m going to dump it in your lap.” I went on leave. That night I got a call from the operations officer on watch and he said, “They have solved the problem. He’s back onboard the Russian ship”, and I said, “I don’t know anything about this. I’m on leave. You better call the Commandant right away.” So he called the Commandant. Well basically I think everybody knows what happened was that the man did jump onto the deck of the Vigilant and the commanding officer allowed Russians to come onboard and manhandle him and take him back. The altercation and everything that followed by the commanding officer trying to get away from the Russian factory ship, and of course he decimated his antennas and lost contact with the district for sometime. I was on the board of an investigation; a board of inquiry I guess you’ll call it, the district commander was, of course a classmate of Chet Bender and the chief of staff was Fletcher Brown who was a good friend of mine. I knew him. I knew his father and I knew his sister and I knew his brother-in-law, and I knew the commanding officer of the Vigilant. He used to work for me. It was a traumatic experience and as a result of it, why the district commander was forced to retire immediately. Fletcher Brown was put out of line of promotion because he retired and the commanding officer was removed from command. It was a traumatic experience because we had all been very good friends and I have to hand it to Chet Bender. He stood by his guns and regardless of the fact that he was really ending the career of a classmate of his.
There was another thing that happened was Chet made an extended trip in 1971 to the west coast and when he came back I went in to see him and I said, “How did things go Chet”, and he said, “I don’t feel well at all. I don’t feel at all well”, and he went to see his doctor and the next thing I know the doctor called me and said, “Chet Bender is in the hospital and you will not contact him until I say so. He had a bad heart attack.” So there I was in the same condition as what the chief of staff was in the First Coast Guard District during the Kudirka incident. The district commander had been on leave and the chief of staff was relaying all of this problem to the district commander who was on leave, but Chet was in the hospital and I was alone. So anyway, things went along very nicely except that one afternoon about three o’clock I got a call from the 17th Coast Guard District and they said, “We’ve got a problem up here. The [USCGC] Storis found two factory ships in our territorial waters in the Aleutians and he seized both of them”, and of course they were USSR ships and he said, “They both have prize crews aboard. One is heading back by Kodiak but the other is heading for Russia with our people onboard”, and I said, “Well we’re not going to let that guy go.” So I called the State Department first and I told them what the story was and they said, “Well don’t do anything. Don’t even fire a shot across the bow. We’re having a meeting with the Russians shortly”, and I said, “But I’ve got a crew on there”, and he said, “It doesn’t make any difference.” So after mulling it over I called the White House - I wanted to talk to [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger - and they said, “Well Mr. Kissinger is not available and besides that he would say the same thing as the State Department.” So I told the district commander to call the Air Force Base in Anchorage and ask them if they would like to make a practice dive bombing trip onto this Russian ship and that we would fire a star shell just before his arrival so he would know which ship it was. The commanding general of the Air Force up there said, “Sure, I’d love to do it.” So they had a jet take off, a star shell was fired, and just after that star shell nicely broke out of the clouds and drifted down, why out of the clouds comes this jet and the commanding officer or the master of the ship promptly turned around and we went back to Kodiak. Nobody said anything about that from the White House or the State Department. The Air Force and the Coast Guard kept it quiet. There was nothing to say except that the project was accomplished and that was it.
Let’s see, there was another item that we had minor problems with. Oh yes, we sent a jet down to Martin Marietta . . . on the Coast Guard [VC-11A] Gulf Stream down to Martin Marietta to be overhauled and put a new landing gear on it because the Secretary wanted to make a trip around the world. So it came back and it was just before Thanksgiving about, oh, say four o’clock in the afternoon, when Jerry Meyers, the pilot, came in and touched down but he found out he had no spoilers and he couldn’t reverse the engines at all to put the spoilers up or anything, so he hit the brakes and of course he blew all four tires on the jet and he ended up about, oh, I’d say 60 feet from the end of runway; the long runaway in Washington National Airport. Naturally that closed that runway for the airport just before Thanksgiving. They ran out with jacks and they found out, since he had ground down the wheels a bit, the jacks wouldn’t fit underneath, so we went to the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and they had a set and they would be able to get it under there but by that time my telephone had red lights all over it and I was answering Congressional inquires of, “What the hell are you doing at the end of that runway? Get that airplane off the runway. I’ve got to get back to my constituents.” Well you know you answer it the best you can and finally we got it all off and everybody was happy later on.
Let’s go back to when I was the civil engineer of the Coast Guard and Eddie Roland became the commandant and Jim Reed was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. Eddie Roland and Jim Reed were very good friends and it was a boon to our reputation because Jim made many trips around the Coast Guard with Eddie Roland and it was apparent that they had been talking about the public relations portion of the Coast Guard, because Eddie Roland called me up to the office and Jim Reed was there and he said did I have a little money that I could fund for a study on the Coast Guard’s appearance to the public, and I said, “Yes, I think I can dig something up Sir, yes, absolutely”, and so Jim Reed had a friend who was a public relations type and so they made a study of what they could do to make Coast Guard ships and aircraft and shore stations visible; in other words, something that would stand out. They came up with this stripe. Ben Engle who was a classmate of mine; an aviator, was the chairman of the board and we worked pretty closely together. He thought that the racing stripe was outstanding because it gave an appearance of speed and patriotism at the same time. At first he came up with a shield on that stripe but Eddie Roland looked at it and said, “No, I don’t think we’d like a shield. Let’s put the seal on it”, and they did and it has done wonders.
When I was district commander in Long Beach I was looking out my window once and a fishing vessel was out there with a red, white, and blue stripe on the bow and so I got a hold of my lawyer and chief counsel and I said, “Hey, they can’t do that”, and so he said, “I’ll take care of it”, and he called them up and he said, “By the way, I noticed you have this red, white, and blue stripe on your ship”, and they said, “Yes, isn’t it nice”, and he said, “Well you know what that does? It signifies search and rescue, and so he said, “All right, if we call you . . . ”, and it immediately was removed. But internationally you will find a lot of people have modified that to suit their own nation and it’s been a great deal.
The other item was, of course, back to being the vice commandant. Chet went over to a luncheon at the Pentagon and he had mentioned prior to this time that he thought that the Coast Guard should have a distinctive uniform. He said, “We look too much like the Navy. Not that we don’t like the Navy. We admire them and we love them but we like to be something like the Marine Corps.” But he went to this luncheon and he came back and he was, again, kind of livid. He doesn’t get livid very often but he called me in and he said, “You know what happened to me today”, and I said, “No”, and he said, “Well we were milling around there before lunch and some character came up to me and he said, ‘Hi Bender’, and he said, ‘You must be around the class of 1936’, and I said, ‘Yes’, and he said, ‘Do you know my good friend so and so’, and I said, ‘No’. ‘Well you must. Everybody knows him from Annapolis’, and I said, ‘I’m from the Coast Guard Academy. I’m a graduate of the Coast Guard Academy’, and the fellow said, ‘Well why don’t you make it significant. How do I know you’re from the Coast Guard Academy?’ I said, ‘Look at the shield on my sleeve.’ So he said, ‘We’re going to have a board. We’re going to have a new uniform.’ Ed Perry was a p Personnel officer at the time and a rear admiral, so Ed Perry became the chairman of the board to come up with a uniform, and I’ve made trips all around the country; every Coast Guard station I could think of, for selling this uniform. Actually this uniform worked out very, very well except my good friend John O’Neal, who was the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, called me up one day and he said, “I love your new uniform color.” He said, “I think I’ll change our Air Force grays to Air Force blue like yours”, and I said, “You wouldn’t do that John”, and he said, “Oh yes”, and he did. That was my crowning blow, but I noticed that the Air Force has changed their color considerably and it’s much darker than ours so it’s all right now. But I like the uniform. It makes quite an impression and also it takes the onus off of our people of carrying too many uniforms.
The other thing it had - and it’s very significant - on our boarding parties we used to have our petty officers who were dressed in sailor suits and Donald Duck hats board these ships and try to enforce laws, and the answer they got is, “You’re just a sailor. You don’t have any police powers around me.” Well we had one of them being pushed overboard by somebody and so when you put a peak cap with a bill on a good looking uniform you become a police officer and it made a great difference in the attitude of the yachtsmen and boat owners when we changed that uniform of our petty officers and all our sailors too. So that’s the story of that particular one.
Let’s see. The one thing I haven’t mentioned and that’s wives. Wives are wonderful. My wife brought up our three children more or less alone because I was away so much. Whenever I came back to the States, why she made the greatest effort to be there for me. She arrived the day before I did or a day after. I can’t say enough for her. She’s made my life just wonderful. S he’s the jewel of my existence.
My father, his first instruction to me was have pride in yourself and he said, “Anyone older than you are you must respect because they have had more experience than you and so don’t you call our neighbor Joe Blow. You call him Mr. Blow and if you have that respect to your elders and your own pride you have a certain dignity, and the dignity you must maintain. Dignity not only extends to your own personal appearance but also the way you look at the law of the land. Obey the laws. They’re made there for you to obey and you better damn well obey them. Otherwise you’re going to get into all kinds of trouble. I f you don’t obey the law then you have nothing.”
The thing that bothers me today is the language the kids use. They have no respect for the English language. The aggressiveness of people; you must be first in line or else, and that extends not only to the line waiting to go through the checkout line but also to driving a car, are beaters of the law and the lack of realization that laws are made for people to obey. So don’t be so damned aggressive that you have to cut people off or cause accidents. I think children should be taught that. The English language; it’s the most beautiful language in the world and they should use it properly. Not him and her and me and they. Him and her or he and me went to the doctor. You know that just fries me when people mess up the English language that way.
As I told you before, my father was a Canadian subject because he was born in Canada. He came across to the United States with a job in New London, Connecticut. Mother was a British subject. We entered the United States under a quota system. Seven years later in 1930 Dad and Mother became citizens of the United States at the county courthouse at the top of State Street in New London, Connecticut . I was 16, therefore under the law at that time I was a citizen of the United States and the Coast Guard recognized the fact that I was a citizen because I was under age; I was 19 when I entered the Academy. However, I did not declare my citizenship when I became 21 and that was fatal because although I traveled all over the world practically and entered all kinds, different countries, I was in a Coast Guard uniform and on official duty. In 1957 when I was assistant chief of the aids to navigation division we were going to install some LORAN-A stations off Central America and I was designated as the site survey officer so I had to travel in civilian clothes. I went to the State Department to get a passport. They wouldn’t issue me one because I could not prove I was a citizen. So I said, “What do I do now”, and they said, “Well go to the Bureau of Naturalization and Immigration and get yourself made a citizen.” So I went over there and filled out about a four-page form and various things the best I could remember . There’s one thing I did have and that was the number of my father’s citizenship papers and that was fortunate. Otherwise I would have been fried because my father had retired and was enroute to Florida and I couldn’t contact him. Anyway, I got a call from the Bureau and this lady said, “Come on over and bring someone who knew your father and mother.” Well I had a classmate there by the name of Cornelius Garret Houtsma. Houtsma has the face of Holland and six feet tall plus and we were good friends, and so he had stayed at the house several times. We went over to the Bureau and the lady said that there are a lot of things that were not quite correct and I said, “Well it says at the bottom it says, ‘To the best of my knowledge’. I was nine years old when I came to this country and there’s a lot of things that are very vague in my mind”, and she said, “Well, do you have anything that can prove you came over on the Leviathan like baggage checks or tickets”, and I said, “Lady, that was in 1923. ” So anyway she took a piece of paper and it looked like a citizenship paper and she called Gary over and said, “Do you know this gentlemen”, and he said, “Yes, that’s his father.” She said, “How do you know it’s his father?” He said, “Well I stayed at the house. He called him son and he called him dad and so I assumed they were related”, and she got very angry with me and Gary. She said, “Raise your right hand.” I did and she said, “Do you solemnly swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States and serve in the Armed Forces in time of national emergencies”, and I almost laughed in her face but I was very serious and I said, “I do”, and she gave me those papers. I’ve got them up on the wall. That was in 1957 and the Coast Guard has recognized the fact and I was a citizen prior to that time but bureaucracy has it problems at time.
As far as my Coast Guard career is concerned, I loved every minute of it. There were times when things got kind of rough but then what I would do is think of those intrepid flyers who flew those string bag aircraft over the terrible North Atlantic to torpedo the Bismarck and all the Bismarck people who fired at them because they thought that they had a reason to be right. It’s been a tremendously rewarding experience, not only because of the Coast Guard itself but of the people in it. The people in the Coast Guard are fantastic people. I have thousands of friends and I value them tremendously. If I hadn’t been in the Coast Guard I don’t know what I would have done. I probably would have tried to go to college but the Coast Guard afforded me that. It’s been my life, my vocation, my avocation, and the people have been a rewarding experience.
There’s one gentleman I’d like to recognize and that’s . . . in the PC-469 in 1942 we had what they called a carpenter’s mate, although he was a damage controlman but his designation was carpenter’s mate, and he was an outstanding man. He was one of the leading lights in the rescue of all these people from the sunken ship. His name was Carroll Lang and he lives north of here in Murphys, California. He has a great sense of humor. He has quite a bit of land up there and he calls its “Oleo Acres, the cheap spread.” He contacted me - how he got my name I don’t know and a telephone number – and we’ve been corresponding for the past, oh, five or six years. He was so good I recommended him for OCS [Officer Candidate School] and he became a lieutenant in the Coast Guard prior to the end of the war. After the war he was a teacher and he’s now retired from his teaching. A fine gentlemen; one of the prizes of the Coast Guard, which brings up a point. You know when I entered the Coast Guard there were 500 officers and probably 17,000 men. At the height of the war we had 160,000 people in the Coast Guard. It’s quite obvious to me that the number of regular; both officer and enlisted, was a very, very little minority and so you have the greatest respect for these people who voluntarily entered this Service to fight for their country. It’s a great generation of people and unfortunately we’re losing a thousand of them a month but I often think about them and how wonderful they really were. They followed me. They were loyal to me. You couldn’t ask for more.
Leadership philosophy is kind of a rough one for me. I trust people and if I’m going to do a job I usually call everybody in and say, “This is what we’ve got to do. I’m going to trust you to do the right thing. This is my plan. If you have any changes you want to make, before you do it let me know and then we’ll discuss it.” I have a trusting nature I guess because I do think that people, if they understand what the object is, they will do their best to do it correctly and right. It’s that simple . I wouldn’t ask anybody to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. In other words, “Follow me”, so that they give you a little loyalty and they know that they are part of the team. That’s the major portion; be a part of the team. The Coast Guard is famous for that being “Team Coast Guard”, yes.
You asked me what was the difference between the Coast Guard of the old days and the Coast Guard of today and whether I approved of the changes. The changes are like from night to day. The old Coast Guard was a rough, ready semi-military outfit. Not that they weren’t good seaman and patriotic but they didn’t have the camaraderie that we have today. Our ships; our legion, they’re the most beautiful looking ships afloat. Our crews look military. They are military. The camaraderie is outstanding. The changes that have been made have only been for the better. I have just one minor thought and that is I hope that as we progress in the Department of Homeland Security that we don’t get top heavy with administrators and that we make sure that our commands are given the opportunity to be themselves, to make decisions and enforce the laws the way they see them. That’s my only hope. But as far as the Coast Guard is concerned it is an outstanding outfit and I’m very proud to have been a part of it.
I have an old saying, “There are people who administer the Coast Guard and there are people who supervise the Coast Guard, but the people who operate the Coast Guard are enlisted people of men and women. They are outstanding!"
END OF INTERVIEW