U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
Interviewee: Bernard A. Bailey, USCG (Ret.)
Date: 26 March 2004
Location: San Clemente, California
The following oral history interview was provided to the Coast Guard Historian's Office courtesy of the Foundation for Coast Guard History. In this interview, which is more of an autobiography than a question-and-answer session, Mr. Bailey describes his Coast Guard service during World War II. He joined up, as many young American men did, after learning about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As a college graduate he was qualified for training as a reserve officer and, after deciding to join the Coast Guard, he was off to the "90-day Wonder" course at the Coast Guard Academy. After completing his training and earning his first gold stripe, he was ordered to take command of an 83-foot cutter, where he served in Florida waters. He then applied for flight training and was accepted. After earning his wings he was assigned to air stations in California where he flew SAR patrols in a Consolidated PBY. He also served on photographic missions over Alaska for the Coast & Geodetic Survey! He returned to civilian life in 1946.
The Historian's Office would like to thank Mr. Bailey for taking the time to give future generations a look into what life was like in the Coast Guard during World War II. Our thanks to the Foundation for Coast Guard History too for providing us with a copy of his manuscript. It is only through efforts such as theirs that Coast Guard history is preserved for future generations.
Mr. Bailey: I want to talk a little bit about some of my experiences.
I was an Iowa farm boy back in the ‘30s and ‘40s and I developed a job when I was out of college with the Rath Packing Company out of Waterloo, Iowa and I went through the ranks and got to be City Salesman in Davenport, Iowa. Then the war came along and as a matter of fact I was attending a movie with a friend of mine who was the City Salesman in Iowa City, Iowa, on December 7th, 1941, and when we came out of the movie the newspapermen were hawking all the information about, “The war is on. There’s a war. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor” and all of that kind of stuff. So this being Sunday afternoon, on Monday morning I called Rath Packing Company in Waterloo, Iowa and said, “As soon as you get a man down here for me to train; to take my job, I am going to volunteer for the service”, and they came through in about three or four weeks and sent a man down. It took about three weeks to train him, and the interesting thing is that by the time we finished with the job and he felt comfortable and I packed up and I was on my way home to my folks home in Grinnell, Iowa about one or two o’clock in the morning - I don’t remember what day of the week it was - but I heard an interesting commercial. I was listening to a station, believe it or not, way down in Louisiana; Shreveport, Louisiana, and they had a commercial saying, “The Coast Guard is looking for recruits for the Coast Guard Academy for Reserve Officer Training. You have to be a certain age”. They gave the age. “You have to be single. You have to be able to pass the physical and you have to have had a college education”, and I thought, “Well I meet all these qualifications so I’ll give it a try.” The next morning I left home in Grinnell; my folks home, and drove down to Des Moines, Iowa, which was where I figured the Coast Guard office would be, and frankly I knew very little or nothing about the Coast Guard at the time or even any of the other services for that matter. But I went in as soon as they opened about nine o’clock and asked about this and they said, “Well we just heard about it ourselves but we don’t have the papers yet, but if you stick around for awhile they may come in in the mail this morning.” So I went out and got a cup of coffee and I was back in about a half-hour and sure enough the papers had come in, so I signed the necessary papers and went through whatever the routine was in those days and I was to report to Saint Louis, Missouri; to a Marine Hospital for the physical. Now I don’t know how much truth there is to this but it sounded pretty good in those days. I passed the physical and they said that, “You’re the first out of 300 and some men we’ve examined to pass the physical.” That sounds a little fishy, but anyway they said something to that effect. But they didn’t have any others that had passed yet so they said, “Why don’t you hold over a couple of days or so until we see if we can pick up another recruit or two because we hate to ship you to New London just by yourself if we could get a couple of more, and sure enough in the next day or two they had a couple of other men. I still have their names somewhere in my file. But anyway, the three of us went to New London, Connecticut, and this was certainly the start of a different life for an Iowa farm boy.
We had the regular "90-day Wonder" training and then they realized that they couldn’t let the reserves graduate and get their commission ahead of the regulars who had trained on a shortened course now for three years, which was legitimate. I can understand that. So they held us over for a few more weeks until the regulars had graduated and gotten their commissions and then they let us graduate.
About ten-percent of the class was held over for small boat training and I was fortunate enough to be one of those, and after another month . . . and incidentally, part of the training was on the Danmark, which was a famous training ship from Denmark that was in New York on one of the training ships with a lot of cadets when the war started and so I had to stay there. Denmark loaned the ship to the Coast Guard for part of their training and for whatever other uses it might meet, so part of our training was this extra work on the Danmark.
Then at the end of that we were given our choice of stations. You had three stations that you could choose and they said, “Don’t count on getting the first one that you choose because the chances are you won’t get it”, but I had always heard about two places as an Iowa farm boy that I really wanted to visit someday. One was Key West, Florida and one was San Diego, California. So I put in for Key West as number one and fortunately I got it.
When I arrived at the headquarters in Miami they explained to me that they only had . . . they had several converted yachts but they only had one of the so-called new vessels. There was an 83-½ foot cutter and it was quite a new build. It was the Coast Guard’s version of the Navy’s PT [ Patrol Torpedo ] boat. It wasn’t as fast but it carried several 50-caliber machine guns and a lot of depth charges. So by the luck of the draw I became the captain of that ship.
It had a very fine crew; very experienced men. I remember the Chief Boatswain’s Mate had about 27 years and the Chief Mechanic had about - whatever they called them; Chief Machinist - had about 25 years and another man had 17 years, and they really knew how to run a boat. Fortunately, I guess I had enough smarts to say, “You run the boat and if you need anything just use my poor little old bitty ensign stripe and I’ll see if I can get it for you”, and it worked out very, very well.
One of our very interesting duties was to be the escort for the Maritime Seaman, which was a great big training ship for the Maritime Service. Now they usually had about 600 cadets on that vessel and they had two main purposes; one was to train cadets for the Maritime Service and the other was to haul water from St. Petersburg to Key West because in those days Key West didn’t have any fresh supply of water. So this big vessel would carry, I don’t know, at least hundreds of thousands of gallons, maybe millions of gallons of water, on each trip; fresh water down to Key West, and use that as training. So here I was, since I had the only ship that was able to keep up, some of the yachts would go along occasionally but most of the time the Maritime Seaman would pull into either St. Petersburg or into Key West hauling those yachts behind; towing them, because they’d broken down in the meantime. But the vessel I was on was able to make the trip back and forth and it was very interesting. But here an Iowa farm boy with one little stripe . . . and the Chief - he was a lieutenant commander in the Maritime. That was his rank but I don’t know what they would call him in the Maritime Service - but anyway, he would send one of his aides over to ask me to come over because I was going to be the senior officer of this run; to scare away all the boogies; all the submarines. Fortunately we never saw a submarine in the several months that we plied this way but I sure had a scare one time because a report came into the station in St. Petersburg that handled our Coast Guard calls that there was a submarine conning tower that they could see offshore outside the big bay that supplied St. Petersburg and Tampa. So we went plowing out there, scared as the dickens, just knowing we were going to run into a German submarine, and off in the distance in this moonlight we could see this conning tower. Oh boy, we came to arms, or whatever they called it in those days, and we would arm those 50-caliber machine guns and we had those depth charges ready to go and when we got pretty close we realized it wasn’t a submarine. It was a lumber barge and part of the lumber was piled up enough in the distance in the moonlight that it looked like a conning tower. So you can imagine the sigh of relief not only by me but all of the crewmembers when it didn’t turn out to be an enemy sub.
But then after a while the next duty, still on this small vessel, we were to be escort for a high octane gasoline vessel that was going to supply the Navy and Army, primarily Navy, airplanes down near La Fe; the western end of Cuba, and down in the Island of Grand Cayman, which is 300 miles south of Cuba. They had several Navy planes in both of those areas, probably for patrol to look for submarines, and this was a high-octane gasoline supply for those and that was very interesting. Some of the things that I remember for example; we were tied up in the bay at the outer Grand Cayman and you could look down in the water and you could see these pretty fish swimming around in the water. It was just as clear as a bell. One of the men on the boat took a sounding and there were 60 some feet down there. You can imagine how few areas today you could look through 60 feet of water. It was just as clear as drinking water.
But then when I got back to St. Petersburg on the next run I learned from a friend of mine that the Coast Guard was going to have a first class ever of reserve officers to train as pilots and I didn’t know anything about airplanes obviously but my friend convinced me that this was a good deal because you get 50-percent more pay and that meant a lot. So he and I went over to the St. Petersburg Air Station and the skipper there didn’t really have the authority to do it but he authorized our trip to Miami to take our physicals to see if we could pass and both of us did, and we both got into training for the Coast Guard Air Corps. We reported to Grosselle, Michigan outside of Detroit in the early part of November and the weather in November, December, and part of January was just terrible. In the month of December we only had three hours of flying time and since we already had officer status, as soon as we finished the homework, the schoolwork; whatever you call the book training, we were free to do whatever we wanted to do so we’d go into Detroit and stay and just have a good time and go out find out if the weather was good enough to fly and if it wasn’t we’d stay in Detroit. So being a bachelor at the time worked out real well and we all had a great time. We finally got the primary training finished in February or March and then I went to Pensacola, and what a difference . It was nice when we first got there but then the weather got awfully warm and sticky but I enjoyed it. It was flying at . . .
So the last training we had; there were three of us who were training. We had, of course, the instructor but our training was in PBYs, and I’ll tell you, some of those were old buckets . They had been around for a long time. I remember often the starters wouldn’t work anymore and we had to get out on the wings and crank those engines and that was really a job. One time we took turns. One would be the cranker and one would handle the switches in the conning tower and one would be down at the controls at the wheel. One of the fellows that was handling the switches to turn on and off when you said, “Okay, switch on”, had been out the night before and had a little bit of a party and he went to sleep at the wheel. So here the other two of us are out there grinding away, grinding away, and we’d say, “Switch on”, boom, boom, boom, nothing would happen. So anyway, we finally got that solved. We went through; finished our training, and then that’s when I had a chance to go here again.
They gave you three choices of air stations you wanted to go to and they said, “Don’t pick your favorite as Number One because you sure won’t get it”, but I picked San Diego as my first and sure enough I got it, and so that was another part of this. This was in July of 1943 and it was very interesting work.
One of the gentlemen, he got to be a very good friend of mine; he and his wife, and he later became the commandant of the Coast Guard; Chet [ Chester ] Bender, and I’m sure maybe that might ring a bell for a lot of you; a fine man, and they were an interesting couple. I had a chance to double date with them on several occasions. But anyway, Chet taught me quite a bit about rough landings. We’d go out near San Clemente Island and practice landings and takeoffs in [ Grumman J4F ] Widgeons and the larger airplanes; the larger one of the . . . and then eventually the [ Consolidated ] PBY.
So then I had air-sea rescue work and control work but eventually we ended up having approximately a month in each one of the three stations. There were three command pilots. I was one of them and we had our double crews. You’d be on for 48 hours and off for 48 hours in each of the three stations: Santa Barbara or Goleta, which was the air station outside of Santa Barbara, Los Alamitos and then San Diego, and we would rotate and that was very interesting duty.
I want to mention something about the commanding officers too because when I first went to the air station in San Diego, CDR Burton [phonetic -- Burke?] who was our commanding officer and he was a very fine fellow and always treated us very fair . . . and not being married I lived in the BOQ [ Bachelor Officers' Quarters ] so we had a lot of privileges that way too, and then I don’t know where he went but he was transferred some place else and CDR [ Donald B. ] MacDiarmid came in and CDR MacDiarmid was a very fine fellow, a great flyer and I had a couple of experiences with him. He was the one that I think was instrumental in getting me into instrument flight training in Houston, Texas. When I came back he gave me a checkout flight to see how I was doing and I gave him probably one of the best flights I’ve ever done - I was really on that day - and when we landed he complimented me and then we were in the BOQ that night for dinner he pointed to me and he said, “I want you men to know that that man gave me the best Instrument check ride I’ve ever had." Of course I was very, very flattered.
There was one other interesting experience with CDR MacDiarmid also because we used to do a lot of offshore landings for air-sear rescue. Later on the Coast Guard would not permit that and I have a little story to tell you about that too later on. But in the early days you could land, if it looked feasible to do so, and this was one of the times when I happened to be the air-sea rescue command pilot at the Coast Guard air station in San Diego. We had an alarm that one of the Marine airplanes from El Toro had crashed at sea just off of Point Loma, so man, we were in the air in a jiffy and it was a nice, bright day and it was very calm when we took off. Lindberg Field takes off on about 270 [ degrees ] I think is the direction, and as soon as we got in the air and over a little bit of land we could see the smoke from his smoke bomb out there and here he was way out there a few miles offshore floating around in a life raft. So we sized up the wind and made a landing and cut off the engine on that side and then let him coast right back to us and picked him up, and it was just almost unbelievable how smooth it went. So we got him in and I was just ready to kick the throttles and this voice came on and said, “This is CDR MacDiarmid. Would you like me to take the plane off”, and it startled me because I didn’t even know he was in the plane, and I remember saying to this day, “Commander, if you don’t mind, I got it in here, I’d like to get it out”, and he said, “Sure, go ahead.” So we did. We took off and we had the pilot back to El Toro Marine Air Base before his squadron knew that he was missing. It was really something. As a matter of fact there was an article in the paper; the San Diego Union or Long Beach paper or something - and I still have a copy of it someplace - giving the minutes that it took from the time he hit the water until he was back at his air station warm and safe.
Now the other thing that I wanted to mention about the air-sea rescue we did, as I say we did a lot of it, but then all the other air stations except San Diego had lost a plane and or one or more people in offshore landings, so Coast Guard headquarters came out and said, “No more offshore landings.” My crew and I were on duty in Santa Barbara at this particular time and we got the word that there was a plane down near Santa Rosa Island so we were in the air immediately and we were out there in just a few minutes, and the seas were extremely rough. I called Coast Guard Air Station and asked permission to land and they said, “Absolutely not. There’s an order against it plus the fact that’s it too rough and there’s a boat on the way from San Pedro Harbor out there and it’ll be there in about two and half hours.” Well that man wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in the life raft because he would be swamped every time a big wave would come by and he’d have to try to bail out and I knew he wasn’t going to last more than ten minutes at the most. So I said to the crew, “Well this is not legal but shall we go down and get him”, and to a man they said, “Let’s go get him”, and we did and it was a very rough landing. So when we had him safely aboard we were waiting for a reasonably calm section because even in rough water there will be a lot of rough waves and then there’ll be a calm section. So I said to the co-pilot, “I’m going to keep looking for a calm section and you keep your hand on the throttles and when I say, “Go”, you shove them through the ceiling, will you?” So we were ready and sure enough here came a fairly calm piece, so I said, “Hit it”, and we did. We weren’t quite airborne and a great big wave hit us; crashed in the front of the plane, but it bounced us into the air and we had enough line speed even though we were kind of shaking there for a little bit we kept our air speed and we didn’t settle back into the water and we got into Santa Barbara okay. Even though it did smash in the front of the plane it was still flyable. So Coast Guard Air Station ordered us back to San Diego immediately and said the lawyer was on his way and they were going to court-martial me, and when the Marines found out about it they were going to give me a medal and that’s how I ended up getting the Air Medal. The Marines gave me the Air Medal then the Coast Guard accepted it and I have a great picture of CDR MacDiarmid giving me the Air Medal at the Coast Guard Air Station in San Diego. That was it; a great period in my life also.
And then I had the privilege, the chance to have advanced instrument flight training in Ellington Field near Houston, Texas starting I believe in March of ’45, and while I was there training . . . incidentally, Wiley Post’s brother - Wiley Post the great explorer - his brother was one of the instructors and a very nice man and did a good job at instructing, and that worked out real well. While I was there I received a telegram signed by several men at the Coast Guard Air Station saying that, “There was a duty having command post of the Coast Guard Geodetic PBY doing photography work in the northwest and in Alaska, and if you volunteer for it; to be the commanding officer, we will volunteer to be your crew”, and that was certainly a compliment to me and so I volunteered because it sounded like it would be great duty. So we went back to San Diego for a while after I finished the instrument flight training and did some work around there and then eventually we were assigned a PBY. We took it to Washington, D.C., and on the way, incidentally, we flew around my parent’s home near Grennell, Iowa and dropped a little flag, and somewhere in the archives I have a picture of them standing out in the yard waving to us as we go by in this big old PBY. It scared the heck out of the other people in Iowa when you take a big PBY about hundred feet in the air right across town.
Anyway, I went to Washington and we finished up with the outfitting of the camera. They had to do quite a bit of work on it because when it was in Alaska on the previous duty they’d crashed into a mountainside and tore up the camera pretty badly, so that enforced the rule of not flying at night and no flying in bad weather when you had the camera, whether the camera was in operation or not. So anyway, we got to Washington, got all checked out and we had a man who was in charge of the camera and then his assistant. So we went back to the northwest to try out some flying and some picture taking and it worked out pretty well. o then we went to Alaska and I think it was probably about early October or late September when we got there and we were assigned to Neck Island [phonetic] and we did do quite bit of work in the island area of Neck [phonetic] and down in Cold Bay and up in Bethel and Kodiak, and around those places. Then when the snow got too deep the pictures wouldn’t give the right image. Incidentally, this camera had a roll of film a hundred feet long and a foot wide and each picture was one foot square, and from 18,000 feet it would take a picture of 360 square miles of the earth, and they couldn’t handle the development of them there. They had to be put in a special carrier and sent back to Washington, D.C.; to the Coast Geodetic Survey Office. So that was very interesting work there but when the weather closed in then we had to come back and we did a little bit of work in the northwestern part of the United States. Then finally it was time to go back because the war was over and the duty time of several men was up and they were kind of eager to get out, and that applied to me too. So we went back to San Diego and the day I arrived I received a telegram that one of my very best friends, also in the Coast Guard, had been killed in an airplane crash near one of the air bases near Fort Worth, Texas or Dallas, Texas. So I volunteered as a military escort for his body because his home was in Warrensburg, Missouri and they were going to bury him there. So I took that and that took a long period of time.
Then when I got back to Los Angeles about the middle of January of ‘46 I applied to be discharged from the service and they granted it even though they had offered me a chance to stay on if I wanted to at half of the degree reduced in rank, but I figured that I’d had enough time. I had enjoyed it thoroughly but I didn’t look upon it as my life’s work and I wanted to get into some other things, so I said to goodbye to the service. It has been a wonderful experience and I’m glad I did it and if I had to do it over I’d do it again.
I think maybe these people volunteered for two reasons. One; I was easy to get along with, and two; I was a good pilot. They knew that I was a good pilot. I could fly safely. I knew how to handle an airplane. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wasn’t afraid of an airplane and the fact that I would let these people have their own reign; I didn’t let them do things they shouldn’t do but some people that are commanders are just whoo, whoo, whoo, you know, kind of the heel and boot-type of thing. But for example, when I went aboard the ship in Key West, Florida, one of the first things I said is, “You people run the boat. I’m just here as a front man to get the supplies that you need” and it was a lot the same way. Maybe I was the skipper and they knew they couldn’t, so-call, misbehave, but they knew they had freedom to be themselves and to talk with me and we’d do things together. It makes life a lot more interesting and it’s good for them and it was good for me. I enjoyed it thoroughly from that standpoint.
I had a mentor. Being an Iowa farm boy you don’t know a lot of people that might influence you in a beneficial way or that you look up to or that are stars in your heaven. So when I . . . and I was very bashful. In high school I didn’t do anything startling. I was a good student but I didn’t do anything startling. I was not a good athlete because when you’re working on the farm you don’t have a chance to play basketball or baseball or anything like that and so I didn’t get a start into sports. But there is a man that I owe a lot to. I think he could see maybe there was a little more there than I was expressing and that was the dean of the college; Shelton Beatty was his name, and he was a great man and he kind of took me under his wing, at least the senior year, because he asked me to be - I don’t even remember what the name of it was - but to be responsible for introducing some of the freshman to the college ways and some of the professors, and it really kind of got me into going . . . and he got me into a speech class. I didn’t even know hardly how to speak very well. He got me in the speech class and I really thoroughly enjoyed that and I would have to give Dean Shelton Beatty a lot of credit for bringing out what may have been there naturally but sure had never shown before.
I got out of my senior year in college a great deal and I think it meant a lot to me later in life in being able to express myself and getting more enjoyment out of life and working with people.
I appreciate the Coast Guard very much for several reasons. One of them, being an Iowa farm boy, and even though I had a college education and was working for Rath Packing Company, I’d never been around very much. I wasn’t a dummy but I was not worldly-wise at all. I hadn’t been very many places. My folks had been to Chicago one time with me and I’d been to Omaha one time and that was about the extent of my travels. So to get in the Coast Guard and start seeing all of these places that I thought about before was really something and it meant a lot to me and it expanded my horizons a great deal. I think I have had a lot more success in business than I might have had if I hadn’t had the experiences of the Coast Guard to get me out and see other parts of the world and visit with other people, and kind of expand my horizons. It meant a lot to me. I realize that it was not a good time as far as . . . war is never a good time but since there was a war anyway and I was a small part of it, it meant a tremendous amount to me I think in my later life to have been able to see that there are other worlds that you could conquer or be involved in. So I appreciate very much all my years in the Coast Guard. It did a lot for me.
END OF INTERVIEW