U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
As told to Tom Stanback, September,
1999, Wilmington, North Carolina
Edited by Tom Stanback & Henry Johnston
We first sailed with David Oliver in June 1977. He joined us at the pier of the 23rd Street Marina in New York City and we made our way under his guidance down the East River and through the City’s great harbor.
Neither of us knew David very well that morning. He was a neighbor of Tom’s at Figure Eight Island, near Wilmington, and we were delighted when he accepted the invitation to come along on a trip to North Carolina, delighted to put ourselves in the hands of a retired Coast Guard Captain!
It was a glorious day with a nice breeze, and David guided us deftly down the East River and skirted the channels in the harbor to avoid the big ships. What dawned on us by the time we passed under the Verrazzano Bridge and out into the Atlantic was that we had already listened to a half dozen or more of David’s entertaining anecdotes, jokes and limericks, told in his wonderful sparse way and with his deep baritone voice and contagious laughter.
That first trip with David was unforgettable, not only for the pleasure of his company, but for the opportunity to learn through him about the winds and the weather and the ways of the sea.
Happily, we have had the privilege of continuing to know and to be with David during the quarter century since then. There have been other trips up and down the waterway, on the Long Island Sound and in New England waters, day sails off Wrightsville Beach, and evenings together dining with our wives.
David and Betty had built the first house on the north end of Figure Eight in 1973 and they became a vital part of the early Figure Eight Island community. They participated in the many tasks of leadership that fell to the "old regulars" as the Island grew. David was the man we sought out constantly for our weather advisories. Nothing from the radio or newspaper could rival the accuracy of his predictions. Based on so many years at sea and in aviation, he could take the weather maps and interpret them in light of local observations.
It has been a privilege to record David’s story. Although this account only highlights a long career of public service, it does provide a glimpse of David Oliver, the man – of his spirit of adventure, his dedication to duty, his easy wit, and, of course, his love of the Coast Guard.
In closing we wish to thank Nola Nadeau and Catherine Shepard-Judson. Nola listened to the tapes very early on, encouraged us to get them into print and located Cathy. Cathy showed great patience and skill in preparing the transcription that made it possible to pass along David’s story.
Tom Stanback and Henry Johnston
Editor's note: Captain David Oliver, USCG (Ret.) passed away on 7 October 2002.
BEFORE THE WAR
I grew up in Wilmington and for many years lived quietly. I went to high school here at New Hanover High School, graduated in 1933 and went from there to UNC where I graduated in 1937 with a BS in Commerce. I then came back to town having studied finance and insurance and worked for my Uncle Walker, Colonel Walker Taylor’s son, who was a Princeton graduate and World War I veteran. He suggested I go to New York and work for a large insurance company and go to insurance school there also. This move would give me more experience. Also, I’d be away from the family insurance firm. This I did. But that put me in New York City in the era of the Great Depression. It was the nicest thing I’d had happen to me. Everything was great in New York. You could walk around with no fear of crime and I got a sublease on an apartment. Four of us took that apartment, which had a doorman who polished the brass. It was about four doors down from Nicholas Murray Butler (then President of Columbia University) and you’d think we had some money. Actually, the whole apartment cost us about $80.00 a month. That was about $20.00 each, which was all we could afford.
Then the draft was hot on my track. Many young people, college graduates, were in the same boat. I saw an ad from the Navy, so I went up to the battleship on the North River and attempted to sign on. The Navy sent for my records and were ready to sign me on when my boss, Ted Kelley, said, "David, there’s not going to be a war and you’ll come back here after a couple of years of serving in the Naval Reserve. You’ll be looking for a job and there probably won’t be any because there’ll be throngs of people doing the same thing. Get to be a department manager or something where you’ll have a title." So I took his advice and stayed on with Great American where I was practicing marine insurance.
But the draft got hotter and hotter. I saw an ad one day in the New York Times that said "Commissions granted to those people with a Bachelor of Science or Engineering degree." So I went down and talked to the Coast Guard and they examined my records, my family and whatever, and said, "We accept you. All you have to do is pass a 40 hour exam in marlinspike seamanship and celestial navigation and a number of other things. You start on Monday and go through eight hours a day until Saturday each week. You’ll be competing with anyone else who will come. We’ll take the cream of the crop and commission them then. The others, if they do well on the exam, we will put in a file and call them out later on."
Obviously, we couldn’t pass that exam, so we found out that Seaman’s Church Institute trained seamen to take exams and become officers in the Merchant Marine. We went down and talked to the head of the Seaman’s Church Institute in lower Manhattan. He said, "Sure we can make a special course for you fellows. But we’ll need about thirty-six more; we need a class of at least forty." So this is what we did. Forty of us went down. Our bosses were tolerant and let us go about 3:30 or 4:00. Went down there every day until about 7:30 at night. We studied and learned our lessons. They were beautifully taught and we had it very well in mind when we took the 40 hour Coast Guard exam one week. Twenty-three others from grad schools, etc also sat for the exam along with the forty of us.
Seven of us were accepted immediately. I happened to be one of them and was told they would send me active duty orders, but meanwhile to buy some uniforms. So I went out and bought uniforms. They gave me some money for an allowance. I added some money to it. I had my uniforms set, everything set except that no orders came. Meanwhile, I just read the book the USCG sent: Watch Officers’ Guide.
I had to eat. I didn’t want to go back to my family, so I sought a job in New Jersey and New York. Someone said, "Have you tried Connecticut, up at the rifle places like Winchester in New Haven?" I went up there. I had some friends in Connecticut and finally found a job as an inspector. They gave me courses in METAllurgy and I inspected products. I got paid and that was the main thing.
Although I supposedly had a commission, they were not paying me, they were not ordering me to active duty. Then Pearl Harbor came, and the next day I got a phone call saying I would have two weeks to get ready, get all my uniforms and things that were necessary, see my family down in Wilmington and whatever else I wanted to do, and then I would be receiving orders. In fact, I received orders more quickly than that. Orders were to report aboard ship in Norfolk, Virginia to the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Dione, which was commanded by a Lt. Alger who later made Rear Admiral during the war. I had not been taught anything that a normal Academy person knows, except I did know how to navigate and I had a good education in marlinspike seamanship.
Convoy Duty Aboard the Dione, 1941-1942
After I came on board, the Executive Officer left me and told me to stay on the bridge and just watch. We left Norfolk and went out in a northeaster from the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area and the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. It was quite rough, but I got used to it. I found out that night that the best way to stay in your bunk and keep from being thrown out was to put your pillow underneath your mattress on the outboard side. That way you could wedge yourself in pretty well.
That period was a learning period for me. There were a number of other new people on board. We had graduate Coast Guard Academy cadets plus three or four reserve officers such as John Metts, who now lives in Wilmington, but was from Raleigh then.
Our job was to patrol for German submarines and also to pick up the people that were thrown into the water from ships that were torpedoed. We had plenty of business. One torpedoing after another was occurring near us. We took the first convoy around Cape Hatteras and convoyed coastwise.
Once during that time, when we were about 100 miles off the North Carolina-Virginia line, our convoy was attacked by a German submarine that decided to get rid of us first because we were the greatest menace to him. He aimed four torpedoes towards our ship. We didn’t see the torpedoes because they came from the quarter. Coming up on the right quarter, they were out of the normal vision of the man on the bridge. But an oiler, who was scared to death of being down below if we were torpedoed, was up at the head of a ladder looking at the sea and saw these four shallow torpedoes, which made wakes. They were heading right for the Dione. So he ran out on deck, signaling somebody on the bridge who passed the word to the officer of the deck. He looked at where they were pointing, saw the wakes and had the man who had the watch turn the ship just right. He turned towards the torpedoes, which was the only way we could escape them. Normally you would turn away from them, but he turned the ship toward them - went between them.
We saw two torpedoes race past us and hit ships in the convoy. Two ships were struck. I saw one bridge of a huge tanker go up in the air. It must have been a hundred feet. It was quite a sight. Then we searched for the sub. We left the convoy in the hands of four other vessels to take it on up the coast to the Norfolk entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. We chased the submarine and got him dead-on with our sonar and were able to track him pretty well. He finally stopped and tried to stay on the bottom, out of sight, out of mind. We were able to track him there and go over him and drop 500 pound depth charges --- stern and side depth charges. Both could fly over the sides --- but with different types of arc. We worked him over pretty well. Nothing came up except oil. Sometimes the Germans used that as a ploy. This time there was a lot of oil. We thought then that we had a kill as they called it. So, we came on into Norfolk after marking the spot. That was my first attack on a submarine and one that we thought was successful. The shoals that the sub was near were called Wimble Shoals, off Cape Hatteras. We came back about a week or ten days later and it was still there. We spotted it with sonar, still there and in the same position. We figured we definitely got the kill on the submarine. We termed him Wimble Willy, a sort of euphonious nickname. That was my introduction to real action.
Later the Navy said we didn’t have enough proof on that one, but we’d gone back and checked it with our sonar. Whatever it was down there was the same length of a submarine, width of a submarine and it looked like a submarine. We were pretty sure we sank it. In fact it is still used as a fishing ground off Cape Hatteras. Divers have verified our claim.
After that we worked down the coast to Key West tracking the submarine attacks. We went into Key West, refueled and took on depth charges and machine gun bullets---50 caliber bullets for anti-aircraft guns. We were in Norfolk every three weeks or so. We would start down the coast tracking the submarine activity and coming closer and closer to Key West in order to follow the ships coming out of the Gulf. Many of them were headed up the East Coast of the U.S. to join convoys on the way to Europe.
That period of time was quite active for us. We had general quarters most of the time and averaged about three hours of sleep daily. Submarines like to attack ships at dawn and dusk---when it’s getting dark or light generally on the surface. So we were up early waiting for the submarine to come within our "vision" under water on the sonar, which is like radar except it’s an underwater gadget.
We did have time to get off the ship while they were loading and making some changes on deck. All of our deck officers were taken out by the Navy on a U.S. submarine to see what it was like from the submariner’s view. After that we continued on down to the Caribbean following the submarines and were able to attack and sink a couple of more submarines. But not again did they actually attack us as they had that first time.
Perhaps I should mention a couple of other things that happened during my sea duty besides becoming a full fledged experienced Coast Guard officer. One was that the Captain of the Dione, Captain Alger, designated me as a medical officer because I had among my papers a certificate in first aid from the Red Cross and I was the only one who had that kind of training. (I also had a first class swimming certificate, but that didn’t make any difference.) The captain wanted me to be the medical officer so I could sign for narcotics or whatever else had to be signed for---that kind of thing. It also came in handy that I could help the hospital corpsman who was the only other medical person onboard.
We had no doctor and later on it turned out that it was too bad that we didn’t have a doctor, because we brought in several hundred victims of torpedoing - at least 200, maybe more. We also were ordered at one point to pick up some bodies, which wasn’t very pleasant. We had to leave them on deck and bring them into Norfolk---on our bow, so we had to live a couple of days with that kind of thing.
One experience I had personally was when we picked up some of the victims of a torpedo attack on ships from the Middle Eastern countries. I took the ship’s boat and a crew to pick them out of the water. I saw that one young man was not going to make it. So I got over the side and guided a "stokes" litter under him and reassured him he was going to be better. He was really in bad shape and we brought him back very carefully in the litter. The ship’s boat was brought in and Davidon (that was his name) was moved to our little hospital. I helped the corpsman to patch together the breaks --- compound fractures--- that he had and give him first aid which was the only kind I’d been ever trained for. It was kind of incongruous for me to be a medical officer in the first place.
One thing that was interesting about this case was the morphine I dispensed. This young man was in such pain in his back that I gave him all the morphine I was supposed to according to the instructions. I could see he was still in terrific pain and I sent a message to the public health hospital in Norfolk. I said, "How much more morphine in addition can I give this patient who remains in a great deal of pain?" And a message came back saying as long as he remains in a great deal of pain, you can exceed the amount: use your good judgment, but continue giving him more and more morphine until he seems to have some freedom from pain. This we did. So, I learned a little medical fact that when you’re in terrible pain the amount of morphine is not a concern.
Pilot Training and Air-sea Rescue Duty, 1942-1944
We expected transatlantic convoy duty that would have been very boring. You seldom get an attack. You have to just keep on station day after day until you get to Europe. That was pretty tame compared to what we’d been going through, so I put in for flight training. I received my orders later that year in Staten Island, New York when we came in there. They were three weeks late so I had to hasten to my preflight training at Grosse Isle near Detroit, Michigan, and that was my beginning of an aviation career.
I took to it like a duck takes to water. I went on to Pensacola for the naval flight training, and on March 1st, 1943 I graduated as a naval aviator. That essentially sums up what I did during the early part of the war. We had had a very active time at sea and had some fine officers and men that I worked with, and so I was seasoned. Now I was a flier.
I was ordered to San Diego, California for anti-submarine warfare duty against the Japanese. It turned out the Japanese power was waning in submarines, so anti-submarine duty only lasted a few months. Rescue work was our main challenge. All the armed services that had flying were mostly on the West Coast or Texas where there was good weather. But the pilots, young people like myself, who had been trained, but not fully, were getting into instrument problems in the fog conditions of California and crashing at sea.
We had plenty of "Maydays". One month, in January of ’44, there were 66 crash landings in the Los Angeles area. All were at sea within a hundred miles of the coast. That’s more than two a day. That will give you an idea of the staggering number of planes there were off the west coast.
This was an interesting period for me. Several times I piloted a plane in a rescue. One was of personal interest. We were a number of miles off the California coast when a plane went in and we saw the pilot eject and come down in a chute. We saw his little yellow raft. We went down and he seemed to be in good shape. We picked him up. He said he’d only seen a couple of sharks, which tend to gather when people go into the water. We put him in a bunk in the seaplane, a "Catalina" (PBY). We took off. Conditions were good. Frequently we had quite rough takeoffs. I decided to go back and see the patient since we had about an hour’s flight before we came into the Los Angeles airport where he would be picked up by the Navy ambulance. Well, I got back there and I didn’t recognize him, but he recognized me. He said, "You’re David Oliver." I said, "Right." He said, "I’m John Wood." He had lived across the street from me on Market Street when I was growing up in Wilmington. So it was quite interesting that two hometown people should meet under those circumstances.
The duty in San Diego was interesting in that we carried depth charges the first part of the period in case we ran across a sub. We patrolled down to lower California and all the way to a number of islands down there where submarines had been hidden in the past. We never found any, but we still did it as a matter of routine. When the threat waned, we turned our attention away from ASW (anti-submarine warfare). My C.O. was Commander Archie Burton. He was succeeded by Commander Donald MacDiarmid. Both were adept at rescues and had a lot of good ideas. Commander MacDiarmid said, "I don’t see why we have to use these haphazard methods. Why can’t we have a "rescue system" ---an internet? The internet would be like a Combat Information Center (CIC). All information would come in there. You’d know where every ship is on the ocean. You’d know where planes are. You’d know when you’re in touch with other CICs and so you could coordinate searches. It would be a much more efficient system. We’ll call it SAR --- search and rescue. The Navy and Air Force concurred.
We proposed that idea to headquarters. But Commander MacDiarmid said that we needed, first, to know how to land seaplanes safely at sea. The Navy and Pan American had always just landed seaplanes into the wind like they do land planes. My boss said that’s not the way it should be done. So we were sent to the Spreckles Oceanographic Institute, Point Loma, San Diego while we were still working out of our air station. We took several hours off each day to attend classes and we learned a great deal about the sea. You don’t land into the wind necessarily. If there’s a swell running, you don’t land into the face of the swell. They taught us that sometimes there’s a very low swell that you can only see from fifteen hundred feet or so. You must avoid it by all means because some of those low swells are going at 70 and 75 mph. If you run into it with your airplane, it’s gonna knock you right back into the air and you’ll stall and probably crash. Later we found out that this was also applicable to planes making a crash landing. A lot of trans-Atlantic flights and trans-Pacific flights for one reason or another didn’t make it. Sometimes they ran short of gas. If they could find out what the surface water conditions were like they could land in the proper direction with easier handling and less damage.
We were sort of missionaries. We went out to other stations and talked to pilots there, teaching them how to do these things that we had learned at the Oceanographic Institute. I was sent to Port Angeles, Washington. The ocean is much different up there from what it is off the coast of southern California. In fact, when we were testing seaplanes we broke up three of them. They had instruments aboard and we parked Coast Guard boats to take pictures of them. We had a complete record of what happened to the plane, the stresses that it took when we landed the wrong way. Then we’d land the right way and the plane would take it. Sometimes the planes were so badly stressed that they had to be destroyed. The Navy had given us Martin PBM’s to work with. When we broke up two or three of them nobody was hurt. We just had to find out how things worked and we did.
Helicopter Training and Early Work with Helicopters, 1944-1946
At the end of my duty in San Diego (December 1944), I got orders to go to helicopter school at Floyd Bennett Field, New York under Commander Frank Ericson and very shortly afterwards became an instructor in helicopters. Later they asked me to write a training manual, which the Navy also used some time afterward.
This period of early helicopter training and early helicopter development was most interesting. Helicopters were greatly under-powered so we couldn’t do many things when we started. My boss Frank Ericson thought in time that would be overcome (by use of jet engines, for example) and rotary wing aircraft would be used more. This was a period of experimentation. We flew helicopters as gunships. We sprayed fields for the Department of Agriculture. We did almost everything helicopters are doing now. We developed submarine warfare techniques, putting sonic devices over the side that would listen to the sub and send back information to a monitoring ship. All of this was done several years before it became commonplace.
Frank Ericson meanwhile was loaned to the Army and went over to, I believe it was, Korea and stayed over there several months. He was a Commander (which would have been a Lt. Colonel in the Army) but became an acting Colonel, U.S. Army. They let him wear silver eagles and so forth. He helped the Army a great deal in developing their use of helicopters. Then he came back and established a rotary wing development unit down in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
AFTER THE WAR
A Short Career in Civil Aviation, 1946
Meanwhile, the end of my term in the Coast Guard was drawing near, but I had about four months of leave due me. I had been thinking about getting out and getting a job on the West Coast with a property insurance company. While this was in the making we were up near Seattle and this friend of mine from the war called me and said, "Dave, that dream we had, feeder airlines---we can do it. We’ve got some money. We would have a feeder airline that would carry the passengers into major airports."
He said, "Dave, can you come with us? We’d like to make you chief pilot who would train the pilots that we’ll get from the Navy, Army, Air Force in commercial flying. You have a commercial license (which I had gotten some years before) and you know about flying transports. Some of these people we’ll be getting have only flown single engine planes."
I told my wife Marjorie I’d like very much to do this. We had a small baby, Michael, and so it was a risk. Rather than taking the partnership job on the West Coast, we came east and went to Charlotte, North Carolina. Southwest Airlines was born and we had a charter from the state so we carried mail as well as passengers, which paid most of our expenses.
It worked out pretty well until an outfit called Piedmont came along. The head of that group, Tom Davis, had been in aviation parts for years and was well known throughout aviation, but he had never had an airline. One day we got a call from Washington saying that they wanted both of us to show up so that they could give us our route assignment. They were only going to select one. Piedmont arrived with a battery of lawyers, and we had just one, the lawyer who helped us draw up our charter. The main thing was that we didn’t have the financial backing that Piedmont had, so they got the "nod."
We realized we would have to get out of the business, but we could still work under the charter carrying mail and gradually fade out. I couldn’t afford to do that so I resigned my position and went back into the Coast Guard, this time with a regular rank (USCG) rather than reserve (USCGR). That was again a good move for us because we had loved the Coast Guard while we were in it. That little thought we had of building a new airline was a good one too, but we could see it would have been almost impossible to succeed without large financing. It was another experience I had that was educating for me.
Rejoining as a Regular Officer: Salem, Massachusetts, 1946-1947
So I went back into the Coast Guard in 1946, this time as a regular rather than as a reserve officer, and I was ordered to Salem, Massachusetts to fly seaplanes (SAR).
In Salem I served under a fine man, Ted Harris. We were all flying rescue seaplanes out of Salem, which was a very small station. We had a nice place to stay by renting a house right on the water for a year. The occupants were going over to Europe to travel for a year or eighteen months or two years.
While I was there, I had my first and only helicopter wreck. We had an old helicopter, one of the first Sikorsky models. The mechanics there had put it together and it was not being used at all. One day there was a big celebration in the Post Office Department. They were putting a new post office in and the senators from Massachusetts and other political people were going to be there. The old postmaster was retiring and my C.O. cleared it with the Coast Guard headquarters to let me go in and demonstrate the helicopter with delivery directly to the post office from a Maine post office. This was the first airmail post office to post office.
I delivered the mail with no problem. I asked for police support because the streets were just choked with cars---some moving and some standing still. There were a lot of people too. I told the police sergeant in charge, "Once I take off it’s not certain I’m gonna be able to stay airborne. This helicopter is very under-powered." I said, "Don’t let anybody near the helicopter even after I take off."
They wanted me to take this man who had been employed there for thirty years. I said, "He can ride with me but it will endanger his life and mine and whoever happens to be under us if it doesn’t complete take-off." So, I said, "If it’s not working properly I will set back down."
I explained it to the sergeant very clearly. But it wasn’t clear to him apparently, or at least the people just took over. He didn’t have the control he thought he had. As soon as I raised the helicopter off the ground and was about to go ahead, it began to sputter. The engine was "missing" and I knew that I did not want to risk taking off. As I began to settle in for a landing directly beneath me, I was horrified to see bobbing heads down there. There must have been thirty people underneath me. I knew that I couldn’t put down there. With the tail rotor and the large rotor, somebody would get hurt or worse. I saw a car that was ahead of me and it looked like that was the best place to land, so I landed on the top of this car. Unfortunately, it was a convertible and it didn’t have a steel roof. The helicopter sagged and the rotor hit the ground, and that was the end of that.
I was hanging upside down by my seat belt as was the other man, the postal employee. I was talking to him and trying to keep him calm. I told him to just stay in his belt and he’d be okay. We landed very gently. But somebody poked his head up under me and I was amazed to see he had a lighted cigar. I was drenched with gasoline at that point. Fortunately, he did what I asked him to and removed his face and cigar from underneath me.
As soon as I got down, I called my boss, Ted Harris, and told him what had happened. That was the only time I ever wrecked a helicopter. It was interesting that they had a stamp of it made: the first delivery directly of mail by helicopter from post office to post office.
Then I got orders to go to Antarctica. My wife was pregnant and she said, "Please don’t go. The baby will be born in two or three months and I want you to be here with me." So I called headquarters and they said it was okay. I was disappointed, but a friend of mine, Dave Gershwitz, went in my place and had a wonderful experience in Antarctica flying off an USCG icebreaker. Again a first in aviation history.
Elizabeth City, N.C.: Rotary Wing Development Unit and other duty, 1947-1950
Frank Ericson wanted me as his Executive Officer and I was ordered in the Spring of 1947 to move down to Elizabeth City, North Carolina to join his new rotary wing development unit. My second child was born there---David Greer Oliver. He came about a month or six weeks early, just after Marge flew there for a visit. She wished to see the house in Elizabeth City that I had selected, and planned to return to Salem. She woke me in our hotel room the next night and said, "Dave, do you know any doctors in town? I think I’m about to deliver." And she being a registered nurse, I knew it was a fact and said, " Only one and he’s a specialist in obstetrics and deliveries." We went to his little hospital on Main Street, Elizabeth City. We called first and got a taxi. Young David was born at 3:15 the next day. We called him Tad from that time on and he was a very, very active child, so different from Michael.
About a year and half later, Steve, my youngest boy was born in the main hospital there. He was the longest baby ever born in that hospital---25 inches. That was a first for that hospital. First for Steve, of course. All the boys grew up in Elizabeth City from then on until we were ordered to Alaska.
I do want to say that along with Sikorsky, Bell and Piasecki, Frank Ericson was one of the main developers of helicopters. He stabilized a helicopter in Elizabeth City, which made it possible to fly at night on instruments. He developed the helicopter as a military gunship. You could remain undercover and pop up and fire and be down out of the way before the enemy was aware. You used it to spray fields, which was much better than with "frozen" wing airplanes. It would blow the vegetables or the corn or whatever because the air was coming up from the bottom as well as the top. He simply was a genius in his field. The Army requested him and automatically made him a colonel when he was over in Korea. He helped them in their helicopter development. The Navy added the use of helicopters in anti-submarine warfare to its training program, as Frank had suggested to them.
We made rescues with the helicopters. I happened to make the first one that was over a hundred miles offshore. I asked for a plane to fly over me and give me the proper navigation because at that time it was very hard to navigate a rotary wing aircraft, which demanded your total time and attention. Several other firsts for helicopters came about. One was to take a man off a ship and deliver him to the Norfolk hospital; another was to carry packages of medicine to a ship.
One time off False Cape, just south of Norfolk, a ship was going aground, being pushed on a lee shore on some shoals. It was in dire straits. Our Coast Guard ship, a tug, could not get in close enough to help. It was too shallow. They needed to get their line to the ship which was foundering. So I said perhaps we can take it by helicopter.
Now a line has some weight to it---even a messenger line - and we had very poor power in helicopters in those days. So I figured if we went up to about a thousand feet--- there were then about 500 feet between the two ships---then I could drop the messenger line across the bow or stern of the foundering vessel. They could then pull in a heavier line, attach it fast, and our tug would be able to haul it off the reef. That was a good plan, but the first time we tried it, I told a gunners mate who was my crewman, "Do you know how to tie a knot so you can jerk it loose?" He said, "I sure do." I said, "Well, our lives may depend on it." Sure enough, as we were taking the line over, somebody on the stern of the Coast Guard tug saw that they were running out of line and needed to tie on another bale of line. So unthinkingly he made it fast to the rail while he opened the other bale. At that point the line went taut. We were jerked upside down. Smeltzer, my crewman, pulled the knot and sure enough it let go. Meanwhile we were falling upside down toward the water. Fortunately, there was just enough time to right the helicopter, although I think we dropped below the wave heights. We did get up and tried again and that time we were successful. I think ?????
As Frank Ericson’s operations and executive officer, I helped him where I could with some of his inventions such as stabilizing helicopters. He very carefully carved out two air foils just below the rotors and devised an arrangement so that every time you changed direction slightly those air foils would feel it and they would correct the control stick. So for the first time we were able to stabilize a helicopter.
Meanwhile several of the manufacturers --- Sikorsky was the lead --- were putting stability in through hydraulics in much more complex systems than Frank’s. Of course, they carried the day and Frank’s invention, for which he had a patent, was to no avail.
Since then all helicopters have been stabilized. The manufacturers have seen to that. After that we could fly instruments and we could fly at night with safety. Prior to that time helicopters had been very, very unstable, particularly in the movement to the left or right, but also in the up or down movement.
Speaking of Sikorsky, I remember that when they put up the Wright Brothers Memorial monument, Mr. Sikorsky was invited to make the talk and address the crowd there. He came down from Connecticut. He asked for me to pick him up in Norfolk. I’d known him fairly closely. I visited his plant a number of times. I knew his son who had been my mechanic on the helicopters early on. He’s now head of his father’s old company, United Aircraft, that has a number of aviation projects including helicopters. He’s based in New York.
In Elizabeth City helicopters got to be more and more popular. You couldn’t get to Cape Hatteras and those barrier islands at that time except by boat or by a plane landing off in the sounds. With a helicopter you could go down and give people service if they had a broken back or whatever they had. Again Ericson devised a stokes litter that could be fitted with a cover on each side of the helicopter. When balanced you could take patients very easily even though you had very limited space to land and take off vertically. The outside stokes litters could take a patient in a prone position protected from the air and elements. You could fly directly to Norfolk Hospital or Elizabeth City Hospital or wherever the nearest hospital was you wanted to go.
There was one experience I remember very well. There was a doctor I carried on emergencies, Dr. North, Ed North. He was a fine surgeon, general practitioner, E.R., M.D and everything else. He could just do for you anything you wanted him to and he was in the public health service. He and his wife we got to know very well. One night we went down to Cape Hatteras with two helicopters. One helicopter took the injured man, whether he had a broken leg or back I can’t remember, to fly him up to Norfolk Hospital. We got a radio call saying that Dr. North was needed badly in Elizabeth City. At that time of night doctors were pretty scarce if you needed one right away. So I said, "Ed, we can’t fly back after dark." He said, "Isn’t it possible?" I said, "Well, I can follow the surf line, the white surf. Then we can go across the sound. I don’t know, but if I don’t think I can do it I’ll land up there at Kitty Hawk."
So he and I decided that I would fly him even without instruments, and he had the gall to stay with it --- to be unconcerned in any way as we flew across the sound. Sure enough, it was just like being in a big black gulf. If he can’t see anything the pilot loses perspective. But I found that by looking up --- looking up to the stars--- I had a base, something to pin my balance on.
The flight proved uneventful, fortunately, with Dr. North’s help. I told him, "Ed you got to look for the things ahead and below because I’m looking up at the sky." He did. For example, he called out, "big marker right ahead" or "a cypress tree to the left coming up", and I responded. Dr. North had nerves of steel.
This happened before Frank stabilized a helicopter. That’s why he was working hard on the stabilizer. So was Sikorsky and so was Piasecki, both very fine gentlemen. Piasecki built the first tandem rotor helicopter. It had a big rotor up front and another big rotor behind and it was dubbed a "flying banana". It had tremendous power, relatively much more than the ones we had. I flew the first one down from the Philadelphia plant. I flew it from there to Elizabeth City without any covering on it, just the skeletal frame with two rotors. It elicited a great deal of curiosity from people on the ground. I flew low. One time I had to stop at a filling station to get some fuel. The gasoline tank was a big bag inside. I landed in a field nearby and went over and asked the man if he had any five gallon cans that I could carry over. He was fascinated. He came over and brought the fuel himself.
The next year after being Frank’s "Exec", I was directed to leave Frank at the rotary development unit and go to the main air station located nearby as operations officer. But I still went over and worked with Frank many extra hours--- with Frank and Stu Graham, another officer. My interest in helicopters continued . I was at "E City" until I made Lieutenant Commander in the summer of 1951. With that came orders to be the first C.O. of the first helicopter detachment. This unit was based at Floyd Bennett Field, New York.
The International Ice Patrol, 1950
To go back a bit, while still stationed at Elizabeth City I was sent on another interesting mission. I was assigned for a number of months to the International Ice Patrol flying PBIG’s (Flying Fortresses), an Army Air Force plane that proved easy to fly. The mission was "ice patrol" in the Atlantic south of Greenland, and we were based in Argentia, Newfoundland.
We plotted positions of icebergs and warned shipping (Coast Guard Headquarters kept an up-to-date plot for use by shipping). That was an interesting assignment too, although I was away from my family at that point.
New York City: The First Helicopter Detachment, 1951-1954
As I said before, in the summer of 1951, I was ordered to a helicopter detachment in New York City. The detachment was created because of the Cold War and its mission was port security. The Russians were known to do some drastic things very quietly so it was up to us to devise a way to go up and down the rivers of New York by air and check on ships coming in and on other activity.
We picked up three helicopters in Texas that were Bell helicopters, (not Sikorskys), and flew them to New York. There we started patrolling. We flew more hours than had ever been flown with helicopters. We would go out everyday. We did it 365 days a year. We were able to spot fires. We could spot quickly anything wrong in the shady areas, the dock areas. We could radio directly either to the police, fire department or Coast Guard.
So we interested the City of New York in getting some helicopters to do just that. They could patrol the city much better than before. I think it was the police department that got the first helicopter. But later the fire department did too. I met Mayor Wagner several times and got to know the Police Chief and Fire Chief. It was a good time to be in flying and it was peace time. The war was behind us.
Kodiak, Alaska, 1954-1956
From there I was ordered to Alaska--- that would be 1954---to go up to Kodiak Island. It was a change of pace for me and I was very much interested in going to Alaska. It was a new horizon and a most interesting place up there to be flying, totally different from flying in the States where if you’re going somewhere you have to file a flight plan which will take you along traveled airways. In Alaska, there really were very few traveled airways. Where you went was your own business. You didn’t have to file flight plans so they’d keep track of you. You flew kind of low and you didn’t go into any great heights because the clouds there would impede your climbing too high, as well as the fact that you had a limited amount of oxygen and the planes that we had were not suited to flying high. My family loved it and the schools were excellent.
The thing that really stood out in my Kodiak experience was the fact that in 1955, three MIGS ---Russian MIGS --- attacked a Navy plane flying inside the U.S. border up off the Straits between Siberia and Alaska. This provocation was most unusual. Planes had been flying there for several years and the Russians hadn’t touched them. But for some reason they shot down our patrol plane--- a Navy patrol plane also based out of Kodiak.. The plane caught fire and came out of the clouds and the pilots had to land the plane --- which they did --- just short of a barren island near St. Lawrence Island. There was an Eskimo village there. Eskimos saw the plane coming down---saw the smoke --- and they immediately took rescue action by breaking out their umiac, which was a big boat paddled by 6, 8 or 10 paddlers. Because they were on fire, the pilot landed the plane in the surf just next to the beach so that the fire was put out. Many people already had been burned, however, so the Eskimos helped get them ashore and then took them back in the boat --- their boat, the umiac --- to St. Lawrence where their village was. There was a small airport up there. It would only take planes that could use a short field---airplanes such as the ones we had out at Kodiak and the Air Force had at their Anchorage base. We got in touch with the Air Force and gave them the particulars and they suggested that we send them the most badly burned patients, the ones requiring the most hospitalization and attention. We took those that were not so badly hurt back to Kodiak. We had a small clinic there which served their needs. I would have liked to go on that flight, but I didn’t. Someone else was assigned to go while I stayed in touch with USCG Headquarters in Washington. Our men went fully armed for we didn’t know what to expect. It might have been the beginning of World War III.
My C.O., Ben Engel, left the winter of that year. I was the C.O. of the base then for the next six months till Charlie Tighe, a Commander, came in the fall of 1955. Charlie was the C.O. there for the rest of my term in Kodiak and I was his Exec.
While in Kodiak, I had ten days of survival training above the Arctic Circle. In this training, we were provided everything that a small plane might need for a forced landing. dOur planes carried 7 or 8 people, and if there had to be a forced landing you had to be able to take care of yourself. You had some cooking utensils, you had a fire ax so you could chop down trees and a number of things a normal camper wouldn’t have.
One of the things they told us was that the best way to get circulation through your body and not freeze---not get it cramped---was to take off all your clothes before you get into your sleeping bag. So I didn’t take off quite all of my clothes, but everything except a pair of trunks and that was very hard to do. The temperature was around minus ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five or thirty-five. But what they taught proved to be true, your body has more circulation around it, nothing to shut off your blood supply since you have complete freedom. The next morning though, it was very difficult to get out of that bag and dress yourself as quickly as possible.
We had a Korean war veteran there, an Army colonel who was quite conversant with being on his own in the wilderness. Well, he was a big help to our group of seven, which comprised a plane crew. We weathered our experience very well. We built various types of shelter, including very simple ones--- actually tents built of parachute silk and with a fire inside which was vented up through the center of the tent. That was an experience which I think everybody should have at one time in his life. It really isn’t needed, but it’s instructional.
At Kodiak during the winter of ’55 there was a lot of snow---180 inches of snow. I found out about being in a blizzard. One night I went over to the officers club which was maybe fifty feet from my house, and most people were not there because they couldn’t get there from where their houses were. I got lost. With the wind blowing you have to go in the one direction you are leaning, and so it’s very very tough to get where you are going. It is also very disheartening to find that you really don’t know where you are in that brief period. So when I came back for my wife, I carried a piece of line with me and tied it to the club, and went across the street and brought my wife back following this thread of line, so we both wouldn’t be lost. I wouldn’t trade anything for our Alaskan experience.
San Francisco: Flying to Hawaii and Alaska, 1956-1958
In 1956 I was ordered to the San Francisco air station. We were building up stations throughout the world for navigational systems to be beamed to planes and boats and so forth. They needed lumber and supplies, sometimes right away. They also needed to take people and so forth from San Francisco to Hawaii where one station was being built. I made sixteen trips from the San Francisco air station to Hawaii. In those days you didn’t have the unlimited power and fuel that you have these days. It was very limited. If you had a negative wind factor, it meant that you probably would not go that day. You’d wait until you had less of a minus factor because once in a while the weather did change without your realizing it. If you couldn’t quite make it you’d have to go to another point on Hawaii rather than the one you had aimed for. That only happened once to me. We couldn’t make it to our usual air base and we had to go down to Hawaii, the big island, which was a little closer.
It took quite a few hours to make the flight since we only averaged about 180 to 200 miles an hour and it’s about 2000 miles over water. You had to navigate all the way across, using celestial navigation as on a ship. We knew where we were all the time.
Because I was familiar with the territory, I was also often ordered to fly from San Francisco to Alaska and then on to Attu, which was the farthest island away from the U.S. and nearest to Japan. I went through some storms going out. One of them was very severe and I had lost my visibility in the cockpit because the lightning was so bright I was blinded by it. I had to turn on all my interior lights so that I could compensate--- so I could see. The co-pilot was seated on one side and I was seated on the other and all of a sudden a tremendous burst of flame was right in between him and me. A ball of fire rolled out into the aisle of the transport where the passengers were and the cargo was. We had our door open for some reason and so it went between us, but when it got to the rear of the plane we heard this tremendous crack like lightning crackling. So we thought the plane was badly damaged. We landed in Attu, at a little Coast Guard station there where the Coast Guard had built its own runway. We got out and the co-pilot and I crawled over the plane to see if we could find anything that was damaged. We couldn’t, but we looked underneath. Toward the tail of the plane there’s a protective skeg made out of heavy steel. If you pulled the nose of the plane up too much - on take-off or landing – the skeg was designed to drag along the runway and protect the skin of the plane. Well, we saw that this very tough hardened steel of the skeg was just a blob of molten METAl. It wasn’t molten then, of course. It had congealed, but it had been melted when the ball of fire made an exit. So there was a lot of heat there as the fireball left the plane. That was again a very interesting experience that not many pilots have had.
On another trip the weather was very bad. We were flying back to Kodiak from Attu and we had passengers who were from Kodiak. We found out on the way that Kodiak was having a heavy snowstorm. There was ice on the runways at Kodiak. We thought we’d better fly into Anchorage (Elmendorf Field) and changed our destination. Everybody was complaining that they wanted to go to Kodiak, so I kept in touch with the Kodiak tower. Later on in the evening when it was getting close to midnight, I called them again and asked, "Any chance that your runways are clear now?" They said, "Yes we’ve had them cleared. It looks fine to us." I said, "Would you please send a truck out and have them test the braking on the runway?" They said they would and they came back in a few minutes and said that the truck reported excellent braking. So we changed our destination again and went right down from 8,000 feet to where we were headed for Kodiak. We landed on this runway and when I put on the brakes for the plane nothing happened. We continued at the same speed. I asked the co-pilot, "Is the accumulator okay?" That’s the air accumulator for the air brakes. He said, "Yeah it’s up to standard --- 3600 pounds." I said, "Well something is definitely wrong and I think I know what it is. We’re sliding over the ice." What had happened was that their truck had gone out with chains on and had scraped the runway which had then quickly refrozen, leaving a sheet of ice.
I knew we were in trouble and I didn’t want to climb Mt. Barometer at the end of the runway, so I thought we would try a maneuver. I told the co-pilot what I wanted to do, that we were going to turn the plane to the left with the engines on one side and retard the engines on the other, bringing the plane around as well as we could --- and as quickly as we could --- without jeopardizing it. When we were 180 degrees in the opposite way, we could gun the engines on both sides and we’d have a nice way of air braking. The propellers would be pulling us the other way against the direction we were sliding.
It was a hazardous thing because if we hit a dry spot, which was very probable, it would just wipe out the under carriage. Nobody would probably be hurt but we would damage the plane irreparably. But it didn’t happen and we brought the plane to a stop and the tower said, "Are you okay?" I said, "Yes, we had no braking, but we have come to a stop." They said, "Are you gonna taxi in?" I said, "No, thank you. We’d like to be picked up. All the passengers and everything else for Kodiak. We’re not moving this plane anymore! Our luck has just run out!" So they sent out for us and brought us in. Some of the passengers who lived there left. As for me it was a BOQ bed and warm room. That was a most interesting experience.
On another trip, Pavlov volcano was in an eruption state while we were flying back to San Francisco. We decided to circle this 9,000 foot mountain that had not erupted previously in a number of years. We watched that boiling rock come up yellow and red and white, crack open the side of the mountain and flow down. Just like a colored motion picture. The lava was running in various places. We got some excellent shots of that. That was a novel experience to see---you could see the eruption all the way to the Hawaiian Islands. That was a big, visual memory.
We were always on the lookout for tidal waves in Alaska, anything like that. Any eruption underground sends out ocean waves which build up when they reach shallow beaches and bring ashore what they erroneously call a tidal wave. It’s got nothing to do with the tides; it has everything to do with nature’s underground action. We didn’t get one in Kodiak but we did at a Coast Guard station down south of us. They had time to climb to higher ground, but the water wiped out where the station had been on a rocky cliff. It wasn’t infrequent in Alaska to have these tidal waves. That is why Alaska and Hawaii and all the Pacific Islands are very interesting but subject to that hazard.
While in San Francisco, I got an unexpected set of orders from headquarters to go to a newly arranged training program at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles for about three months---three to four months. I almost was able to get a masters degree---if I had gotten a couple of more credits.
This was an interesting course put together by the U.S. government to help aviation to standardize: to be safer, to know how to examine and analyze any wrecks and to investigate. In this course you were trained to be an investigator able to analyze a wreck. The program developed into the National Aviation Transportation and Safety Board.
I was the sole Coast Guard member. The total number in the class was about thirty. Fortunately, many of them were rusty in specialized math. Most of them were Academy graduates, so they had a good bit of engineering. There was one guy who had recently been to Princeton and several other educational institutions. He was the only one that was really up to date on these matters.
Our first professor put equations on the board very quickly with a piece of chalk and he turned around after he put several up on the board and said, "Gentlemen, did all of you get that? It appears to me that most of you look like you’re stunned. Only one person here has indicated that he knows what I’m talking about." Everybody said nothing. He said, "I think you’re rusty on these types of equations on engineering. What you’re about to learn is beyond your reach. We’re going to give you a week—8 days and so I’m leaving you." He stalked out very much upset. Somebody came down from the office and said, "He’s right. We’re giving you eight days to practice your rusty mathematical knowledge."
I never had this knowledge, so rusty or not I would welcome any knowledge in this direction. Fortunately I was staying with an aunt and uncle, Ebby and Fred Marlowe, on the UCLA side of Los Angeles. My uncle was a retired engineer and still very knowledgeable. He let me have his slide rule which is now a thing of the past, a fine slide rule. It had a lovely case. You could hang it on your belt. I’m afraid most of the class had to go to the University of Southern California store and buy some slide rules for $3.50, $5.50 or $9.50 that were not quite as accurate as the one I had, so I was in luck there.
We sat up till 3:00 o’clock in the morning, every morning for the eight days. My uncle gave me a quick course in engineering mathematics. I went back and was able to at least keep my head above water. I think the Coast Guard had expected that I was going to be number one in the class. Instead I was around---just above--- the middle section. At least I got through it. It was a most interesting program. There were courses on how to teach and many other things like how to make posters and attract people’s attention to certain things. That was part of the teaching. What to look for and why are the planes crashing. So that was most interesting. I went back as a teacher for USCG pilots. I went to several other stations and taught Coast Guard aviators. I imparted to them some of the knowledge I was able to get at the University of Southern California.
New Orleans: Travel to Mexico, Jet School and Test Piloting, 1958-1960
Then I got orders to go to New Orleans with my family. It was another interesting experience. I was operations officer---assistant operations officer when I got there - and search and rescue officer. We were right on the Mississippi River in the Customs House building, which looked out on the river and railroad. We got a house that was not far from downtown. I carpooled with other people who lived out that way so my wife had a car while I was at work. We were a one car family.
New Orleans is one of America’s most unique cities. It’s a rather large city, one of the biggest in area in the United States but the area of jurisdiction for the Coast Guard is much larger, extending all the way over to Texas and north to the capital of Louisiana. We had a big chunk of responsibility. I traveled on inspection trips with an engineering officer. He was a most interesting man---very bright. He had a good bit of experience in eating out. He was a bachelor and he’d eaten out most of his professional life, I think. So on these trips we would find good places to eat in Texas. They were hard to find. Texas has become more sophisticated since then. In those days he said, "One way, David, to tell you’re gonna be going into a good restaurant is to find one that has waiters. If you just have waitresses, you don’t get as good service. This also extends probably to the kitchen. They won’t be as good as when the kitchen is taken care of by waiters. Waiters are professional people. Waitresses are people who are in it just long enough to make enough money to live on until they can get married and leave the profession. They seldom go past that stage." That was his evaluation, which is probably incorrect, but it was one that we used to our benefit.
We went all the way over to Corpus Christi and down to the Mexican border. I took a refresher course in Spanish, having had it in college for four years. A Coast Guard officer in California, Stan Lindholm, was sent down to Mexico. He and I were sent from New Orleans to be with the authorities there about having the Coast Guard boats and planes able to enter their country that borders the Gulf of Mexico. That went very well. We talked to these Mexican people and their government very effectively. Stan Lindholm was a former C.O. of mine and I liked him very much. He was also a very bright and savvy officer.
While in New Orleans I was sent to jet school. Jet school was in Kansas--- Navy Jet School. When I arrived there in December, they said: "All of our instructors are on Christmas leave. You came at a bad time, but you’ve got excellent experience. You can read all the books and learn the emergency systems and take a test on those and take a look at a little radio account on how to fly a jet."
So with that background, I was able to pass the test and go out with a plane---an F9F. It’s a fighter plane the Navy has. It was the top fighter plane at that time. My instructor got into another plane and said, "I’ll see you at ten thousand feet." I watched him take off . With a jet on take-off you pull your nose just so high. You have to have a great deal of speed for your engines to give the proper thrust to get you off --- in those days particularly. Then you could go very quickly up to ten thousand feet.
We got up there and he said, "Okay, fly in formation on me and come in as close as you dare." Well it was easy as pie, because with the conventional plane you’d have to use your rudders or your controls with a very gentle touch and balance. With a jet there’s only one direction of thrust and that’s from the aft part of the plane to the forward part of the plane. You don’t have any torque to be concerned with. You can just drift right in on the plane with everything under perfect control until you see the rivets of the plane next to you. Then you know you’re close enough. We did several aerobatics. I hadn’t done that in years either. It all came back, and it was very much easier to fly a jet than a conventional plane. He taught me tactics of delivering the atomic bomb and other things that were also interesting.
I went back to the district in New Orleans and not long after (I guess I was there several months) I was able to go to Calendar Field (a Navy Field) and be a test pilot for them, testing their reserve planes. They had a reserve organization there in which the officers and men did not have to come in except once a month. So they needed somebody to fly the planes and test them when they were working on them. I performed that function, so I feel I had good experience in jets. I also made contact with a colonel over at Biloxi, Mississippi at a large Air Force base there. They checked me out on the Air Force planes and I served as a test pilot for them. I would take a vacation from the Coast Guard and my family for two or three days and test the planes. The Coast Guard didn’t mind where you traveled and it didn’t take you long to get anywhere at 600 or 700 mph. So I flew tests out to San Francisco. I flew to New York. I flew to various places testing their planes rather than just flying locally over the Gulf. I landed In Wilmington one time to fuel on the way back from a New York visit. Got in touch with my mother and told her I couldn’t come home, I was getting fuel and I was flying. So that was an interesting experience. To fly various types of jets---all of them fighter types. Our family liked it. They liked the schools. Most of it was a very pleasant and enjoyable experience in New Orleans.
Juneau, Alaska: Flying and other Experiences in the Arctic
From New Orleans I was ordered to Juneau, Alaska as Assistant Operations Officer and SAR officer in 1960. My family and I came up by ship to Seattle and on to Juneau. We enjoyed the Juneau experience very much. My youngest son, Steve, had been in the first grade in Kodiak six years before, so he was well along with his education. The other two were, I think, in high school in Juneau.
We saw avalanches. We saw various things which were an education to the boys. I was confined pretty much to non-flying duties. If I needed to fly, which I did several times, I would ask the people down in Ketchikan, a Coast Guard station there, to come up and pick me up. They always courteously allowed me to fly their plane, so I kept my hand in on the PBY and other types of planes.
The Coast Guard was building a navigational system right on the Russian border by the Bering Straits. They said it was the most advantageous place to serve Navy subs. All of the armed services and also other commercial ship navigators needed it very much, so it was built in six months. It was a job which other people had said would take 2 _ years, but they rushed it through and built it in six months before the really heavy winter weather set in. We had to take material and an engineering officer over to see how they were progressing and keep them on the ball. This was a high priority thing in Washington and the government expected the Coast Guard to do it. They had a Coast Guard engineer in charge of the project because they thought he knew more about things, which he probably did. His name was Art Pfeifer. He went up several times on that duty and I flew him using a Ketchikan aircraft.
One time I got picked up by helicopter and flew north to a place on the Arctic Ocean where a Coast Guard ship, an ice breaker, was going. I knew the captain Russ Waesche, and we went out to the ship. It was the first time I had been through the experience of ice breaking. It’s terribly noisy. The whole ship vibrates while it beats its way through heavy ice. One time they hit something that was very heavy. It was probably an ice island that extended all the way to the bottom of the sea. They made little progress there, but they did try to finish the patrol. Then they went over to the land off Russia in the Arctic Ocean. They brought me back after two days of that, and another helicopter carried me to where we were picked up by the plane and went back to Juneau.
The Admiral there, Admiral Chris Knapp, liked to have his wife with him if he could when he went to meetings up in Anchorage, but she didn’t like to fly. In fact she was quite afraid of flying. I occasionally had taken her over to a town, a former Russian town in eastern Alaska, because she had to be there and she felt for some reason safer with me than with a commercial airline pilot and with her husband. The Admiral suggested maybe she would fly to Anchorage with them and be there with the General in charge of Alaska, General Mundy (he later checked me out in the huge B-2 bomber), along with other people he wanted her to meet for the benefit of the Coast Guard. So she did. When we came back, I asked the Admiral if he would fly with us and he said no he was going back commercial. So I took his wife back and I suggested to her that maybe she’d like to fly down the side of a glacier. We were gonna fly up higher than the glacier and that way we wouldn’t have to fly over the water going back. She really didn’t like flying over water. So we went east from there and south until we were high enough to get over the edge of this declining glacier. We flew down this glacial drift. It really was a shorter way to get back to Juneau. It was a spectacular experience for her, as well as for me and the crew. We landed at Juneau and Mrs. Knapp was impressed. The Admiral said, "The next time I go up there, David, I want you to take me on that same course. All I’ve heard at the dinner table is how great it was."
One problem at Juneau was water--- the water was cut off by broken lines caused by an avalanche. We had to take water to our houses to drink and also to flush the toilets. For the first time I really appreciated piped-in water. Every time you flushed the water in those toilets it was five gallons of water. When you carried five gallons up to do it, you appreciated it very much. My sons were big enough then that they could help me carry these five gallons cans --- Jerry cans they called them.
Sea Duty Aboard the Ingham, 1962-1964
So then in 1962, the Coast Guard sent me a letter saying I was one of their few aviators who were experienced sea officers and they needed officers to go to sea. The others were staying in aviation, but since I had the experience they were directing me to the Ingham.
That was a whole new chapter for me when I was taken out of aviation. It was really against my will, but of course I did what they told me. I moved from Juneau to Norfolk, Virginia and boarded a ship there as a new exec. I had a fine skipper. For two weeks we worked out with Navy ships in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I went down there and I never worked so hard in my life. As Executive Officer, it was my job to run the ship while the Captain commanded it. It was a hard job, but I learned very fast. We had to bring people and parcels back and forth on lines and do other things, like refueling, as if in war-time operations, firing guns and other things like that. The Navy expected us to be in readiness form.
We came back from Guantanamo Bay and went on sea duty, operating out of midway points in the ocean ("ocean stations"). One of those midway points was up between Canada and Greenland. It was very cold that winter. We had some below zero temperatures, which doesn’t happen at sea very often. Then we heard of this low that was coming --- a tropical low. We would call it a hurricane, but since it didn’t happen after June 1st, technically we couldn’t call it a hurricane --- just a big wind storm.
Rather than go in and seek shelter, the skipper decided we would stay out there on station where we were guiding commercial aircraft that flew over. But when this storm hit, our ship was fairly well iced because the flying droplets of water had frozen. The temperature was minus zero. I forget what it was minus, but it was quite cold. We were concerned because we figured if the ship got iced enough, it would simply be unbalanced and turn over. Ice is very heavy --- eight pounds I think for a small section. Fortunately, the storm brought warm tropical temperatures with it and very quickly the thermometer rose up to about 27`-28`-29` or 30`.
We were concerned about the winds: our anemometer on the bridge read up to 162 knots which is over 184 mph. That was the strongest wind I really ever heard of in a hurricane. What we did was simply slow down and try to stay on station. We did not try to buck the waves at all. We could see no huge waves because the wind was so strong it beat down any waves that tried to get above normal heights. What it did though over time was to build up systems of huge waves that could block out sections of the horizon. We were standing on the bridge that was fifty feet above the water. Most fellows were 5 or 6 feet tall, which added another 5 or 6 feet. So we were 55 or 60 feet above the water and yet sections of the horizon were blacked out. This meant that there were waves out beyond us that were well above the height of 60 feet.
This was a most interesting thing, and it was a phenomenon that I’d never seen happen during my several years at sea. It was a dangerous thing and though we were keeping the engines going we were still tossed around like a tin can.
We had only two feeding hours a day and then we would try to bring the ship into the calmest place possible so people could eat without slopping it all over the place. The next meal we would do the same thing. Otherwise we just took the ship over to what we considered the safest position until the hurricane left us. It was advancing probably not very fast at that time, maybe twenty to thirty miles a day. We were there for two or three days before it ended. It got faster in movement as it got weaker in wind velocity. It left us under normal circumstances with just rough water. By the following day it was normal sea.
It was most interesting to me that under those conditions we were giving the weather department in Washington all the information that we could. Coast Guard ships at sea are oceanographic ships also. We put scientific measuring devices over the side. We collected samples and sent the information back to scientists who could use it. We were not only out there for Coast Guard purposes but also for the purposes of other departments. We did oceanographic sampling. We sent up balloons and tracked them with radar to send back the various speeds of the balloons travelling at certain altitudes, which helped the weather people to forecast properly. At the end of that period on the ship, during most of which I was acting C.O., I received orders to Washington, D.C. to be head of a new department called the Small Boat Safety Department.
Washington, D.C.: Small Boat Safety, 1964-1968
So I left the ship and went to Washington for a stint at Coast Guard headquarters. I was the head of recreational boating safety. It was a new department. It had been a part of the Merchant Marine Safety Department, which was concerned mainly with large vessels. Small boat safety was only an appendage and was given short shrift. When millions of smaller boats came into use just after World War II the Coast Guard felt that they deserved full attention, so my new department was created.
There were waterways and lakes and so forth being built by the government across the country. Mid-westerners were finding out how to sail and use motor boats. Boating was growing by leaps and bounds. Our job was to try to assign the proper rules for them to work under. I had to travel around to various legislatures and ask the state governments --- I worked with committees of state governments --- to make most of the rules. The federal government did not want to control the rules. All the states except New Hampshire, I believe, now have their own rules. There are some federal rules but they’re not overpowering. So that was another first: to be able to go out and work with the civil population and state legislatures in boating safety.
I knew the federal law very well so I was able to talk to committees in legalistic terms and convince them that the way to go for them as a state was to take over the major boating law enforcement in their state and to coordinate with other states. This led to some nice personal contacts. I was taken out to lunch at various places in several states. I think it was in Tennessee that the head of this committee said, "Dave, where did you go to law school?" Of course, I hadn’t gone to law school, but I talked like a lawyer because when you focus on one thing it’s easy to learn that very well. It was interesting that he mistook me for an attorney. That whole experience gave me some experience in talking to legislatures, talking to committees, and speaking to the general public.
Later on while I was in the Coast Guard headquarters, the Congress of the United States and the House of Representatives attacked the Coast Guard for spending money unnecessarily by putting in all these buoys. They asked why we wanted to spend money like that. Why couldn’t we simply have signs saying this way and that way like we do in the streets of towns? These were Midwesterners who had no concept of how you had to navigate over water. Most of them, I think, had been prosecuting attorneys because they put me on the hot seat where I had to be diplomatic and not say, "Where in the world did you get that dumb idea!" I had to say something different. It was an awkward place to be and so after the third day of grilling Admiral Smith of the Coast Guard said, "David you’re taking a beating. I’ll come down there tomorrow and at least give you moral support from the front row." So, he was there the following day and was introduced. They treated him with a lot more respect. Thereby, they treated me with a little more respect, but it was not a place I envied being. I would not like to go again and face these lawyers who were skilled with questioning. Some of the questions were based on unknowable concepts.
Chicago: Captain of the Port, 1968-1970
In 1968 I got my final assignment in the Coast Guard. I’d never been inland since I’d been in the Coast Guard but I was designated Captain of the Port in Chicago with an area of responsibility extending all the way up around Duluth, which is the northern area of the Great Lakes. Within two months of our arrival my lovely wife, Marge, died of a brain hemorrhage and was buried in Arlington Cemetery. I still had to do my job in Chicago so I remained there for the next two years, until 1970, completing nearly thirty years of service.
New York City: American Boat and Yacht Council, 1970-1973
At this point, I had an offer from the American Boat and Yacht Council to be their manager and secretary with offices in New York, and so I stored household stuff and reported in. Very shortly thereafter I met my wife-to-be, Betty.
We dated through the summer. It was a most interesting summer. I spent a lot of time in Connecticut and was commuting every day for an hour and a half each way, which I had never done in my life. I had never commuted that far or that long --- three hours a day commuting.
I didn’t really like commuting much, but I did have a good job down on 26th Street. I’d go in by train and jog from 42nd or 43rd Street down to 26th. I got my exercise that way running about a mile. I finished in the afternoon and returned home. It was necessary to change trains. It was a lengthy procedure.
One day Betty and I were talking about this commuting and other things. (We had acquired a sailboat and I was teaching Betty to sail and she was also prepping for the Coast Guard Auxiliary exam.) She said, "Why don’t you quit?" I’d never faced the situation where I really could quit. I never quit a job because it was necessary for me to work. So instead of quitting, I tried to move the American Boat and Yacht Council to Annapolis. New York was a terrible place for it anyway. When that failed, I tried Atlanta, Georgia, but the Board would shake their heads. They wanted to stay in New York.
Finally the Underwriters Laboratory moved to Tampa, Florida and I said, "Gentlemen, this is a perfect time and place. We can work with Underwriters Lab (which we had been doing for years in testing various things that had to do with boating). Let’s think about moving the company there." They considered and came back and said, " No, we’re gonna stay right in New York. So I said, "Well, unfortunately I don’t really like to be in New York and I’ve served you for these several years --- three. I have a good man I can recommend. He’s a naval architect engineer and he’s probably a lot better equipped than I’ve been. I’d like to recommend him and if you accept him as the manager, then I’d like to resign. I’ll try to leave you in good hands and not just walk out".
Back to Wilmington, 1973
That’s what happened. Betty and I eventually boarded our sailboat to sail down to Wilmington, and a friend took our car down along with our dog. It took him about two days or less. It took us about three weeks. It was nice sailing with Betty. She became a good on-board cook and she became a better and better deckhand. I told her, "You are the Admiral but I’m the Captain of the boat and what I say goes when we’re under way. You can make any decisions --- how far we’ll go each day, whether we’ll eat ashore or at a restaurant or whether you’ll fix some dinner aboard. All those are the Admiral’s decisions" So it worked out perfectly. She’s been the Admiral ever since, but it has kept us in good harmony.
We had already bought a piece of land on Figure Eight Island three years before in 1970, when I got out of the Coast Guard and we were engaged. It was near my home and my hometown and my mother was nearby. I thought it looked like the land was going to be valuable. Earlier, just after I met Betty, she had said, "Definitely it’s going to be valuable. It will be worth much more than they’re asking now."
I said, "Let’s go down and visit." So we visited my mother, and Betty went out to Figure Eight. It didn’t even have a road up at the north end, so they took us in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Betty stood up on an old Coast Guard wooden platform --- a submarine sighting platform for the Coast Guard, which had been kind of a horse brigade on the island. She said, "I want that one over there. The one with all the yucca on it." So that was the lot we bought. Held on to it until we finally moved down there the latter part of ’73. We were the first to live on the north end of the island.