U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
Pacific Buoy Tenders
C. William Bailey
Walnut had a beautiful steam whistle that sounded as loud as the fog horn on the old Lightships. When I blew it leaving the dock across the harbor from the District Office it would rattle their windows. The Admiral forbade me to blow it before 8 O'clock in the morning.
I had been on Tupelo, an A-class buoy tender, during most of the war and spent a lot of time on Guam. I was XO to a crusty old former surfman from the Outer Banks of the Carolinas who was promoted to Warrant Officer during the Great Depression. He had been put ashore in charge of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp, then promoted to Lieutenant and given command of Tupelo in 1943. He taught me much about the old Coast Guard and I loved him like a father.
A message from HQ assigning me to command a small Army freighter in the Philippines never got delivered and a month later HQ sent another message assigning me to go back to Hawaii and take command of Walnut. That one I did receive and boy, was I happy!
I had been having trouble with hemorrhoids and I sat "in hot water" literally the nine days going back to Pearl. The minute I took command of Walnut I reported to the Navy Hospital for surgery. Fortunately the ship was in repair status and my absence caused no problems.
It was a wonderful change from Tupelo and I soon settled comfortably in our routine buoy work around the islands. We would often tie up at docks where the pineapple crates were piled high so one could not reach the fruit awaiting shipment. They never realized that we could hoist an man in a boson's chair up with the boom to the top of the pile. All hands developed an appetite for pineapple.
The steam winch was difficult to operate with many levers to handle, and competent operators were scarce as hen's teeth.
Soon the war ended and the Reserves were all hot to travel home. They spent their days counting points to see if it was their time to go yet.
We seldom left the immediate Hawaiian Island area except for one trip West to French Frigate Shoals which is halfway to Midway Island. While there we received a message to hurry back. Arriving, I was called to the District office for a conference with a bunch of Navy officers planning the Atomic Test at Bikini. They seemed to think we were the Aids to Navigation experts. It was put on my back to plan, and carry out that part of the project. I was transferred to a new C class tender, the Redbud, given authority over a Navy cargo ship to load all the necessary materials on the West Coast, and off we went to the tropical Island of Bikini.
Arriving, we found a desolate ring of islands surrounding a large lagoon (typical in the South Pacific) and the only naval presence was the Hydrographic ship Sumner to whom we reported for duty. They were busy charting the area for the future fleet that was scheduled to arrive to conduct the Nuclear Tests.
By the time the cargo ship with the buoys, chain and sinkers (and the cargo of beer that we surreptitiously included) arrived, we had our plan developed for the buoyage needed for the safe entrance into the lagoon, and we went to work.
The Navy wanted a special buoy to mark the exact center of the area around which all the test ships would be moored. They suggested a single spar buoy (like a telegraph pole) and stated that it had to be planted within 10 feet of an exact geographic point. This of course would not be possible in 180 feet of water subject to tide and wind currents. So we decided to use a can buoy, and instead of the usual heavy iron ballast ball needed to make the buoy stand upright, using mooring chain in such a depth of water, we borrowed a large block (pulley) from our friends on the cargo ship to hang below the buoy. We rove a 3/4 inch wire rope (such as the type we used on our boom) through the block (cut to the depth of water) leading to a concrete sinker for the mooring anchor. T he ballast ball was secured to the bitter end of the wire a few feet from where the wire end was coming out of the block.
Setting up two theodolite stations ashore with radio communication, we maneuvered Redbud out to the approximate desired area with the buoy hanging high out on our boom and painting the wire rope white for visibility. It took a lot of maneuvering before the surveyors were satisfied and ordered "Let Go" We now had a nicely visible buoy riding tightly on her mooring exactly as they wanted for the primary test ship site upon which all the many instruments around on the shores would be oriented.
The fleet of men and ships rapidly arrived to use our marked channels. On Easter Sunday they wanted to hold Services ashore on the site that was shortly to be blasted into eternity. I quickly organized a brass quartet consisting of volunteer musicians, one of whom was a Chaplain. Only half of the people could be granted liberty at a time so we had to do the Services twice.
While at Bikini we had a warning of a Tsunami (a subterranean earthquake causing a tidal wave traveling rapidly for thousands of miles) which had devastated a town in Hawaii. We expected the worst and made all kinds of preparations. When it arrived it was a pussycat. Only a gentle rise in tide of a few feet occurred.
All too soon our work was done and we were hoping we could hang around for the actual test that was due in a few weeks. But no; the Navy had a water barge that was empty and we had to tow it over to Einewetok for filling. Returning, we were told "Thank You Very Much, Go Home."
When we got back to Honolulu they said I had enough points for discharge and the District Commander wished me Godspeed. On leaving the office a Chief Yeoman stopped me to whisper sotto voce that he had noted that the Admiral had recommended me for a permanent appointment. It wasn't too much of a surprise, while enjoying my accumulated 120 days leave, to receive a telegram asking if I would come back to active duty as a Reserve with the possibility of a future regular appointment.
Did I accept?
You better believe it!