U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
C. William Bailey
Re-reading a recent letter from the best Chief Mate of my Merchant Marine days -- now a Master of his own ship sailing out of the Port of Boston -- asking about how I got started “going to sea” from that same port, makes me feel that it is time for some explanation of the title I chose for my autobiography: “You Can So, Eat Your Cake And Have It Too” [members.aol.com/hdbrass]
In 1925, a boy of nine arrived with his mother in the town of Squantum (a suburb of Quincy, Massachusetts), to spend the summer while his father, who had won a prize for the highest mark in a national examination at the American Guild of Organists, went to France to study with world-renowned musicians. The boy lived on a street, appropriately called “Ocean Street”, that led down to the shore of Quincy Bay, one of several similar bodies of water that made up the Port of Boston. There were half a dozen other kids on the street, all who were much into sailing small catboats called “Snowbirds”. Well, it wasn’t long before I, too, got the “sailing” bug. We spent the daytime afloat and each evening gathered on someone s front porch to talk. About what? Boats, of course.
The next year my father took me aboard a Coast Guard Cutter down in Savanna, Georgia, on Visitors Day, and that cemented my desire to some day “Go to Sea”. We didn’t go back to Squantum until four years later when we returned to settle down there so I could go to a good high school in Quincy. Naturally I picked up boating again and went racing in sail at every opportunity, crewing on larger craft.
Now jump ahead to 1933 when I graduated from high school. Receiving five dollars as a present, I bought an old cornet from a neighbor kid who had broken a window and needed cash in a hurry. Now I had a new interest, music, as well as the sea.
While playing baseball on a neighborhood team, I was hit in the eye with a ball and was thus prevented from passing a physical exam for the Coast Guard Academy. I still wanted a career at sea, though, so I kept active in learning all I could from retired ship captains. After two years at a Midwest university in a Fine Arts program, I felt that this was not the way to go, although I had done well in music. During my last year in high school, I also took a course in celestial navigation at night school at Harvard. Needing a sextant for the course I went shopping in an antique store and found what I thought was a bargain for twelve dollars. Later, after the course, I found that it was a “bone-arc octant” used aboard the SS Saint Paul, reported to have been the first twin-screw steamer to cross the North Atlantic Ocean. It served me well until I got a beautiful modern Hughes sextant in WWII from the mate of a ship in the South Pacific for only 19 Pounds, another bargain. Today both are on display with a ship’s chronometer in my dining room surrounded by Wedgewood sailing ship plates.
I got acquainted with the owner of a large sightseeing vessel and a tug, and he treated me like a son. I learned a lot from him. Meanwhile I continued to race in larger yachts, and play music in various neighborhood bands. In 1936 I got a position as fourth trumpet in the Boston Civic Orchestra. I had a summer job as skipper of a private yacht for a prominent undertaker in Boston. In winter, however, I was left on my own to find work, even going out as a street musician in a brass quartet to play hymns. One yacht job led to another larger one. As soon as I was 21, I went to the Steamboat Inspector’s office to see if all my varied boating experience could qualify me to sit for some kind of a license. The crusty old Captain Inspector must have been in a generous mood since he let me sit for exam for “First Class Pilot for Boston Harbor for Two Hundred Gross Tons” (the size of a tugboat). He even pointed out to me where I had put the Boston Lightship slightly off position while drawing my chart. Three long days later, I finished my first Merchant Marine Examination and left the office happy and hoping that there would soon be more to follow.
As the years passed, war clouds were forming and the US Army started to refurbish the old Revolutionary War Island forts in Boston Harbor. Boats were needed to carry the workmen and supplies to the islands and the Army General needed a vessel for his frequent inspections. The Quartermaster Corps was given a donation of a large motor yacht, which needed a crew of a Master and two Seamen. My Pilot’s license legally allowed me to sail as a Master although it did not have the word Master on it. I applied and got the job as Associate Master to an older, much more experienced man. We had to work three 24-hour days alternately. On my three days off, I would go and ride the larger boats carrying several hundred passengers as a “pilot observer”, getting experience credit for the time spent. With this evidence, I was soon able to sit for an examination for a raise in license to “Master, 500 Gross Tons, Lakes, Bays and Sounds”. The QM Corps moved me off the yacht and up to the larger tugs and steamboats.
On my nights off, I was able to keep up with music, and because the draft board took the first trumpet out of the orchestra, every year we all moved up, and by 1940 I was the first trumpet. According to law I was not subject to draft except for the position for which I held the License; nevertheless I began to worry when they took one of our engineers away.
On 7 December 1941, I was skipper of the steamer Westport, with a cargo of 200 girls aboard to take them down to Warren Island for a dance at the fort. While sitting in the wheelhouse, munching on a sandwich mooched from the fort chow line, and listening to the radio, I heard the news about Pearl Harbor.
I continued serving with the QM Corps a few more months, until one day the Chief Engineer mentioned that he had heard about a special Coast Guard recruiting program for licensed merchant officers, to man the Army and Navy Transports, which were to be given to the CG to operate. We agreed to meet and go look into it. The next day was stormy, and the Chief didn’t show up. Remembering the visit aboard a CG cutter many years ago, I decided that a few buckets of rain were not a problem, so I went on to this separate office, where a retired Eastern Steamship Line Captain was doing the interviewing. By this time, my license had risen to “Master, 1500 Gross Tons, Coastwise”. He accepted my application, and three days later I got a telegram offering a Commission in the grade of ENSIGN in the Coast Guard Reserve.
Little did I know then that this step would start me on the path to command nine seagoing cutters in a 30 year regular CG career, and then three tankers when back in the Merchant Marine. Now, at age ninety, I feel proud to bear the “AKA” appellation given me by my Internet Editor, “Old Sea Dog”.