USCGC CASCO on OCEAN STATION (OS) BRAVO
By Joseph T. Ponti
Memories sometimes fade, but there are some that stay with you through the decades. So it is with my memory of the USCGC CASCO (WAVP-370). My memories of her go back to a time when the schedule called for CASCO to leave her home port of Boston in early November of 1962 and proceed to Ocean Station Bravo and relieve the USCGC BARATARIA (WAVP-381) no later than November the 8th. I’m sure that date was circled on every calendar on the “Dirty B”. Preparations for our departure actually started weeks before.
They included the routine task of taking on over 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel which was orchestrated under the close supervision of the “Oil and Water King”. With head phones and a sounding tape he carefully controlled the flow of oil into the various tanks throughout the lower levels of the ship. The Bravo pennant was flown from the foreyard and the 21 MC loudspeaker system announced that the smoking lamp was out during fueling. Without much fanfare truck loads of food stocks needed to feed 110 men for at least six weeks were carefully loaded onto the ship by the entire crew under the close supervision of the Chief commissary man and his sidekick the “Jack-O-the-Dust’. He made sure that food is loaded in the reverse sequence that it was going to be used as the refrigerators and store rooms were loaded right up to the overhead. Pouches of the latest codes and confidential documents made their way into the hands of the Communications officer. Nearly 100 cases of cigarettes were also loaded on board. (These were the days before the surgeon general’s warnings.) Dozens of helium tanks were man-handled onto the ship and secured in the helium shack on the fantail and cases of weather balloons were stowed in the weather office on the 01 deck. Red lead patches of primer were covered with the appropriate color of paint. Machinery spares inventories were brought up to capacity. The ship never looked better.
With forty-eight hours to go the air and surface search radars were lit off and precisely tuned. The main gyro was also turned on and allowed to settle down. As the hours ticked by various pieces of equipment were tested and all topside gear was secured and double checked. One of the last and most closely scrutinized activities was the acquisition of thirty-five movies from the US Navy Yard in Charleston. As the time of departure drew closer the final remnants of crew and officers returned to the ship. Deep in the bowels of the ship the four auxiliary diesels were lit off and as soon as they were warmed up the ship shifted to its own power and the first of the ties that made us dependent of the land was pulled back onto the dock. The four main engines rumbled to life with a loud hiss of compress air in each of the engine rooms. The once quiet vessel came to life with the chatter of the mufflers in the stack space and the whirr of the ventilation system. The vessel would know no peace for the next five weeks. As the fresh water tanks were topped off, the 21 MC announced a final muster of all departments on the fantail. Department heads reported to the captain that the ship was “ready for sea”.
The shrill of the boatswain’s pipe now announced the setting of the “Special Sea Detail”. All hands doubled timed to their assigned stations. A flurry of activities ensued as reports stream onto the bridge where the CO and XO are informed, vie sound powered phones, that all stations were manned and ready. The last pouch of mail goes ashore and the command to pull in the gangway and single up all lines is heard from the bridge.
Under the watchful eye of the CO, the XO assumes the con and orders that number 3 mooring line be held and all others be cast off. The annunciator orders the engine rooms to go ahead 1/3 on the starboard shaft and back 1/3 on the port shaft. The water churns, kicking up mud, and the stern slowly swings to starboard as the order to back 1/3 on all shafts is given. With a mild shudder the vessel slowly starts to back out of its slip. The ship’s air whistle blasts three times to signal that the ship is now backing. The order to cast off #3 line and shift the colors is given. With a quick jerk of the halyard the steaming ensign now flies from the gaff on the mainmast and the colors on the jack and flag staffs (fore and aft) are struck. Entering mid-channel the engine order telegraph rings up all ahead 1/3.
With the deck gang now manning the rails, the CASCO slowly gains speed as it winds its way out of Boston harbor. With the #1 sea buoy abeam the 21 MC system announces: ”secure the special sea detail and set the sea watch”. All ahead standard is rung up as the ship’s comes up to cruising speed (15 knots) and sets an easterly course across the gulf of Maine and starts the nearly 1500 mile trip to OS Bravo. Whoever dreamed up the term “shallow water sailors” for the Coast Guard never went on a weather patrol. As speed increases the ship meets the oncoming swells with a gentle rise and fall. Nightfall finds CASCO in the middle of the Gulf of Maine and the navigator, after getting an evening position fix, plots a final course for Cape Sable in Nova Scotia making sure that Sable Island is given a wide berth to starboard. Continuing on a northeasterly course Sable Island (known as the grave yard of the Atlantic) is a barely discernable blip on the surface search radar.
At the end of our second day, with the temperatures dropping and the wind stiffening, the loon of Cape Race light on the southeast tip of Newfoundland makes a comforting appearance on the horizon. Taking departure from Cape Race the ship sets a great circle course to the northeast and is at the half-way point to BRAVO. Without any surprise a heavy overcast descends and precludes the shooting of evening star observations by the navigator. The evening position is determined by LORAN C. As the hours pass ship traffic starts to thin out, except for the occasional rust streaked fishing vessel that crosses our path. The air has a definite nip to it and the sea temperature influenced by the Labrador Current drops to a chilling 44 degrees. As the ship proceeds further into the northern latitudes, sunset takes place earlier and earlier. Since leaving Boston we have lost nearly an hour of daylight. Morning finds us cruising under a clearing sky. With temperatures still dropping, we observe our first sign of sea smoke (a form of low hanging fog that forms when the cold air-sea differential is just right). It hovers to about six feet above the water and we cruise through it as if we are flying on a cloud. Unknown to most of the crew the ships passes within several miles of where the TITANTIC sunk.
As we end our sixth day at sea our surface radar picks up a contact and with a high degree of certainty we are sure it’s the BARATARIA. Its pitch black night time by the time we see her lights. The ship-to-ship radios start to chatter back and forth in preparation for the transfer mail and the trading of some movies. The sea and wind have picked up some and our motor whale boat nearly disappears in the deep troughs.
The transfer takes place without incident and on the radio the official station relief takes place between the two captains. CASCO immediately starts to key Oscar Sierra on her beacon every ten seconds. One of the strangest things that is observed on station is the profusion of sea gulls. Even though Bravo is 1500 miles from land, hundreds of them live out there. They live off the garbage that is dumped three times a day after meals. It’s like a king’s feast to them. Somehow the gulls always know which ship is staying, and as the BARATARIA slowly heads home, the gulls remain on station circling the CASCO.
One of the most poignant moments of a Bravo patrol is to watch the ship that’s just been relieved slowly disappear over the horizon. What a lonely feeling! And it stays with you for the next three weeks, for unlike the other ocean stations this locale is far off the shipping lanes and the sighting of another vessel is a rare event.
However, the daily routine has a way of making the time pass and memory of the BARATARIA fades within hours. Three of the four main engines are now placed on ½ hour stand-by and the ship maintains station with one engine on one of the shaft. Drifting is the usual mode of operation and the engine was engaged a few times a day to get the ship back to the center of the grid.
The weathermen launch balloons several times a day which radio information on temperature, pressure and altitude back to the ship, and the air search radar tracks the balloons speed and direction. The winds-aloft information is of particular interest to the trans-continental jets flying the great circle course from Europe and the States and back. The radio beacon, beeping its OS signal, is also used by them to get positional information. The ship’s air search radar can reach out to well over one hundred miles and voice communications between the ship and planes can be maintained for nearly thirty minutes. During that time many an interesting conversation was carried out. The air crews often times would take dictation from us on board ship and write cards that would be posted upon their landing. Many a wife or sweet heart was surprised and thrilled to receive a note from a love one mailed from the middle of the North Atlantic. Because of weather it was a rare sight to be able to spot the contrails of a jet passing over head and I’m sure that it was an even rarer sight for the ship to be spotted from a jet cruising at 35,000 feet.
Daily readiness drills like man-over-board, fire and damage control, ASW and gunnery practice and a host of others punctuate the daily routine and keep everyone on their toes. According to tradition the ship’s chronometers are wound daily at 1100 and as noon approaches the ship’s navigator makes his daily visit to the CO’s cabin to report the ships latest position and the approach of noon, and to request permission to “strike 8 bells at 1200”.
Unlike today’s world of satellites and GPS equipment, navigation during the fifties and sixties was more of an art than science. Celestial navigation and LORAN were the primary means available of getting a reasonably accurate positional fixes. That was of course if the weather cooperated. For the most part it didn’t. A broad RDF bearing from WBZ Boston, a weak LORAN C signal and a questionable fathometer reading were oftentimes the only means of getting an approximate fix. On occasion some help was received from planes flying overhead as best known positions were traded.
To say that the weather on station was fickle was indeed an understatement. One day it’s relatively calm, and the next day the temperature drops to the 20’s and the wind is blowing at over 50 knots. And of course the ocean does its best to make it miserable for everyone on board. Sleeping becomes a challenge and many schemes are used to keep from being rolled out of one’s bunk. And of course the officer on watch was held up to scrutiny by the entire crew three times a day during meals for his picking of the most comfortable “chow-course” heading. The mess table in the wardroom ran from port to starboard and each chair had small lanyards that could be attached to the table to keep one securely in place during meals. With the ship rolling 20-30 degrees, meals meant everyone kept their hands on their plates and lifted them in sync with the rolls to keep them level.
For remote stations like Bravo, besides the four meteorologists, the ship also carried a US Public Health Service doctor on board. Given that the ship was nearly two days steaming from civilization, his presence was a comfort knowing that he was there in real time for any medical emergency. His services were sometimes called upon to assist solitary merchant ship or fishing boat that needed help. This is one of the few times that the ship left station. And here the “Doc” really earned his paycheck. Transfer to another ship via small boat in an angry sea is certainly a memory that was repeated to his children and grand children.
Each cutter carried three movie projectors, one in the wardroom, one in the chief’s quarters and one on the crew’s mess deck. Each day the issuance of movies from the movie locker was looked forward to by all hands. God forbid should a projector break or a bulb burn out. There were usually two or three individuals on board that were experts when it came to running and fixing movie projectors. They were treated by a certain level of respect by the entire crew because the showing of daily movies was integral to everyone’s morale
After the 11th day on station somehow the days seemed to grow longer as the countdown for the arrival of our relief ship started. The less choice films were starting to be shown and the presence of fresh vegetables at meals became but a memory. Everyone somehow found ways to make the time pass. Model building became an art form for many and the practice of integrating fire crackers into the structures of the ships and planes being built took on a life of its own. Weather permitting, on the last Sunday prior to leaving station
contests were held for recognizing the best built models and of course watching their ultimate destruction as fuses were lit and cheers rang out from everyone as the BISMARK, ARIZONA, CAPMBELL, and various B-17’s,B-29’s and ME-109’s met their ends.
Preparations were made for Thanksgiving Day celebration. The cooks truly out did themselves and prepared a superb feast. All that was missing was the cold duck toasts and the closeness of our families. Desserts included pies with ice cream and several movies were on tap for the afternoon’s relaxation. The skipper, a Commander Fred Goettle, affectionately known as “Beef” made a welcomed visit to the crews mess deck and chief’s quarters and dined that afternoon in the wardroom. Commander Goettel was one of those charismatic-type of leaders whose enthusiasm just bubbled out of him. One of the highest honors that can be paid a commanding officer of a ship is to refer to him as a “real sailor”. He was every bit of that and all of us were proud to have sailed under him.
One night during a driving rain storm a number of us on watch observed a rare ship board phenomena. Thunder and lightning erupted in the late autumn sky and the lookout called down to the bridge that the ship’s foremast and rigging were glowing a bright pulsating green. Saint Elmo’s fire visited CASCO that evening and everyone who saw it speculated as to what kind of omen that it was. It must have been a good one because exactly two days late our relief ship the USCGC Rockaway (WAVP-377) appeared on the horizon right on schedule. As she pulled along side and lowered her motor whale boat, the rough seas nearly swallowed the small vessel. Skill and seamanship, however, always overcome fear and apprehension, and the transfer of mail and movies went without incident. The words spoken by the ROCKAWAY’s skipper, “you are relieved” coincided with CASCO’s annunciator signaling “all ahead standard” to both engine rooms. As mysteriously as ever, the hundreds of gulls that had been our companions for the past three weeks took up station and started to circle the ROCKAWAY.
Our course was west by south west and we were bound for Cape Race as were retraced our steps for the journey home to Boston. A rising head-on sea and our speed into the oncoming swells caused CASCO to rise and fall with ever increasing fury. It didn’t take long for the bow to start to submarine through them. With each plunge the ship groaned and vibrated as each long wave passed beneath her. Green water smashed against the forward 5” gun mount and spray washed heavily onto the bridge portholes The 21 MC system blared that the forecastle was secured until further notice. Sometimes the twin propellers came out of the water as the vessel pitched causing an odd rumble in the stern of the ship. No one complained about the rough ride because everyone knew where we were headed.
The Cape Race light flashing on the on the horizon that evening was a welcomed sight indeed. However, according to an agreement with the Canadian Government, ships returning from weather patrol were required to spend 48 hours in the area and serve as Search and Rescue vessel for the Argentia, Newfoundland area.
Rounding Cape Race the Casco headed towards the Naval Air Station in Argentia. What a desolate hunk of rock! It was situated above the tree-line, and its only savings grace were the officers, chiefs and enlisted men’s clubs and the fact that visitors could purchase a gallon of duty free Canadian whiskey at very low prices. The Chief Commissary Officer closely supervised the loading of the bonded liquor which was placed under lock and key until it was dispersed after our return to Boston. As the 48 hour stand-by period came to a close the vessel crept closer to the demarcation point for our final run to home port. Ringing up “all ahead full” eked out a few more knots from the ship. However, mother-nature was not going to be cooperative, as the temperature plunged to below freezing, she left her calling card in the form of rime ice that started to grow on the vessels superstructure. It started as a dull white film but grew rapidly with each wave of spray that the bow kicked up. Within a few hours the entire front half of the ship was coated with several inches of ice and this added topside weight started to have an impact on the ship’s stability as she became more “tender” with each roll. Not wanting to slow down the CO ordered the crew to do battle with the ice. Baseball bats, crow bars, shovels, steam lances and other assorted gear made their way into the hands of the crew who started to pound away and attack the ice with gusto. The decks were slick with ice but everyone threw caution to the wind as more and more ice was tossed overboard. As the coast of Maine appeared off our starboard beam the sun came out and that few degrees of temperature was enough to start the ice to melt rapidly.
Our return was further hampered when we received a distress call for a fishing vessel that had lost her rudder on her return trip to her home port in. Luckily she was just over the horizon and on our path. The 21 MC system blared “stand-by to carry out towing”. The stern of our vessel came alive as a large towing hawser was made ready. Pulling along side the rust streaked vessel a heaving line was tossed to her and secured. Within minutes we were heading towards her home port of Gloucester, Massachusetts. A tug met us outside of the harbor and the transfer took place without incident. Resuming our homeward bound course, the Boston Harbor sea buoy was soon in sight and the special sea detail was set. The Boston skyline never looked better! Ever so slowly the USCG Base appeared in sight and crew members started to recognize the faces of loved ones on the dock. Monkey fists were hurled to the pier and the first mooring line snaked its way across the water. As it was secured to a bollard, the steaming ensign was struck and the jack and flag staffs once again flew their familiar colors. As the mooring lines were being doubled up, the gang way was pulled ashore and the 21 MC announced: “Secure the special sea detail and set the import watch”. The shore power cable and the potable water hose were attached and after 35 days at sea a deafening silence fell upon the ship with only the hiss of the forced air blowers in the background. Liberty parties mustering on the fantail were met on the dock with open arms of affection as the crew departed the ship for well deserved leaves and liberties.
The vessel started to settle down for a “brief winter’s nap”. But it was not to last for long, because within a week preparations for the next weather patrol started in earnest. Five weeks later the ship left for the warm waters of Ocean Station Echo and our first stop was Bermuda, but that’s another story.
Memories are everyone’s private gift to oneself and each person has a different slant on what actually transpired and what actually triggers them. Several years ago, while rummaging around in a used book store I came across the December 1955 issue of the National Geographic Magazine, and in it was an article by a Phillip Swatek entitled “Rugged is the word for Bravo”. What a wonderful find for an old “Coastie” like me!
The article immediately took me back to my days on the USCGC CASCO (WAVP-370) and my days on OS BRAVO. My article is an attempt to capture such memories. How does one actually capture such memories in words? It’s sort of like opening a box of old photos that are kept in an shoe box in the attic.
Some of my prized memories of course are those of the people. Who could ever forget a Captain called “Beef”, an XO called “Wings”, a communications officer called “Snake”, a chief gunner’s mate called “Gus” and of course sharing a stateroom with one of my best friends, a crazy ensign called “Moke”.
To weave the people, places and events into something coherent for everyone is virtually impossible. My best shot at it is to list the things that immediately come to mind, and let each individual weave their own story based on these triggers. Do you remember?
The buoy on OS DELTA
Mailing postcards home from station via the commercial jet over flights
Transferring movies and mail from the relief ship via motor whale boat
The sea gulls that lived on station
Booze runs to Argentia and Bermuda
Playing the slots at the O-club in Bermuda while on standby in St. George
The unique navigational aids (similar to a woman’s anatomy) in Argentia harbor
Refresher training in “GITMO”
Nansen casts and BT observations
Winds aloft and weather observations
The weatherman’s quarters and how much food they consumed during a patrol
The taste of fresh water from the A1W tank…yuk
Running low on starting air while docking
Pounding in a number 5 sea at 15 knots
The sound of Fairbanks-Morse opposed piston diesel engines at Full speed
SAR drills at night
The smell of baking bread on the morning watch
Firing a depth charge from a “hedgehog” mount
The sound of a 40 MM machine gun
Off loading ammo at Earle, NJ
Shipyard overhaul at Curtis Bay, Maryland
Discovering East Baltimore Street as anew ensign
Gunnery shoots with and without hangovers
The smell of hot bread baking during the mid-watch
Breathing helium and talking like Donald Duck
Inflating a weather balloon in a stateroom
Card games and movies
Keying “OSCAR SIERRA” when on station
Dead reckoning for five days and somehow making a landfall on North America
Medical inventories and log entries which read: “3 oz brandy spilled inventorying”
Sport fishing near an overboard discharge
Fishing and landing sharks on OS ECHO
Finally having your own stateroom
Having your own port-hole air scoop (pre-1970 air conditioning)
The silence heard after switching to shore power.
Defy Delta this is Germany Zulu! Do you hear me? Come in, where ever you are. Enjoy your memories. Happy sailing and Semper Paratus!
About the author:
Joe “Chang” Ponti graduated from the US Coast Guard Academy with the class of 1961. He reported to the USCGC Casco (WAVP-370) in July 1961 where for the next 41 months he served as ASW officer,Communications Officer,Operations Officer,Navigator,Student Engineer and Asst. Engineering Officer over the years stationed on board. Following a tour of duty as a Merchant Marine Inspector he resigned his commission and embarked on a 35 year management career with AT&T and Lucent Technologies. He recently retired and lives with his wife in Andover ,MA where he is very active as a free lance writer and as a volunteer in his community.