News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Coast Guard recollections

The arrival of Coast Guard Day this week set me to reminiscing about my years in the U.S. Coast Guard. My personal connection with the Coast Guard actually began early in World War II, before I was even born. In the weeks following the Pearl Harbor attack, my father joined the Coast Guard under what I like to call the “BYOB” program — that’s Bring Your Own Boat.

At that time, the Coast Guard had no resources for maritime security patrols; and a program was created for potential recruits to join the service and patrol in their own boats! My father had grown up with and around boats on Puget Sound; so, he and a buddy bought a used Chris Craft and joined up. For the first year of the war, operating out of Cascade Locks on the Columbia River, they patrolled between Astoria and Bonneville Dam, guarding against saboteurs.

By the end of that first year of war, military picket boats were finally built; and the BYOB sailors were replaced. As a result, my dad was reassigned, first as a port security and chemical warfare instructor in Portland, Maine, and then aboard a Coast Guard patrol frigate, the USS Burlington (PF-51), in the Pacific Theater. Patrol frigates were similar to destroyer escorts (DE), smaller versions of the classic destroyer.

His service there took him to the battles of the South Pacific and the retaking of the Philippines at Leyte Gulf. Next, his ship was sent north to the Aleutian Islands in preparation for the planned invasion of Japan, where he patrolled off the Kuril Islands and northern Japan. The invasion, of course, never happened because the atomic bombs were dropped; and the war was suddenly over.

I grew up in the post-war era, where it seemed like everything that took place was somehow in reference to, or in the shadow of, World War II; and I always just assumed that, if it became necessary, I would join the Coast Guard, too. So, when I graduated from Oregon State University during the Vietnam War, that’s exactly what I did. At the time, I didn’t know that I would make it a career.

Like my dad, my first assignment was also in port security, although in Corpus Christi, Texas, where I also took part in hurricane recovery operations. For many people, their image of the Coast Guard has to do with coastal helicopters and surf rescue boats. While that’s a key part of the Coast Guard’s mission, my first assignment aboard a seagoing cutter illustrated that the service guards other coasts, as well. So, that ship took me in my father’s wake to the far western Pacific, off the coast of Asia. Our mid-patrol break was in Japan.

Compared to the other armed services, the Coast Guard is quite small, not quite as big as the New York City Police Department. In many ways, that’s a big plus, because we have to be always ready for anything required of the Coast Guard. In fact, that’s the Coast Guard’s motto: Semper Paratus — Always Ready.

As a result, unlike many of those in other services, Coast Guard members are not necessarily “stuck” doing just one thing. At various times in my career, I was a ship’s Officer of the Deck, a law enforcement boarding officer, a port security officer, port disaster control officer, a commercial ship inspector, an investigator, oil spill cleanup coordinator, a marine licensing officer, a civil judge, a war planner with the U.S. Navy, and the Captain of the Port in North Carolina.

My second sea tour took me to the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea on winter fisheries patrols, where we boarded foreign ships to enforce U.S. laws and treaties. That tour also showed me how the Coast Guard entrusts its members with special responsibility. When that ship was at U.S. Navy refresher training in San Diego, the Navy instructors actually excused a handful of us Coast Guard officers from part of the curriculum because “you guys already know all this stuff.”

At the time, I was a Lieutenant junior grade (O-2) and was operations officer on a major cutter, in charge of navigation and ship operations. The Navy O-2 next to me in the class was in charge of filling pop machines on an aircraft carrier. A Navy Commander (O-5) from that same carrier, came to me to ask about operations officer duties on a ship. Later, as a Lieutenant (O-3), one of the best jobs I had was as the sole officer in charge of a maritime safety detachment on the northern Maine coast. The intra-service responsibility levels afforded us were very different from what I observed in other services.

In Corpus Christi, we were closely tied to the massive Navy base, and our oldest two children were born in the Navy hospital there. Yet, there was only one tour in three decades when we actually lived on a military base; that was my first permanent Alaskan assignment in Valdez, at the end of the Alaska Pipeline. During the course of my career, we moved 12 times, lived at every corner of the continent, and traveled in all 50 states.

It was during my assignment to Valdez, that I took part in the largest at-sea rescue in Coast Guard history. The cruise ship Prinsendam caught fire and eventually sank in the Gulf of Alaska. We successfully rescued every single one of the more than 500 passengers and crew. I headed a rescue team with emergency supplies that boarded one of the rescue ships at sea. With multiple ships and helicopters involved, the survivors, including separated families, were scattered over several sites along the Alaska coast.

When our ship made it to Valdez, we had the largest contingent of survivors; and I was put in charge of coordinating the survivor count among the various locations. The operation could not be concluded until we were certain that everyone was safe; and I remember the elation when — at 0400 in the morning — we were able to confirm that we had every single person safely accounted for.

I am often asked which duty station was the best, and that’s not an easy question because each assignment had things about it that we liked. We were fortunate in that each location was well suited to the ages of our children and the needs of our family. One thing was definite; when our kids were little, they were certain in the knowledge that Santa arrived on a Coast Guard helicopter!

The largest chunks of time in my career were spent in the San Francisco Bay area, Puget Sound, and Alaska. Even while stationed in California, I spent quite a bit of time in Alaska as the Pacific Area Liaison Officer to the joint military Alaska Command. One of the more unusual tasks I was assigned involved training U.S. Navy reservists in coastal defense of the Aleutian Islands.

One of my “achievements” was that I successfully managed to avoid assignment to Headquarters in Washington, D.C. On the other side of the ledger, though, I was unsuccessful in ever being assigned to my home state of Oregon. I had to retire to get back here!

My final tour was another in Alaska, where one of my responsibilities was to visit every Coast Guard unit in our far-flung operational area. That was one of several Coast Guard jobs I had that seemed to be tailor-made just for me. I still have to periodically return to the north for an “Alaska fix.” People sometimes ask me if I miss guarding the coast, and I like to respond that I’m enjoying guarding the mountains now.

Editor’s note: Craig F. Eisenbeis, USCG (ret.) is the recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal, five Coast Guard Commendation Medals, and is a graduate “with highest distinction” of the U.S. Naval War College.


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