Saturday, June 28, 2014

SUMMER'S ARRIVED!

Painters gathered at the Bayou, mentored
by Roger Bechtold.
Detroit Harbor, Washington Island -

Activities enjoyed by visitors and island residents invite us outdoors, and despite the pesky mosquitos that seem to be more prevalent than in recent years, the warmth and freshness of the air is appealing.

The ferries, both Northport ferries and the Karfi to Rock Island, are now on a summer schedule, and the Cherry Train will make four daily tours beginning today.  Visitors are arriving already for the coming week that will include a Fourth of July Children's Parade and fireworks at the ballpark.  Camping is in full swing - we carried over three boy scout troops Thursday to Rock Island, besides other campers and day visitors.

Every so often, we participate in hosting a group of Travel Writers, organized through Geiger Associates of Florida, in conjunction with the Door County Visitor Bureau.   These writers come from across the U. S. and write for a variety of newspapers and magazines.  Among the six on the Thursday morning Karfi ride to Rock Island was Rick Wright, an editor for Birding Magazine.   Because we knew their names and areas of interest in advance, Melody Walsh, a local birder, was paired with Wright for the afternoon on Washington Island.

Melody Walsh with Rick Wright of Birding Magazine,
one of several travel writers who visited Rock and
Washington Islands last Thursday.


So that our birding attention spans don't get lazy, Melody and Randy Holm spotted a Scissor Tailed Flycatcher a few days ago, another rare bird sighting, adding to the already rather long list of rare birds cited this spring.  (And, for the record, Melody says the Crested Caracara was seen again just a day or so ago, as was the Black Vulture…)  Among the pointers she picked up from Wright was that as a writer and editor he was actually more interested in the variety of habitat the Island offers birds, and that bird numbers are high and varied, given we are beyond the general migratory time period.  Wright also expressed surprise there wasn't more general interest in Washington Island by birders.  That may change, if slowly.

Bayou painters

Several times each year, nationally known painter and Island seasonal resident Roger Bechtold holds classes, and a good deal of class time is spent outdoors when the weather cooperates.  Yesterday the class of approximately 15 students brought their easels and paintboxes to the Bayou, where they first had a demonstration by Roger, then worked on their own paintings.  It was a perfect day, and a light breeze kept temperatures cool and the mosquitos at bay.

Bechtold (center) points out a subtlety of light
and color to one of his students.
 Meanwhile, back at our house, I put finishing touches on a welded, painted sculpture piece, this one a rocking chair with a window view.  The old door comes by way of the Town metal pile scavenged by Mary Jo several years back.  It was from a truck operated by Lonnie Jorgenson to haul fish and freight (the phone number gives away its age as 1960s vintage, with the truck being much older than that).  My Grandfather spent many hours in a rocking chair looking out a window on Old Stage Road (perhaps thinking back on his boyhood in Germany, when he wasn't reading cowboy novels), and I suppose that "activity" holds appeal for me in some way.

Zander and his mom, Evy, try out
my new sculpture rocking chair.


Janet Wilson remembered

Washington Island lost a writer, friend and kind soul in Janet Wilson a short time ago.

Janet and her husband Jim, you may recall, hosted the helicopter crew at their Eastside home on a Sunday morning in early March.  

Janet will be remembered for, among other things, the novels she wrote, and she recently published a volume of poems.  

This past Wednesday evening an expanded Trinity Lutheran Church choir, directed by Dan Hansen with a program organized by Dan, sang for an audience of Island residents and Island Forum members.  Selected stanzas from Janet's poems were read between hymns.  

Her descriptive words regarding the Island and nature describe Janet's place - our place - in the universe.  Here is one stanza from Warmth and Light, a stanza I was privileged to read:


I walk alone this day…or do I?
If God is love and love is everywhere, 
Surely the divine mystery is here, 
loving this Island,
These wild things and me.
Come, walk along, hear nature's song,
Feel the embrace of warmth and light.

-  Dick Purinton

Sunday, June 8, 2014

RESPONSE TO COAST GUARD HELO QUESTIONS

LT C. A. Breuer and Coast Guard helo 6578,
Sunday morning, March 2, 2014 shortly after a
precautionary landing.  
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Early on a clear Sunday morning, shortly before 8 a.m., March 2, 2014, a precautionary, emergency helicopter landing was made on the east shore of Washington Island by the crew of the search and rescue helicopter 6578, then in transit from the Traverse City Air Station to northern Wisconsin.

Local interest in this incident, which ended safely for crew and aircraft, and the subsequent removal of the helicopter within 48 hours by a maintenance crew via trailer, sparked questions.   Questioned was the soundness of this particular aircraft, given a similar incident that occurred about one month prior to this event, when the same unit was forced to land in a cornfield in lower Michigan.  (See blogs March 2 and March 3)  

Other questions that were raised:  How does crew training prepare for such an event"  What are maintenance procedures for this aircraft?  Will this helicopter model, relied upon and in service for many years, continue to serve not only Traverse City Air Station but Coast Guard-wide, as a dependable search and rescue tool?

I directed such questions to the the aircraft's commander on that March morning, LT Chris Breuer, who carefully responded in a detailed letter of 8 May 2014.  His letter was posted on June 5th, and I received it in yesterday's mail (following what I presume was a review by his Traverse City Air Station command, prior to the letter being released to the general public).

According his attached note, Breuer will soon leave the Traverse City Air Station and join Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, in Alaska.

LT Breuer

We are pleased to reprint his letter of response, and for accuracy his entire response is given rather than selected portions of answers:

Dear Mr. Purinton,

I appreciate your interest and time documenting the 6578's beach landing.  Enclosed are answers to your questions.

1)  Unfortunately, most of the ice along our route of flight was smaller "pancake ice" or small sheets that wouldn't have held the weight of the helicopter.  Our crew train annually for water entries and the aircraft is equipped with floats, so if the malfunction had been severe enough we could had landed in the water.  Each aircraft is equipped with a raft and survival gear, also each member is dressed in a dry suit and multiple layers of insulation, depending on the water temperature.  If we had been forced to land in the water, we would have been both prepared and equipped to handle the environment.

2)  The malfunction on both the Washington Island landing and the previous cornfield landing started out with a Flight Director (auto pilot) error.  The flight director was commanding the aircraft to roll one direction and the aircraft wasn't following the command.  With the pilot's hand flying, there was excessive force in the controls and we isolated the malfunction to a hydraulic issue. After retrieving the aircraft back here to Traverse City, our maintenance crews expended 180 labor hours working to find the cause.  They were able to locate a broken check valve which allowed hydraulic pressure to flow the wrong way.  Our helicopters have multiple systems with a backup secondary system, and the flight control hydraulic is one of those.  This casualty essentially allowed the two hydraulic systems to fight each other for control of the helicopter.

3)  Our crews go through constant training and assessments to ensure they react appropriately to in-flight emergencies.  Annually pilots go through a week long simulator course at Aviation Training Center Mobile, Alabama, that tests their knowledge of emergency procedures.   Also, each year a team from Aviation Training Center Mobile will visit each unit and test flight crews on their systems and emergency procedure knowledge and in aircraft skills.  Approximately 40% of our flight hours are used of retraining, and most of those flights include some discussion or practice of emergencies.

4)  The 6578 has flown on 17 flights since our maintenance crews completed the repairs and will continue to be a fully functional part of our flight schedule.  The Air Station Engineering Officer recommends to the Commanding Officer whether to clear an aircraft for flight after any major maintenance.  For unusual situations like this one, Coast Guard Headquarters may be part of the discussion.  Because our maintenance crews are so highly trained and also fly on the aircraft, crews are confident in the work performed on all of our aircraft.

5)  The H-65 Dolphin helicopter has been in service with the Coast Guard since 1985 and will continue for the foreseeable future. The Coast Guard's H-65 fleet has completed more than 1.3 million flight hours and continues to hold a Mishap rate well below both commercial and other military branches' Mishap rates.   The H-65 Dolphin is a very well maintained and capable aircraft that crews have confidence in flying.

I hope that these answers expand your understanding of Coast Guard operations and answer your questions.  Thank you again for the detailed article and interest in our emergency landing.

Sincerely,   C. A. Breuer   (Chris Breuer)

With appreciation for his response, and with renewed appreciation for the Coast Guard's Great Lakes Air Search and Rescue program going forward...

 -  Dick Purinton

Friday, May 30, 2014

BIRDS CONTINUE TO STIR INTEREST (AND BUILD CAPITAL)

An unexpected encounter with a Snowy Owl
on Memorial Day in
Jackson Harbor is recounted by Janet Berggren.
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Birds continue to stir interest

Local birding activity has never been better, it seems.  

Recent sightings include several birds that are considered “rare” for this location and time of year.  These birds help confirm what many Island birders already knew, that in early summer migration the combination of shoreline, wetlands, upland fields, hedges and woods provide excellent opportunities to observe birds of surprising variety.

Several weeks ago, in the field across from his home, Rock Island Park Manager Randy Holm spotted a large bird with an unusual beak that he couldn’t immediately identify.  By means of photos he took and then emailed to Melody Walsh, who was off-island at the time, this bird was determined to be a Crested Caracara.  The Caracara’s common habitat is found in Mexico and points much farther south than Wisconsin.  This became the first official sighting of the Crested Caracara in Wisconsin, a new state record with Holm’s name credited as observer. 

Interest from other birders was immediate and strong.  With binoculars and telephoto cameras at the ready, the Crested Caracara became their primary objective, as the Island’s central acreage was scanned for a glimpse of this bird.  It’s presence was still being confirmed through daily observations  over the following several weeks.
 
Such heightened birding interest may have led to other, unexpected bird sightings, too.   Both experienced and casual observers saw and photographed birds that are considered rare enough to post on the Door Rare Bird Alert website, according to Melody Walsh.  

In addition to observing the Crested Caracara, visiting birder Eric Howe spotted a Black Vulture among the more commonly seen Turkey Vultures.  Howe also spotted a Northern Mockingbird on Rock Island on May 26.

Janet Berggren was surprised by a Snowy Owl and was able to take many photos on Memorial Day, May 26, near her home in Jackson Harbor.  Here is Janet's narrative:

“A bit of background on the photo:      I walked out on our dock Monday evening, May 26, around 6:30 p.m.  When I cleared the tree line and came out to the open end of the dock, a large white bird flew right in front of me diagonally (north to south) across the width of the dock -- literally a few feet away at eye level -- and landed on the piling on the south side of our dock, maybe 12 feet away.  The huge bird perched there and stared at me -- and I stared back.  I didn't move a muscle for several very long minutes.  It was long enough to get a good look at this bird, which was clearly a Snowy Owl -- not your typical sight on Memorial Day!  I was totally enthralled, having never seen a Snowy Owl before.  My dad started me out bird watching at the age of six, so I know he'll be happy for me -- and wishing he was there.

"I took my eyes off the owl for a minute to look at the squawking Mergansers in the water below, and the owl lifted off and flew south across the harbor to the Jackson Harbor Town Dock, more or less right in front of Karen Baxter's lunch wagon.  The bird was so large, I could see it land on a picnic table.  I looked over to Nelson's Dock and spotted Larry and Jeanie Young.  I called to them across the water, telling them of my find.  They hopped on their bikes and rode over to the Town Dock to get a look at it, while telling their daughter, Pam Young, who got out her camera.
"By the time I arrived at the Town Dock a few minutes later with husband Ken, son, Charlie and Charlie's finance, Amanda, carrying my camera and binoculars, the owl was posing nicely for Pam.  Pam and I were both able to approach quite closely and we took multiple pictures.  When we got too close, the owl flew to a nearby piling and then later to the roof of the Town net shed, by Seediver's dock.  Eventually, it flew back across the harbor to land on the railing of our neighbor's "floating dock," which was still on land.  The Berggren crowd trooped home and Ken and I found the owl (which had now turned its back on us) and I was able to continue shooting photos.  We finally gave up and went in the house -- the owl outlasted us!  We couldn't believe it!  The owl was never afraid of us and barely seemed annoyed.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience any way you slice it, but the most amazing part was watching the owl turn its head around 360 degrees.  I have several photos of the owl's back turned to us, while it is staring at us!"

Word of such sightings would seem to be an appetizer for birders who register for the three-day Island Birding Festival that starts today, Friday, May 30.  However, according to Sandy Peterson who founded the Island Birding Festival eight years ago, birders who come here for the weekend festival – while certainly interested in seeing a rare bird – appear to be more attracted by the great number and variety of birds found here.
   
Festival registration ended in mid-May, before the Crested Caracara made news.  So far, there are 50 Birding Festival registrants for the field birding and 70 people for the Saturday evening banquet.  Sandy noted that there’s also a practical, logistical limit to the number of birders that can be properly organized and guided in the field. 

Nationwide, the environmentally low-impact activity of birding involves millions of people from all age groups.  The economic contribution birders make is difficult to quantify, but it may be easier to identify their contributions on Washington Island where there is a visible increase in the number of visitors, who in turn purchase meals, overnights and gift items during their stay. 

 -  Dick Purinton
                 





Wednesday, May 28, 2014

WHAT'S THE BUZZ?

Washington Island -

It's difficult to stand still long enough to take a photo demonstrating crazy, if typical, winged insect activity, and I was fortunate to get this one on the second try, with one of the critters appearing to be pasted to my mouth.

These same little bugs (maybe 1/4 of an inch at most) hatch this time of year and swarm anywhere it's warm and away from the breeze.   In this case, they found the sunny, lee side of the kiosk at Jackson Harbor to their liking.

I had just finished placing more Karfi to Rock Island brochures in the display pocket on the sign board when I heard the high-pitched whine of hundreds of pairs of beating wings.

It's a trick not to inhale them when they're so thick, because they're tiny and they don't fly away very fast.

There are several reasons why this annual phenomenon isn't all bad, and here are ten reasons under the heading…


I TELL MYSELF I LIKE THESE BUGS BECAUSE:

  1.  they signal warm Island weather, at long last
  2.  birds like to eat bugs (swallows and martins especially)
  3.  while they do smear when you brush them off your clothing, these bugs don't bite!
  4.  birders like the birds that like the bugs
  5.  fish like the bugs
  6.  birders and fishermen visit the Island to bird and fish
  7.  birders and fishermen bring $$ and they purchase services and goods
  8.  we like to eat, and $$ helps us in the grocery department
  9.  these bugs are here for a relatively short duration (maybe one month).  When they disappear,  mosquitos and biting flies replace them.   I prefer these lazy - if pesky - daytime cousins of mosquitos.  These bugs like to settle down after dark.
  10. I can avoid the thickest clouds of these bugs by staying indoors with the windows closed, or I can face into the wind when outdoors, or I can carry a portable fan.


I'm also guessing protein might be gained by eating these bugs.   When swallowed - and I ate several today - there are no ill effects.

Putting up with them, ignoring them or making light of them:  this may be the best we can do.

  -  Dick Purinton

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

COVEYS OF BIRDERS DISCOVER WASHINGTON ISLAND!

Birders recently spotted on the Island,
originating  from various Wisconsin
locations.  (photo by Melody Walsh)
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

A covey of Khaki-Crested Birders, both male and female, was recently spotted on Washington Island, grouped along Town Line Road.  This may be, we think, the earliest such sighting for this time of year, and it bodes well not only for Island birding, but tourism in general, to record such activity at this date.

As news spread of the influx of Birders, even more Birders were attracted.  Given Washington Island's flagging start to the cool spring tourism season, the branching out of such low-impact activity couldn't come at a better time, harbinger of a greatly anticipated summer.

Birders, whether migrating through or local, shared a singular goal:  to set their eyes on - and photograph if possible - the Tropical Crested Caracara.   This bird has never been seen and recorded before in Wisconsin, and only infrequently in past decades has it been noted anywhere in the upper midwest.

Few Islanders, other than Birding Islanders, may appreciate the singularity of this event.  Besides likely establishing an official State of Wisconsin 'first,' local birders are excited for the broad interest the Caracara sighting spurred through web sites and social media, given this bird has flown so far beyond its traditional territory in Mexico.

Even with the ferry ride, Washington Island still offers Wisconsin birders quite a unique opportunity for a relatively accessible, but rare sighting.   Birders who are successful can check this bird off their annual or lifetime lists of birds observed.

Because the Crested Caracara has remained on the Island for over one week, this also bodes well for birders who might wish to adjust their plans for a Memorial Weekend outing.   Local carrion fare is to this bird's liking, and it seems not to be in a hurry to move on.

A recap on the Crested Caracara timeline

This flurry of activity began when Rock Island Park Manager Randy Holm saw a large bird he couldn't identify in the field across from his home on Michigan Road.  It had dark feathers with a yellow and white, heavy beak, and it feasted on a raccoon carcass.  Upon shooting an email photo to Melody Walsh, who was off-island at the time, her return email brought identification, along with her excitement for this singular opportunity.  Randy's name will be credited in the Wisconsin record book.

Since that first sighting, Melody and Randy have seen it multiple times, photographed the bird, guided other birders to finding it, and they've regularly fielded emails and phone calls from off-island birders who want more information.  Although it is believed it is just a single Caracara (and not a pair), the Island sighting has nevertheless stirred a quite a buzz in the birding world.

Melody sent this photo Tuesday evening with the following comment:  
 "Darn thing was on our septic mound tonight at 7:30 pm-ish!
This is the eighth day in a row!"


In two weeks (May 3, June 1& 2) the Annual Island Birding Festival begins, and Melody and other local birders hope that this bird might continue to enjoy its surroundings enough to remain for that event.   Generally, 30-40 birders register for this festival event each year.  The 2014 Festival could prompt a major migration of an even greater numbers of birders who might flock to the Island anticipating a glimpse of this bird.  Approximately 120 bird species are cumulatively recorded during that weekend's event.

Who knew one bird could cause such fuss?   In its quiet way, the Crested Caracara may become an economic engine drawing more coveys of birders, that no amount of paid marketing could ever have achieved.

-  Dick Purinton


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

ALLEN THIELE INTERVIEW - PART II

Al Thiele with his assembled uniform pins, medals, 
ribbons and grade insignia. (April 2014)
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Note:   As an early Memorial Weekend tribute to veterans, an interview titled A Tip of The Military Hat was posted Monday, May 19, 2014.   This is the second part of that interview with Allen Thiele, a retired Master Chief of the Coast Guard.   Most of this interview was conducted in March 2013, with several follow-ups in April 2014.


Allen, what was your favorite or best tour?

“The place that we enjoyed the absolute most, with at first a little trepidation about the numbers of people, was located right off the Battery in Manhattan:  Governor’s Island.   

"So here’s this little, bitty island and 4000 civilians who work for the Coast Guard, on top of the service people – a lot of people working there.   I heard lots of stories about it… and the advice given to us was to "Just enjoy it.  There’s a lot to do, a lot to see.  Get involved."
 
“And, they were right.   We spent three years there, and when we left, we left at five in the morning so we wouldn’t have to say goodbye.  It was that tight.  A family kind of thing.  To this day, we write to friends who lived alongside of us on Governor’s Island.  In fact, we’re going to see some of them later this month.  They now live in Racine.

“Delia, our daughter, was born on Kauai, but Patrick was born on Staten Island in 1974.  There’s an interesting one:  I was assigned to the Tern.  Nancy’s pregnant.  Vi, Nancy’s mom, came to stay with us.  I had duty on board the boat that day.  Nancy said she was going over to the hospital.  

"And if you can," she said, "come over in the morning.  I’ll just take the Staten Island Ferry over, then a cab."   

"She took the ferry, hailed the taxi, and as it happened there were three others – all men - in the same taxi.   The cab driver asked each of the men where they were going, and when it was Nancy’s turn, she said, “Im going to the hospital.  I’m going to have a baby!”   

"They said, "Drop her off first!"

“So, three out of four in our family are from islands, as it turns out."

The Thiele family    

Patrick was born in 1974 when Allen and Nancy lived on Governor’s Island, and he is now a retired Air Force veteran.  Patrick and his wife were married in December 2013, and they live in Maryland.
 
Delia was born on Kauai in 1970.  She and husband Tom Corbley have three sons:  Nicolas (15), Alick (13) and Jacob (9).    Delia and her family live in Green Bay.

Allen recalled:

 “Delia had two years to go to finish high school when we moved to Washington D.C for the Master Chief of the Coast Guard position, and she found it difficult adjusting.  Dubuque had been a sports-oriented sort of place.  

“One difficulty arose when we transferred from Iowa to Washington DC.  Delia had gone out for sports, and she ran the last leg of the 400-yd. relay.  Moving was the hardest for her.  She was at the top of her game in track, but she ended up fitting in pretty well as her junior year progressed.   

"Patrick, on the other hand, enjoyed Washington DC.  He got into wrestling, a team sport but also very much an individual sport.  He wasn’t winning a lot, but the sportsmanship meant a lot to him.  Both kids learned a lot there.  In high school in DC, Patrick really enjoyed math.  The kids at Patrick’s school were from every walk of life, nice kids who often lived in row houses, and were from military families.  Patrick had a geometry teacher who taught him how to apply it.
  
“In DC, we moved into a set of brand new quarters next to the Navy’s commissioned officer’s station.

“A Navy admiral had a house there, near us.  Three modular homes were built there, one each for the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard Master Chiefs.  (The Army and Air Force Master Sergeants lived elsewhere.)  We showed up in the Admiral’s back yard, so to speak, and we decided as a group to ask the Admiral down for a social occasion. 
 
“Our home was built in about one month, modular, with four bedrooms and a two-car garage.  The location was a big parking lot, but the cars were gone on weekends.  We were located right behind the Pentagon.  We frequently got together with our wives, along with the Sergeant Majors.  The Admiral and his wife never got to rub shoulders socially with the likes of us, and they enjoyed it.  Later, they invited us up to their home."

From Master Chief billet to retirement on Washington Island

Allen began his Coast Guard career in 1958 and he retired in 1990, after 32 years of service.
His official retirement date was September 1, 1990, just a few months short of 32 years.

Following his retirement from the Coast Guard, Allen and Nancy and family relocated to Washington Island where they built a new home.   Young Brothers roughed it in, and Al and Nancy finished it.  Then, he worked for the Washington Island Ferry Line from April 1991 to December 2002, when he retired once again at the age of 62.   

In 2002, Al and Nancy volunteered to help with the Trinity Church fellowship hall addition, and subsequent to that experience they joined Mission Builders, participating in other projects.  Green Bay happened to be their first project as Mission Builders members.   Through that organization they met Don Kieffer, who was Mission Builder’s project supervisor on Washington Island.  (Don and Ruth Kieffer later purchased a home on Green Bay Road where they spent their summers.)

The Thieles volunteered construction projects at several churches in Wisconsin, then in South Dakota – six churches in all.
  
“I learned most of it as I went.  Don Kieffer, our project leader, was a jack of all trades.  He would do things that would make you wonder how he did them.   He’d come up with novel things, like the arched ceiling in the hallway for the Trinity project.  He wouldn’t settle for the flat ceiling shown on the architect’s plans.   When he went to cut that, he did it with a skill saw.  He’d bend sheet rock around those frames, scoring the backside first, and then tack it with screws.   You don’t use 5/8” sheets for that, you use 3/8” sheet rock which is more flexible.  If you have the scoring worked out, cutting it lightly, it loosens the backing without coming through.

“There’re a lot of neat things you can learn on the job.  You just followed Don’s schematic.  The crew would have guys who did nothing but cut pieces and mark them and put them on a pile.  Someone else comes along, picks up the pieces and puts them together…all regimented…and it worked great.

“You could do all the window framing, like in our church addition, in just a couple of days.”

In looking at what some of the military people are being asked to do today, with repeated tours of duty, for example… do you have a view of the current military overall?

“I stayed in the Coast Guard because I enjoyed the job. 

“But, many things have changed.  Now, for instance, there are breathalyzer tests.  Earlier, there was personal responsibility and accountability that are not found at the same levels today.

“When I came to that job in Washington, the perception of what some of those people had out in the field was, when they saw the Master Chief, we were supposed to fix their problems.  But that's an incorrect expectation.  When I went out to a group gathering, I’d leave at least one hour for questions, or for them to meet with me privately, if it was personal.  More than once I stood in front of them, and I’d say, "I don’t fix problems.  But if you have a situation, we can solve situations."  

"To fix a problem you have to go back to Washington, engage a blue-ribbon committee, and it takes a long time.  Together we can solve situations.  "So, what’s the question?"   
That put it in a whole different light, and I became known as the guy who will help solve situations. 

“When I retired in 1990 and we left DC, we were probably one of the last groups in that career time frame.  I stayed in because I enjoyed the job.  It wasn’t the money or benefits.  I don’t necessarily see that (commitment) at the same level today.

“We were able to go out and have a good time, just enjoy free time, your time in the service.  Now, you come back and they’ll give you a breathalyzer test.  I don’t think the responsibility and accountability are there anymore.  

“On the Wyaconda, before we left home to get underway, we’d meet with families.   I’d tell the wives, "When I take your husband out, I’m going to bring him back."

“We’d do our work in the shortest amount of time possible but not do shabby work.  If we’re going to do something, we do it first class.  I’m going to ask them to not just have a good time our on the river. 
Time ashore is their responsibility.  I’d go ashore, have maybe two beers, then I’d head back aboard the ship.  I’d tell them, "We’re going to have 5:30 reveille, 6:30 underway, work ‘til sundown.  Just make sure you get up early."  And things just sort of worked themselves out.

“When you’re in charge, you’re in charge of not only the boat but the crew, too.  It got to be a camaraderie kind of thing.  I was not a screamer.  The one time I got mad, they noticed…

“Today, you get a young kid out of HS responsible for a million dollar piece of equipment - that’s a lot of responsibility put on them.   A young Coast Guard Third Class can make arrests, stop vessels for drugs, and so on.  That’s a lot for that young individual to comprehend."
  
*   *    *

Nancy and Allen pose  in April 2014.  Behind them is an oil painting of
Vi Llewellyn rendered by Island artist John Davies.
Vi drove taxi and gave tours for many summers.
At the time of our interview in March 2013, Allen had just undergone medical tests.   His health and his medical prognosis were not good.   Later that spring, following a second diagnosis, a stent was placed in his bile duct which brought about an almost immediate improvement in his health.  

Allen said, in March of 2013,  “Nancy and I, we’re going on 47 years, and I intend to see it!”

In late April of 2014 Allen returned to the Mayo Clinic for a check-up that included sonograms.  His doctor said he was doing well, and that he should report back in six months.  For Allen, who at first hadn't been expected to live out the year, he is pleased with his life and his situation.

On top of that, he's mindful of the near-tragic broken neck he sustained in a fall from a bicycle in October 2011.   His doctor described his situation as a 'Christopher Reeves-type injury,' adding, "Those patients usually don't last long."  Allen felt as though he had beaten the odds.  

So, for a number of reasons Allen's outlook remains one of optimism.  He’s happy to be alive, functioning at a high level, enjoying his life with Nancy and visits with their family.   This summer's activities will include a Mission Builders project in Minot, North Dakota, where they've volunteered for two months.   Al and Nancy look forward to this project and contributing to the lives of others. 

In a fitting close to our interview, given our discussion of health issues, Allen enjoyed telling the story of the time he assisted fellow American Legion members in their annual Fourth of July Legion fish boil fundraiser.   Grandsons Nick and Al, who were visiting that weekend, helped with preparations, and clean-up, too.   Afterwards, in the car on the drive home, the boys talked to one another.   

Nick said to his younger brother, “You know Al, you and I are going to have to learn this job.  These guys are all getting older!”

 -  Dick Purinton

Monday, May 19, 2014

A TIP OF THE MILITARY CAP






































- Washington Island, Wisconsin

Note:   This interview began with Allen Thiele in March of 2013, with more recent, shorter conversations added.

Allen, pictured above, entered the Coast Guard as a young, energetic recruit.  He nearly left after his first enlistment with disappointment at not advancing in grade to Third Class.  But, he got his advancement and reenlisted, for another hitch, and then another.  Pretty soon, some 28 years had passed and he was selected as the Coast Guard's leading enlisted man, Master Chief of the Coast Guard, with responsibilities only a very few, before or since, have had the honor to carry.

This interview is split into two parts, and a large part of it is a transcript of Allen's voice narrating the twists and turns of his career.  
  
We're proud to have Allen as an Island resident, and I believe this piece is fitting for publication in the days leading up to Memorial Day 2014.  -  Dick Purinton


PART I -  An Interview With Coast Guard Master Chief (Ret.) Allen Thiele

Allen Thiele joined the Coast Guard at age 18.  Early in his career, he served at the Plum Island Station, and during that time he met his future wife Nancy (Llewellyn).   

In a Coast Guard career that spanned 32 years, Allen 's final assignment was in Washington, D. C. as the fifth Master Chief of the Coast Guard, representing the interests of all enlisted Coast Guard men and women.

Allen was born May 28th 1940 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.  His grandparents had a farm near Manitowoc, and his father, Don, worked for the Chicago Northwestern Railroad (CNWRR) as a railcar inspector.  He also helped out on the family farm near Clover, Wisconsin.

Allen had two younger brothers, Chuck, born in 1941, and Bill, born in 1953.  He attended Manitowoc’s Lincoln High School and graduated in 1958.  He then worked for the Manitowoc Herald Times in the circulation department operating an Addressograph, and he helped deliver papers on mail routes. 

Allen joined the Coast Guard in November 1958.  At that time, a recruiter from Green Bay came to Manitowoc one day each week, and the recruiter set up in the hallway in the Post Office across from the Herald Times.   Newspapers then sold for a nickel.  (Allen recalled when they went to seven cents, because the people who bought papers questioned in disbelief, “SEVEN CENTS?”)   The recruiter bummed a newspaper from the first batch of papers that came off the press, the odd cuts and seconds before the presses were up to speed. 
  
Al recounted the conversation that led to him joining the Coast Guard:

So the recruiter said of the imperfect copy of the paper we pulled aside, “That’ll be fine.  That’ll be fine.”  So we’d give him one of those papers.  And he’d always ask, “What’re you guys going to do when you get out of high school?”

“Well, we don’t know,” we’d reply.  He said, “Well, there’s the Coast Guard.  You can join up for $78 per month, with 30 days paid vacation each year … and free travel.   It’s not a bad deal.”
  
Okay, so we thought about that.  Medical is paid, and everything.  Well, Okay.  He did that every week for about…three months, as I can recall.  Finally, I said to my buddy at the newspaper, "When that recruiter comes around next time, I’m going to say, 'Yeah.  I’ll join.'  See what he says.  What about it, Frank?  You and I go in the Coast Guard?”
  
“Ya, that’s a good idea, Al,” Frank responded.
 
When the recruiter came by again, and he gave us the same pitch after bumming yet another newspaper, I said, “Well, I’ll join.  Frank, you too, right?”
  
Frank said, “Well, I don’t know.”
 
“What do you mean?  You just told me the other day we were going to do this.” 

“Well, now I’m not sure.” 

The recruiter picked up on this and he said, “Al, can I get your address?  I want to stop by and see your parents.”  

So there I am.  I’m not going to back out of this.  I never backed out of anything.  Grampa always said, “You’re gonna make a deal, you follow through.”  So I said, “OK, I’ll still join.”
 
And the rest was history.  I joined.  I had to wait from graduation until November for a boot camp opening.  I got to boot camp in time for Thanksgiving.

 *      *     *

It was November 1958 when Allen was officially sworn in, and he traveled to Cape May, New Jersey.  (At that time, there was one other Coast Guard boot camp in Alameda, California.)  Ironically, he notes that the size of the U. S. Coast Guard force had remained pretty much the same, with manning levels similar to what they were just after WWII.  The size of the Coast Guard has always been at around 39,000 – 41,000 max, he said, and it just never changed much in size.

Boot camp lasted 13 weeks.  Having just arrived there in November, they closed it down for Christmas.  They were told by camp officials, “You can go home on leave if you can afford it, or you can stay right here."  

"And because I had some money, the train was the way to go.  So I took the train home.  I wore my uniform.  I was as proud as all get out.  

"I’ve got to tell you a story about that.  I had gone as a kid to parochial school, the First German Grade School.   I knew the minister, who was also the minister when my mother went to school, an old German guy.   We went to church on Christmas Eve, and man, I wore my uniform.  I was so proud of that.  On the way out of church, the pastor and his wife were greeting everybody.  And when I got to the door with my mom and brother, my mom said, “Look, here’s Allen, home on leave from the Coast guard.  We’re so proud of him.” 

The pastor’s wife said, "Isn’t it a shame what the military’s doing to our young men?"   

I said, "What?"

She said, "Well, they’ve got men fighting, teaching them to kill people.”

So I said, "You don’t approve of the military?"  

"Well, it’s just so sad."    

"I said, 'I’ll never come back here again."  And I never did.  I’ve been back to that church for a funeral, only.   My uncle’s.  They’ve since put in another church on the other side of town.
 
*    *    *

What were your duty stations during your career?   

Allen went down the list, which took some time, with a few side trips into the specifics of his duties and the times:

1.  November 1958 - March 1959 – Boot camp in Cape May, NJ.

2.  March 1959 - Nov. 1959 -  Pilot Town, LA –  Located at the mouth of the Mississippi, where the South Pass and Southwest pass of the rivers come together.  We shared a facility with Fish and Wildlife and moored our boats there.  We had three 40-footers down there.  We also stood watches on ships that arrived from overseas, the Iron Curtain countries, and those ships that had visited Iron Curtain countries in the previous six months.

3.  Nov. 1959-1960  -  A Coast Guard Loran Station for maritime navigation, Cantanduanes, Phillipines.

4.  1960- Jan. 63 -  Assigned to Light Station Algoma.

During his first 1½ years Allen had four different station assignments.
 
 Were you a bosun mate striker at that point?

Yes, I made Third Class when I was stationed at Algoma. That was pretty ironic, because the Chief in charge there, Art Mitchell - my brother was stationed with his brother.   Both Mitchell brothers ended up being master chiefs, and both retired from the Coast Guard.
 
In Algoma, I was two weeks away from the end of my first enlistment.  I was ready to get out.  I was a seaman, bosun (boatswain’s) mate striker, and I had been on the list for Third Class for almost two years - 22 months.   I said, "I just can’t stay.”

Mitchell asked me, “What would it take for you to reenlist in the Coast Guard?”  

I replied, “I don’t know.  I started out 186 on the list, and now I’m down to number six, after 22 months.  And it doesn’t look like I’ll make it to Third Class in the next two weeks.  I’m not going to reenlist as a seaman.”

“If you reenlist as a Third Class, would you stay then?” Mitchell  asked.     

“Would I get a bonus at all?”

“$1300.”
    
I said, “Really!  Sure.”
   
“Is it for the money?” he asked. 

“No, I like the Coast Guard.  I’ll stay if I make Third Class.”
 
The Chief picked up the phone and called the Group Commander down in Two Rivers.  They talked for just a few minutes.  I didn’t hear a lot of the conversation.  Then he hung up the phone.    The next day when the phone rang, he answered and said, “Thiele, it's for you.”

I said, “Yes sir.”  It was the Group Commander Hutchison.  He wanted to see me that next morning at 8 am.  

“Thiele, have your dress blues on, and make sure you have that Third Class crow sewn on.  You’re reenlisting.  Tomorrow morning.  Don’t forget to sew on that crow.  You’re making Third Class, right now.  I just took care of it.”

"I hung up the phone, turned around, and said to myself, “Holy Cripes.  If a chief has that much pull to just pick up the phone and talk with the Group Commander, I know I want to be a chief."  And that’s how I stayed in the Coast Guard.  Ironically, in 1976, when I got transferred from Governor’s Island, New York, to Green Bay, Mitchell was in charge of recruiting for all of Wisconsin and part of Upper Michigan.  Here I was, relieving him after his 30 years of service.  He now lives in Iron Mountain, and we still talk.  I spoke with him just the other day.  We’ve been friends since - gosh, since 1961."

5.  Jan. 1963   “I made Third Class while in Algoma.  Then I got transferred to the Raritan in January 1963, which was stationed in Milwaukee.   It was built in Bay City, Michigan in 1939.  It was on the east coast during the war, on patrols from the east coast to Greenland, assisting troop ships headed for Europe.  On the Lakes, Raritan broke ice out of Milwaukee, going to Grand Haven and Muskegon.  The whalebacks were running then [the Jupiter and Saturn were oil tankers of the unique whaleback design] but they didn’t have much power.  We were constantly trying to break them out. “
  
Al was assigned to the deck force of the Raritan .  (The Arundel, also an ocean-style tug in appearance and was a sister ship to the Raritan.  Both were 110-ft. long.)

6. I came to Plum Island in 1964.  We closed the Plum Island Station at Christmas  time, and I was transferred to the Mesquite for duty, from Christmas to April 1st.   The skipper was a guy who ran the thing aground.  He was a short man, and they built a box for him so he could stand on the bridge wing and look down on the buoy deck.  When they got ready to set the buoy, he wanted to be the one to holler, “Set the buoy.”  No one was going to say that but him.  The crew had the buoy set to go, and all they had to do was knock the pin out.  

“One time - and it was noisy down on deck - he hollered, but nobody heard him.  He started getting upset. Then he got a whistle.  The Chief Bosun just about went nuts with that whistle, and the Chief said, "I’m going to fix that damn whistle thing, once and for all."  So he set me right up.  I’m down on deck, and we had a buoy ready to go over the side.  The skipper was up there ready with his whistle.  The quartermasters were maneuvering the ship to get it into position.  The Chief said to me, “Go to the bridge and ask the skipper … “

I said, “But we’re setting this buoy.”

“Thiele, get up there.  Right now! Ask him…”

“Okay, Chief.”
    
"I asked the question (which Al either can't, or prefers not to, remember) just as the skipper was about to whistle, and in the middle of my question he dropped his whistle over the bridge wing onto the deck below.  The chief walked over, stepped on it and broke it.  We laughed so hard.  That was a funny day!
Not the most harmonious officer.  Our skipper was a marine inspector kind of guy, and he didn’t have the charisma to bring the crew together.  He didn’t establish a working relationship with the crew.” 
 
7.  April 1965 -     “We opened Plum Island.  At Easter, we used our boat to break ice into Gills Rock.  I was with Bill Oldenberg who was from Baileys Harbor.   He and I served on the Raritan together.  Our Station Chief said, ‘Break a track into Gills Rock, but don’t kill the boat.’  We spent three or four hours against heavy ice.  Then, in the afternoon he asked us to go to the island for mail and supplies.  On the way back to the station from the grocery store, Oldenberg, who was riding with me, asked me pull in to Nelsen’s Hall."
 
He said, “I think I recognize that car.  I think its Jo Ellen’s car.”  He had evidently dated her in the past. 

“But Bill, we’re on duty,” I said.

“We’re just gonna see if she’s here.  I went out with her a few times.”

“That’s when I met Nance.  She and Sherry (Bjarnarson)were playing a game of pool.  I don’t know nobody.  Oldenberg’s down there at the other end of the room, happy as a … so I’m like a wallflower.   Here’s these two girls.  They got done with their pool game and I said, ‘Would one of you two girls like to play a game of pool?  Sherry just turned and looked at Nancy, and Nancy said, 'I will.’"

“I didn’t know she was a pool shark.  Oliver Bjarnarson, Frankie Gibson…they taught her how to play pool.  I mean, for years since she was a young teenager she played pool.  She beat me two games in a row, and that was the last time I played pool with her.  And I married her!
 
“She wrote her phone number down on a matchbook.  She probably figured I’d never, ever call her.  She was working in Milwaukee and living with Florence Jess (Butch Jess’s mom).   Meanwhile, I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Cedarburg.  So I’d go down to Cedarburg and help him with his mud-jacking business.  So I called her up and said, “I’m off Plum Island.  Remember me?  Want to go on a date tomorrow night?  Have something to eat?” 

“And that was it.  The rest was history.”  

*           *          * 

Looking around the Thiele home many photos, memorabilia and awards can be seen.  

Somewhere you have a picture of you alongside Colin Powell," I noted.  "Was that taken on your retirement?”         

“No…that picture with Colin Powell was taken in his office in the Pentagon, the day after we went into Panama to capture Noriega.  He called us to brief all four of us – the Army Sergeant Major was in Panama with his troops.”
“And here's a picture of the boat I had in Dubuque, the Wyaconda, pushing a 130-ft. barge.”

*    *    *

Allen's duty station conversation continued…Allen picked up from the time when he met Nancy.

“We got married September 17, 1966.  By that time (in 1965) I had made Second Class on Plum Island.  And from there, I was transferred to Two Rivers.  It was while I was at Two Rivers that we got married, and once we were married Nancy moved with me each time I changed duty stations.
  
“I got transferred from Plum Island in December of ’65, and they sent me to Great Lakes Training Center so that I could become an Officer in Charge of the law enforcement detachment in Two Rivers.  I had just made First Class.” 

Advancement was rapid after your initial promotion?

“I was in Two Rivers by January of 1966, at that Boating Safety Detachment, and I stayed there until July of 1969.   In October of 1968, I made Chief.

“I went from Seaman to Third Class in four years, from Seaman to Chief in 9 ½ years.   There were a lot of First Class who suspected something was up, that I cheated on the exam and so on.  They said, 'He’s too young to make Chief!'  I was 28 years old at the time.
 
“Advancement includes time-in-service as well as time-in-grade.  Only 6 months is required between Third and taking the test and getting Second Class.  One year is required as a minimum time-in-grade between Second and First Class, then two years is the minimum between First and Chief.  I was right at that two-year mark.

“Then, from Two Rivers we moved to the island of Kauai, Hawaii.  I was the Executive Petty Officer at that station, about 25 people in all at that station.  It was a Loran station, so a lot of electronics people were stationed there.  The main objective was to continually put out a navigation radio signal.  Kauai was also a mini-group office, because there were also two light stations on Kauai, and a small search-and-rescue boat run by a Second Class Bosun.  As the Executive Officer, I was administrative, shuffling papers."

8.    August 1971 to June 1973  -   “From Kauai I went to the Owasco, a 255-ft. ocean-going cutter from WWII, built in 1941 or 1938.  They built a fleet of them, something like 14 of them.  She was home ported in New London, with a crew of 150.  As a Chief I was in charge of deck force, and we had about 20 people in the deck crew.  

“We’d run ocean stations in the North Atlantic.  For example, Station Bravo was between Nova Scotia and Greenland.  A tough area.  In winter, we were often on Ocean Station Charlie, about 600 to 800 miles east.   There was a 100-mile grid, with ten-mile blocks, and the center was labeled ‘OS’ for On Station.  Our mission was primarily weather reporting, and reporting icebergs.  We monitored planes that flew over and other ships that were in trouble.  Mostly we tracked commercial flights, not so much military flights.   We were supposedly there to assist the commercial planes if they were slightly off course.   We ran on Loran C, and the planes generally had better equipment than we did.  Those stations are now all gone.  Everything in navigation now is done by GPS.

“We used to have Loran stations all the way out on the Aleutian chain of islands.  There is very little presence in those remote waters today.  We had as many as 26 people sitting out there on a rock, isolated duty, tending the Loran station equipment.  Some places it was good duty, other places not so good."

1973–1976  -  “From the Owasco I was transferred to Governor’s Island, New York, and the Cutter Tern, the Coast Guard’s only 81-ft. stern-loading buoy tender."  

Did you ever run into many people you knew?  

“With 4,000 Coast Guard on Governor’s Island, it was a great place to run into old shipmates you served with on previous tours.  I was on the Owasco with Gussie Peterson.” (From Washington Island, son of Phil and Evelyn Peterson). 

[Allen showed me photos of the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Sergeant Majors of the Army, and Marines and the Master Chief of the Navy, all whom he knew well when he was stationed in Washington D. C.   Each wore a similar uniform device showing their position.   ]

“The Owasco had a rounded bilge shape with a hangar back aft for preparing and launching weather balloons. 

“The Tern is no longer in the Coast Guard.   It was a boat that was built to fit a certain deck crane.  It didn’t work well, coming from a barge that was pushed by a tug.  The next idea was to design a boat around that crane, using a constant speed engine.   If you threw the toggle switch for hydraulic pressure, it went to 2000 psi instantly, and it blew fittings and hoses regularly.   I issued rain slickers to the crew, and it wasn’t for rain! 

“Finally, I pulled out a key from my desk drawer - and I have no idea what it was from - and I wrote a letter to my superiors, saying, "Here is the key to the boat.  If you want to see this boat underway any more, bring the key, bring the money, and let’s get this thing fixed the way it should be."
 
“I had a captain and a commander who said, "Who the hell is this?  Who does this insubordinate little chief think he is?" But once they saw what the problem was, and we got to talking, they backed down from their footstool, or whatever it was.  They said, "Let’s get it fixed."  

"This was only about my tenth letter," I said.  "I’ll show you the file.  I don’t know what you did with the rest of my letters…" 

"It was very interesting." 

*   *    *

1979  –    From duty based on Governor’s Island with the Tern (1976 to 1979), Allen was transferred in 1979 to Milwaukee as recruiter.  

“I thought I’d have the office in Green Bay like Mitchell did, but I had no sooner had I relieved him when they called up and said, "Hey Thiele.  We want you to move that office to Milwaukee.  We’re going to downsize it to one man.  That’s where the schools are, and so on."
 
“I said, ‘Aye, aye.’  That took care of that.  But it was good.  We lived in Port Washington.  In fact, we lived in the old lighthouse, now a museum.  We were on the second floor.
 
“Then, in June of 1982, I was selected to be the Senior Enlisted Advisor by the Admiral for the Pacific.  And I traveled throughout the Pacific:  Japan, Eniwetok, Yap, Guam Saipan, Iwo Jima, Midway, to name a few.” 

When was the cutter Washington Island christened?

“The cutter Washington Island was christened in 1989, while we were in D. C.  Nancy was the sponsor.  One photo of it was given to the Ferry Line, where I thought more people would be able to see it.  The photo and an  engraved nameplate were made by Bollinger, a shipbuilder in New Orleans, and a copy of the ship’s bell was placed at the Maritime Museum.  It was a second bell similar to the ship's bell that the builder had cast and engraved."

1982-1986  -  “So, from Honolulu I went to the Wyaconda, home ported in Dubuque, Iowa, from August of 1982 to 1986.

“From Dubuque, I originally had a set of orders in my pocket to another buoy tender in St. Louis.   Because about 30 candidates had applied for the Master Chief of the Coast Guard job, they pared the names down to five men, and then the five of us were brought out to Washington DC for interviews by the soon-to-be Commandant, just selected, ADM Paul Yost.”

Will there ever be a female Master Chief? I asked.   

“Sure. Its only a matter of time.

“The Master Chief for each service as a concept started in 1967.  I met the first Master Chief selected for that position when I was in Kauai, when he traveled to talk to the different crews in the Pacific.”

Describe your responsibilities as CG Master Chief:

“I was just going on 28 years in the Coast Guard when I got that job.   What you are is the go-between, to travel and to find out what the feeling of the sailor is at the deck plate level.  Are there any family problems?  Medical issues?  We don’t have hospitals in the Coast Guard, or even Coast Guard bases, in many cases.  Because of that, everything is done commercially, contracted out.  For the Coast Guard, you have to rely on yourself, with people scattered all over, often on small stations.

“There’s a great deal of consternation with assignments.   Most shipboard assignments were two years; shore billets for three years.   The assignment detailer would work with the crew, but often the crew felt they got the short end of the stick with back-to-back tours on ships, etc.   The E-9s would try to resolve it at their level, but if they couldn’t they’d say, ‘Al, here.  Take a round turn on this one, and see if we can get this thing resolved.’

“I’d go right to their offices and try to resolve it.  There were very few times I had to go to the Commandant for anything.” 






































What was your level of job satisfaction as Master Chief?

“What we did, which was really great…was to get together with my other counterparts, the five service representatives, with our wives, once each quarter.   Different problems would come up, but we found we had identical things happening across the services, without having to kick it up to the big stars, or into the political arena.

“We did get involved with the associations.  For example, the NonComOfficers Association.  They have around 400,000 members, with lobbyists.  We’d discuss retirement vs. active duty benefits, and so forth, or co-pay on health, as an example.   

"I’ve been called to testify before the Maritime Commerce Committee.  They requested my presence before the committee, and then a short time later,  I was asked to furnish X number of copies of my testimony 10 days before appearance.  I had no idea this is what they expected.

“The Captain said, "You can’t go up there and just say anything.  You can add to it, especially if asked a question.  But they want to know what you’re going to say, and they want to prepare themselves. They don’t ever want to look bad on camera." 

“One of the members of the Committee was a retired Coast Guard Captain, Howard Coble, North Carolina.   He came down from behind the dais and introduced himself before the hearing began.   Coble shook my hand and said,  "This is your first time testifying, isn't it?   It’ll be OK.  Just be as frank as you can.  We just want to know what’s going on.  You’ll be OK."
  
“Then just after the meeting began, in walks young Joe Kennedy.  Late.  And he sits down, with his staff behind him.  When his turn comes, Coble, as the senior member, cut him short by saying, "Mr. Kennedy, you were a little late.  That question has already been answered.  You can read about it in the testimony.  Do you have another one?"


“I thought, ‘Oh, man!  It’s a one-upmanship game, all of the time.' ”

[To be continued with Part II ]  -  Dick Purinton