Monday, May 19, 2014


- 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?”

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


Don said...

Great interview and a delightful read.

Harry Lee Jensen said...

Hi dick. Very interesting interview. I didn't make MCPON during my tour of 22 years, but very much enjoyed my tour as did Al. A lot of parallels between my Navy career and his CG.Our service dates were close to each others love it. ASC Lee Jensen Washington Island Legion member. Residing in la Center Wa.