Tuesday, May 20, 2014


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


Don said...

You know, Dick, when I read stuff like this, I almost wish I have stayed in the Marine Corps for my career. Excellent interview.

If you get The New Yorker, there is an article by John McPhee in the April 7 edition. It is called "Elicidation" and is about the art of the interview. You do an excellent job.

Tony Woodruff said...

An outstanding review of an outstanding man's life. We feel very fortunate and proud to be friends and neighbors of Al & Nancy. Thanks for the focus on them. - - Tony & Grace