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The U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program

Preserving and presenting the past through interviews

“Oral histories are important because you can obtain information that is often not in documents,” said Robert Browning, Ph.D., chief historian of the Coast Guard Oral History Program. “You can get personal feelings and perspectives of events. You also have the opportunity to ask questions that are not covered in other sources.”

The U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office (CGHO) began collecting oral histories from its inception in 1972. The Coast Guard Oral History Program expanded and became more formalized about 10 years ago, when positions for area historians were created and filled. Interviewers for the program include CGHO staff, active-duty Coast Guard personnel, auxiliarists, reservists, and, on occasion, volunteers. The program has a page on the Coast Guard website. It includes a how-to guide for prospective interviewers and interviewees that gives advice on how to write memoirs, how to conduct interviews, a list of suggested questions to ask World War II Coast Guard veterans, and a Deed of Gift release form.

The list of interviews available is as extensive as it is impressive, and includes interviews from personnel at every level of service, from that of Coast Guard commandants down to the ratings. Among the highlights are the Coast Guard experiences of professional golf champion Arnold Palmer, and SPAR Florence Ebersole Smith Finch, who was a resistance fighter in the Philippines and the only SPAR decorated for combat during World War II.

Some of these individuals aren’t included in the CGHO’s oral history collections, but instead are featured prominently in other oral histories or on other pages: Lt. T. James Crotty, stationed in the Philippines at World War II’s outbreak and a prisoner of war; Coast Guard aviation pioneer and open-ocean rescue pilot Richard L. Burke, who was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses during World War II and a Silver Lifesaving Medal during his long career; World War II veteran Dwight H. Dexter, who was the commanding officer of Douglas Munro, the only Coast Guardsman to receive the Medal of Honor; and Vietnam War veteran Capt. Joseph L. Crowe Jr., who received three Distinguished Flying Crosses and nine Air Medals and whose missions included the attempt to conduct an aerial rescue of Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton, USAF, who was trapped behind North Vietnamese Army lines, a rescue saga made famous by the book and movie Bat 21. This is just a small sampling that barely scratches the surface.

The U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office (CGHO) began collecting oral histories from its inception in 1972. The Coast Guard Oral History Program expanded and became more formalized about 10 years ago, when positions for area historians were created and filled. Interviewers for the program include CGHO staff, active-duty Coast Guard personnel, auxiliarists, reservists, and, on occasion, volunteers. The program has a page on the Coast Guard website. It includes a how-to guide for prospective interviewers and interviewees that gives advice on how to write memoirs, how to conduct interviews, a list of suggested questions to ask World War II Coast Guard veterans, and a Deed of Gift release form.

Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team, from Fort Dix, N.J., continue to monitor air quality and coordinate equipment and personnel wash-downs amid the rubble of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks in New York City, Sept. 24, 2001. Following the attacks, two service personnel, reservist Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Gately and Lt. Kathleen Garza (not pictured), drove to Coast Guard Station New York, Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, to assist. Gately later told the interviewer: ‘‘Everything I ever did in the Coast Guard was
perfect preparation for [what happened]. …’’ U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 William Barry

Browning noted that the more recent Coast Guard oral history records, recorded when memories were fresher, have been particularly gratifying. “I think the stories from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the rescues are the most compelling,” he said. “The oral histories from 9/11 and from those who evacuated the people off Manhattan Island and the Coast Guard teams that went to the site [of the World Trade Center (WTC)] in the aftermath are also compelling.”

Among the interviews of Coast Guard personnel who were involved in those two events are those of Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Gately, USCGR, who recounted his experiences during 9/11 and its aftermath, and Aviation Survival Technician Petty Officer 3rd Class Sara Faulkner, who assisted in rescue efforts following Hurricane Katrina.

In 2001, Gately was a planner at the Waterways Management Division, Coast Guard Activities New York, based in Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, and had been in the Coast Guard Reserve for 21 years. On the morning of 9/11, he and Coast Guard Lt. Kathleen Garza were in Washington, D.C., attending a port security seminar for port readiness at the Department of Transportation building. He was in the process of getting a cup of coffee when he noticed a group of people gathered around a television set in the lobby. After inquiring, he learned that an airplane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. A short time later, he saw on the TV the second plane crash into the second tower. In an interview conducted on May 6, 2002, he said, “[A]s far as I was concerned … it was obvious it was terrorism because two planes don’t, by accident, hit the World Trade Center.” He and Garza decided to immediately drive back to Fort Wadsworth.

Arriving at about 1:00 p.m., Gately found the situation chaotic. “Not in the sense that people were confused or didn’t know what to do, but the pressure was intense,” he said. The key reason for the chaos was simple. Gately said, “We had no telephones.” The phone system ran through the World Trade Center, and there was no back-up system in place. When the World Trade Center was destroyed, so were telephone communications. “The VHF worked but it was congested,” he said. The result was a jury-rigged lash up of nonsecure radios and cell phones. But as bad as the communications situation was, looming over everything was the fact that New York has one of the largest harbors in the nation and, just like all of the airports in the country, it was shut down.

“The biggest problem that we had in our division, the Waterways Management Division, was that the harbor was closed and the industry needed that harbor opened,” Gately recalled. “There were ships that wanted to come in. There were ships that had to go through. Tugs had to bring barges up to Albany … to the ports up the Hudson. The ferries wanted to run so that people could get to work, and we had totally shut down the harbor … And so in my division, the main activity was trying to put together a plan to open up the harbor in a way that would be secure. …” The pressure to open the port would be unrelenting, with industry calling Washington in order to try to speed things up.

CGC Resolute

A Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin helicopter flies overhead as the CGC Resolute steams near the Deepwater Horizon spill site, July 4, 2010. The Resolute, homeported in St. Petersburg, Fla., was serving as a search and rescue guard to help support and protect people and ships involved in the largest accidental oil spill in history. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Belson

“After about a month we began … I don’t want to say ‘crack under the strain,’ but we simply couldn’t sustain [the high] pace anymore. We didn’t have enough boats. We didn’t have enough people. The boats were breaking down. People were working 80 or 90 hours a week. We just couldn’t hack the pace anymore, and so we had to stand down almost from necessity. So we started sending people back to their home stations. We started releasing reservists. We started sending cutters away and we got down to what we called a sustainable level.”

When he wrote his 9/11 After Action Report, Gately told the interviewer, “Everything I ever did in the Coast Guard was perfect preparation for [what happened]. I knew about cutters. I knew about smallboats. I knew port security. I knew law enforcement. So I had the background to do the job. So … it was sort of like a culmination of everything coming together at the end.”

In late August 2005, Faulkner was a nine-year Coast Guard veteran and a crewmember in an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter stationed in Jacksonville, Fla., one of about 5,600 Coast Guard personnel who responded to assist in post-Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts. Shortly after Katrina made landfall, the crew was notified to fly west and take up station in Panama City. But upon reaching Panama City, the crew was ordered into action as more than 100 distress calls had been received, including reports that people were dying. She participated in four missions, conducting at least 52 rescue hoists. One particular rescue proved memorable.

In an Oral History Program interview conducted on Oct. 4, 2005, a little more than a month after Katrina, Faulkner recalled the crew flying to one building with a balcony “because we saw women and children there,” and she was lowered to the balcony. Faulkner managed to straddle the balcony with her legs to steady herself and get prepared for her first rescue there. What occurred next took her by surprise. “[A]s soon as I kind of straddled the balcony – I’d grab onto it and then I’d sit on it – they put a baby in my arms. And our rescue devices are too small for babies so I had to hold him in my bare arms [tearful], and just the look on the mother’s face. You don’t hang a baby over a second story balcony and she just shoved him to me, you know, and I kind of kicked out from underneath the roof because I didn’t have any free hands to even give a signal, and you know they hoisted me up and we started spinning. And I was just so afraid of him wiggling and losing my grip on him because he maybe would start to freak out or whatever, but he didn’t, thank goodness. But I actually had to check him and make sure he was OK because I made sure I wasn’t crushing him because I was holding onto him so tight. That was hard, but I did three more after that and I wasn’t as nearly freaked out, but that first one was scary [tearful].”

Search and Rescue Case

(From left) Rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class Sara Faulkner, Petty Officer 2nd Class David Ehrenzeller, Chris Swinney and his son, Victor, Lt. Chris Enoksen, and Lt. j.g. Grant Langston are all smiles after a successful search and rescue case near Anclote Key, Fla., May 14, 2011. Swinney and his son were rescued after their 22-foot sailing vessel capsized during a storm. Following Hurricane Katrina, Faulkner, then an aviation survival technician petty officer third class, assisted in rescue efforts aboard an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter and recounted her experiences on Oct. 4, 2005, for the Oral History Program. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Tara Molle

All told, 33,545 people were rescued. On Nov. 2, 2005, in a special ceremony held at Lincoln Center in New York City, Faulkner was one of several women recognized as heroes of the hurricane by Glamour magazine. A dramatic video showing her rescue of that first baby and containing another interview of her in which she recounts the incident can be seen on YouTube.

Reflecting on the Coast Guard Historian’s Office and its staff, Browning said, “Our staff gets great pleasure working with the Coast Guard because of its rich and diverse history. There is almost never a dull day, nor is there ever a day when we cannot learn something new about the service or find something else to admire about the men and women who have served in the Coast Guard.”

This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook: 2013 Edition.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...