Survivor Gilligan’s Island

22 02 2011

Gilligan’s Island, Here I Come!

It was 1973 and I was stationed at the Coast Guard Aircraft Repair and Supply Center, commonly referred to as

Bottom-Sand Island; Top-Johnston Island

 AR&SC, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. I had just received orders to Coast Guard LORAN (an acronym for a navigation method, LOng Range Aids to Navigation, made obsolete by GPS) Station Johnston Island. Where in the world was the Coast Guard sending me? The more I learned about it the less I liked the thoughts of my new duty station.

As it turned out, Johnston Island was in the center of an atoll 800 miles southwest of Honolulu. Sounds pretty exotic when you say it that way, but the truth is Johnston Island was a 750 acre island with an all-male population consisting of Army, Air Force, and civilian contract personnel. But for a Coasty, once you landed on Johnston Island you were still a mile and a half boat ride away from your home on Sand Island.

Sand Island was a thirteen acre strip of sand, hence the name, on which there was a total of four buildings (5 if you count the one room transmitter building), one tree, 25 Coasties, three dogs, two cats, one rabbit, one television on which there was only one channel broadcast from nearby Johnston Island, and an estimated 750,000 birds. There were more birds on Sand Island than groupies at a free Justin Bieber concert.

There was also a tennis/basketball court on which much more basketball was played than tennis because there was

Tennis/Basketball Court. They tried the screen until the wind blew it over.

 no fence. When you play tennis on a 13 acre island with no fence you tend to lose a lot of balls to the Pacific.

The far end of the island, looking like something out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, was populated with hundreds of thousands of gannets (blue-footed boobies), frigates, terns and many more species and had been declared a bird sanctuary. You went to that end of the island only if you wanted to take pictures, work on the transmitter; or get dumped on. If you had the mid-watch (midnight to 8 AM) you had the responsibility of picking up any dead birds which met its demise by flying into the tower guy wires during the night.

This is my ride.

Terns on Sand Island

 

Welcome to Johnston Island-How Do You Like Your Agent Orange?

When I arrived on the island I was taken, along with other new arrivals, directly from the plane to a room inside the terminal at the airport where we were given an orientation informing us of the presence of massive amounts of chemical weapons stored on the island and instructions in use of our newly issued gas mask and atropine injectors. Oh, this sounds like fun! That is why we had a rabbit on our island. His sole purpose in life was to die in the event of a gas/chemical release. His death would be our early warning to don the gas mask. He was our canary in the mine. Fortunately he never died while I was there.

Mama and baby gannets

Afterward I was met by a young man by the name of Kerry Walsh. Kerry had come over from Sand Island to take me to my new home for the next twelve months. Somehow Kerry knew all about me. He knew I was married and from North Carolina. He knew I was transferring from AR&SC. He seemed to be quite well-informed.

Kerry grabbed my bags and threw them into an 18 foot Boston whaler with the familiar red and blue Coast Guard racing stripes and we sped the short distance through the channel over to Sand Island.

Welcome to Your New Home

By the time we arrived, supper was over and guys were beginning to settle in to their usual nightly routines. This included trying to figure out how to spend the evening if the nightly movie offering wasn’t very appealing. I think the flick that evening was The Way We Were, a movie starring Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford which was unforgettable only because it was so bad.

Partying in the hallway.

By the time we arrived on the island the movie was about a third of the way over and there were only three guys still watching it-everyone else had bailed. Whose idea was it anyway to send a chick flick, and not a good one at that, to an island inhabited only by men? Someone should have to answer for this decision of insanity.

After taking me to my room and dumping off my gear, Kerry gave me the obligatory grand tour of the barracks to meet the crew. As was often the case when not much is going on, one guy might stop by the open door of another’s room. Pretty soon, there would be another and then another. Before you knew it half the crew was inside or hovering around the door telling lies, singing songs and just having a good time. Who knew you could find so much enjoyment sitting around popping Styrofoam packing peanuts?

Just such an impromptu party was in full swing in the room of a guy named George. George, from somewhere in New York City, was the most sociable guy you would ever meet. He was also known as the base lush as his favorite drink was anything containing alcohol. Since alcoholic beverages were prohibited on Sand Island, except for the 10 cent Heinekens sold for morale purposes, some guys had become quite creative in acquiring and hiding their personal stash of contraband booze.

 

Thanks but no Thanks

No sooner had we gotten the introductions completed when George reached behind some books on a shelf and pulled out a bottle of some kind of liquor from which he poured and offered me a drink. I politely declined explaining I didn’t drink. But almost immediately, Kerry intervened and attempted to dissuade George and any others from not only offering me alcohol, but he even tried to discretely get the others to remove their drinks from my view. It was obvious to me what he was doing but not clear as to why. Finally I asked Kerry what was going on. He said he was aware of my problems with alcohol and he wanted to help me by shielding me from alcohol so I would not be tempted. I asked him what made him think I had a problem. He replied that my personnel file indicated I was coming from AR&SC. “Isn’t that the Alcoholic Rehabilitation Center?” he asked.

Yep, it’s going to be an interesting year.

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4 responses

23 02 2011
Cliff Pryor

Bill,

Thanks for this posting about my former home! I lived on JA from March 1996 to December 2002. Yes that is almost seven years! Very interesting to read a smidgen about what life was like on the island long before I got there.

I don’t know if you know anything about JA since your year spent there but I can give you a peak.

I visited Sand Island many, many times during my stay there but no one lived there anymore. Any barracks that had been there before were long gone. The LORAN towers were gone. All that was left was the science station maintained and operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. There were a couple of garages and some huge fuel storage tanks as well. Those garages would come in handy if it rained during our overnight camping trips to the island. Oh, and thousands of birds.

Women: plenty of them. Women started coming back I believe around 1986. I cannot imagine living on an atoll with only men for a whole year. None of us had to stick to the island for 365 days until dismissal. Unless there were some rare cases I am not aware of, all of us could readily leave for vacation or whatever for a few days or weeks during our contract time there. This was true for the Army and Air Force personnel as well. I do not know when the Coast Guard pulled out, but there were no permanent CG personnel there by the time I got there.

Movies: On JA we had what we called an Outdoor Theater. Here a movie would be played every night. Seven nights a week we got to watch a movie under the stars and $1 got you a soda and candy bar or bag of chips, beers were $2 and popcorn was free. Stage productions could also be held here.

Sports: We had basketball, softball, volleyball and bowling leagues. We had a par 3, nine-hole golf course. Was the swimming pool there when you were there? That swimming pool was supposedly built around the time you got there but I don’t know. That pool was my duty station during my seven years there. My immediate co-workers were the people at the Marina. When not working the pool I was either working at the Marina or teaching scuba diving. I did 1,000 dives on JA. Awesome! The tennis and basketball courts across from the dining hall were still there. We also had an indoor gym set up for basketball, volleyball, karate, aerobics, etc. There was a full weight room of free weights and Nautilus equipment. Want to make some pottery, a painting, or silk screen a shirt? Those and much more were waiting for you at the full-time Arts and Crafts studio.

The department I worked for was Morale, Welfare and Recreation. We had something going on all the time. I organized Easter egg hunts undewater every Easter. Also had a couple of pumpkin carving contests underwater as well. We had to stop those as the friendly grey reef sharks REALLY liked the taste of pumpkin and we were in the way when bits of pumpkin would float over our heads. We had 5K races, bike races, scavenger hunts, fairs, carnivals, and the DoD would send entertainers our way. Rock and C&W bands, comedians, magicians, pro football players during Super Bowl week, you name it.

The dining hall served three squares Monday – Saturday and brunch and dinner on Sunday. If you got tired of the dining hall (Coral Reef Cafe) you could wait till 4:30pm on weekdays and pay for your own cheeseburger or pizza at the Waikiki Hale next to the Marina. You could also get a beer to go with that burger or pizza. This was great after a late afternoon or night dive in the marina.

Of course we had a full-service bar called the Tiki. We never did learn to never take our bicycles to the Tiki on Saturday night because someone would always take your bike back to their own barracks rather than walk. Sunday mornings would be spent looking for that wayward bike.

We did have a church. Service open for all. Post Office as well.

In short, if you were bored, it was your own fault. We had plenty going on.

Cliff Pryor

23 02 2011
Bill Taylor

Thanks for the update, Cliff. We had many of those same amenities while I was there in ’73-74 but most everything was on JI. On Sand Island we had our nightly movie on the mess deck and the basketball court. That was about it. But it was nice to go over to JI and enjoy the outdoor theater, Tiki etc. I bowled for a short time in the league and played both basket ball and softball. We had a 36 game slow pitch schedule, turned right around the following week and began a 20 game fast-pitch schedule using the same teams. Probably not 2 hits the entire firt round of play. I also played in a flag football league on JI and began attending church services later during my stay. At first it was just me but then others began to go over with me. You’re right, there was plenty to do but it made life easier if you wewre living on JI rather than Sand Isaland. I have other stories and pictures I plan to post about that time. It was a great time. Thanks for visiting my blog.

27 05 2013
David Ragan

I read about the drop from the Sea Plane over the Russian Trawler, and it made me think of my Father. Actually anything Coast Guard makes me think of my Father. His name was Thomas Graham Ragan 1931-2010. This is just the type of story that he would be involved in. He spent 17 of his 23 years in the Coast Guard flying Air-Sea Rescue. 7 as the Crew Chief in the HH-52 Sea Guard, and his final 10 as Crew Chief in the C-130. He lived for the moto Semper Paratus, and these are the type of stories he would have been involved with. He lived to serve others first, and loved his service in the Coast Guard. I am the last of 5 Brats. Although I have visited Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, I wasn’t born until after he was stationed there. I was fortunate enough to live in Ewa Beach Hawaii from 1968 to 1972, and my Father was Stationed at Barbers Point Naval Air Station. My Father had always wished to go back to Hawaii some time over the years, but he never got the chance, so when he passed away I was fortunate enough to be able to take his ashes back, and take a Catamaran off the Beach at Waikiki, and when we reached the Point off of Diamond Head I put his ashes in a Coast Guard hat, and put them over the side in the waves, and cut the string on a Lei, and laid the flowers over the edge. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust ! Spiritually I was able to take a part of him back to a place that held a special place in his Heart. I spent the next 9 days there enjoying myself like he would have wanted me to, and although I shed a many a tear, they were all shed in joy…

28 05 2013
Bill Taylor

Great story David. I’m really glad you were able to do that for your dad. I’m sure he would be pleased. I would like to recommend a book. A friend while I was stationed at Elizabeth City wrote of his CG career. His name is Fred Tanner and the book is titled Launch the Ready. I think you might enjoy it and perhaps he knew your dad. Hope you’ll continue to visit my site. Best wishes. Bill

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