The Day the Coast Guard Bombed Russia

26 02 2011

I plan to come back with some more Johnston Island stories but thought I’d break it up with a little something different.

A friend of mine, whom I used to work with while stationed at the Coast Guard Air Station in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, told me this true story. I thought you might enjoy it.

Since the days of 9/11, the Coast Guard has been in the news; movies have been made (The Guardian-Kevin Costner and that Kutcher kid) about them and the History Channel, among others, has presented shows about the CG. But when I served, no one knew who the Coast Guard was. Most people erroneously thought we were a branch of the Navy. So it’s no wonder that the story of a single Coast Guard plane making a successful bombing strike against a Russian vessel in U.S. waters never made the news. Here is your chance to read history.

This occurred just prior to my arrival to Elizabeth City. Only a year or two before my arrival, the Coast Guard was

HU-16 "Goat"

 still flying the HU-16, more affectionately known as the Goat. The Goat was simply a WWII vintage flying boat. The door to enter the plane was on the left side just behind the wing and it was a Dutch door-meaning a lower half and an upper half. The upper half was usually left opened during low-level patrols or searches as it provided the crewman a good view.

The Coast Guard’s primary mission has always been search and rescue (SAR). They are definitely the SAR pros and the ones you want to call whenever you need searching or rescuing. But over time, the Coast Guard mission has expanded and now includes, in addition to SAR, drug interdiction, International Ice Patrol and patrolling our territorial waters for illegal commercial fishing, not to mention Homeland Securities responsibilities.

My friend, Ed, was a crewman aboard one of the Goats flying out of Elizabeth City on fishery patrol one day when they came upon a Russian trawler fishing within U.S. waters off the coast of Cape Hatteras. Now you also should be aware that this was in the days before President Reagan, and the cold war was still raging. The United States and Russia did not see eye to eye on many issues.

Goat on the Water

As they dropped down for a closer look, with Ed standing at the open door, apparently they flew closer to the trawler than the Russian crew cared for. A couple of the trawler’s crewmen were on deck and as the Goat made a low pass over the trawler, the Russians gave them the one finger salute.

This common gesture has the same meaning in Russia that it has in the U.S. It also has the same meaning at sea.

“Hey, skipper, did you see those guys flip us off?” Ed yelled. Yes, the pilot had seen it and had already begun a turn to make another pass. As they were coming around, the pilot asked Ed if it was time to take out the trash. The trash can was pretty close to over-flowing with apple cores, banana peels and the remains of everything else the crew had been eating and drinking during what had become a long mission. So, Ed informed the pilot that the can was full and needed to be emptied.

Suddenly the mission had changed; it was no longer a fisheries patrol but was now a bombing mission. This next pass would be even lower than the first in order to assure accuracy.

Dropping things onto boats was not something foreign to the CG crew. This, in fact was an activity which was practiced on a regular basis in case there was ever a need to drop a written message to a boat. Flying C-130s we would actually get about 50 feet above the water and on the pilot’s command, while flying directly above the boat, throw a message block out the rear of the aircraft in an effort to hit the boat. Only this time the message was not written on a slip of paper.

As they approached the trawler, the pilot gave the standard order, “drop, drop, drop”. On his command, Ed let the contents of the trash can go out the door. Perfect hit! The garbage landed right on the deck forcing the angry Russian crewmen to run for cover.

No, this is not standard procedure, nor was it exactly legal; but what were they going to do? The Russians couldn’t report the incident because they were in U.S. territorial waters. Chalk one up for the shallow water sailors.

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