CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT - "Boy we had some calls in the 1960s and 1970s you wouldn't believe," retired Coast Guardsman Gary Hudson shares. "I remember once a lady had a heart attack on a charter boat and after we loaded her onto the litter and got her aboard we asked her husband if he wanted to go along to shore and he says he'd rather keep fishing for salmon."
Hudson says, "There were 18 or 20 of us guys stationed at Cape D during that time and we'd take over 700 calls a year. When Buoy 10 opened in the late 1970s, whew, we had even more. We were busy all the time." It was amazing that Hudson was in the USCG at all as he grew up north of Spokane and attended Mead High School. "One day I was in Spokane and saw a billboard advertising the Coast Guard. I said to myself, 'That's for me' and signed up. I didn't even let my mom know at first. When I did tell her she asked, 'What's the Coast Guard?'"
Hudson hated basic training as he was seasick all the time and ended up on an icebreaker near the South Pole. Twenty years and one day later he retired as Chief Boswains Mate, having served two tours of duty at Cape D and also in Oregon, Alaska and Portsmith, Va.
"I can remember getting calls from tuna boats in trouble 100 miles out and we'd fish most of the way back while we towed them in. I took home a pickup load of tuna on occasion," Hudson says. "Then once we had an all-nighter when we helped a crab boat in trouble by the Lightship. The (Columbia River) Bar was closed, there were 30-foot seas and 60-knot winds and my entire crew was sicker than a dog. The crab boat rolled so bad the fire in the stove on board spilled out and we had to deal with that and the flooding. We made it back at 7 a.m., however."
Hudson says there were many fun times, too. "We met a lot of great local people from the Peninsula and we socialized a lot," he says. "There was a beer distributor who would always buy any serviceman in the tavern a drink when he made his deliveries. We learned his route and kept one tavern ahead of him all the way to Ocean Park."
There was one very sad time, as well. "I was transferred 10 days before the original Triumph went down. When I heard the news it was horrible, gut-wrenching. I knew all of the guys who didn't make it." On Jan. 12, 1961 the Triumph was attempting to save the distressed fishing vessel Mermaid on Peacock Spit when a series of huge waves struck and capsized both boats, killing five of the six USCG personnel on board and both crew members of the Mermaid.
May 27 at 9:30 a.m. the USCG will hold a memorial service for those men who were lost that night in 1961. "A man can't feel he did wrong when he was doing his job the best way he could, but things didn't always work out the way we wanted out there," Hudson explains.
The most dangerous situation Hudson was involved in personally happened near Clatsop Spit. "We were practicing heavy weather surf rescues and I got in where I shouldn't have been at Clatsop Spit. My motor lifeboat pitch-poled on a breaker and I almost lost two guys, but luckily they both survived. I learned a lesson that day!"
Hudson describes his time in the Coast Guard as peaceful, comic, and tragic and he says without a doubt, "I'd do it all over again if I had the chance. I have arthritis, my knees are bad, and I have had to have a knee replacement, but I have no regrets. I'm looking forward to seeing the 44s again next weekend. Those are the boats I grew up on. I still can remember the sound, the feel, the smell." Two 44-foot motor lifeboats that have been de-commissioned will make their way down the Columbia River from Portland and be on display at Cape D Saturday and Sunday during the USCG reunion to be attended by over 100 men and another 150 or so family members.
"I can't believe all the improvements that the Coast Guard has made over the years," Hudson says. "We didn't have survival suits, let alone wet suits. We had life jackets and rain gear. We were lucky to have a radio and only one boat had radar. Now they have GPS, Loran, and radar that interface with hand-held computers. And the 52s are fabulous."
Hudson relates, "In the old days we didn't have to do much drug enforcement and there was no such thing as Homeland Security. I was on icebreakers, cutters in Vietnam, motor lifeboats, worked in the open ocean, and helped with port security during my time and I loved the excitement of the work, the great sense of personal accomplishment."
After Hudson retired he "got the biggest pilot's license I could get" and continued his working at sea. He earned the title of Able Body Seaman, Unlimited, had a 100-ton pilot's license and a charter boat license. Hudson ran charters out of Ilwaco and on the Columbia River, was on a tug in Prudhoe Bay, worked for NOAA in the Bering Sea, and ran a dredge for the Army Corps of Engineers from California to Alaska. He now resides in Toledo.
Hudson teamed up with Earnie Cassimus of Baton Rouge, La., Frank Wescovich of Biloxi, Miss., and Robert Meneghini of Enumclaw to organize the USCG reunion planned for this coming weekend. May 26, he and 250 other people will get together for an open house with the public invited at the Long Beach Elks from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. A banquet and guest speakers will be for only those registered for the reunion beginning at 5 p.m.
Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m. the memorial service will take place in sight of Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Two 44-foot motor lifeboats that the Sea Scouts are bringing from Portland and the 44 motor lifeboat from Ilwaco will take passengers out to the Columbia River Bar and a helicopter from Astoria will drop a ceremonial wreath. Cape D personnel will later provide a barbecue for the reunion guests and will provide a tour of the base and lifeboat school.
"I'm expecting some great stories and a few bad ones at the reunion," Hudson jokes. "We will honor about 40 men who made that final bar crossing and many of their widows and children will be in attendance." He concludes by saying, "Serving in the Coast Guard was a very fulfilling career. I still have all the many letters of appreciation I got from people I helped along the way. My grandson is interested in the Coast Guard and I've heartily recommended he join up. Serving in the Coast Guard is a great life."