NOAA History Banner
gold bar divider
home - takes you to index page
about the site
noaa - takes you to the noaa home page
search this site
white divider

arrow Stories and Tales of the Coast & Geodetic Survey
arrow Personal Tales

[Aslakson, Carl I. [1980] Earth Measurer. Excerpt from unpublished manuscript.]

3 of 9

The Early Years
The First Year

After graduation in 1923 I saw a notice on the bulletin board that the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey was offering commissions to qualified Civil Engineering graduates. I was curious having heard a great deal about that service from my professors, so I wrote a letter asking for more information even though I had already had an offer from the Standard Oil Co. for an assignment in India.

I was surprised to receive a letter in reply "Ordering" me to report to a Public Health Doctor in La Crosse, Wisconsin and if I passed a physical examination to report to headquarters in Washington, Of course I knew I was not obligated in as much as I had not actually asked for employment, but I suddenly felt that I would like the service so I decided to abandon my idea of the India assignment. That night I saw an ad in the paper for an extra passenger who could share driving and expenses to go east to Ithaca, New York. I called the given telephone number and found out that he was driving east the next day. He was a professor at Cornell University. He said that I could ride with him as far as Elmira, New York and take a train to Washington from there. Such small matters change our lives. Instead of going to India I went off to Washington. I have never regretted that decision.

I remained in Washington at the office only a month after reporting and then I received orders to go to Baltimore, Maryland and report to Captain L. D. Graham on the Launch Elsie III. Actually Graham was a Lieutenant but as he commanded a vessel the title of Captain was appropriate. The Elsie had formerly been a yacht belonging to Curtis of the Curtis Publishing Company and he had donated it to the Coast & Geodetic Survey. It was in dry dock and was being overhauled. She was powered by a heavy duty gasoline engine, was forty-five feet in length and drew four and one half feet of water. It took a month to complete repairs and then we headed south through the inside passage to Florida.

The Inland Waterway went all the way to Florida except for a days run outside around Cape Hatteras. Since that time outside passage is no longer necessary. The waterway consists of interconnecting sounds, rivers, and canals. At the present time at least six feet of water is available throughout the passage but at that time the Coast Pilot cautioned that no attempt should be made to carry over three feet through the passage without a pilot. Here we were, drawing four and one half feet!

We completed repairs and headed south around the first of December of 1923. My rank was Deck Officer, a rank corresponding to a warrant officer in the Marines. It was not until a year later that I was commissioned as Ensign.

The trip down was fascinating. However we had our troubles because of our draft. At times we went aground several times a day. We often had to wait for a change of wind to pile up the water in our end of the sounds to proceed. It was embarrassing because there were many houseboats astern of us much of the time which would have to wait for us to float to go ahead. Actually if they would pass us when the opportunity offered itself, they could have gone ahead with their shallow draft but felt that a government vessel surely knows the best channel and they persisted in following us. We had particular difficulty when we entered the Indian River. As we reached Titusville, Florida we were aground several times each day. We were towing our old Navy motor sailer, a twenty-foot launch with an engine. We often used the motor sailer to sound out the best water. When the Elsie ran aground we would try to pull her into deeper water by using a tow line and giving the launch full power as we would pull forward in jerks. This was sometimes successful but at other times it was simply necessary to wait for a change in the tide which was several feet and the rise was usually sufficient to float us.

One day, north of Jacksonville, Florida, I was attempting to drag the Elsie off a shoal on which she had grounded when my foot caught in a coil of the line and in a flash I was jerked overboard. I thought for a time that my back was broken. Fortunately Captain Graham was remaining in Jacksonville for several days while we resupplied the Elsie at a ship chandler. The Grahams rented an apartment for that period of time and they had an extra room in which they let me stay while recovering. I remained in bed and called a chiropractor. As a rule I have little faith in that profession but he made an adjustment to my spine which relieved me of pain almost at once. It would appear that in some cases the use of chiropracty is justified.

The voyage through the Inside Passage was interesting. For the first time I saw live alligators. From time to time a bare shoal would be populated by eight or ten alligators of all sizes, varying in length from two to ten feet. They remained motionless, sunning themselves on the sand. Pelicans abounded and there were many egrets and other exotic birds on the sand or in the trees.

We never traveled at night. Each night we would tie up at a marina or anchor near the channel in some town. We spent one month on the trip from Baltimore to our destination in Lake Okeechobee which was our eventual destination.

At Stuart, Florida, we had to look into new Okeechobee Canal. We were the first vessel of any size other than work boats to enter the canal and it was not yet fully completed. Due to this we struck a rock in the center of the canal in mid-channel at one point and punched a small hole in the bottom. We made a temporary patch before proceeding. There was a second lock at the point where the canal entered the lake. Passing through that, we entered the lake. We headed northwest to the mouth of Taylor's Creek which was marked at the entrance by a light. We went up the creek to Okeechobee City which is located three miles up Taylor's Creek. There was sufficient water in the creek for the Elsie but the water was covered by water hyacinths from bank to bank. This posed no difficulty for the Elsie but it was difficult to row a skiff through them. We tied up to a wharf in Okeechobee City and that was to be our headquarters when not working for the next eight months.

Our Okeechobee project was to execute a triangulation survey of the lake, establish hydrographic signals in the water and on the lake and eventually to make a hydrographic survey of the lake.

Lake Okeechobee is the second largest fresh water lake in the U.S. being forty-two miles long and thirty-six miles wide. It is very shallow and at times the Elsie was forced to anchor as far as one quarter mile from shore. We towed a barge filled with lumber for building our survey towers. Some of the triangulation stations were located on the shore and others had to be located in the water well off shore. We would tow the barge toward shore until the Elsie went aground and then complete the tow as far as possible with the launch. Then we would carry our lumber and tools the final 100 or 200 meters to shore, wading through the hyacinths which extended far our from shore.

Frequently water moccasins, a very poisonous snake, would be sunning themselves on the hyacinths and as we went by the snake would slither off into the water but no one was ever struck by one.

Tall cyprus trees lined the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee. We used some of them for hydrographic signals by placing large white cloth banners in the tops. The limbs were festooned with Spanish Moss which had to be removed as we climbed. As we climbed we nailed steps to the trunk. Captain Graham was below me adding more nails to the steps. Once as I clutched a handful of moss, a small snake head came out from the moss in my hand. I jerked my hand away and the snake fell onto Captain Graham's hat below me. He hurriedly jerked it off and it fell to the ground. The Captain called down to our locally hired "Florida Cowboys", "What kind of a snake is that?" One called back, "That's a gartah snake, suh." The same thing happened a second time. When we completed our signal and climbed down I asked, "Are those snakes poisonous?" The reply was, "Oh yessuh, they'll kill ya sho." We found out that they were the very poisonous coral snakes. Thereafter we were more careful.

We hired three local Florida cowboys to help us. They had never seen a yacht as large as the Elsie and were proud to be working on her. One day when we were going down Taylor's Creek we passed a row boat with two men laboriously rowing upstream through the hyacinths. One of our new hands called out, "Oar boy! Oar! That's how I got my start."

In November 1924 we completed the triangulation of the eastern half of the lake and headed north. We had orders to make a new topographic survey off St. Augustine and to do some launch hydrography off the coast. On that job I ran my first plane table traverse. I started from a triangulation station which was plotted on my topographic sheet and traversed to the vicinity of another station about four miles north. The station was on a sand dune and we spent some time searching for it without success. The sheet I was working on had a scale of 1/20,000. On that scale ten meters is not much more than the width of a pin prick. The Captain came up and scaled the distance from my last traverse station to the station, found it to be twenty-five meters, laid off twenty five meters from my traverse station to the plotted triangulation and then pointed the alidade toward the station and had the rodman give him a twenty meter distance. He said, "Dig here." There exactly under the rod and covered by six inches of sand was the triangulation station. At the time I did not realize that that accuracy was pure luck and was miserable for a long time at what I considered poor accuracy in my traverse checks.


We completed the St. Augustine project, Captain Graham was ordered to Washington, and I was ordered to report to the USC&GSS BACHE which was under the command of Captain Borden and was working out of Brunswick, Georgia. The work was around Sapelo Sound and Sea Island. At that time the BACHE was short of officers. Two who were senior to me, Lieut. (j.g.) Rittenberg and Lieut. (j.g.) Reed, were on detached surveying with a launch. I was the senior officer on the BACHE at that time as the only other officers were deck officers. Thus I had to act as Executive Officer although I was a mere ensign. This state of affairs later proved to be a source of embarrassment.

A full time Executive Officer, Lieut. Egner, had been ordered to the BACHE and was expected at any time. Reed and Rittenberg completed their launch work and returned aboard. Captain Borden, expecting Egner at any time, had me continue to act as Executive even with two officers senior to me aboard. Captain Borden always played golf on Saturday afternoons and was accustomed to inviting his Executive Officer to play with him. He continued the practice with me leaving two officers senior to me aboard to work. Finally Egner reported and relieved me from an embarrassing situation.

The young ladies in Brunswick welcomed the BACHE officers with open arms. There was always a party somewhere on weekends. When we reached the dock on Saturday afternoons we would frequently find a car waiting for us and instructions as to where to go for the house party in progress. The Brunswick girls were frequently visited by girls from Savannah. This gave us a head start when we moved our base to Savannah later. One of the Savannah girls with whom I became acquainted in Brunswick was Suzanne Bell who was later to introduce me to Marian but that is another story.


Shortly after we began basing on Savannah I met and took Mary Pettus to a dance at the Savannah Hotel. During one dance while Mary was dancing with someone else I sat down on a settee outside the dance floor. I happened to start talking to a nice looking young man who was also sitting there. Across the room a Marine sergeant in uniform lurched across the floor very drunk. I remarked to the man I had been talking to that I had been in the Marines and hated to see that. This started an amazing series of coincidences.

1. We had both graduated from Minnesota in the same year.

2. We had both enlisted in the Marines at almost the same time.

3. We had both been sent to Cuba on the LEVIATHON.

4. We had both been on San Juan Hill. He was in the 127th Company and I was in the 128th Company.

5. We had both been commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the Reserve at the same time.

The upshot of the matter was that he suggested that Mary Pettus get a date for him on Sunday, the following day. He would hire an automobile and we would take a ride whereever the girls wished. That was agreeable to Mary when I introduced him and she got him a blind date. The date was Marian and, somehow, we automatically switched. Mary became his date and I was Marian's. As a matter of fact, I kept on dating Marian and we shortly became engaged. My original proposal was to say, "How would you like to take a trip to the Philippines?" Marian's acceptance was to say, "Let's go." Since that time I have always said that I met Marian through a drunken Marine. On a later occasion Rit and I took Mary Pettus and Marian to dine at the Savannah Hotel. In those days I often suffered from sinus headaches and I had a very bad one that night. The colored waiter apparently thought I was drunk and doubled the check which I paid to avoid making a scene. However, it was not only noticed by Rittenberg but also by Marian and Mary.

The next morning I got up early intending to report the event to the hotel manager and found Rittenberg on deck wrapping a brass belaying pin from the past in paper. I asked him what that was for and he said, "I'm going up to the hotel and get that money back or take it out of that waiter's hide." When Rit reached the hotel, and before he had a chance to tell his story to the manager, the latter apologized and handed him the money.

The waiter had already been discharged. We later learned that as soon as Marian and Mary arrived at home the previous night, they called the manager whom they both knew and told him the story. In truth, the waiter had actually been discharged after the manager collected the money from him.

Captain Borden often let me take the ship up the Savannah River. At one place on a bend a house stood on a point. At that house a woman always came out on a porch and waved to passing ship's. The story told was that her brother had been lost at sea many years before and she waved to all passing ships thinking that her brother might be aboard. It was said that she continued this practice until her death.


My next assignment was in southeast Alaska. Meanwhile, I had requested a Philippine Islands tour of duty. After remaining in Washington for a few weeks, I received my orders to take a train to Seattle, Washington, and report to the Commanding Oofficer of the USC&GS Motor Vessel NATOMA and proceed to Alaska on her. She was due to sail about the time I would arrive.

However, my orders clearly stated that I could take a few days leave enroute but if I arrived late in Seattle after a certain date, I was to proceed to Alaska at my own expense and report to the Commanding Officer there in Ketchikan. Actually, I did arrive after that date which was clearly stated in the orders. Being a babe in the woods, I took those orders literally. Upon arriving in Seattle, I assumed that the NATOMA had left. Finding that a ship was to leave on the day of my arrival in Seattle, I engaged passage and sailed on her for Ketchikan. When I arrived in Ketchikan, I learned that the NATOMA had been given a short assignment in the state of Washington north of Seattle and the Captain of the NATOMA had had to undertake that assignment short-handed because I was not aboard. She would not reach Ketchikan for several weeks.

There I was, stranded in the most expensive town on the continent with very little money. I counted my cash and realized that it wold be difficult to exist until the arrival of the NATOMA. Therefore I moved out of my hotel room and across the street to a much cheaper room and conserved my cash by eating very sparingly.

Fortunately the USC&GSS SURVEYOR came into port a few days later. Captain Sobieralski, the skipper, took pity on me after I told him my story and ordered me to report to the SURVEYOR until the arrival of the NATOMA. Thus, I could join the SURVEYOR Officers' Mess and have a stateroom in which to sleep.

It developed that I had erred in taking those orders literally. I passed through the Seattle Office without reporting to Captain Derickson, the officer-in-charge, who took my not reporting to him as a personal insult. His wife was so angry with me because of the "insult to her husband" that she ignored us when we reported back to Seattle as a newly married couple and she gave Marian a hard time.

I loved my Alaska assignment. Basing on Ketchikan, our hydrography and topography was done in Kaigani Strait, which was about two hours west. Southeast Alaska is beautiful, but the sailing areas are dangerous because of the many rocks. Great care had to be taken when navigating the area. The steel plates of the NATOMA were only 1/8 inch thick and a small rock could have torn out her bottom. It was a comfortable vessel having been a yacht of some former millionaire.

Some interesting events occurred while I was aboard the NATOMA. On one occasion while I was doing launch hydrography (sounding and plotting the depths), Lieutenant Witherbee was in charge of the launch. He kept saying, "There is a brick (a pinnacle rock) in this area somewhere." On a previous day he had spotted the rock at low tide and had taken a sextant fix on it, so he knew its position. He had just said, "It's around right about here!" At that moment we crashed into it. The tides in Kaigani Strait have a range of about thirty feet. The rise and fall is rapid. We struck that rock at nearly high tide. Almost in unison everybody leaped overboard into the water to attempt to lighten the load sufficiently but to no avail. We were firmly wedged on top of that rock which had a cleft in it like a marine cradle. In a few moments we decided that we would have to wait for high tide to float us, that was almost six hours away.

The tide lowered rapidly and there we sat high above the water. After a time the shoal containing the rock and launch bared and we climbed down, went ashore and built a fire to dry out. I have many time regretted not having a camera there. The launch was riding on that rock almost thirty feet in the air above the sandy shoal. It would have been a prize picture.

It was after midnight when the tide came in enough to float the launch and we could make our way back to the ship. Fortunately, at that latitude and time of year it is never completely dark.

Many of our triangulation stations were atop mountains. Once I was put ashore in a camp at the mouth of a small fresh water stream which entered Kaigani Strait in a small bay. We were camped there during the salmon run and we did not lack for fresh salmon. In the mouth of that stream the water was only one to one half foot deep and was crowded with salmon fighting their way upstream to spawn. When we wanted a salmon we simply waded into the water and hit one over the head with a club.

A high blueberry bush grew on the shores of the Strait. The berries were about the size of a medium size strawberry and were delicious. At lunch time I would pick a cupful, fill the cup with canned cream and some sugar, crush the berries and proceed to enjoy them. One day, before I had time to crush them, my launch, having been secured to a rock, started to drift away. Putting my cup of berries down, I dashed out to secure the launch. When I returned and picked up my cup of berries I found a thick layer of small white worms floating on top of the cream. I ate no more blueberries after that but I guess the added protein had not harmed me.

We continued to gorge on fresh salmon while we were in camp. We also found some berries called "salmon berries" delicious. The salmon berry is probably closely related to the raspberry for they are similar in appearance. One species is salmon color and the other is like a black raspberry. They are somewhat larger than a raspberry and not quite as sweet. Our cook made many delicious salmon berry pies.

At night we amused ourselves by building a huge fire of driftwood on the shore and placing a vertical pole at the top. Then we would set the pile afire and get up a jackpot giving the time the pole would fall. The price of a ticket was ten cents and the time intervals were at ten minutes.

Once I killed a deer and am able to say that I have a 100% record at killing them. I have shot only once at a deer and killed that one. I shot it on a mountain climb to occupy a triangulation station and unfortunately was almost at the summit when I saw the deer. Three were across the ravine about 150 meters away. Lieutenant Reading had loaned me a rifle and I selected one of the deer and shot at it. All three bounded away and I thought I had missed. When we crossed to where they had been standing I found a large pool of blood. We followed a trail of blood for about 100 meters and found the dead deer. We camped for the night near the top of the mountain and attempted to cook some tenderloin for our meal. I cannot recommend freshly killed venison. We learned a lesson there. Although we packed the deer out to camp on our return, the added weight was difficult to handle; but after the deer had been hung for awhile in the ship's refrigerator it was delicious. The trail up and down the mountain was difficult and whenever one slipped it seemed that the only thing available to grasp to break the fall was a "devil's club" a horrible shrub full of thorns.

On one occasion Max Witherbee and I went ashore on a Sunday to try for some trout. We were following a stream, Max was some distance ahead when he suddenly stopped and motioned to me to keep quiet. I cautiously went up to where he was standing and saw what he had stopped me for. A mother bear was standing in the middle of the stream on her hind legs, her right paw raised high in the air. There were two cubs on the bank eating salmon which their mother was catching for them. Occasionally the mother would swing her paw through the water and throw a salmon up on the bank which the cubs would pounce upon. When the cubs had been fed and started to wander about, the mother flipped up two more salmon and then climbed up on the bank to eat them herself.

Diagonally across Kaigani Street from our camp there was a deserted Indian village known as Kaigani Village. All that remained of the former settlement were about twenty totem poles in a badly decayed condition. The carving on some of them was very elaborate and at one time it must have been a beautiful sight.

On one occasion I was dropped with one man on Petrel Island about twenty miles west of Cape Muzon to occupy an old triangulation station named Petrel. There was no surface indication as to the location of the station but there was only a small area where the station would have been established and I dug for it there. About a foot below the surface I began to find some rusty tin cans and I knew I was in the right place. Clearing away the cans and dirt carefully I found a glass bottle encased in a small blob of cement. This, according to the description was the station mark.

That night I found out why the station was named Petrel. We had put up our tent when suddenly hundreds of petrels (often called stormy petrels) started beating their wings on the tent and trying to get inside. They started squirting a reddish fluid on the tent until the canvas appeared to be soaking wet. This kept up until we extinguished the light.

We remained on Petrel Island for several days observing stations in British Columbia and the U.S. Mainland, and every night we had the petrels attacking our tent.

While observing it was necessary to show lights to the other stations and the petrols attacked the lights and our flashlights with which we read our instruments. The night observations as a result were quite unsatisfactory, and thereafter we completed most of our work on heliotropes, an instrument for reflection of the sun's rays during the day. Even after retiring into our tent and tying the flaps, the light showing through the canvas attracted petrels and scores beat against the tent, squirting out a reddish liquid almost like blood until the tent was dripping. Only after we doused the lights did the commotion cease.

Elliot Roberts was supposed to show me either a light or a heliotrope from the main island below Mount Muzon. I never saw either one although all the other stations faithfully showed both. However one day while I was scanning the area with the theodolite telescope a white target loomed up which I assumed to be a banner which Roberts had erected over the station for me to observe. I hurriedly tied it in with two of the other stations and thus supposed I had completed all my Petrel Island observations. After returning to the ship upon completing the job I said to Captain Campbell, "I never saw either a light or heliotrope at Roberts' station but I finished up observations on his banner target which showed up well." Captain Campbell burst out, "What banner? Roberts never showed a banner!" Well, I said "I saw one and right in the proper place and that is what I observed upon." Whereupon Campbell said, "It must have been his white observing tent. Let's pray that it was exactly plumb over the station. If it closed the triangles I will forget about it. If it doesn't, God help you." Whereupon he used my angles measurements and the triangles closed perfectly. Roberts must have plumbed the tent exactly over the station mark. It was a break for me.

Southeast Alaska was beautiful in the early dusk on a clear day when seen across the water. The different ranges of hills and mountains were varying degrees of blue and gray and the result was a picture that was unforgettable.

Not far from our camp at Kaigani Strait was a salmon stream which came out into the sound from a small lake. There was an unusual phenomenon here in that with an ebbing tide there was a small waterfall in the reverse direction. This was due to the range of tide in that area which was over thirty feet.

I was engaged to Marian at that time and wrote a letter to her every day although the mailing of them was usually two weeks apart. She always received a packet of letters at a time.

Scott Reading fancied himself as an inventor and gadgeteer. Our sounding launch vibrated badly and, as I was taking the right sextant angle to the shore signals during launch hydrography and plotting them with a three armed protractor, I had much trouble because of the vibration. One morning Scott got up early and did something out in the launch which he thought would solve the problem.

When we reached our sounding area and I started to plot on the drafting table, I got a surprise. The table sank down when I started to plot. When I removed the weight of my arms from it, it sprang up and hit my chin. That morning Scott had put four bed springs under the plotting board. I got through that day with great difficulty. The next morning I was the one up early. I proceeded to tear out Scott's bed springs and throw them overboard. I preferred the vibration to being knocked out by the plotting board.

Ketchikan was a unique town built on a steep hill. The streets were like switchbacks as they wound their way up the side of the hill. A creek ran through one part of town and on the far side of the creek was the "District". The houses were located on piles over the creek. A common expression was that "Ketchikan was the only city in the world where the fish and the fisherman spawned in the same creek."

A salmon cannery in Ketchikan was interesting. The salmon came in on a conveyor belt, their heads and tails were cut off automatically, they were scaled the same way and then passed through a set of knives which cut them into pieces. The pieces were automatically stuffed in the cans and the belt passed by a group of girls who inspected the cans removing an occasional one or putting some extra salmon into one not properly filled. The cans then had the proper amount of salt inserted and the belt carried them on through a steam cooker. As they came out from the cooker they were capped automatically. The girls were either imported from Seattle or were Siwash Indians hired locally. All were known as "Herring Chokers". One Siwash family had seven girls, all working in the cannery. All of them had fiery red hair. Apparently their father had been a red-headed Irishman.


Returning to Seattle, I took leave and headed for Savannah; enroute I decided to stop in Chicago briefly to see Dad's brother, Uncle Baxter. I had not seen him for many years. I was walking to his rooming house through a dark street and was held up at the point of a gun losing some money I could ill afford to lose. Dad came to the rescue and loaned me enough to go through with my wedding plans, but it was a struggle to pay it back.

Marian met my train in Savannah. She admitted afterward that she was not sure she would recognize me. I had been gone eight months and she had known me for only a few weeks.

We had a formal evening wedding at Christ Church. I had my first tails for the wedding. The night of the wedding I was waiting all dressed up at the Stovall's house and the carriage failed to come for me. Eventually one of Marian's friends dropped by and was surprised to find me waiting. I was rushed to the church, arriving just in time to be led in by Gawin Corbin who was best man.

The first night was spent at the Savannah Hotel, and the next morning we drove out to the Lawton plantation in Garnett, South Carolina, where we were supposed to have the week to ourselves. However, Jock could not resist the temptation to come out too, and sure enough he spent the week there in the house.

After that week we took the train to Seattle. Those four days on the train were the first real honeymoon we had. I nearly missed part of it when once I ran across the street in a western town to buy a box of candy and almost missed the train as it began to pull out.

We found an apartment on a hill overlooking Lake Union where the NATOMA was berthed. I had one pay check of $183 coming. Otherwise, I was flat broke. About one third of the check went out to pay the first month's rent. Those were the conditions under which we began married life. We remained in the apartment for a few months until we took to the field and when we again returned to our Seattle base the next winter we found a very nice efficiency apartment, the Quinault, somewhat farther up the hill.

The morning after we arrived at that first apartment and I had left for work, Marian heard a knock on the door at 10:00 a.m.; going to the door, she found it was Captain Campbell. Curiosity had gotten the better of him and he was calling to see the bride. As he introduced himself, Marian heard a crack in the kitchen and excused herself to investigate. This was the first meal she had ever cooked and she was starting well ahead of time. She had prepared some apples for baking and put them in the oven in what she assumed was a pyrex dish. However, the dish proved to be glass and broke in the oven. Smoke poured out into the other room where the Captain was waiting. We never heard the last of Campbell's story about the bride's cooking.

That first apartment was most unattractive but it was our first home and we made the best of it. At least it was close enough for me to walk home for lunch which seemed important at that time.

We spent the winter months berthed in Lake Union working up the Alaska records. One incident occurred that winter which made an impression on me. Out in the lake about 200 yards away a group of those wartime wooden ships, the Liberty ships, were anchored in a mass. There was no crew but some caretaker guards stayed aboard. On one day Reading, who was executive officer, asked me to test our line throwing gun. This was a hand held gun which looked like a rifle but held a shell with a very heavy charge. A long metal slug went into the muzzle and it was connected to a canister on the deck which held a coiled up line. When the gun was fired the slug went out carrying a line from the canister with it.

It was obvious that the gun would have a terrific kick so instead of holding it to my shoulder, I placed the butt against the side of the wardroom as I pulled the trigger aiming in a general way out toward the Liberty ships.

As it turned out the charge burned out the line where it was fastened to the slug and without the drag of the line the slug shot clear out to the Liberty ships and landed somewhere among them. It was just lucky that the caretaker was not in line with that slug. We heard nothing from the matter so we assumed no harm was done other than a deep hole in the side of the wardroom where the butt of the gun had rested.

Had I held it to my shoulder, it would have been pretty badly bruised.

We enjoyed those first months but the Dericksons never got over the insult of my passing through Seattle on the way to Alaska without checking in at the Field Office. They even refused to let us make an official call. Not until Mrs. Cotton and Marian went over to Victoria, B.C., to see them off for a Philippine assignment did they relent. When we arrived in the Philippines, Captain Derickson was just completing his tour over there and they were most cordial to us.

There were many parties in Seattle. They were invariably bridge parties and Marian was a good player. We were much more formal in those days than we are now. Any evening party meant dinner jackets for the men and evening gowns for the women. At the first party we attended, Marian wore her wedding dress. Mrs. Hardy, the wife of Captain Hardy, the Director of the Field Office after Derickson left, always called Marian before a party and said she hoped she would wear her wedding dress so she never got the chance to prove that she had more than one evening dress.

During that first winter, Chief Engineer Silva was especially kind to us. He almost never left the ship when I had the duty at night, and since only one officer had to be aboard at any time in the evening, I had the duty at night very seldom and was free to go home. Marian wrote to Savannah telling about his kindness and two years later when the NATOMA had gone through the canal to the east coast and was based on Savannah, Dr. Corbin went down to the ship and introduced himself and invited Chief Silva to dinner at the Corbin's. In as much as Egner was in command, he invited him also. Egner was clearly put out about it as he considered himself a cut above the Chief Engineer who was actually not a commissioned officer although he did wear gold braid.


In the spring of 1926 Captain Harold Cotton assumed command of the NATOMA. We had two projects under him. The first was a hydrographic survey of the south side of Juan de Fuca Strait from the mouth to Port Townsend at the eastern end. We based for a few months at Port Townsend. The beautiful Olympic Mountains were just south of Port Angeles. Mrs. Cotton had a car and took Marian up to a beautiful mountain lake for picnics.

On one occasion we all took the ferry from Port Angeles across the strait to Victoria, B.C., for the weekend. Liquor was illegal in the United States so Grace Witherbee bought two bottles in Victoria and brought them back thrust into the front of her dress. She said she was sure the Customs Officers would not bother anyone in her condition and she was right.

At Port Townsend there was a lighthouse and the lighthouse keepers made a lot of money every year by catching and selling octopus to the Chinese in Seattle. The manner of catching them was interesting. An octopus always crawls into rocky ledges to hide. The lighthouse keepers took advantage of the habit and sunk weighted wooden grocery boxes to the bottom, buoying them so they could be recovered. Every few days they would pull them to the surface and would usually find them occupied by an octopus. No baiting was required. There was a ready market for all they could catch and some years they made as much as $15,000.


Our other assignment under Captain Cotton was a survey among the beautiful little rocky islands known as the San Juan Islands of the northwest part of Washington. The nearest town was Anacortes and Marian found a nice place to stay with a congenial family named Kasch. There were two nice young ladies in the family, one of whom was attending college in Portland, Oregon. She and a friend came home for a weekend and asked us to drive them back to Portland with Mrs. Kasch's car. We agreed and when we were returning on Sunday night we encountered a dense fog in the last seventy-five miles north of Seattle. The only way I could make out the road was to stand with my left foot on the running board and peer out the side looking for the black oil streak in the center of the lighter concrete pavement. Our speed was never over ten miles per hour.

Part way to Anacortes there was a long steel bridge which had a deck of smooth wood. I went out on the bridge very slowly and was nearly across when we suddenly saw the lights of a car looming up ahead. Actually the car was stuck on the shoulder and we would not have struck it but the sudden turning on of the lights startled me and I involuntarily braked which was the worst thing I could have done. Upon hitting the brakes we began a slow spin. Actually we spun in the center of that narrow bridge two and one half turns never hitting the rail on either side. We ended facing the direction from which we had come and had to go back across and find a wide enough place to turn around again. Once more we crossed the bridge at five miles an hour. At the end we found the car that had turned on its lights. The driver was a man who had given up trying to make any progress and was waiting on the shoulder for the fog to lift. I had to make a sailing time and could not wait and I went on. However, once I had to stop and tell Marian that she would have to hold her knees together. They were shaking so much that it was disturbing my driving. As it turned out I arrived at the dock at exactly seven a.m., just as the NATOMA was about to take in her lines.


One other episode in our San Juan Islands survey is worthy of mention. There was a very narrow but long pass between two islands known as Deception Pass. We arrived at the pass just before dinner. Captain Cotton said he would go down and eat dinner and told me to run in a circle until 7:45 when the current would be slack and we would go through the pass then. After a few circles I could tell from ranges that the current had already changed and was flooding through the pass. I sent the quartermaster down to apprise the Captain of the fact and he was told in no uncertain terms that Captain Cotton had looked up the slack water in the tide tables and 7:45 was the time we would go through. Well, I waited while the current was getting stronger every minute. By that time the current was so swift that we had no control over the ship. At times we were spinning through at right angles to the length of the pass. We were lucky to get through without mishap, but the Captain's face was very red. It turned out that the tide tables were no indication of the current in the pass as the current was what is referred to as a hydraulic current instead of a tidal current. He had more respect for my judgment thereafter.


In the spring of 1927 I was detached from the NATOMA and ordered to the U.S.C. & G.S.S. GUIDE which was based on Aberdeen, Washington. The GUIDE was engaged in off-shore hydrography off the coast of Washington and Oregon. It was my first experience in tube sounding and R A R (radio acoustic ranging) for positioning the vessel. In tube sounding a tube is lowered overboard while the ship is under way. Enough line is paid out so that the tube hits bottom. The design is such that the pressure gives depth. The R A R was a recent development. Hydrophones were established on the bottom near shore at a known position, the position being established by sextant fixes to shore situations. The hydrophone was then connected by underwater cable to a radio station on shore. The position of the hydrophones was plotted by latitude and longitude on a chart on the ship known as the boat sheet. There would be several such stations on shore. Bombs of TNT would be thrown overboard on the ship. The sound of the explosion would be picked up by the hydrophones, pass through the cable to the radio stations and a message would be automatically transmitted to a receiver on the ship. Each shore R A R station would be identified by a code signal to distinguish it. Assuming that the cable time and the time of radio transmission was negligible, from the time elapsed between the explosion of the bomb and the time of the receipt of the message from the shore R A R station, since the time of travel of sound through sea water is known for varying temperatures and salinities, we could determine the distance to each shore hydrophone. With two such distances known, we could determine the ship's position. A third distance gives a check.

The R A R method gave fair accuracy for the scale of charts used for off-shore hydrography and it was used for many years until electronic methods were designed.

Once we nearly had a tragedy with the bomb. The bomber was a petty officer who armed the bombs, lit the fuses, and tossed them overboard. A mark on the ship's chronograph registered the time the bomb went overboard and the time of the explosion. One time as the bomber was about to toss the bomb over the side, the fuse having been lit, the ship gave a lurch. The bomber fell down and the bomb slipped from his hand and rolled into the gutter. The bomber grabbed for it and missed and he fell again. Finally he got his hand on the bomb with it's sputtering fuse and while lying on his back tossed it over the side. By that time the fuse was so short that the bomb exploded almost instantly as it hit the water. Below decks such an explosion so close to the ship makes a terrific concussion. In that case half the crew dashed on deck to find the cause of the explosion.

We had a happy ship on the GUIDE for the simple reason we all had little use for the skipper who was Tommy Maher. He was one of the most ornery men I have ever known. An illustration of the extent he would go to annoy the officers and men was the time the wives had planned a weekend picnic on the beach to which Tommy had also been invited. All was arranged for us to leave for the beach as soon as the ship docked at Aberdeen. The Captain was aware of all the plans. He was nosing the ship into the berth and suddenly saw the wives standing on the wharf. He promptly backed out into the channel again, headed out and after running out several miles, dropped anchor just off the channel, and we spent the entire weekend at anchor within sight of the wives who went out and picnicked by themselves.

Tommy Maher was noted for some of the stunts he pulled, but one of the worst was the time he went to Seattle for a load of TNT. He went to Seattle, loaded the trunk of his car with TNT, and drove back to Aberdeen thereby breaking every law on the books regarding the transportation of explosives. He had enough TNT to blow up every town through which he passed, yet he had not applied for a transportation permit and carried no sign on his car.

Officers in the wardroom regaled each other with tales of his eccentricities. Tommy never used SLOW or HALF speed signals to the engineroom when docking the ship. It was always FULL AHEAD or FULL ASTERN. At one time when he had made a particularly bad job of docking and nearly snapped a steel cable which might have killed someone, Burmister was standing in the door of the office telling us about Tommy's orders on the bridge when Tommy showed up behind him. Clarence could tell from our expressions that Tommy was behind him. His face flushed but he manfully completed his story.

On one occasion we were establishing an R A R hydrophone and had dropped it to the bottom from the launch with the cable connected and were about to float a line ashore to pull the cable into the radio station on shore. The Captain was in the launch and wanted to get some information ashore to the party on shore. He was trying to call to them but could not be heard due to the noise of the surf. I knew that the radio operator on shore was familiar with the two flag semaphore system and I had not forgotten it from my Marine Corps days so I climbed up on the launch canopy and signaled to the radio operator. That was one of my greatest mistakes. From that time on Tommy was always dreaming up some long message to signal ashore. I regretted the day I ever let him know I knew the semaphore code.

Aberdeen had a well known real estate man who was named Jones. He plastered the entire area with signs "SEE JONES". He had a son named Goodbar Jones and to distinguish him from his father locals always spoke of him as Mr. Goodbar. A manufacturer of chocolate told Mr. Goodbar that he had a good name for a candy bar and asked him if he could use his name. Today when you see the MR. GOODBAR candy bar you may remember that I knew the man for whom it was named.


Shortly before I was detached from the GUIDE, the Director, E. Lester Jones, sent a message that he would inspect the ship on a given date. There was much commotion aboard as Tommy had never paid much attention to keeping the crew in the proper uniform. Most of the seamen could be fitted out from the Clothing and Small Stores of the ship but the chief petty officers were a problem. Some had no uniform at all. Two of them solved the problem in a unique way. Each had a single breasted blue serge suit. They lapped the front over and sewed some gold buttons on it in the proper places. By placing them in an inconspicuous position during muster, it was hoped that their "uniform" would not be noticed. There was one other problem.

Tommy wanted all of the officers to wear white gloves although the only pair on the ship was the one for my full dress suit. Tommy solved the problem in a typical Tommy Maher fashion. We went up tho the local undertaker and borrowed white cotton gloves. Most of them were several sizes too large so the wearer had to take a tuck in the palm and fasten it with a safety pin. If the Admiral had made a detailed inspection he would have had some surprises.


I omitted one episode that occurred shortly before I was attached to the GUIDE. Scott Reading and I, before reporting to the GUIDE but shortly after I had left the NATOMA, were sent to Tokeland, Washington, to make a survey of the Bar at Willapa Harbor which was south of Gray's Harbor, the harbor on which Aberdeen, Washington was located. Scott chartered a fishing boat for the survey and hired the owner to operate the engine.

Marian and Martha Reading debated at considerable length as to whether or not to take evening clothes with them. They eventually compromised by deciding that the men could wear their uniforms so all that they would have to take were evening dresses for themselves. They had both heard that the Derickson's had a summer home there and they assumed that Tokeland was a swank summer resort.

They received a shock when we arrived. There were a number of deserted cottages, many in a bad state of repairs, a hotel of sorts, and a general store. The ladies assumed that we could stay at the hotel but got a surprise on the first morning we worked on the bar. The men had breakfast at 5:30 a.m. and left for the bar. The ladies arose at 8:00 a.m. and went down to breakfast. They found their breakfast of cold fried eggs, cold toast, and cold coffee the same breakfast we had had sitting on the table for them. The landlady told them in no uncertain terms that she was not about to cook two breakfasts and if they wanted to eat they would have to eat when the men did. They moved out forthwith and found the only place they could rent. It was a sparsely furnished house with two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen with a wood burning stove.

Billy Johnson, a former classmate of Marian's at Goucher College, had been invited to visit us on the west coast and happened to choose that time. Marian told her in a letter that we would be at a beach resort. While Billy was there Marian and I had to sleep on a bench which was located in a bay window so Billy could have our bedroom.

The bar we were surveying was about eight miles from shore. All the topographic signals were located on shore. At times the haze was so bad that for long periods of time they were not visible on the bar and we were forced to drift or run in circles while waiting for them to clear. This was during the salmon run so we took the opportunity to fish. The owner of our boat provided the tackle and on some days we caught twenty five to thirty salmon. His tackle consisted of long, heavy hand lines with brass spoon and hook. Possibly that was not sporting but it was fun. We took few salmon for ourselves, giving the rest to the owner of the boat who sold them so he made an extra profit.

On one occasion we took Marian and Martha out for the day. They enjoyed the fishing also. Once Marian caught a thirty-nine pound salmon which was the largest we ever caught. We took a picture of her with her fish and they were both of the same height.

Occasionally we caught sharks as well. Once we snagged a small shark by the end of it's tail and thought we had caught a whale. With it's full go ahead power it was very difficult to land. Another time we caught a young nurse shark and while we were examining it, it gave birth to a young shark perfectly formed. We then opened it up and found nine or ten young sharks which were able to swim. All were perfectly formed. The ladies passed the time catching crabs which they raked into a sack with a rake and digging for clams.


At this time Marian had not found out about her allergies to citrus fruit and cotton seed oil. She was so thin that her "Floating Kidney", the result of a diving accident, would often get twisted and cause her much pain. One night in the middle of the night, Marian was taken with a terrific pain in the area of the appendix. We had no transportation but I found a couple of young men who had a car and we got them to drive us to the nearest hospital which was twenty five miles north at Hoquiam. Martha insisted on going along. We reached the hospital and the only bed available was in a room with two children. We parked Marian there and Martha and I went to the hotel. We had no baggage and though we asked for separate rooms the clerk said with a leer, "Would you like adjoining rooms?" I snapped back, "We don't even want them on the same floor!" The next morning the doctor decided that the blood count indicated that Marian did not have appendicitis. Apparently the ride over the rough road to Hoquiam had shaken Marian's kidney back into place and the pain had subsided. Marian later learned to manipulate the kidney back into place with her hands when the pain would occur.

The next morning I took Marian back to the hotel while I checked out. I had bought a large bouquet of flowers and told her to look very sick to substantiate my story to the clerk the night before. Martha had already left in an early bus and we took a later bus to Tokeland.

We had no bath in Tokeland and no water supply. The hotel next door had a spigot in front from which we carried water for cooking. The event of the week which we looked forward to was the trip on Saturday in the launch to Vancouver, Washington, at the head of Willapa Harbor to take a room at the hotel and have a bath. The entire party, including Billy while she was there, would take one room and take turns bathing. We did bring our own towels and soap.

- Top of Page -

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

Privacy Policy | Disclaimer