Dec. 30, 2008
I remember the scene clearly. It was the first time I’d ever fired a weapon. It was March, 1969, in Cape May, New Jersey. Our Coast Guard recruit company was banging away at the targets. Some of the fellows in Lima 74 were actually in the “butts,” a sheltered trench, where they strained at the lines to haul the heavy padded targets up and down to mark the points where we had hit our marks.
We had been thoroughly trained in range safety by our demanding boot camp company commander. He was Boatswain’s Mate Chief Clarence Ward Hollowell, of Hopewell, Georgia. Chief Hollowell was loud and profane. He would occasionally march into our squad bay in the middle of the night and give us “a white tornado.” That’s when he’d pull all the sheets and pillow cases off our racks, turn over everything, and order us to clean it all up in five minutes.
At first I thought this middle aged man from the Georgia piney woods would be a cartoon version of a southerner. His pot bellow protruded over his Coast Guard belt buckle. He bellowed at us while keeping his coffee mug grasped tightly in his hand. He was always threatening to jack ammonia. Who, I asked my mostly New York and New England bunkmates, was this Jack Ammonia? A Louisiana recruit helped with a translation: “Jack them on you. Demerits, you fool,” he drawled. And if you got too many demerits, you could be kicked out of Chief Hollowell’s Lima 74 company.
I soon learned that media images of southerners were wrong. Chief Hollowell was certainly rough on our black and Hispanic fellow recruits. And we’d all look around in consternation as he came into the squad bay roaring “Knives! Knives!” None of us had a knife. They’d all been confiscated. Only with some help, again from the rebels, did we realize the Chief was calling for Recruit Nieves, a Puerto Rican. Yes, the Chief was rough on the minority recruits because he was rough on all of us. He was one of the hardest and fairest men I’ve ever known.
Our first day on the range was one of excitement and anticipation. Most of us were city boys and suburban kids. Even though we’d been field stripping our M-1 rifles since our first week in boot camp, we had never fired them, or any rifle.
We were banging away at the targets. Beyond the butts, was the Atlantic Ocean. Any bullets that missed the targets would go out to sea. The area had been well marked off as dangerous. There were red buoys. There were radio announcements broadcast on the channel all boaters monitored in those days. All nautical charts contained “Notice to Mariners” warnings: Live Fire Area: Keep Out.
So, it was surprising when above the din we heard Chief Hollowell bellowing out: “Cease fahr! CEASE FAHR!” When we didn’t respond quickly enough to suit him, he brought his swagger stick down on my neighbor’s rifle with a resounding THWACK! When we had all gone silent, the Chief yelled above the wind and the waves: “When ah say cease fahr, ah mean CEASE FAHR! Are yew peepul idiots?”
He saw how puzzled we all were. (We were out there, after all, in obedience to his orders.) With his swagger stick, he pointed out to sea. “Don’t you peepul see thet?” he demanded.
We strained and saw on the horizon a tiny white triangle. It might have been a sail. It might have been the superstructure of a tanker. It was hardly discernible. It must have been five miles out, far out of range of our rifles.
“We are th’ Yew-nited States Coast Guard, men. We are the life savers. Thet maht be hyoo-man lahf out there. Yew don’t take a chance when hyoo-man lahf is at stake. Yew give it every benefit of the doubt.”
No, Chief Hollowell never took a chance where human life was concerned. We were all E-1s then, Seaman Recruits. Chief Hollowell was an E-7, Chief Petty Officer. And none of us then thought the protection of human life was above our pay grade.