By Robert Morrison
It seems the term “Tall Ship” must have come from John Masefield’s poem, Sea Fever. My sea-faring Dad quoted that poem to me a hundred times, but he never sailed in a Tall Ship. Still, as a seafarer, he too felt the romance that whistled with the wind in the rigging.
“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky / And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by / And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking / And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.”
We crossed the brow of the U.S. Coast Guard Barque Eagle. She was tied up on the pier, in Baltimore ‘s Inner Harbor last month. My wife, a retired Navy captain, and her cousin, a nuclear submarine officer of 30 years, accompanied me as we toured this 1936 vessel. I was surprised to see a photo of a buoyant Harry Truman, his hat back on his head like a cowboy’s, as he manned the helm of this captured German sail training ship in 1946. He had the year before announced V-E Day in Europe, his own 61st birthday. For nautical FDR to be shown steering a sailing vessel would not have been a surprise. But for mule-driving Harry, the Missouri National Guard artillery captain of World War I, it was unexpected.
The last time I visited the Eagle, she was all torn apart in the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay, Maryland. Several years ago, Capt. Phil Sullivan took me through the ship as she was undergoing a major overhaul. I saw the boilerplate in the engine room (yes, great sailing ships still have engines). It indicated the vessel was really a Wessel. Her original name was Horst Wessel. That was the name of a Nazi thug and brawler who was killed in a street fight. The Nazi’s anthem was “The Horst Wessel Song” and if you’ve seen Cabaret, you’ve heard it.
A bad man. A bad beginning. The Eagle was originally built in the Blom and Voss Shipyard in Hamburg. Phil Sullivan told me she was built in just 100 days, by shipyard workers working triple shifts around the clock. That was 1936.
The Eagle was seized by the U.S. in 1946, as part of war reparations. Her sister ships were seized, too. The great Tall Ships of the world include Tovarisch (Russia) and Dar Pomorza (Poland). Both were also built by Blom and Voss.
On board, we were greeted by another surprise – not Coast Guard Academy Cadets, but Officer Candidates from the Coast Guard’s OCS program. When I went through OCS, we never got to sail on the Eagle.
Our first guide met us on the forecastle. He was Gunner’s Mate, enlisted, before he went to OCS. He talked about his wife and two children, with one on way. How hard it was to say to his four-year old daughter that Daddy isn’t coming home tonight. His two-year-old son really cannot understand.
This OCS class is slated to graduate December 7, 2011 , the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor , and our young OC was fully aware that it is “a date that will live in infamy.” He told us all about the devastating loss of the USCGC Cuyahoga in 1978. He knows the whole story. I knew people who were on that 1922 vessel when it was cut in half by an oil tanker in Chesapeake Bay. The Coast Guard lost 26 fine members that terrible night.
We moved aft. A pert young lady OC took up the duty of telling us the story of the Eagle’s travels. She has never lived with her Marine husband, she said. She hopes to be stationed in San Diego, near Camp Pendleton . Detailers are the ones responsible for assignments. They told this young woman that if she and her husband are stationed within two hundred miles of one another, they can count themselves lucky. Not surprisingly, she said, her Marine husband is planning to get out.
We ask so much of these young people. On this Veterans Day, we pay tribute to all those who served, not just those who make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. I cannot help but be thrilled by the pride, intelligence and devotion to duty these young people exhibit.
There was another unexpected meeting on the deck of the Eagle. I read previously unknown words from a great friend. He had saluted Eagle and all the Tall Ships in 1986: “These vessels embody our conception of liberty itself; to have no impediments, only open spaces to chart one’s own course, to take adventure as it comes, to be as free as the wind, as free as the tall ships themselves.”
Eloquent, grand and true. Those words by Ronald Reagan speak to my heart – and to the country we love this Veterans Day.
Robert Morrison, a Coast Guard veteran, is senior fellow at the Family Research Council.
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