The Great White Elephant

BY Susan Taylor Block

Wilmington has had its own U.S. Coast Guard cutter for as long as anyone can remember. In fact as early as the 1790s a “revenue cutter” known as the Diligence I was docked in Wilmington. From 1947 until 1972 the berth near the foot of Market Street was home to the Mendota a 255-foot ice-going cutter that served as a search-and-rescue ship floating weather station U.S. Navy ship protector iceberg charter and law enforcement vessel. Though locals certainly appreciate the current cutter also known as Diligence the Mendota had a place unequaled in the citys heart.

he Modoc predecessor to the Mendota had been a prohibition era cutter used often as a rumrunner. It was not viewed by all as a friend and was not nearly so obvious on the waterfront during the days of heavier shipping activity. By 1947 the shipping traffic had quieted down and all the blackouts crowds and shortages of World War II were history. The Mendota stood out on the riverfront and represented the military at its most peaceful. In addition the name Mendota coined after Lake Mendota Wisconsin was memorable and well fun to say.

During those sleepy days the ship became a destination in itself. On Sunday afternoons whole families would pile into a car and make the trip downtown to see the Mendota. Occasionally the ship was open for tours but just gazing at the huge hulk of steel and glimpsing a few sailors in uniform was enough for lots of folks. The Coast Guard men were treated well by locals and some of these men chose to retire here. One of those retirees Jack Wilson organized and has been chairman of the USCGC Mendota Reunion for the past 12 years. “I was assigned to the Mendota as a radarman in December 1955 ” he says. “Our primary duties were search rescue and weather patrols in the North and Mid-Atlantic Ocean. We performed more as a weather ship but we were available should an emergency arise in our operating area for search and rescue.

“We pulled Weather Stations Bravo Charlie Delta and Echo along with what was called Bermuda Standby which was primarily a search and rescue assignment ” says Wilson. “Usually we were away from Wilmington for 30 to 40 days. My job was to track weather balloons by radar for the purpose of determining the winds aloft. This information was deciphered by personnel from the Weather Bureau.”

During his three-year tour on the Mendota Wilson met a pretty native of Wallace North Carolina named Pat Raynor. Pat worked at the USO building at Front and Walnut streets where Jack kept a locker and attended Saturday night dances and Sunday morning church services. “She was the best-looking woman I had ever seen ” he says. The couple recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Today they live at Wrightsville Beach. One of their daughters Jackie Zurbruegg now lives on the beach with her own family.

“Back in the days of my Coast Guard time ” says Wilson “I fell in love with Wrightsville Beach and I told my mother in Indiana that I had found Heaven and would not be returning home except for infrequent short visits.”

Other Mendota crewmembers who came back to Wilmington to live were participants in the first Mendota reunions in the 1990s. Currently about 125 people travel from all parts of the country to attend.

Charles W. Bickes recounted his earliest days on the Mendota at the 2008 reunion held October 25 in the Fran Russ Center at Wrightsville Beach. Bickes who had enlisted at age 16 was aboard for the ships shakedown cruise from the U.S. Coast Guard shipyard at Curtis Bay to Guantanamo Bay. “As I recall we first went to Washington D.C. The Japanese War was over and we docked on the Potomac. Then an odd thing happened when we got out to sea. An albatross perched on the mast. It went with us the whole shakedown cruise and was still with us when we got back to Curtis Bay in Maryland. The Baltimore Sun carried a story about it.”

After his service on the Mendota Bickes left the Coast Guard and went to college. He became a C.P.A. soon after graduation. He now lives in Port Orange Florida.

endota reunions draw veterans of different eras. John Pfeiffer served aboard the Mendota during the Vietnam War. He enlisted in the Coast Guard during the war and then went to Seminar School in Key West for nine months. Pfeiffer then sailed aboard the Mendota from Wilmington through the Panama Canal to Hawaii Guam the Philippines and then to Vietnam. Pfeiffer has no memory of being frightened while in Vietnam because the big ship was built-in protection.

“We were mainly a gunfire support ship ” says Pfeiffer. “We had a 5-inch gun on the bow of the ship that had a ten-mile range. We went as close as we could to shore to fire whenever that was needed. We were also a mother ship to the Armys little PTFs (Patrol Torpedo Fast) they had over there. They were wooden crafts about 55 feet long that ran up and down the rivers and were shot up quite a bit. We kept them supplied.”

John Pfeiffer lives in Wilmington now and remembers well when the town was smaller. “I can remember driving from Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington to Carolina Beach and there was hardly any construction just mostly trees ” he recounts. “Traffic has changed a lot from those quieter days.”

James “Woody” Woodell was aboard the Mendota during the Vietnam era too and like Pfeiffer he felt the protection of the big ship. “We were offshore and most of the firing we did was to protect swift boats that were running the river. We were the mothership for those Navy vessels. At times we would have 10 or 20 of them tied alongside so those men could rest sleep have a fresh shower get some food and get more ammunition and fuel. They ran the rivers at night and then would come tie up in the daytime.”

During the Vietnam era the Mendota traveled 60 000 miles. In addition to protecting smaller craft the ship also transported troops and participated in two special-operation missions. Gunners on the Mendota fired over 30 000 rounds of machinegun ammunition.

Woodell and the crew returned to Wilmington on Thanksgiving Day 1969. “At that point Wilmington was the most beautiful place I had ever seen ” says the warrant officer and boat machinist. “The people here were friendly to the Coast Guard family. Camp Lejeune was close so Wilmingtonians were used to soldiers but you just couldnt do any wrong if you were in the Coast Guard. Locals used to come by just to see the ship. They would wave and blow their horns.”

However it wasnt all pleasantries for the crew. Sea rescues were still one of their most stressful jobs. The biggest rescue during Woodells time in Mendota service occurred in the North Atlantic when a Portuguese fishing vessel went down after a fire. They rescued 46 fishermen and one dog. This rescue operation was a triumphant contrast to an incident in 1963 off Bermuda when sharks ate a group of shipwreck survivors before the Mendota could get there.

Woodell has also chosen to spend retirement years in the Wilmington area. His two grown daughters both live within a half-hours drive.

Albert Sketers is unique among the men who attended the recent reunion: He lived in Wilmington prior to his service aboard the Mendota. He was baptized at St. Thomas Catholic Church on Dock Street in 1942 and attended the churchs private school for several years. “The nuns used to walk the class down to the Modoc ” Sketers recounts. “That was where and when I became fascinated with ships. I could smell the bread baking on the Modoc. I joined the Coast Guard in 1948 at age 16 and soon became the ships cook. I fed 150 men at every meal during the mid-fifties.”

In addition to cooking Sketerss duties included butchering meat ordering food from distributors and in case of emergency keeping enough supplies on hand to feed the crew for three months.

Sketers retired at age 36 from the Coast Guard and went to Myrtle Beach where he lives and works today.

Cynthia Burns represents an important and often overlooked aspect of Mendota life. As the wife of a crewman she became a resident of Wilmington and contributed to the good of the town. She and her husband were married soon after he went on the ship in 1960 and moved into one of the guest homes on S. Third Street. At the time her husband only made $93 a month and she was very happy to land a job teaching language arts at Roland-Grise Middle School.

“R. Jack Davis was the principal and some of my fellow teachers were Lucy Fryer Mary Graham and Jean Taylor ” says Burns. “The students whose names come to mind first were Michael Murchison Larry Hemby Marsha Coble Jeanie Raney and Susan Perkins. I wasnt much older than they were. I had just turned 21. The faculty and those good students helped get my career off to a good start.”

In the early 1960s Wilmington was still a very Southern town a point driven home during her first visits to a local grocery store. “There were some items I couldnt locate in the store and when I asked people where things were they didnt know what I was talking about. The difference in my Pittsburg accent and the stronger Southern accents that were more common in Wilmington at that time was large ” she says. “The students were so nice but they found my accent hilarious. On the other hand I remember that when they said yes maam and no maam they always managed to turn maam into a two-syllable word.”

Married 46 years the Burns reside in Williamsburg Virginia and Oak Island but make frequent trips to Wilmington.

The Mendota is now maritime history along with many other U.S. Coast Guard ships whose crews called Wilmington home. It was decommissioned on November 1 1973 and scrapped the following year. Like the Modoc before it the Mendota now takes its place on a long list of Wilmington-based cutters with names that include the Sequoia McCullough Winnebago Pontchartrain Seminole and Northwind. But for those of us who remember the excitement of visiting the big grey ship during our childhood nothing will ever quite take the place of the Mendota.