Speech to the Graduating Class of Operations Specialists (OS) School
United States Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma, California
Friday, April 24, 2015
By Commander John Robert Cole, Base Alameda C4IT Department
“When I was asked to speak to you today, I spent a good amount of time thinking about what I could say that would bring you the most value. You see I was never an Operations Specialist. I was a Radioman. As most of you know, the Radioman rate was dissolved in 1995, replaced by Telecommunication Specialists – or TCs. It wasn’t until 2003 that the Operations Specialist rating was born. It was the result of a natural divide between the Coast Guard’s need to support communications and our desire to further information technology.
“As a rather old Radioman, I consider myself your direct ancestor. In that regard, I feel qualified to share with you a sea story that demonstrates how important you are to the mission. Make no mistake: you are critical to the Coast Guard’s success.
“As a 17-year veteran of the enlisted workforce, I had many sea stories to choose from. Initially I planned on talking about how Station Buffalo New York responded to the ship that was supposedly haunted. I also considered talking about how the MORGENTHAU saved 3 people by arresting them. It seems they were smuggling marijuana off the coast of Alaska in a poorly constructed boat. A day after we brought the criminals on board in handcuffs and started to tow the small boat to port, its main beam split in two and sank. It’s probably one of the few times people were thankful for getting caught.
“No, instead of talking about those, I opted to talk about one particular incident that meant the most to me.
“In the old days, communication stations – or COMMSTAs – were the central hubs of Coast Guard communications. In Boston, the COMMSTA was divided into two: the transmitter site on Cape Cod and the receiver site in Marshfield. As a Radioman, I worked at the receiver site.
“My first year at the COMMSTA was spent learning all the systems. And there were plenty. I had to learn how to process message traffic on DISTNET and AUTODIN. I had to understand how air-to-ground communications worked, how to send messages via radio Teletype, and send weather on NAVTEX. I had to talk to mariners, Coast Guard ships, and Navy assets on VHF, HF, and MF. In the early days, I had to copy and send traffic using International Morse code.
“And yes, I still remember my Morse code.
“More importantly, I had to learn how to leverage all these systems in concert. It really was like orchestrating a symphony, no different than what you’ll be expected to do.
“My ability to manage all these systems was put to the test in early 1989. I had been stationed at COMMSTA Boston for less than a year when I fulfilled my qualification as Supervisor of the Watch. It was rare for an RM2 to qualify but I felt confident that I knew what I was doing.
“At least I hoped I did.
“At exactly 9:05 in the morning on April 17th, my Morse code operator, Petty Officer Phil Morin yelled to me.
“’Petty Officer Cole,’ he said, ‘I copied a distress call!’
“My heart quickened as I ran over to the booth. ‘What do you have, Phil?’
“’I’ve got a ship’s name and her position,’ he said. ‘She’s sinking and the crew is abandoning ship.’
“’Who is she?’
“’The Star of Alexandria.’
“’Ask her to repeat so we can confirm,’ I said.
“’I did. She’s not responding.’
“The motor vessel Star of Alexandria was only able to send a single SOS via Morse code before the 652-foot cement freighter sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. Unlike today, we had no high-tech way of recording radio frequencies. So, when I say “single SOS” I meant it: one and one only.
“The next few hours were a flurry of activity. I immediately contacted my Communications Watch Officer and together we notified Atlantic Area. By that evening we had five Navy and Coast Guard search planes looking for survivors.
“While that was happening, we sent a MADAY RELAY via our Morse code broadcast system to let other mariners in the area know that the ship was in distress. We were fortunate to pick up the 950-foot Ravenscraig who diverted to assist.
“For the next few hours we made numerous phone calls and communicated with Coast Guard and civilian ships to help guide them to the last known position of the Star of Alexandria but we had little hope. The ship was more than 400 miles southeast of Cape Cod. The winds were whipping and the water was ice cold. As I left watch that night, I wondered if the crew had time to launch life rafts.
“When I returned the next morning, the crew was still missing. I felt like someone punched me in the gut. As the morning waned, it wasn’t looking good.
“The Coast Guard persevered. By noon that day, an Air Station Cape Cod jet and Air Station Elizabeth City C-130 spotted a tiny life raft. The C-130 dropped a radio.
“In Boston we all held our breath.
“This case taught me some valuable lessons that I’d like to share with you today.
“First, I learned that accuracy, above all else, is paramount. The Star of Alexandria had only one opportunity to send a distress call. If it hadn’t been for my 500 KHz operator’s accurate recording of that single call, our assets may have looked in the wrong location.
“Second, to quote your rating description on the Coast Guard Internet page, you are “the eyes, ears, and voice of the Coast Guard for the maritime community.” As the Radiomen and Telecommunications Specialists before you, you must maintain the highest degree of professional standards. You must speak clearly and intelligently. More importantly, you must listen.
“Third, I learned that the value I bring to the Coast Guard rests solely with me, just as it does with you. It is incumbent upon both of us to learn everything we can about our jobs and strive to be the expert. Have no fear. Ask questions of your peers, your supervisors, and your command. Practice your trade. Be proficient in the technology, the processes, and the procedures that encompass your rate.
“Fourth, I learned that it’s okay to be afraid. When Petty Officer Morin told me he copied a true-to-life distress call, my first thought was, “Now what do I do?” I could have panicked. Instead, I took a deep breath and remembered my training. Each of you has been trained in the basics of your rate. As you mature your expertise, use it. Rely on it.
“Many would think that we were lucky that day. When the radio fell beside that tiny life raft and an arm reached out to pluck it from the water, 23 of the 25 crewmembers aboard the Star of Alexandria lived to tell their story. But it wasn’t luck: it was the culmination of our training, our diligence, our perseverance, and, above all, a manifestation of our Core Values of Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty.
“I commend each and every one of you for completing your 13-weeks of training here in Petaluma and welcome you to the exciting world of the Coast Guard Operations Specialist. It is a significant achievement yet only the beginning. From this point forward you’ll be granted unfettered access to the inner workings of Coast Guard missions: a world that’s always changing. You’ll be exposed to some of the most cutting edge command, control, communications, computers and information technology systems available today and you may be placed in a position where you are the only person that hears that distress call. Remain vigilant, dependable, responsive, and keep learning.
“Your job is arguably the most important in our Service. Without you, there can be no law enforcement, no pollution response, and no search and rescue. You are the glue that binds Coast Guard communications. It’s an enormous burden but critical to the American public.
“I wish you all the best as you start your careers as Operations Specialists in the United States Coast Guard. You are our future. From where I stand, it looks bright.