Coast Guard Cutter Bluebell: Stepping onto history

Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg

Bluebell leaving Portland

Bluebell leaving Portland. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Coast Guard Cutter Bluebell.

When you visit a unit as a public affairs specialist you never know what to expect. The way the crew receives you depends part on how the public affairs rate is viewed and part on the personality of the public affairs specialist in question. Sometime a crew will welcome you with open arms and sometimes it takes a little while for a crew to warm up to you. You just never really know.

I drove from Astoria, Ore., to Portland, Ore., early in the morning on the March 17 to visit the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Bluebell, a 100-foot buoy tender stationed at the Coast Guard base on Swan Island, in preparation for the upcoming ship’s 70th anniversary. I had the same gut feeling you get when it is your first day of school. The feeling of ‘What is it going to be like?’ or ‘Will the other kids like me?’ It is the same feeling I always get visiting a new unit.

The pier that the Bluebell sits at is much taller than the ship itself and to make your way down to the brow you cross a zig-zag of scaffolding. As I descended I could see crewmembers below working about the decks, curiously eyeing me the same way anyone would eye a stranger walking up to their home.

Bluebell in Portland for Rosefest. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Eggert.

Bluebell in Portland for Rosefest. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Eggert.

I introduced myself to the four or five crewmembers going about their daily routine and after the mystery of my identity became clear, the crew instantly warmed. Quickly I was shown about the ship. I could tell that they were proud to be aboard it. The ship, commissioned in 1945, is old by normal standards, but despite its age, it didn’t look a day over 20. The back hull was well painted and the white superstructure of the ship was clean. You would have to look hard to find a line of rust anywhere. To me, it looked cared for the same way people take care of a classic car.

There are only subtle differences that really show its age. To notice them, you would have to be a prior buoy tended sailor like myself. Many of the devices used to work a buoy on the tender I sailed on were run by hydraulics and electricity, aboard the Bluebell; they are run by leverage and manpower.

Shortly after my introductory tour I was introduced to Chief Boatswain’s Mate William Glenzer, the executive petty officer. He was just as upbeat as they rest of the crew I had met, but what struck me is that he knew and incredible amount about the ship’s history. Down in the ship’s office, we poured over old photos and documents dating back to shortly after the ship was first commissioned in 1945.

Talking to chief, I found out that the ship had been involved in a lot of events that shaped the Pacific Northwest we know today. The crew assisted mariners and residents following a great Vanport flood in 1948 that caused significant damage throughout the area. After the John Day Dam was built the Bluebell was the first ship to traverse its locks and the crew of the Bluebell was even on the water after the volcano, Mt. St. Helens, erupted in 1980 keeping the waterways clear of debris. So needless to say, they represent well their motto: Rising to the Challenge Since 1945.

Bluebell's crew working aids to navigation in the Pacific Northwest. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Coast Guard Cutter Bluebell.

Bluebell’s crew working aids to navigation in the Pacific Northwest. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Coast Guard Cutter Bluebell.

Glenzer explained to me that the ship is responsible for more than 420 aids to navigation, including buoys and day boards along more than 500 miles of river from the Columbia to the Snake and Willamette. All together the Bluebell crew cares for almost a quarter of the aids to navigation for the Coast Guard’s 13th District, no small feat.

As Glenzer began giving me a more in-depth tour of the cutter we walked along the starboard side (the river side) of the ship. Suddenly out of the water there was a big flurry of wings and a bird that had been curiously and intently watching me flew at me. It was a goose. He flew so close to me I could feel the air and water coming off of his wings, buffeting me in the face.

I must have given Glenzer a shocked look because he said, “Oh, him? That’s Gary. He is well… I guess you could say he is the ship’s mascot. Every time we leave, he sees us off and when we pull into port he is there to greet us.”

He offered a piece of bread from his pocket which Gary happily took straight from Glenzer’s hand.

The author and Bluebell's unofficial mascot Gary the Goose. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

The author and Bluebell’s unofficial mascot Gary the Goose. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

I spent a week aboard the ship with the crew, getting to know each of them by name and sharing in their breakfast and lunch routines. Whenever I have a project, especially one where I have to put a crewman in front of a camera, I always get one or two crewmembers who are not especially excited with the idea of being put on the spot. Not so with the Bluebell crew. They each happily stepped up to tell me, and by extension our viewers, why they enjoy being aboard the cutter. Again, the pride they have in their ship shows in everything they do.

There is something special about the Bluebell. The mere mention of it often illicit comments that it’s the best kept secret in the service, or someone loved their tour or are trying to get back aboard. I may have a bias toward buoy tenders and their line of work, but, at the same time, I have met a lot of ships and a lot of crewmembers. If I had to put that ‘something special’ into one word, I would simply call it pride and when you cross the brow and step foot onto the cutter itself, you can’t help but share in that feeling of and realize you are truly stepping onto a piece of American history.

 

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