MKC Robert L. Harris U.S. Coast Guard (Ret) (1973-1996)
Read the service reflections of US Coast Guardsman
MKC Robert L. Harris
U.S. Coast Guard (Ret)
PLEASE DESCRIBE WHO OR WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE COAST GUARD?
My father was a WWII Navy Veteran, and had also done a four year hitch in the Army after the war. He was military through and through, and it was like having your very own Drill Instructor 24/7. His most famous speech was get ready to get out on your
own when you graduate from High School. I always thought of joining the Navy after high school, but he surprised me and talked me into joining the Coast Guard instead. He said he remembered seeing Coast Guard ships during the invasion of Saipan and Tinian during World War II and it must have left an impression. My mother had a first cousin named Sonny Vieth who was the Chief Engineer of the CGC White Alder, and died when it was hit by a large ship on the Mississippi River and sunk near NOLA. I graduated in 1973 and the Viet Nam War was still lingering on. The draft had mostly came to an end by then, but it was still some what hard to get in to the Coast Guard since many went there trying to stay out of the war. Lucky for me I attended a Vocational High School in Louisville an graduated as a Certified Auto Mechanic. The Coast Guard was in need of Snipes at the time, and scoring high on the old Naval Battery test, they gave me my opportunity.
WHETHER YOU WERE IN THE SERVICE FOR SEVERAL YEARS OR AS A CAREER, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE DIRECTION OR PATH YOU TOOK. WHAT WAS YOUR REASON FOR LEAVING?
The Coast Guard recruited me in on the delayed enlistment program upon graduation of High School in June of 1973, and I entered boot camp on January of 1974. I spent a tour in Kodiak, AK. where I worked in the Fuel Division of Public Works. We had just takenover the base from the Navy and it was still the original old WWII barracks, which was full of roaches, and in dire need of repairs. The Coast Guard did not waste anytime fixing the place up. I really never joined thinking of making it a career, and like most 18 year old knuckleheads I spent my time in the club drinking, and in trouble for not complying with regulations. In September 1975 I was lucky to still be on the “A” school list and was sent to MK School. After school I received orders to MSO Providence, RI., and was married to my first Wife enroute.
I departed active duty in 1978 and worked as a Diesel Mechanic in the Louisville, KY. area. After approximately two years of making a comeback as a civilian my second child, and oldest son was born. He arrived about two months premature weighing in at a whopping 2lbs,11ozs. He spent about two months in a Premature Care Ward in the hospital, and came home healthy with no problems. My part of the hospital and doctor bills exceeded far more than my wife and I could afford so the house went first, and the cars next. When that didn’t please them they came after our wages at work, so I knew I had to make some changes. I stopped one day after work at the Coast Guard Recruiting Office and was informed that only a minimal amount of money could be taken from my pay. Plus they offered me to come back in at the same rank I left, and a 95-ft. Patrol Boat in Hawaii. I later met with the wife, who was ready to get the hell out of there, and probably had everything we owned packed by nightfall. We both enjoyed the remaining 16-years being in the Coast Guard, and we raised three children. When my daughter, the oldest started High School she informed me that it would be great for her to possibly stay put until she graduates. My daughter who has always had my back, and could pluck them heart strings, made my mind up that it was time to settle down. The Coast Guard helped too when I made E8 and offered me three picks of duty stations in my “least area of desire”, New York City. Don’t get me wrong I don’t have a problem with New York, it’s just not where I wanted my three teen age kids. I turned down the advancement and put in my letter of retirement immediately.
IF YOU PARTICIPATED IN ANY MILITARY OPERATIONS, INCLUDING COMBAT, HUMANITARIAN AND PEACEKEEPING OPERATIONS, PLEASE DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT TO YOU AND, IF LIFE-CHANGING, IN WHAT WAY.
I never participated in combat, but have experienced a lot of Law Enforcement boarding’s while attached to three WPB’s and a SAR Station. The one Operation I remember being close to anything resembling a military operation would be while I was the Chief Engineering Officer of the USCGC Chincoteague homeported then in Mobile, AL. We were conducting boarding’s in the southern Gulf of Mexico when we came upon an 800-foot freighter flying a Cuban flag. Most of the crew including myself were watching an old WWII Navy movie with John Wayne. About the same time during a General Quarter alarms were sounding in the movie our own General Alarm sounded. It was weird, I was like what the hell is going on. Little did we know the old man wasn’t tired yet, and had come across this Cuban Freighter. As he got close, the freighter changed course, and came towards us as if trying to ram our vessel. The Skipper managed to get us out of “harms way” and a long night was fixing to get a lot longer. We shadowed the boat throughout most of the night trying to get the freighters captain to stop the vessel but it kept it’s speed and direction towards the port of Tampico, Mexico. We were at battle stations most of the night until the someone in Washington DC. wanted the freighter disabled. It was still dark when the 20-MM Machine gun began firing at the freighters stern to attempt disabling the steering system. The freighters Captain then moved his crew to the Engine Room to stop us from firing into that area of the ship. After it became light we picked up two contacts on the radar which were confirmed to be Mexican Patrol Boats enroute to our position. I remember instructing the Engineering staff to position themselves between the Main Engines if we were fired upon. Wasn’t minutes and two Navy Jets from Key West buzzed us and must have let the Mexicans know they were about to bite off more than they could chew because they turned and headed back. The Freighter made it to Tampico but had to be dry docked to repair some leaks, and fire damage from the tracer rounds. We stayed on position for another 24-hours, but were running out of food and fuel so we were instructed to return to homeport. The incident made the news, and the film we took was on “Good Morning America”. Castro was mad as hell to say the least but whatever it was carrying is probably still a mystery.
OF ALL YOUR DUTY STATIONS OR ASSIGNMENTS, WHICH ONE DO YOU HAVE FONDEST MEMORIES OF AND WHY? WHICH ONE WAS YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
My time at USCG Station Destin, FL. was my favorite. I had just made MK1 and it was my first time running the Engineering Department. I worked for, and with some great Coastie’s which included BMCM Marty Dobrin who was my favorite. He was an old River Rat who taught us a lot with his “Hillbilly Philosophy”. My least favorite was the USCGC Harris in Honolulu. Let me tell you, it’s difficult having the same last name as your boat. Everybody, I mean from the Admiral on down had jokes. I had just returned from taking the USCGC Cape Corwin from Honolulu to Baltimore, and thought my tour there was done. I was ready to come back to CONUS, but the Coast Guard replaced the Corwin with an 82-footer from Guam and started another tour in paradise for me. It wasn’t all that bad because a lot of my shipmates from the Corwin came with me.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE, INCLUDING COMBAT, DESCRIBE THE PERSONAL MEMORIES WHICH HAVE IMPACTED YOU MOST?
This would have to be the trip on a 95-foot Patrol Boat from Honolulu, HI. to the CG Yards in Baltimore, MD. in 1981. The CGC Cape Corwin’s Hollywood career as “Hawaii Five-O’s” boat had long since come to an end around 1980. I had just reenlisted after getting outof the Guard 2-years earlier. The old boat had seen it’s day, and was in pretty bad shape, with five cofferdams in the hull. The closest parts store was another decommissioned 95-footer in a California museum. This was my first real sea duty and the experience probably molded me into the person I am today. 10,000 miles, 20 to 25 foot sea’s in the Pacific, and a couple weeks of the Mariel Boatlift later, we had plenty of stories and memories to bring back. We kept her running and floating for almost three month’s, and there was a lot of talk around the 14th District that we would not get there at all. We conducted Operations off El Salvador, and hit the tail end of the Mariel Boatlift when the 95-footer in Key West hit a 210 and made her a 92-footer. We showed the Hawaiian flag in Long Beach, CA., San Deigo, Coasta Rica, Panama, Grand Camen Island, Key West, and Charleston, SC. During the last couple days in Charleston we painted the Engine Room before turning her over in Baltimore. I got to see her again on the return trip, when the boat stopped for fuel and provisions in Honolulu, on her way to Guam. This crew too had their share of memories and stories of a “Trip To Far”.
WHAT ACHIEVEMENT(S) ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF FROM YOUR MILITARY CAREER?
I received two CG Commendation Medals, and the Achievement medal during my last three duty stations. I always took a lot of pride in my Engineering Department and emphasized with doing the best job possible. I wasn’t the best dressed Chief in the Guard because I loved working as a Snipe, with the department. I’ve been real lucky to have had some of our best working for me, so all it took was for the Chief to roll up his sleeves, and whatever the casualty was, the boy’s and I were going to fix it. Every medal, ribbon, or stripe that I’ve been awarded was because of team effort. I knew I had the most to loose or to gain from being in charge of Engineering, but Coastie’s are well known for making their bosses look really good. I’ve seen them work for several days with just a couple hours of sleep, little to eat, and bust with pride when the job was over. Yes, I received some medals, but the experiences and the memories of the people working with me, will always be the most rewarding.
OF ALL THE MEDALS, AWARDS, FORMAL PRESENTATIONS AND QUALIFICATION BADGES YOU RECEIVED, OR ANY OTHER MEMORABILIA, PLEASE DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH ARE THE MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND WHY?
The Coast Guard Achievement Medal that I received while serving as Chief Engineer aboard the USCGC Chincoteague was my proudest moment. It was my first Cutter as head of the Engineering Department, and one of the first as a Plankowner of a new 110′ Island Class Cutter. My Engineering staffand I watched her be built at Bollinger Shipyard, which probably helped with making us a great team. There was a great deal of pride to be the Cutters first crew, and the first 110′ ft WPB in the Gulf of Mexico. We were always training, preparing, and on call. I remember a lot of underway time, and always getting moved from one OPCON to another around the Gulf Coast. We had our share of Engine Room casualties, but we always always managed to work out the “bugs”, and keep up with the crazy schedule. I was also the CEA, and the Commanding Officers link between the enlisted personnel. He hardly ever left the boat when we pulled into port so I would help out keeping tabs on the crew, and making sure everybody made it safely back to the boat. It was probably the most demanding part of my life, damn sure put some grey hair on my head, but it gave me the confidence, and experience I needed for a successful career.
WHICH INDIVIDUAL(S) FROM YOUR TIME IN THE MILITARY STAND OUT AS HAVING THE MOST POSITIVE IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
I would have to say that while at SAR Station Destin, FL., BMCM Martin Dobrin had the most beneficial impact on my career. BMCM Dobrin was from West Virginia, and answered most questions with his old “Hillbilly Philosophy”. He took me from just being a hard working Engineer to a Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer. My professionalism as a Coastie changed the day he took over the unit. He always was there for his people, and everyone loved working for him. He guided me through my advancement to Chief, and made me feel like I had truly reached a new level in my life. He taught me how to be proud of who I am, and how to manage my department above expectations. He also taught me that no matter what life throws at you, we have to push on, and continue to do the job we have been assigned, to the best of our ability. When I was transferred to the USCG Cutter Cimmaron in the old Second District I heard stories from his career on the rivers that only confirmed his Professionalism and Dedication.
PLEASE RECOUNT THE NAMES OF FRIENDS YOU SERVED WITH, AT WHICH LOCATION, AND WHAT YOU REMEMBER MOST ABOUT THEM. INDICATE THOSE YOU ARE ALREADY IN TOUCH WITH AND THOSE YOU WOULD LIKE TO MAKE CONTACT WITH.
I have had friends in the Coast Guard that have been more like brothers and sisters than just Shipmates. It was a different world in the Coast Guard, people get close being crammed into small living spaces aboard ships, watching out for each others back, and being there to help during the bad personal times. I’ve been there for the birth of their children to the deaths of their parents, and they have been there for me. My three children still refer to past Coastie’s as “Uncle” or “Aunt” when they are remembered, and I can say the love for them has not changed. I haven’t stayed in contact with them as I should have but I still get Christmas cards and emails with pictures that show up unexpectedly. After twenty years I cannot name but just a small list of them in this post. I cannot post names without possibly hurting someone else’s feelings, so I won’t provide any names.
CAN YOU RECOUNT A PARTICULAR INCIDENT FROM YOUR SERVICE WHICH MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE BEEN FUNNY AT THE TIME, BUT STILL MAKES YOU LAUGH?
Coast Guard Day picnic at USCG Station Destin about 1986. We had just built a large gazebo on the beach behind the Station. Everyone including family, local Sheriff’s and Marine Patrol were there. Day was just coming to an end when one of our Bos’nmates, a six-foot five biker dude shows up skiing down the beach in his birthday suit. Wasn’t to funny for the wives who were still there, and they began scooping up the kids and going home. For a Coastie with a belly full of beer, it was hilarious. The Master Chief scrambled the 41 footer and ran him down which only made it even funnier. Needless to say he came back to a world of trouble, but I remember the Master Chief couldn’t keep a straight face. He got the usual 3/14/48, but kept his rank, and gave one he’ll of a show that nobody will forget.
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER YOUR MILITARY SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR PRESENT OCCUPATIONAL SPECIALTY?
I retired in September 1996 and began working for a rolled type steel mill as a parts department manager. The place was scary and very hazardous so I took another job as a Facility Manager of a Rail Car repair facility which repaired and conducted maintenance on CSX Railroad cars. In 1999 I was offered a job managing a Healthcare company’s Data Center, and have been there since.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS SERVING IN THE MILITARY INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND YOUR CAREER?
The Data Center where I currently work in reminds me of managing an Engine Room aboard a Cutter. Machinery is different but the routine maintenance and repair works much the same. Having an Engineering background in air conditioning, electrical distribution, and management got my foot in the door, and the continued training I received in my current position has allowed me to continue being an effective member of my Data Center Operations Team over the last seventeen years.
BASED ON YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THOSE WHO HAVE RECENTLY JOINED THE COAST GUARD?
Take advantage of any and all types of Commercial or Military training you can get. Life is full of changes, and when opportunities come along you will have that edge, and experience that will make you stand out.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU REMEMBER YOUR MILITARY SERVICE AND THE FRIENDS YOU SERVED WITH.
Reading the many articles provided by Coast Guard Veteran’s brings back many good memories. I also love reading WWII history this site offers. I haven’t communicated with as many friends a I hoped to, but the site is fairly new and that may change.