TOPSHAM – I never know where I might happen across a person that is interesting and should be interviewed for an article. My office received a call from someone interested in selling some of their maritime books. I called back and after a brief conversation I realized this person had an interesting 38-year career in the U. S. Coast Guard. I set up a time to look at the books and met with Richard “Archie” Pelley. After an hour I asked if I could come back and interview him to which he agreed.
Archie grew up in Lisbon Falls, which would make one ask why he wanted to make a career onboard a ship. The Pelleys are from the Canadian Maritimes. Archie added, “My grandfather, Archie Pelley, Archibald, came from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. He and his brothers were dory fishermen and they were fishing one day and the fog came in and they couldn’t find the mother ship. The next day things cleared up and their mother ship was gone so they figured they’d better get the hell out of fishing and they got into paper making. He wound up in Canada and then in Pejepscot. My father (George Archibald Pelley) was born here.”
Lisbon Falls is not near the water, but the Pelleys would summer at Cundy’s Harbor where his grandfather and father owned and loved to boat. Archie spent many a summer at Cundy’s Harbor and after graduating from high school he decided to go to Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. He went into the three-year engineering program, but after completing his first year decided not to go back. He added, “I could have gone back on the GI Bill. I don’t know. By then I was married and you could not be married in the Naval Reserve.”
Archie came back to Lisbon Falls and his father said, “When I come home from work you should have a job if you are going to stay here.” I went to New York and sailed MSC or MST and then I found out I was about to be drafted. This was during the Korean War. I came home and I said, ‘Well, I will join the Navy,’ my uncle was in the Navy. He was a Chief Machinist Mate during the war. Then, I thought probably I want to be a Marine because they have nice uniforms. Luckily for me, the Marine recruiter was out for a while so I was going to join the Navy. This was February 1951 and he says, ‘I can’t take you until November,’ I said, ‘You have got to.’ He said, ‘No, can’t do that.’ So, I decided I would join the Army instead of being drafted. I am walking across the bridge from Auburn to Lewiston and this old Coast Guard carry-all came pulling up beside me, and I knew the guy in it, he was a recruiter for Lewiston. He said, ‘I talked to your mother, she filled in a lot of the blanks, all you have got to do is check it over and sign it.’ I said, ‘Whoa, what are you talking about, I don’t want to be in the Coast Guard all you have got is lifeboat stations and lighthouses, I want a ship.’ ‘We’ve got ships.’ Well, they took me up to the office and they opened this book with all these white ships and I said, ‘Well, I guess I can handle that.’ I neglected to ask what the hell these ships do, maybe I would have had a second thoughts. I joined and five days later, I am in boot camp at Cape May, New Jersey. I was there for three weeks and because I had gone to Maine Maritime, they made me a fireman. They sent me to Boston and I went on the Coast Guard cutter BIBB, a big white ship and the rest is history.”
So, what did the big white ships do? Well, they went out into the Atlantic Ocean on weather patrols. Archie said, “The Coast Guard was tasked on both oceans to do all the ocean’s weather patrol. We had several weather stations, there was Bravo which was up in the Davis Straits, Charlie and Delta were off the tip of Greenland and there was Alpha Able, that was over between Greenland and Iceland. I made a couple of them and then they gave that to the Danes. From Portland it was probably three to five days out and you always went into Argentia, Newfoundland, the Navy base, and fueled up. For 21 days you were on station. I always said at least a month out. Any time after October to April it was terrible, there was always a storm, there was always ice, and sometimes one after another. You kind of got used to them. If you were sick, you were in trouble. One weather patrol we made on BARATARIA just before we went to Vietnam in January 1957, a storm busted up one of the boats, tore off things, sprung a 5 inch mount so it was leaking down into the handling rooms. We came in and we didn’t know we had to go to Vietnam. We thought we are all stove up and we needed a break. We got orders to Vietnam so we went to the shipyard in Boston and they patched us up. I know I made some bad ones but that was the worst one that I can remember.
“We had government weathermen on board,” continued Archie, “and they’d release a balloon and track it with radar. These were civilian government employees, I kind of felt sorry for them. They made big money I guess, but it wasn’t unusual when the ship came in for them to walk right across the dock and get on the one going out. This went on until in the ‘70s when they started having weather satellites. Plus, we had radio beacons that the trans-Atlantic flights would home in on. It wasn’t unusual sometimes walk up on deck and there is a ship right there, a tanker or cargo ship. The boys from Brunswick when they were on patrol always buzzed us. I had 48 weather patrols, 48 months out of your life spent out there thrashing around in the North Atlantic, there’s nothing like it.”
About two and a half years after being stationed on the BIBB out of Boston, Archie was transferred to Portland and the BARATARIA. The BIBB was steam powered, but the BARATARIA was driven by four Fairbanks Morse diesels. Archie went on as a third-class boiler tender and worked his way up to becoming a first-class boiler tender. After three more years of weather patrols in the Atlantic, Archie was transferred to the recruiting office in Portland. He added, “My run was from Portland to Calais. I’d leave on a Monday morning and go to Rockland. We had little cards in post offices and if a guy says in Boothbay wanted to join the Coast Guard, he’d mail that card in and I’d go see him. From Rockland it was onto Southwest Harbor, spend the night there. Then to Jonesport and to Lubec to the Lifeboat Station at Quoddy Head and stay there. If we had anybody in Aroostook County or Bangor I’d go over there. Thanks to recruiting I got to know a lot of people.”
Archie fondly remembers Vid and Vin Young of the Young Brothers of Corea and Harlan Billings of Billings Diesel & Marine in Stonington and many others that served in the Coast Guard.
After a second stint on BARATARIA for three and half years, Archie was transferred to the training center at Avery Point, Groton, Connecticut, where there were two big boiler rooms where he was a boiler tender. This was a 9 to 5 job. After three years at Groton Archie was transferred to BARATARIA for a third time. He was on her when they got orders to go to Vietnam in 1967. Five big cutters were sent to Vietnam. Archie explained, “We were with the Navy destroyers and were gun fire support off the coast. So, if somebody needed some five-inch rounds, we would hurl steel somewhere.”
While in Vietnam Archie made warrant and was then transferred back to New Bedford, Massachusetts to the steamship ESCANABA. He was there for just over a year doing weather patrols when he got orders to go back to Vietnam. This time it was not on a vessel using its 5-inch guns, but as a repair officer with Coast Guard Squadron 1, Division 13 at Cat Lo. Archie’s job was to work with the swift boats and at times they would ask if he wanted to go on a run upriver. “That was a little hairy,” said Archie. “I had a CO down there that whenever he went out on ops, say two swift boats and one of our 82s, he wanted extra guns so he’d take me. I would either man a 50 cal or a M60 machine gun or whatever and we’d go shoot partridge.”
After 13 months with the swift boats Archie was reassigned to South Portland. He explained, “I got sent to engineering duty Group Portland, which covered I think from Manana Island to Hampton Beach. We had three or four lifeboat stations not to mention light houses and our job was to keep the boats running. They needed support and I would get them support meaning money and parts. I got to see every lighthouse from Manana Island all the way to Isles of Shoals. Manana Island was a fog signal station and there was a hermit over there and three Coast Guard guys. South Portland was taking it over from Southwest Harbor group and we had to go over there and climb rocks and talk to the hermit, but that is all automated now. I got to climb Boon Island which was fun. Some of the lifeboat stations, like Popham is gone, Fletcher’s Neck which is at the end of the Saco River, that is gone too.”
After three years Archie was transferred to Marine Inspection in Portland in 1973. “I had to go to school at Yorktown, Virginia,” stated Archie. “When I went there that is where OCS and engine and merchant marine safety school were, because you deal with civilians and politicians.”
During the next five years as a Marine Inspector Archie was stationed at South Portland, Boston, Massachusetts and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
As a Marine Inspector you can see some interesting things. Archie said, “When I was in Puerto Rico, I got a call to go over to a pier where there was a big container ship that had burned up a boiler. Burning up a boiler means you run it out of water and the tubes all melted. I went over and the chief was almost suicidal, I don’t blame him because it was a stupid mistake. They had two boilers and I got them permission to sail on one boiler. It was stuff like that. If you would have seen my name on a list it would be Chief Warrant Officer Pelley (B) Boiler Inspector or (D) Deck. I was a double-ender.”
“When I was a group engineer at South Portland the District Engineer out of Boston sent me to Panama to find a missing Light Ship, WLV 612,” continued Archie. “They were bringing it around to replace the old Portland Light Ship and it was coming from San Francisco. On its way it broke its propeller shaft off the coast of Mexico and the Mexican Navy towed it into Acapulco to their base and it sat there for a month. I guess by the look of most of the guy’s faces it wasn’t that terrible a thing except they had to eat Mexican food all the time. The Navy came along and towed it to the old Rodman Naval Base. I was told that is where it was, well when I finally got there it wasn’t there, they had towed it through the canal. For a buck and a half, I went from the Pacific to the Atlantic in about an hour on a train. We got the shaft in and then it came up and took the place of the old lightship off Portland and this actually was the last lightship off Portland. After that they put the sea buoy there and the first three sea buoys were built at Bath Iron Works, one for Boston, one for Portland, and one for a spare.”
In 1978, Archie retired from the U. S. Coast Guard and said, “I had a good career, I saw a lot, did a lot. We saw a lot of ocean. Some of the highlights would be Argentia, Newfoundland and maybe a quick trip into Iceland. We had a skipper and he wanted to visit the French island St. Pierre in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We had been to sea for a month and when we got off that pier and started up the main street all you could hear was shutters closing. Bermuda, we always kept a weather ship in Bermuda on search and rescue stand by. We were there Christmas and New Years in 1965, they treated us well. It was one of the few places you could wear civilian clothes off the ship because they didn’t want sailors running around in sailor suits chasing women. You could not tell, we had a short haircut, chinos, a white t-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve and black shoes. No, you could not tell.”
After retirement Archie moved back to Maine and went to work at Bath Iron Works (BIW). “I was a tech writer,” said Archie. “I went there in ’79. The FFG program, they were just cranking that up. They were doing all kinds of overhauls for the Navy and I was writing boilers, turbines, pumps, repair jobs. When I was in overhaul, I would go out on the road looking at different jobs the yard might or had bid on. One was on the UNITED STATES (ocean liner), which luckily, they did not take. Another fella and I crawled all over every bit of that ship. It was a complicated thing, they had joiner and machine packages and Bath was going to do the machinery part of it. Some guy bought it with stars in his eyes and was going to make millions and come to find out he never did a thing. Later, I wound up going into what they called Department 10 as a production coordinator, expeditor, you just saw that the trades got what they needed, From there I went to the pipe shop and I finished in the pipe shop.”
On 1 June 1994 Archie retired from BIW, worked a bit at L. L. Bean in Freeport, but then helped as a marine surveyor. He added, “A friend of mine retired from the Coast Guard, Carl Beal, he was a marine surveyor. Well, he needed help. I worked with Carl for a year or so. Then I volunteered after that at the Maine Maritime Museum and the Chamberlain House, but now I am fully retired.”
It is obvious that Archie has a love the Coast Guard and maritime history. He said, “I like maritime history, Maine history. If someone has a question, I will try to answer it.”
He has researched the Coast Guard vessels that were stationed around New England, and all the vessels he served and then a few others like ACUSHNET, which was a sea-going tug the Coast Guard had obtained from the Navy that was stationed in Portland.
Archie’s only issue with the Coast Guard was not recognizing their service in Vietnam. He said, “My thing is, we went over there and we were basically under the Navy, operationally. It makes me sound like I want something and I do, I want recognition from the Coast Guard that we were there and we did a hell of a job. Anything we got, we got from the Navy. They never came out and said Squadron 1 and Squadron 3 you guys, but whatever, they’re all gone now.”
Archie now lives in Topsham and enjoys his free time doing whatever he likes to do, and he has earned that right.
Former Navy Seaplane Tenders, Casco Class (WAVP) 1766 tons; 310’ 9” x 41’ x 13½’; 1 5-inch gun; Diesel, 6,030 BHP, 18.2 knots. ABSECON (x AVP-22), Lake Washington Shipyard, 8 March 1942. COOS BAY: (x AVP-25), Lake Washington Shipyard, 15 May 1942. YAKUTAT: (x AVP-32), Associated Shipbuilders, 2 July 1942. BARATARIA: (x AVP-33), Lake Washington Shipyard, 2 October 1943. COOK INLET: (x AVP 36), Lake Washington Shipyard, 13 May 1944.
ESCANABA (x OTSEGO): Owasco Class (WPG); 1563 standard tons; 254’ x 43’ x15’; Geared turbines with electric drives, 4,000 SHP, 18 knots, 1 5-inch gun; 140 complement. Built Western Pipe & Steel Co.; All named for Indian tribes.
ACUSHNET (x-SHACKLE): WAT; Ocean going tug; 1557 tons; 213’ 6” x 39’ x 13’; Diesel electric, 2 shafts, 3,000-hp, 14 knots.
BIBB (x GEORGE M. BIBB): Campbell Class, WPG-31, 2216 tons; 327’ x 51’ x 12’ 8”; 1 5-inch gun; Geared turbines, 2 shafts, 6200 SHP, 20.5 knots, 2 Babcock & Wilcox boilers, 202 complement.