The following oral history was provided to the Coast Guard Historian's Office through the courtesy of the Foundation for Coast Guard History. In this interview, which is more of a memoir than a question-and-answer session, Master Chief Boatswain's Mate Thomas McAdams describes his illustrious career in the Coast Guard, which began in 1950 and lasted into 1977. The highly decorated McAdams is something of a legend in the Coast Guard's small boat community and among the fishermen of the Pacific Northwest, where one newspaper writer wrote that McAdams was "the champion lifesaver and lifeboat roller of the Pacific Coast." BMCM McAdams' memoir is an important addition to the Coast Guard's archives.
In his remarkable career, which spanned 27 years, BMCM McAdams participated in more than 5,000 rescues and was credited with saving more than 100 lives. He survived nine "rolls," where his self-righting 16-ton lifeboat actually capsized due to the large swells that develop outside the river entrances along the coasts of Oregon and Washington, and then rolled upright again, sometimes holding the crew underwater for up to 40 seconds. He wrote about one of those times: "In one operation while in charge of a 44' MLB [Motor Life Boat]. . . my two man crew and myself were pitched-pulled, that is, end-over-end, by a large breaking swell. We were pushed down for approximately 40-some seconds. We are strapped in, but are outside and must hold your breath while the tons of water cascades over you, and you hang precariously upside down till the MLB rights itself again."
During his Coast Guard career, BMCM McAdams was awarded the Legion of Merit, the Coast Guard Medal, the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the Coast Guard Commendation Medal, the Meritorious Achievement Medal, among others, and he was one of the few Coast Guardsmen to be awarded both the Gold Lifesaving Medal and the Coast Guard Medal. Additionally, in 1972, the Commandant of the Coast Guard at that time, Admiral Chester R. Bender, presented him with the first Coxswain's Insignia ever issued, because, as Admiral Bender noted: "[BMCM McAdams] has a tremendous record of rescues . . . and that he truly represents all Coast Guardsmen." BMCM McAdams commanded many of the small boat stations in the Pacific Northwest, including the Coast Guard's Motor Lifeboat School at Cape Disappointment, Ilwaco, Washington, where he wrote the textbook used to train future lifesavers. He even appeared on national television, including the programs "To Tell The Truth" and the "Who's Who" feature of Charles Kuralt's "On the Road" program.
The Historian's Office would like to thank BMCM McAdams for taking the time to give future generations a look into what life was like in the Coast Guard during the time he served. Our thanks to the Foundation for Coast Guard History too for providing us with a copy of his manuscript. It is only through efforts such as theirs that Coast Guard history is preserved for future generations.
BMCM McAdams: We’re at my home here in Newport, Oregon. We’re down below deck in my den. I do get one room out of the house, the wife gets the rest. We’re here to talk about the Coast Guard and from the time I first came in until I retired in 1977 after 27 years in the United States Coast Guard.
I was born in Seattle, out in Ballard; Seattle, Washington. I went to grade school there, junior high school, and graduated from Ballard High School in 1950. In 1950 the Korean War started around in June. I graduated in June. I knew I was going to go in the service. My brother was already in the United States Marines but I wanted to fly. Jets were just coming in and I thought I could fly a jet so I went to the Air Force and I asked them, “Could I join the Air Force and become a pilot”, and they said, “Well you need two years of college but if you join now after two years you can go to Officer Candidate School and then you can apply for flight school.” I said, “Well gee, the war will be over by the time I learn to fly.” I said, “If you guarantee me I can go to flight school I’ll sign up”, and they said, “Well we can’t do that”, so I said, “Well then I’m going to join the Marines.” I went down to Seattle where my mother worked and got the address of where the Marine and the Navy Recruiting Office was and it was way down in Westlake; a couple miles away, and my brother told me, he said, “If you join the Marines”, he said, “I’m in the Marines and I’m going to Korea.” He said, “If you join the Marines and you go to Korea, you put in for your $10,000 insurance and make it out me and I’ll make mine out to you.” He said, “One of us is bound to get killed and the other will be set for life.” Well when I got downtown I didn’t want to walk the two miles or take the bus those two miles and the Coast Guard Recruiting Office was just two blocks away. I walked down there and I asked about the Coast Guard and they said, “A three-year tour”, and I said, “Three years, everything else is four years”, and he said, “That’s right but the Coast Guard is three years now.” I said, “Sign me up.” I signed up, took the test and passed it and they said, “You’ll be going to boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey.” Well I waited and I waited and nothing would come out, and the next month passed and I finally went down and he said, “No, they’re opening up a new boot camp and it’ll be ready here in December.” I officially joined the Coast Guard on December 7th, 1950 and went to Alameda, California where the boot camp was and started my career there.
The boot camp had just opened up. I was assigned to Company “C”; just plain “C”. We just started on up. We had 150 men in a company at that time and the boot camp was not ready. The galley was open and everything was ready that way. When we got there they told us, “Grab a mattress.” They were double bunks; it was framed bunks, and they said, “Grab a mattress to throw on there. You’re going to be damn cold tonight. There’s no heat in the barracks and there are no blankets”, and we were that way for about a week before we got our first blanket. It took over a week before we got our issue of clothes. And every time we went to a classroom there wouldn’t be any instructors so we’d sit on the deck mainly. But the galley was fully operational so we did get our good three squares a day.
We were there for about 10 or 11 weeks and finally they said they’re cutting down on the companies and I got moved back two companies because they were cutting them down to 125 men. I was very disappointed at the time to have to spend an extra couple of weeks in boot camp but all the buddies of mine that were in Company “C” that went to the 13th District all got placed aboard ships. Two weeks later when I graduated from boot camp I went to Seattle, to the base. They put me on gate guard for a couple weeks and then I got my first set of orders; Yaquina Bay, Newport, Oregon. When they told me I was going to Yaquina Bay I thought I was going to Japan or someplace; Yaquina, Yokohoma, I didn’t know where it was, when somebody said, “No, I think it’s on the Oregon coast.” I’d lived in Ballard where the Coast Guard was and I’d seen the ships come in and the small boats come in and go out but I knew very little about the Coast Guard itself. I had no idea that there was any such thing as a life boat station and surf and breakers and things like that.
I got down here. They sent four of us down to the station. At that time the complement went up to 19; 19 people at the station. They were so happy to get four new recruits and my first duty was in the lookout watchtower. I learned it very rapidly and took over the lookout watchtower and at that time when we came in our liberty ran eight days straight. We had eight days straight duty, 24-hours a day, and if you hadn’t missed any punches in the lookout tower or your work was up, or the Boatswain’s Mate had given you a good report, then you had 48-hours off. So you were eight days straight on and 48-hours off providing that you met all the requirements.
At that time there was a warrant officer in charge of the station. He was a boatswain’s mate that had switched over from radioman. He’d never really been to sea and knew very little about the lifeboats. When we reported in that night; the four of us, and we drove up to the station - it was about 2200 in the evening - we were a little hesitant about going into the station. We looked at the equipment building and we said, “Gee, that must be the enlisted men quarters”, and at the main station we said, “Gee, that must be the officer’s quarters.” We had no idea that there was just the one officer and he lived across the street; warrant officer.
We went down to the local tavern and when we walked in there the fishermen all said, “Oh, the Coast Guard’s here. Buy those boys a drink!” Well we all had a beer and they said, “Well you’re going up to see old Fancy Pants.” We didn’t know quite what they meant. We found out later. The warrant officer in charge, the nickname from all the fisherman was “Fancy Pants.” He wore his uniform squared away and he loved to wear the uniform around town. When you were on liberty and you were going in town, if you didn’t salute him you lost your next liberty. You had to salute him. Even if he went by in a car you had to come to attention on the street and salute him.
But he never went out in the boats. Those that did go out in the boats and got sea sick, he would call in the office and say, “I heard you got seasick on the last call. You have to make every call until you get over being seasick”, and out they would go. Fortunately I’d been raised around Ballard. I was out in small boats in Puget Sound and the sea didn’t bother me. Of course the ocean was different. My first trip out in a lifeboat I watched those swells. They were running across the bar at the time, oh, 15 or 20 feet high and I have never seen anything like that before. I mean at the top of the swell when you see everything and now you’re at the bottom of this swell and there’s water, water everywhere, and I was thrilled. I didn’t realize at the time but the boatswain’s mates were trying to roll the boat and do everything they could to roll it and rock it and pitch it, and that was to see if you would get seasick and what kind of a boat crewmen you’d make. Well fortunately I never got seasick. It was one of those things. I was very, very lucky that way.
Well we went on for a year and after I’d been at the station for about three or four months I was a seaman apprentice. I wanted to make seaman. At that time all the officer had to do was put you up for seaman and you would make it, and I went in there to request . . . I could take out the course; the Institute course for seaman, and he told me at that time, he said, “No.” He said, “After you’ve been here for over one year and you haven’t missed any punches in the tower, and your work is up, then you can take out the Institute course and then after six months you can make seaman.” He said, “If you can make seaman within a year and a half you’ll be first rate.” So I remained seaman apprentice for just about a year when he got his orders to be transferred.
When he got his orders to be transferred I happened to be on the switchboard at the time and I heard him. He was really crying because they were going to send him to be the officer-in-charge of Tacoma River lightship and he told the personnel officer, “I’m not qualified to go to sea”, and he said, “Well if you’re not qualified to go to sea we’ll take your warrant officer’s rank away from you and put you back to chief or first class.” He said, “Oh, I’ll take the orders.” They put him on the lightship and in 17 days they lowered him overboard on a stretcher with chronic seasickness, and he was always clean shaven and spic and span. He had almost two weeks growth of beard and they told me he really looked like he was just about ready to die. They surveyed him right after that on a medical and he had had 20 some; almost 30 years in at the time.
Then we got a warrant officer in charge of the station, Mr. Lawrence; Harold Lawrence, and I think he probably influenced my first career in the Coast Guard more than anything else. He could tell the stories and he was a boatman and he could handle boats. He knew all about breakers and surf and drills and timing, and he started us on drills and I learned more from that man in the year that I served with him than I can describe. He was a wonderful CO [commanding officer]. He was somebody you could look up to. We would do anything for him. To this day I still say Mr. Lawrence - he’s gone now; passed away - but I’ll always remember him.
I got transferred from Newport. Everybody that was there that had been there for six months or so got put up for seaman right away. I made seaman right away. Within three months I made third class boatswain’s mate.
When you made boatswain’s mate in those days you’ve been going in the boats and you went down, you grabbed the boat from the dock and you started practicing. Well I loved the boats so I would just go down to the dock and just run the boat, run the boat, run the boat, and I would practice docking and undocking. I’d take it down to the moorages and practice with the wind - single screw boat - with the wind and everything until I could really become proficient with that lifeboat going to sea and taking breakers and timing breakers. My first call the Chief came up one morning – I’d been boatswain’s mate for about two or three weeks - and he said, “Mack, we’ve got a boat broke down just outside the jetties. Go get her.” I jumped in the boat - in that day I had one crewman; my engineer - and we jumped in the 36-foot motor lifeboat, 8 ½ knots and 10 ¼ tons, and down we went. Well what had happened was he was broke down all right but he was messing with his commercial fishing gear going out and he ran into the can buoy off beyond the jetty and he had a hole in him and he was taking on water. So we got him in tow and we towed him back to the dock and I called the station and I said, “We need the handy-belly pump down at the dock” – it was a cantankerous pump - and then the engineer came down and he pulled and he pulled and he pulled and it wouldn’t start, and this guy’s getting lower in the water. I said, “I’m going to take him down to Port Dock One and tie him off to the dock”, and luckily the tide was going out. I said, “Get the big Chrysler Hale; a big pump that could pump two and a half inches of . . . it held two of them at the time with all the pressure and a lot of water. So we took him down to the dock, tied him off, got him all set on up and they brought the Chrysler Hale down and they cranked and they cranked until the battery went dead. They got it started but one of the hoses had a crack in it and it was sucking air, so I said, “Call the fire department. Get their pumper down here and we’ll draft.” Well we called the fire department and they came down. By the time the fire department got down there somebody said, “Hey, the water’s getting lower in the boat all the time.” Well the tide was going out and we had him hung at the dock and the water was running back out the hole. So when it got low enough they put a soft patch on him and when the tide came back in they raised him on up, and that was my first official boat call in the Coast Guard.
Like I said, with two men on the boat - there’d just be two men on the boat; the coxswain and the engineer - many times, if you had a seaman to spare, you would take him on out and go.
I made second class boatswain’s mate and answered I forget how many calls, just call after call, and times were changing. When I first got here there were no small boats; sport boats, out across the bar except for maybe in the month of July or August, one or two days, no wind, flat calm ocean, and they would venture just out past the jetties to catch the fish. Within two years - I don’t know what happened, a change around - and we were having hundreds of boats out across the bar and going further out to sea all the time. After I made second class we’d have two or three hundred small boats out across the bar.
Winter time came and of course it was all commercial. We ran around 100 calls a year at that time but it was increasing with the sport boats and that going on out. Then along comes New Year Eve’s, 1953 going into 1954. I was in charge of making out the Watch, Quarter and Station Bill and I wanted everybody to have three days off at Christmas and three days off at New Years. So I split the crew down the middle and gave half of them 72-hours off for Christmas and the others 72-hours off for New Years. Well to make that possible I had to take a couple of tower watches and so I let the guys go and I took their tower watches to make up on that. That was New Year’s Eve and my wife was pregnant with our second child and she was waiting for me. I said, “I’ll be home probably around, oh, 1700 in the evening. I’ve got a watch to stand; to get through, and come down and I’ll bathe back home.” All of a sudden seven crab boats came up to the bar and the tide was in and a big swell had moved in and the bar was breaking clear across, so the other boatswain’s mate, he took the one - we had two 36-foot motor lifeboats and a 40-footer; the old fashioned steel 40-footers. They do about 16 to 18 knots. They could take a lot of rough water but not breakers and heavy seas - so he grabbed one lifeboat and I took the other lifeboat. I followed him down and we were sitting on the bar and watching and all of a sudden one of the fishing boats call in and he said, “I’m disabled. I’ve broken an oil line”, and he was all the way out to the whistle buoy, which is only a mile off from the jetties, and the wind was blowing at 35 and gusting to 50-miles an hour out of the southwest. I said, “I’ll get him”, and I started across the bar.
Well we had the old radios, the tube radios; AM radios, and going across the bar we shook up the radio pretty good and it was only working periodically. If you’d beat on it, it would get the tubes set right and the radio would work. I had just myself and the engineer; Raymond Miller. We got out there and we took him in tow and we had our lifejackets on, the old . . . we had the blue ones in those days; the blue ones with the big collar and they have the leg straps and you were really buckled in tight. We didn’t have any good foul weather . . . we had a good foul weather jacket but we had nothing for our legs and at that time they didn’t want us to wear rain gear. They figured that was going to tow us down, which is of course false, but we didn’t have any of the rain gear and I wore an old like, well, like a World War I aviator’s helmet that came down - because my ears always got cold – and I had that on and a good foul weather jacket but regular dungaree pants, and we knew . . . you know we were soaking wet going across the bar because the waves would come curl over the top of us and the breakers and the foam. We got him in tow and I started in with him across the bar and the fishing boat called me, and I could hear him on the radio, and I got the radio working and I called him back and he said, “You’re tearing my main deck winch out of the deck with these huge swells. If you take me back to sea I’ll re-fasten.” So we turned around. I took him back out to sea and he re-fastened the line, and the skipper; Mr. Lawrence, had called me on the radio at that time and he said, “Do not”, it’s now pitch black. He said, “Do not attempt to tow him in across the bar in darkness with the ebb tide. Hold him out to sea. We’re calling the cutter Bonham” (WSC-129); a 125-foot cutter out of Coos Bay, which was up in Coos Bay in a five-hour Bravo status, which meant they had five hours to get underway, eight miles down the river to run and 86-miles up the coast to run. He wasn’t going to be here until the next morning. So I looked at Miller and I said, “We’re going to be damn cold, wet, hungry and miserable all night long.”, and with every other sea that had come over the top we were drenched with cold seawater.
I slowed the engine down and headed into it just enough to keep a strain on the hawser. I called the fishing boat and told them, “Well we’ll be hanging you here most of the night.” He said, “Roger.” We had him in tow for, oh, 45 minutes to an hour just easing into it. My engineer was seasick. About 85 percent, 90 percent of your crew would always get seasick out there and he was heaving over the lifejacket and in the water. You stood on the grate and the water would come into the scrubbers and went out through the scrubbers, so your feet were always underwater and getting wet, and about that time I heard the engine give a groan, tighten up and seize, and I knew exactly from the sound what it was . I had it happen a couple of dozen times. The towing hawser was in the screw. I reached over the stern and grabbed it where it came up off the bit and it was just tighter than a fiddler’s string. I said, “Oh my God”, and I grabbed the radio and I tried to call the fishing boat, and I beat on the radio and I hit it a couple of times, and here’s the fisherman calling me saying, “Coast Guard, Coast Guard, I’ve got the oil line fixed. I have my engine started. Our engine is started.” What he had done was he started up his engine and he put the boat in gear - and I’m going just at a slow pace - and he put a big slack in the hawser and I took one of those big swells and sat right down on the Hawser and got it in the screw. I told him I said, “We have the Hawser in the screw. Cast off and proceed to sea to safety. The other lifeboat will come and get us”, and he said, “I’ll tow you.” I said, “You can’t tow me. You’ll be towing me from the shaft and you’ll rip my shaft right out of the boat. We’ll be fine.” Well the lifeboat has a very low profile. We didn’t have the big mast lights on her then so you had two little running lights forward and a little stern light aft, and a bow light and a bronze fixture that you grabbed, pulled up and walked. Well we would usually leave that down because with that big glare from the sea you couldn’t see past the bow with it.
So the fishing boat went to sea and went adrift. She’s blowing, like I said, 35/40, steady gusting to 50, coming out of the southwest and I’m already to the southwest. So I’m heading to the beach on Newport and I called the other lifeboat and he said, “Roger”, and they started out to get us. Well they couldn’t find us. We had no navigational equipment other than the fathometer and that was my depth and my position only from knowing exactly the area and where I was, and they came out and went south but they missed us and as we went across from the whistle buoy, just inside the whistle buoy, and heading towards what we called the North Reef, I said, “Well we’re going to go through the North Reef. We’re going to have to beach and we’re going to be in dyer problems.” But the 36-foot motor lifeboat had two anchors; a 100-pounder and a 55-pounder. I knew I couldn’t handle the 100-pounder by myself so I grabbed the 55-pound anchor, opened up the ready box and grabbed the 300-foot of line with no chain on it. I grabbed the 300-feet of line, threw a quick bowman around her, threw a couple other hitches around the line because I did not want it to come loose, grabbed the anchor and threw her overboard. I laid out almost a full 300-feet of line and made it fast to my bow cleats and we drug anchor for a while and pretty soon she started to catch right off the North Reef. I called the boat and told them, “We’re anchored here. I can put up a flare and you can see where we are.” He said, “Roger on that”, and they came up alongside of us and they threw us a heaving line and I got the heaving line, put the Hawser onboard and I said, “Take a strain but not too much because I don’t want to run over my own line.” I pulled in 300-feet and the 55 pound anchor by myself, hand over hand, because I didn’t want to cut it loose. I said, “I might need this baby.” But I grabbed the line and I was pulling it on in and I threw all the line in the well deck and the anchor on top of that in the forward well deck. Then I ran out and I called the boat and said, “anchor’s onboard”, so he took us to sea.