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Hunting herring as a Cold War ‘spy’

Our snoop mission: track the invasion of Soviet Bloc fishing vessels off U.S. coastal waters

Our snoop mission: track the invasion of Soviet Bloc fishing vessels off U.S. coastal waters

People today barely remember the Soviet invasion of our coastal waters in the 1960s.

Cries of “the Russians are coming” were heard south of Georges Bank off New England and along the entire Eastern Seaboard. Fishermen and yachtsmen worried, as vast foreign fishing fleets appeared just beyond our 12-mile limit. Floating factories processed fresh fish into frozen blocks and fishmeal.

I had a snug shoreside job at the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries laboratory in St. Pete Beach, Fla. Sea duty was limited to the pretty little 43-foot research vessel Kingfish, aboard which I occasionally served as operator. We cruised along the west coast of Florida studying thread herring. In those days, my Coast Guard 100-ton license was called “ocean operator;” the agency was miserly with the title “master.”

One day in 1969 our benevolent and courtly Southeast regional director, Seton Thompson, called me in for a career consultation. Downsizing, he knew, was raising the threat of my transfer to a much less desirable place. He also was aware of my Navy and exploratory fishing background.

“Fuss, how would you like to go out and count the Russians?” he asked. (He didn’t mention the Poles, East Germans, Cubans or Japanese.) So began a midlife sea change that found me responsible for documenting foreign fishing off the Southeast coast from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Brownsville, Texas. The Coast Guard supplied the aircraft, mostly the HU-16 (Albatross) Grumman amphibian, which we called “the Goat.” Helicopters were available for close-in work; cutters got involved if a seizure was necessary.

At that time foreign vessels could legally fish off our coasts beyond the 12-nautical-mile U.S. Contiguous Fishery Zone. I made routine flights from the Coast Guard air stations in Elizabeth City, N.C.; Miami and St. Petersburg, Fla.; Mobile, Ala.; and Corpus Christi, Texas. Our greatest hazard was flying through huge flocks of seagulls that trailed the factory ships. To “rig,” or identify, the target vessel it was necessary to approach as slowly as possible at an altitude of 200 feet or less. We were to find and identify the foreign boats and determine the gear they were using and, if possible, the fish they were taking.

Helmets with visors down were worn on the flight deck in case a bird came through the windshield. On one memorable occasion, we took a bird strike just over my head and a few inches from the windshield. It made an incredibly loud “bang” and dented the airframe. We were rigging a Russian factory trawler on Frying Pan Shoal off Cape Fear, N.C. I sat in the radioman’s seat, just behind the pilots. My seat was elevated for a full and unobstructed view. The pilot, who was another crazy fellow with a large family — I had five children — turned to me and said, “We just came close to making a bunch of orphans.”

It was the height of the Cold War and those Slavs below us were the enemy. There were no air medals for the fish patrol. During my first full year (1970), I documented 386 foreign fishing vessels operating off the Southeast coast. Flag nations we identified were the Soviet Union, Cuba, Japan, East Germany, Bulgaria, Poland, Spain and Mexico. Of the total, 241 vessels were sighted in the Atlantic and 145 in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fishing was concentrated in four areas:

• the Mid-Atlantic off Virginia and North Carolina for herring and mackerel by the Soviet Bloc and to a limited extent for albacore tuna by the Japanese

• the Tortugas-East Gulf off Florida by Cubans for snapper, grouper and shrimp

• the north-central Gulf off Louisiana for yellowfin tuna by the Japanese

• the western Gulf off Texas by the Mexicans and Cubans for shrimp

Almost 60 percent of all the foreign vessels sighted were Soviet Bloc ships fishing off our Mid-Atlantic states. They began fishing off New England in 1961 and had reached south to Cape Hatteras by 1964.

My counterpart for the Northeast region, Charlie Philbrook from Gloucester, Mass., was an old hand at snooping on the Russians. Charlie and I shared surveillance flights out of Elizabeth City. We especially enjoyed flying with master chief aviation machinist mate John Greathouse, the last of the fabled enlisted aviation pilots. This soft-spoken Texan with bristly gray hair could be found poking around the hangar bays wearing oil-stained khakis. He had more time than anyone flying the venerable Goat. Regardless of the rank of the other pilot, John was always the “aircraft commander.” It was rumored that the commandant of the Coast Guard had frozen John’s age so he could continue to fly.

I remember one patrol along the 12-mile limit between Cape Hatteras and the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Philbrook and I counted almost 200 Soviet Bloc boats of all types. The Russians and their allies didn’t venture much south of Frying Pan Shoal, except for exploratory fishing, oceanographic research, and some clandestine activities.

One of my dark side adventures concerned the R/V Gerda in the Florida Straits. We had scheduled a routine Goat patrol over the eastern Gulf of Mexico May 12, 1972, which by chance was the day after the United States had activated the mines sowed in North Vietnam’s Haiphong Harbor. The operations officer of Coast Guard Air Station Opalocka had briefed us before the flight, warning us not to antagonize any Russian vessels we might encounter. He said things were tense between the Reds and us because there were Soviet ships in Haiphong.

I didn’t pay much attention because Soviet ships were scarce this far south. I was concentrating on my plan to locate some Cuban shrimpers reported west of the Tortugas. Besides, as fisheries agent, it was my flight and I would decide where we went, with the pilots’ concurrence. The two pilots were young and easy to influence. They had little experience with fisheries patrols.

It was a beautiful South Florida day. We were cruising west over the Everglades at about 2,000 feet when our pilot suddenly sat up straight. He switched the incoming radio message to the IC (internal communications) for my benefit. We were being told that the little University of Miami research vessel Gerda was being threatened by an unknown gray vessel in the middle of the Florida Straits.

Gerda was on a deep moor, taking current readings and recording other data when the burly stranger came straight toward her at high speed, missing them by less than 100 feet. We were ordered to investigate. Some 20 minutes later, flying at our best speed of more than 200 knots, we sighted Gerda and a dark gray vessel about 250 feet. It made a distinguishable bow wave as it headed for the bright white 80-foot research boat. We made a masthead pass over the intruder. It flew no flag and showed no numbers or name. The spooky part was there was no sign of life on the ship. The pilothouse windows were opaque.

Our pilot tried calling the unidentified vessel on the international distress frequency, with no luck. He asked what I recommended, and I told him the ship appeared to be a Soviet AGR (research) vessel. I added that I had an automatic camera with a very long lens and suggested we open the back door and let the Russian know we were recording his pugnacious behavior.

The young lieutenant agreed. He decided to slow to just above stalling speed and get as close as he dared to our antagonist. If it weren’t for the blue sky and the sparkling water, this would have been a “Twilight Zone” event. I tightened the gunner’s belt around my waist, and an air crewman opened the rear hatch on the starboard side. Muscling into the slipstream as best I could, I pointed my black Canon camera at the unknown bully as we mushed right over his middle.

Hot dog! The “enemy” went dead in the water. Our pilot cleaned up the airplane, gained some altitude and began to orbit. There was still no sign of life on the Russian ship. It drifted rapidly with the Gulf Stream, away from the anchored Gerda. An hour later, with the dark Soviet in the distance, Gerda’s master radioed that everyone was OK.

We went home and made our report about “not aggravating the Russians.” The Soviet probably went back to his regular beat off Cape Kennedy. Another government agency graciously accepted my undeveloped film and told me to forget the whole thing for at least 25 years.

On the bright side was the Foton incident 50 miles west of the Tampa Bay Sea Buoy. For some bureaucratic and alleged security reasons, the Navy people didn’t always share with the Coast Guard people what they shared with us. Such was the case not long after the Florida Straits escapade.

I was sitting in the windowless and locked cubby that served as my office in the St. Petersburg Federal Building, eagerly unwrapping a package from Norfolk, Va. It contained a chart that showed vessels of interest. I spotted the track of a Soviet SRTR side trawler. It wasn’t far from where I sat! The ops officer at the Coast Guard air station listened to my stumbling and awkward explanation of my suspicion that a Russian was on our doorstep. The air station agreed to let me have a few hours of HH-3 helicopter time if I could get there in a half-hour.

I grabbed my flight gear and the Canon “gun camera” and headed for the station. Away we went in the boat-hulled “Pelican.” I explained to the pilot where I thought this phantom ship lay, and in less than an hour our radar picked up a good blip near the position I had indicated. There she was, making way to the south. The Coasties thought I was a wizard.

Modestly accepting their praise, I got into the gunner’s belt and lay on the deck in the open doorway. Suddenly someone shouted over the IC, “Look at those babes in shorts!” There were two women on the foredeck of the trawler. With that, the two air crewmen tread on my back for a better view, obstructing my vision completely and causing no small amount of pain. We banked radically, nearly tossing the two worthies out of the machine. The pilot restored order, and I got some pretty good shots of the Foton. One of the photos shows a woman in shorts taking pictures of us.

When we got back to St. Petersburg, I remembered the Gerda incident; no one was going to get this film. Some of my intel sources explained how two trim girls might have happened to be aboard a Soviet trawler in the Eastern Gulf. The Foton was an exploratory fishing vessel on loan to the Cuban Directorate of Fisheries. The women probably were marine scientists of Cuban origin. Whatever they were, they provided a brief interlude of light entertainment in those overcast days of the Soviet maritime invasion.