By DAVID GREEN
It was a June day in 1944 and Fred was 18 years old. He wasn’t a member of the Coast Guard nor was he part of the building crew that manufactured the massive ship in Toledo.
Fred just happened to know the right person who needed some help. That’s how a handful of Lyons residents became temporary crew members of the cutter on its maiden voyage out of port.
“I went out that first trip,” Fred said. “The crew didn’t even know how to run it yet.”
Employees of the ship building company joined Coast Guard personnel that day to teach them how to operate the vessel—the largest and most powerful ice breaker on the Great Lakes.
The ship’s food service wasn’t yet in place and a Toledo business known as Buddy’s Lunch Box was hired to handle meals for the crew on the six-day cruise. Lyons resident Roy Eicher, a cousin of the Buddy’s owner, was asked to round up three other people to help with the food.
Roy’s son Denver, 23, agreed, despite his wedding three days before departure. Elvin Rowland, 19, was deathly afraid of water, but $60 for six days work sounded good to him. Fred came through as the final member of the food crew.
There were also several VIPs on board and that led to an unexpected delay.
“We docked in Detroit and the guy from Buddy’s Lunch Box had to take a taxi back to Toledo to get more booze,” Fred said. “It was for the dignitaries, not the Coast Guard.”
The voyage started out well with the excitement of sailing in the open water. Fred enjoyed boats and it was a thrill to travel on the vessel.
Then came a day when he wasn’t so sure he had made the right decision. It happened on stormy Lake Superior.
“For a couple of days it was so rough that just about everybody got sick, even the Coast Guard people who had never been seasick before,” Fred said. “Some say you can get so seasick that you wish you could die. That’s about how I felt.”
To make matters worse, the temporary crew slept on cots rather than in bunks like the Coast Guards sailors used. As the boat rolled with the waves—some were estimated as high as 25 feet—the cots moved about the ship.
Fred ended up touring four of the five Great Lakes on the trip before heading back for a landlocked existence in Lyons.
Last month the Mackinaw was moored in Toledo briefly for its final visit before being decommissioned and replaced with a new model.
Fred, along with Norman Torbet, went for a tour.
“It looked familiar, but a lot of equipment had been changed,” Fred said. “I was disappointed that we couldn’t get down to the engine room. I remember how big the drive shaft was.”
He remembered the cork-lined walls of the vessel that were installed to keep the engine noise down.
The future of the Mackinaw remains in jeopardy. Several residents of Cheboygan, Mich., the home port of the cutter, were hoping to house the ship as a floating museum, but fund-raising fell short.
The Mackinaw might find a new home in an empty dock in Mackinaw City, owned by Shepler’s Mackinac Ferry Service.
“I hope they do have it for a museum somewhere,” Fred said.
Since the ship builders and Coast Guard members were mostly all older than Fred, who is 81 years old now, he wonders if anyone is left from the maiden voyage.
“I’m probably one of the few people alive who was on it.”
The Mackinaw project got off to a choppy start. Construction began in the spring of 1943 by the Toledo Shipbuilding Company. Delays arose and construction fell behind schedule. America was at war and labor was often hard to come by.
Complicating matters was the design of the vessel. This was to become the world’s most powerful icebreaker and many unique and untried design features were used. Eventually, Toledo Shipbuilding couldn’t handle the project and declared bankruptcy.
The unfinished hull sat at the shore of the Maumee River until another company, American Shipbuilding and Drydock Company came to the rescue to finish the project.
After $10 million and a couple unusually mild winters, the Mackinaw project was derided as a white elephant and the “Coast Guard’s Folly.” But on March 4, 1944, the 290-foot vessel was launched and trial runs got underway. Opinion of the project soon changed. Now it was praised as the most modern ship on the Great Lakes.
The Mackinaw officially went into service Dec. 20, 1944 and headed for its home port in Cheboygan, Mich. Although the ship’s primary duty was to break the ice in Great Lakes shipping lanes, the Mackinaw also completed many search and rescue missions during its more than 60 years of service.
The Mackinaw was decommissioned June 6, 2006, the same day that a new cutter was put into service.– June 14, 2006