The oldest continuous seagoing service, the United States Coast Guard, was the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton. Founded Aug. 8, 1790, the Coast Guard has served in 17 conflicts, from the Quasi-War of 1798 to present-day anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
One coastguardsman has received the Medal of Honor. Douglas Albert Munro led 10 landing boats back to the beaches at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on Sept. 27, 1942, to rescue 500 trapped Marines. Munro used his own boat and its two small guns as a shield between remaining Marines and heavy Japanese fire. As the evacuation concluded, Munro was hit and fatally wounded. Conscious for only moments, his last words were, "Did they get off?"
Such is the devotion to duty of the U.S. Coast Guard. From breaking ice to search and rescue and drug interdiction, the men and women of the Coast Guard are most likely the least-appreciated and most-overlooked branch of the military. Consequently, the Coast Guard requires exceptional people at the helm, men like former Covington Fire Chief Don T. Floyd.
His father, Rodney T. Floyd, was Covington’s first paid fire chief. Don carried on the family tradition. But in 1968, a far-off country called Vietnam interrupted the lives of many young American men. Don was no exception.
Don Floyd said, "After graduating from Newton County High School in 1968, I knew the war in Vietnam was in my future. One of my uncles served in the Coast Guard for 40 years, so I applied for the Coast Guard Academy."
The physical requirement of 20/20 vision denied him the Academy spot; his eyesight was 20/30. Still thinking of a Coast Guard career, Floyd joined the enlisted ranks.
"Boot camp was at Cape May, N.J.," Floyd said. "They yelled at us from the second we got off the bus." The arduousness of Coast Guard boot camp is second only to that of the Marine Corps.
Floyd continued, "They broke us down to build us back up. We not only had physical training, but learned the history of the Coast Guard and the other services."
Terminology, calisthenics, and learning knots like the hawser, clove hitch, and monkey fist were components of the training, as was competent swimming, plus "drown-proofing."
Floyd explained, "Drown-proofing meant they tied our hands and feet together before tossing us in the swimming pool. To pass, we had to work free of the ropes, blow up our pants as a float, and stay in the water for four hours. Survival at sea is the goal."
Tested on topics such as radioman, sonar, damage control, engineman, yeoman and electronic technician, Floyd scored highest in a critical field: electronic technician. Sent to Governor’s Island, N.Y., for schooling, he mastered the theories of electronics and transistors, tubes and resistors and capacitors as a precursor for repair on sonar, radar, and communications equipment.
Promoted to E-3 Seaman, Floyd was sent to the Brooklyn Shipyard to repair a damaged Loran system from a failed parachute drop.
He explained Loran: "It’s a long-range navigation system using terrestrial radio navigation so aircraft and ships can determine their speed and position from low frequency radio signals." (In the United States, the Loran system was replaced by satellite-based GPS)
Once it was repaired, Floyd was to "escort" the Loran system to Hue, Vietnam, the old national capital of Vietnam that was devastated during the 1968 Tet Offensive. However, his orders were mysteriously changed.
Floyd said, "The Captain called me into his office and demanded, ‘Floyd, who in the world do you know?’ Well, I had no idea who changed my orders and I told him so."
Years later, Floyd would determine that the "influential contact" was Albert Parker, a former Covington employee who graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and was stationed at the Pentagon when Floyd’s orders for Vietnam came across his desk. Floyd said, "He never admitted it, though."
Instead of Vietnam, Floyd received orders to help operate the Loran system on a remote Pacific Island called Iwo Jima.
March, 1945: the guns fell silent and blood stopped flowing on Iwo Jima after horrific Marine casualties.
March, 1970: Don Floyd arrives on Iwo Jima in time for the 25th anniversary of the historic battle.
"I remember getting off the plane on Iwo," Floyd said. "It was hot and the smell of sulfur choked us."
The Coast Guard representation on Iwo Jima consisted of 25 men plus a contingent of the Japanese Army.
"I was there for the 25th reunion of the Americans and Japanese who fought on Iwo. It was the most emotional thing I’ve ever seen, previous enemies bound together by their experiences."
The Loran system on Iwo Jima was the "master station," with other Loran system "slave stations" strategically placed throughout the Pacific.
Floyd said, "The radio signals assisted the B-52 bombers en route to Vietnam, plus nuclear subs could float a wire on the surface to take a radio fix on their position." Interestingly, the Loran system on Iwo Jima also assisted in the timing of America’s space launches.
The coastguardsmen on Iwo Jima were free to explore most of the island.
"One thing we couldn’t do was disturb the remains of Japanese soldiers," Floyd recalled. "The Japanese Army on Iwo tried to recover what remains they could and return them to Japan for proper burial so their ‘spirits’ would no longer roam."
Even after 25 years, live ammunition and mines were still a concern. Floyd said, "You could enter a cave and find live artillery shells, grenades, medical supplies, and human remains. There were thousands of caves. Some of the remains had bayonets stuck in their rib cages, most likely from Hari-Kari."
Then, there was America’s "million-dollar hole."
"It was a bottomless pit dug into the volcanic soil. We tossed rocks into the hole and never heard them hit bottom. The U.S. dumped abandoned or obsolete equipment into the hole after the island was secured."
Exploring caves and bunkers, helping the Japanese recover remains, manning the Loran system to fight yet another war, recreational swimming in shark-infested waters, watching the same movie for two weeks, trusting the weekly mail would arrive on time, and avoiding rats as big as house cats occupied 14 months of Don Floyd’s life. Then it was time to come home.
After brief assignments in Jupiter, Fla., and Folly Beach, S.C., Don Floyd left the U.S. Coast Guard and came home to Covington.
He recalled, "The city manager at the time, Frank Turner, offered me a starting job with the fire department. Well, as they say, the rest is history. I retired as the Fire Chief after 39 years, six months, and 13 days of service."
Floyd stays busy as commander of American Legion Post 32, is active in the Boy Scouts and Kiwanis Club, attends First United Methodist Church, and lest we not forget, "My wife and I have been married for 44 wonderful years."
Special Note: His father, Rodney T. Floyd, served with the Navy during World War II on PT Boats and fought in the same squadron as a young lieutenant named John Fitzgerald Kennedy, future President of the United States.
The senior Floyd was captured later in the war and imprisoned in Osaka, Japan.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.