Fishtown Local: A piece of flying, smuggling Gloucester history

A 1934 USCG aerial view looking southwest at Coast Guard Air Station Ten Pound Island. The Vought UO-4 designated "CG-405" -- one of the 5 aircraft first purchased by the Coast Guard in 1926 -- sat just outside the hangar. Photo courtesy of John Keyes 

 There is nothing more soul stirring than to be floating at absolute max high tide off the near side of Ten Pound Island. Right alongside the man-made stone wall of sea smoothed granite stones. Just floating away, sails flapping, sneaking a peak up at the seagull nests over the hill as the gulls wheel and spin overhead in frantic protective mode. All part of the pattern: the lapping of the waves, the calls of the gulls, the max of the tide, the passing of the boats, the still wild essence of Ten Pound. Gloucester harmony in the key of sea.

But once upon a time, 1925 to be exact, it wasn’t quite so quiet on Ten Pound. Paul Freeman, a contributor to the American Aviation Historical Society, has told a marvelous story about Lt. Commander Carl Von Paulsen, an aviator, who was the commanding officer of Coast Guard Section Base No. 7 located in Gloucester. Paulsen approached Lt. Commander Stephen Yeandle, aide to area Commandant Frederick C. Billard, with the idea of utilizing aircraft to locate boats used for prohibition running. Yeandle thought the concept had merit and approached the commandant, who approved the idea but no funds were available. An older Navy surplus UO-1 was located and an agreement was made for the Coast Guard to use it for a period of a year.

It initially flew out of the Squantum Naval Reserve Air Station, but then transferred to a makeshift tent-hangar located on Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor. The first use of an aircraft to chase a rum-runner was on June 20, 1925. Four days later, the UO-1 assisted in the first capture of a rum-runner with aviation support. Von Paulsen and veteran aviator Leonard Melka flew many thousands of miles on patrol during the first year, locating smugglers from the air and directing the patrol boats to them. The experience obtained from operating this single airplane convinced headquarters of the advantages derived from the use of aircraft in Coast Guard work and it was decided to establish a permanent air station and procure appropriate aircraft.

Billard obtained an appropriation of $162,000 for the purchase of five aircraft specifically designed for the Coast Guard. Three were modified Loening OL-5 amphibians with strengthened hulls for rough water landings and larger fuel tanks providing increased fuel for extended law enforcement patrols. Two of the aircraft purchased were modified Vought UO-1 seaplanes. During the summer of 1926 after blasting, leveling and concrete pouring, a large steel hangar was erected. The first new OL-5 aircraft arrived at Ten Pound Island in October and November. The personnel of Base Seven set to work, erecting a complex of wooden buildings to effectively man and support the base.

The Coast Guard went on the offensive and the three-mile limit was effectively extended by means of agreements with other nations. Meanwhile, smuggling interdiction continued to be the primary mission of the air station. Prohibition was roaring along, so there was lots of business. Daily patrols were flown in aircraft not only capable of radio communication with both surface units and shore stations but with the ability to obtain the bearing of a suspect smuggler making a radio transmission. The OL-5s were armed with machine guns and, at least in one recorded incident, they were used to sink numerous wooden crates of whiskey that were dumped overboard by a rum-runner. As Rum-Row continued to move further off shore and the search area continued to expand, the most effective utilization of the aircraft was to locate a boat, notify Coast Guard surface vessels of its location, and to continue to circle over the boat until a destroyer or 75-footer arrived on scene to apprehend them or set up a picket to prevent them from heading back toward shore.

The station was simultaneously engaged in the saving of life and property. In the first four years of operation there were 212 cases of assistance rendered embracing casualties to vessels, property and persons. Experiments were conducted in which a shot line, strung between poles, was picked up by the aircraft and carried to a vessel in distress. The line was dropped from the plane to the deck of the vessel in distress while a breaches-buoy is run out to the vessel — survivors were brought ashore by this means. It was used when the vessel in distress was too far from shore for the shot line to reach it or the seas were too rough for the launching of a small boat.

The Ten Pound Air Station was on the southeast corner of the island; the large hangar and several outbuildings were clustered around the seaplane ramp. But they had company: The island shared a building complex with two boat ramps and a large pier, a U.S. Fisheries lobster hatchery that predated the Coast Guard station. Toward the south end of the island was the lighthouse keeper’s residence.

By 1932, a more advanced JF-2 plane was assigned to Ten Pound Island. But with the advent of the PJ and RD Dolphin flying boats there was no room to expand the Ten Pound Island base. Ten Pound Island Air Station was decommissioned and a new larger air station was established at Salem in 1935. And so ended the Ten Pound Island Coast Guard Air Station, Ten Pound Island, Mass. These are facets of the diamond of Gloucester history that will make our 400th so interesting to celebrate.

Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.

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