Saturday, March 24, 2012

Guest Blog from Ray: Hurricane Celia - 41 Years Later

This guest blog from our good buddy Ray Beimel in Pennsylvania is a story from his midshipman days while stationed in Corpus Christi when a hurricane blew in:

Hurricane Celia – as remembered from 41 years ago

            In August of 1970 I was a Midshipman in the Penn State Navy ROTC unit. That summer we spent three weeks learning about amphibious warfare from the Marines at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek. Then we were flown to Corpus Christi Naval Air Station to spend three weeks learning about naval aviation. We were there for a little over two weeks when word came down that a hurricane was approaching. This is my memoir about that. It was 41 years ago and some details are hazy. I don’t have anyone to consult with to fill in the lost details.
            There were 37 of us from Penn State. We were by far the largest contingent of midshipmen there. Some schools had as few as 4. We were housed in the old Bachelor Officers Quarters built during World War 2. From the front steps we could look down to the sea wall by the bay. The officers club was down that way and we had spent many a night there drinking heavily and staggering back.
            Little Creek had been tough. We ran a lot on sand so many of us had painful shin splints. But it was fun too. We got to invade Virginia by every means possible except parachute. We swam ashore, landed in rubber rafts, landing craft, amphibious tractors, and helicopters. There were obstacle courses and tactical exercises and shooting and all kinds of things that young men and small boys enjoy. The Marines in charge of us treated us well enough. Some of the others did not, but on the whole, it was a good experience.
            Corpus Christi was a different thing entirely. There were a lot more rules, a lot more military Mickey Mouse. We had to march in step anytime there were two or more of us. We had to salute any car with an office sticker on it no matter who was in the car. More often than not, it was a young officer’s wife with a couple of kids in the back on her way home from the commissary. She generally giggled. We generally didn’t. There were a lot of rules like that and after the relative freedom accorded us by the Marines, we chafed under all that chickenshit. There were a few saving graces. One was the food. The mess hall there was one of the best in the Navy. Compared to the grub at Little Creek, this was like eating in a nice restaurant. Another was the pool we “discovered.” On the weekend we were kind of free and we found an Olympic size swimming pool where we could hang out. No one else was there the first day but on the second the bar was open. It sold beer and snacks. Our gang hung out on the far side of the pool and when it was time to reload, we would swim over, buy a six pack and a couple of bags of chips, clench the plastic strap in our teeth and back stroke using only our legs while holding the chips aloft.
            The good part of Corpus was the flying time. We got to go up in trainers, twin engine, single engine, and jets. One of the bad parts was the obstacle course. Except for the wall, it was easier than the ones at Little Creek. But the wall was very high and smooth and a lot of us were not going to get over it. And of course, practice was done in the midday heat of a Texas summer. There are a lot of other stories to tell but this tale is about the hurricane.
            As the storm came closer to land, we were told to pack up a small bag to get us through the next day. Things like a flashlight and such. I included a deck of cards in my stuff as well as a couple of rolls of film for my first good camera that I had bought just two days ago. Just my luck, I get my camera two days before an event to would demand the documentary skills I wouldn’t have for another 20 years. When we came out of the barracks that morning, we could see waves breaking over the seawall already and the storm was still offshore a fair distance. We were wearing the working uniform, bell bottomed dungarees, chambray shirts, and Dixie cup hats with the VD stripe that marked us as midshipmen. We were all carrying raincoats. As usual, we fell in and marched to the dining hall. We ate the last real meal we were going to have for several days. After breakfast, we were told to hunker down by the loading dock.

We spent some time there doing nothing at all. John Turcich had a radio but we didn’t get any useful information. Leave a bunch of 20 year old men on their own and they will amuse themselves. Some played cards. Some read. Some took pictures. Others chased seagulls during a hurricane.
When the storm got worse with higher winds and more rain we were told to march to the base theater. There was a guy in the Penn State unit who was known as Zero Bead Gib. We called him that because he never was seen to break a sweat about anything. He was the calmest guy any of us ever encountered. Well, that walk had us bent over as we leaned into a powerful wind driving rain drops like bullets. Up until then, it had been kind of a lark but exposed to the fury of the storm we were getting a bit apprehensive. One of the guys commented “I’m getting worried now. Even Gib is sweating.” That's Gib at far right.
Someone, we never knew who, decided that was the best place for all the people on base who hadn’t evacuated. This included all the midshipmen and a lot of junior enlisted men. We never figured out who was in charge and telling us to move around. The whole group of us did not fill the theater. It was a substantial brick structure with fire escapes on both sides from the balcony level.
            We watched a movie for a while. I have no idea what it was. Partway through the power failed and we were left in the dark. There were some emergency lights, battery powered, and thus very short lived. I can’t remember doing anything but sit in the dark and listening to the roar of the wind. Although the building was solid, the roof was peeled off early on. Water soaked the tiles of the suspended ceiling. Our new diversion was shining our flashlights on the ceiling looking for the next tile to fall.

Most of us had moved to the balcony which was somewhat safer than the main part of the theater. Each time a tile fell there was a cheer. Once we saw one coming down and yelled “heads up!” Murray Scott looked up instead of ducking and took one right on the face. The fiberglass scratched his corneas and a Navy corpsman treated him with an ointment and bandages for his eyes. It took a few days before he could see again but was all right, as far as I know.
            Some of us went out on the fire escape on the lee side of the building. We were out of the wind, reasonably safe, and had a grand view of the storm tearing the base apart.
 This part of Texas is as flat as billiard table and you can see a long way off if you have little bit of elevation. The wind pushed cars down the street despite their rear wheels locked up. Dumpsters flew by. Sometimes they bounced over cars and sometimes they landed on cars. It was uncanny how they picked out the late models for a landing and flew over the junkers. Without warning, a roof would fly off putting shingles and boards into the flying debris stream. In the distance we would see a big blue flash followed a few seconds later by a loud bzzzzzttt. That was a transformer falling off a power pole. I remember it happening at least a dozen times.
     There was surprisingly little rain but that was because we were outside as the eye passed over. As the wind shifted the rain started again and we went back inside. We only stayed inside for a while as watching the storm was the only diversion available. The other side of the building was the lee side now and we went out on the fire escape there.
By this time there were no more transformers but the dumpster dances continued. One of the sailors watched a dumpster land on his new Mustang. Years later, I wonder why he was still on base if he had a car. I guess, and will never know for sure, that some of the sailors had to stay.
            After we were out there for a while, a female Navy Lieutenant came out and yelled at us in a high pitched voice “get back inside.”  Back then the only female officers were nurses and neither midshipmen nor sailors had ever taken orders from a woman. So we ignored her. She yelled again. We didn’t move. Then a Marine Gunnery Sergeant came out and with a gruff drill instructor voice yelled “get back inside!” We did. We all knew how to take orders from Marine Gunnery Sergeants.
            We spent the night in the theater. It was damp and dark. I slept on the floor on a stretch of carpeting best described as moist. There was no food or water provided. In the morning we sat outside the theater doing nothing.

   Someone told us to go back to the barracks. Once again, I have no idea who was telling us what to do. The walk back went through fields of debris, chunks of roofing material, downed power poles and wires, building without roofs, places where buildings used to be, and rumors of large rattlesnakes washed ashore from Padre Island.
  But when we got to our barracks, they were all standing with very little damage. As it turned out, we didn’t lose anything. Some of the rooms took some water. There was some broken glass upstairs and I guess the roof wasn’t whole anymore but other than that, those old buildings came through well. A short distance away, the new housing was a shambles. Some just lost their roofs, others were peeled open to show the insides. There were some that were totally destroyed. And the hated wall was gone, blown completely away. So the hurricane wasn't a total disaster.
            We turned to and cleaned up what we could.
 One big problem was a loss of water pressure so the toilets couldn’t be flushed. But they were still used. As pressure returned I would give each one a shot of water, hoping that slowly the softening action and gravity would get the “stuff” into the sewers. The American Red Cross came by with food and water. While I certainly appreciated their efforts, I wasn’t hungry or thirsty enough to enjoy the ham sandwich (a thick slice of bad ham on white bread without any condiment) or the water which tasted like it had been dipped out of a swimming pool. I didn’t enjoy but I did eat and drink.
            We were on our own. No officers were left. No sergeants came by to bark at us. Somehow, the Penn State unit ended up running things. We maintained the watch bill so there as always an Officer of the Day, a Petty Officer of the Watch, and a Fire Watch. The Penn State unit stood all the watches. Someone came by and asked for volunteers to help clean up debris at base housing. We sent some of our guys out and they started returning with food. There was no power so the contents of freezers and refrigerators were given away to the nice young boys who helped with the clean up. It wasn’t enough to keep us from Red Cross food but it helped us get by. It also added an incentive to volunteer.
            Jim Voter and I were at the desk that served as the command post. A mid from another school came downstairs with pliers and a screwdriver in his hands. He headed for the Coke machine. We stopped him and asked “what do you think you’re doing?” He told us he was going to open it up to get something to drink. We told him to stop, explaining that stealing after a storm was looting and looters were usually arrested if not shot. Yes, there had been a storm, but the republic hadn’t fallen. Then he said he was going to get the storage tank out of the water cooler. We told him we would turn him in for destroying government property. He seemed ready to commit some misdemeanors if not felonies. We really didn’t have any authority to stop him but all the other midshipmen had already experienced the unity and camaraderie of the Penn State gang. And they had seen our ringleader and company commander (at right below), Tuck O’Brien. There would be no nonsense.

A week earlier a mid from Kentucky named Ed made the mistake of calling us “nothin’ but a bunch of coal miners.” Tuck got together a working party and we inverted Ed over a toilet bowl, dipped his head in and flushed a couple times. In other words, we gave him a “swirlee.” And then we told him it would happen again if he said anything else about coal or miners. He was silent on that topic despite being frequently asked what the bituminous stuff was.
There were others who got crazy on us. This was surprising as we were all survivors of the Navy’s screening process. We all were all smart, healthy, and supposedly of high moral character. As it worked out, only most of us were. None of the crazies came from the Penn State unit.  This is not to say we didn’t have some in our unit, but the pride of not letting the unit down affected even a half assed military outfit like ours. We took some pride in taking charge and making things happen.
            Someone gave us a couple of boxes of orders for all the midshipmen. That mysterious someone just dropped them off and assumed we would know what to do with them. We took on the responsibility for getting the mids out of Corpus. As we heard about an outgoing flight, we would sign the orders and send guys on their way. One of the guys in the Villanova unit was from St. Marys. We knew the Secretary of the Navy had space on his plane so I gave one of  those seats to Karl Geci, thinking I would get him to DC and thus a lot closer to home. Years later I found out that SecNav dumped the midshipmen in San Antonio.

                  Bit by bit we gave orders to get everybody out of town. The last three to leave were Jim Voter, Tuck O’Brien, and I. We made the last entry in the logbook with a paraphrase of James Taylor. "We've seen fire and we've seen rain, but the worst of all was a hurricane." We flew in a C-130 from Corpus Christi to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. We noticed a big difference between a naval air station and an air force base. The Air Force had brand new trucks, newer hangars and offices, and golf courses. Somehow we got to San Antonio International Airport. We got there after dark and had to wait until morning to get a flight out. There was a lot of time to kill so we decided to go out for the night. I don’t remember much except crossing a six lane highway to get to a shopping mall. Everything was closed except the Cineplex. At my suggestion we saw a dreadful movie, Myra Breckinridge. We could have seen The Cheyenne Social Club, a much better flick. We pretty much had the place to ourselves. Jim and I had to keep Tuck from cleaning out the coins in the fountain.  I can’t remember how or where we slept. All I know is that we were pretty grungy.
            Our flight was on American Airlines. The plane was a Boeing 727. The route was an all stops local. We took off from San Antonio, landed at Houston, then at New Orleans, then Nashville, then Cincinnati, and finally Pittsburgh. We had a somewhat longer stop in Cincinnati and we went into the terminal. When we came back out, they wouldn't let us on the plane. It was the wrong one. Another identical 727 had pulled into the next gate. Those were the days when you climbed up the steps to get into the plane. Finally getting on the right plane, we made it back to Pennsylvania. A bus ride from the airport then 3½ hour bus ride home. Mom was happy to see me but seemed kind of insistent I get a bath right away.
    Thanks for reading. I have had this story in me all these years and I finally got around to sharing it.    Ray


  1. Kathleen - thanks you for inviting Ray to share this great story. Ray - what an experience that must have been!

  2. I was 16 when Hurricane Celia hit Corpus Christi, but unlike most people, I went thru that storm out in the Gulf the night on a Navy destroyer before it before the storm hit Corpus Christi. The details of my adventure are detailed on my blog under the title, What I did In The Summer of 1970.


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