WE ALL HAVE memories and stories from our lives. Family, work and friends all build into our personal stories. Part of the purpose of my columns is to remind people they are part of a much larger story.
I have learned that keeping those stories alive can be hard work. Many of your homes have a cabinet or bookshelf that has become your reliquary. A picture may bring sweet memories to mind, but if you do not write down what is in that picture, the story may be lost.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Cliff and Tina Rocheleau of Sequim. This couple has worked hard to collect artifacts and keep alive the stories surrounding the Coast Guard Cutter Winona.
There was a special bond between the Winona and Port Angeles. The Winona was a special ship, and Port Angeles was a special town for all the officers and crew who served a tour of duty here.
The CGC Winona (WHEC-65) was a 255-foot lake class cutter. The lake class cutters were all named after lakes in the United States, and the Winona was named after Lake Winona in Minnesota. It was commissioned April 19, 1946. On Sept. 11, 1947, Port Angeles became her homeport and remained so until the Winona was decommissioned May 31, 1974.
The Navy beckoned young men to “join the Navy and see the world” while the Coast Guard called them to “be part of the action.” And that was very true. Someone once said, “While the U.S. Navy was drilling and practicing, the U.S. Coast Guard was just getting it done.”
In 1962, the Winona’s onboard newspaper spoofed the coastie life: “Tired of jetting to Europe, Hawaii, elsewhere around the globe? Weary of Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Big Smokies, other national parks and shrines? Had enough of Mexico, Las Vegas, Reno, Tahoe, Canada? Want a different vacation trip? O.K. Let me suggest the North Pacific, Bering Sea and Bristol Bay in a single, economy package! It has everything — slow planes, one-night stops, layovers in out-of-the-way places, no girls, box lunches, upper bunks, long days with no sun or inviting beaches, whistles going day and night, bell ringing, lifesaving drills, open showers …”
If you look at older pictures of the Winona, you will notice it was built with a twin-gun turret on the bow. Later photographs show a single gun. During severe weather, the original turret was knocked off its stand and was replaced by a single 5-inch, 38-caliber gun. The Winona also was armed with six 50-caliber machine guns and two 81-mm mortars.The Winona’s crew included 13 officers and 130 enlisted men.
During war time, the Winona and her crew received several honors over the years. They include the World War II Victory Medal, Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation.
During peace time, the cutter and her crew performed various duties, including drug patrols, search-and-rescue missions and oceanographic experiments. They also performed patrols to protect Alaskan fisheries and whales from poachers. During the Cold War, they patrolled the Bering Sea to monitor Soviet activities.
Over the years, about 2,000 officers and crew served aboard the Winona. A significant number of them decided the Olympic Peninsula was the place to call home. Among them was Cliff Rocheleau.Cliff is from Connecticut and enlisted in the Coast Guard in March 1962. He served at the Willapa Bay Lifeboat Station for about a year. In 1963, he entered Electronic Technician School before being assigned to the Winona and served there from May 1966 for a total of four years and two months. Cliff said serving on the Winona was an important part of his life. It was only the second time he had been far from home. Cliff didn’t want the memories and stories of the Winona to fade away. To that end, he helped organize Winona all-crew reunions that helped crewmates stay connected. Also, Cliff asked for photos with descriptions, newspaper articles, memorabilia and crew members’ own written sea stories. The motto throughout has been “Keeping Her Memory Alive.”
There are so many memories of the Winona, it would require a large book to hold them all, but here are a few:
When the Winona was first stationed in Port Angeles, it was moored at the port dock. Duty was hard, and the crew managed to enjoy their free time when in port. The west part of downtown was still tide flats with streets and buildings set on pilings, and during off hours, the crew would take a skiff over to the Little Brick Tavern and tie up below it. I suppose that helped give the Winona the nickname “Wine Barge,” which stayed with it throughout its service.
Periodic ocean station duty also was very important. Until 2010, ships would hold positions at specific locations in the North Pacific and North Atlantic for 30-day periods. Station NAN was halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii while Station Victor was halfway between Hawaii and Japan. The cutter would serve as a weather station and a beacon for navigation, helping to ensure safe passage for ships and airplanes between Hawaii and the mainland.
That also meant the crews were often away from home during the holidays. In 1959, the Winona’s onboard poet wrote a ditty to the crew of the Cutter Pontchartrain (WHEC-70), which was replacing the Winona at Station NAN:
We tried to write a poem to put on this here card;
to tell you Merry Christmas! (But poetry comes hard);
we’ll just say, “we’re sorry that you have to be out here;”
and conclude with “Happy Holiday;” and “Better luck next year!!!”
Thanks to Cliff’s efforts, the Winona’s bell currently is on display at Port Angeles City Pier.
I appreciate Cliff’s work to keep this piece of local history alive. He donated the collection of photos, letters and memorabilia to the North Olympic History Center, and we consider it a great honor to be the keepers of Winona’s rich history.
John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].
McNutt’s Clallam history column appears the first Sunday of every month.