Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A "Wild Goose" in Sitka

After leaving Kodiak, Alaska, we steamed back to make a stop in a little sea port called Sitka. They were having a dedication ceremony for a highway bridge everyone was all excited about and they wanted us there to take part in the festivities. I don't remember much about the bridge itself or just why everyone was so impressed with it. You have to remember that I am from San Fransisco and grew up looking at the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge all the time. Frankly, the little highway bridge just did not make much of a dent in my memory. What I do remember is the beautiful little port of Sitka and the fact that the ceremonies were also attended by the Governor of Alaska and by none other than the Duke himself, John Wayne.

Sitka is a pretty little fishing town on a small bay (inlet). It has the distinction of being the site of the only fort in North America to be built and manned by Indians (Native Americans) armed with cannons. At one time Alaska was owned by the Russians. The British, wanting to give the Russians a headache whenever possible, armed the Native Americans with cannons and helped them build a fort to keep the Russians out. It was a good idea and worked - for about 1 week. They then ran out of cannonballs and promptly faded back into the wild interior, never to organize against the Russians (or anyone less) again.

The port itself was too small and had no dock large enough for my destroyer so we anchored in the bay and ran liberty boats to and from the shore. The morning after we arrived I was getting ready to take a party of 15 Sea Cadets ashore to participate in the dedication ceremonies when I was called to the starboard rail to see a huge yacht that had arrived and anchored near us during the night. It was a 160 foot megayaht called the "Wild Goose" and owned by John Wayne who was on board and had brought the Alaskan Governor with him.

During the ceremonies our Captain asked the Duke and the Governor if they cared to inspect the cadets, which they did. I was impressed by the fact that the Duke took the time to shake the hands and speak to every cadet, one at a time, ignoring the Governors Aids who were trying to hurry them through the line.

After the dedication ceremonies ended, we told the cadets they could take several hours off to go sight seeing around the town. I took 2 of the "Middies" (Midshipmen) with me to go have lunch at the local marina. The restaurant was surprisingly large and elegant. It had a glass enclosed dining room looking out on the bay. The sight of the 2 ships, our 360 foot destroyer and John Wayne's 160 foot yacht (which had been built in 1942 as a Navy Minesweeper), was quite a sight!

During the lunch we watched as John Wayne, the Governor with an entourage of about 10 people came in to the restaurant. They had a reserved table in the center right by the windows. It was great fun watching this group and listening to the 2 Middies (and everyone else in the place) trying to get up the nerve to ask for an autograph.

After a very nice lunch I called for the check and was informed that Mr. Wayne had picked up our tab and lunch was on him. My young Midshipmen were green with envy when I stood up, walked over and thanked "the Duke", who stood up and shook my hand. 2 things stand out clearly in my memory of that moment. One was that he was huge. He stood 6 feet 4 inches tall and his shoulders seemed to be a foot wider than mine. The second was the strength of his handshake and the fact that he spoke low and clear, looking me straight in the eyes.. His large hands engulfed mine in a grip that was firm but friendly. He was a genuinely warm and gracious man. - I know, "Of course he was. He was, after all, John Wayne".

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