Hook home to Coast Guard

By sherry conohan
Staff Writer

Hook home to Coast Guard’s history
Boatswain mate’s mural depicts service’s past
on mess hall walls
By sherry conohan
Staff Writer

One of Johnny Church’s favorite personages in the history of the United States Coast Guard is President Andrew Jackson, who didn’t mince words when he sent cutters from a precursor of the present service into action in Charleston harbor to collect taxes.

The year was 1832, and while painting a mural of the history of the Coast Guard on the walls of the mess hall at the Sandy Hook station, Church, a boatswain’s mate 3rd class, gave Jackson what he called "a good stern look" as he dispatched eight cutters to enforce the law.

Written in calligraphy next to the portrait of Jackson is the message he delivered with his order to action: "If a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hands on upon the first tree I can reach."

No ifs, ands or buts there, Church noted.

"There’s no way any president in this century would say that," he said. "Today you’d be sued or court-martialed. Presidents today just don’t say that."

Jackson’s order was just one of many discoveries Church made during his research of the Coast Guard’s history — research he undertook to develop ideas for the mural he painted across the upper portion of the walls around the mess hall.

The mural shows the service’s history from pre-Revolutionary times to the Persian Gulf conflict of 1990-91.

The last section of the mural to be finished, which will grace a triangular section of wall under the cathedral ceiling, is a tribute to the Coast Guard’s response to 9/11.

JERRY WOLKOWITZ  Johnny Church has put the Coast Guard’s history on display at Sandy Hook.JERRY WOLKOWITZ Johnny Church has put the Coast Guard’s history on display at Sandy Hook.

Church had painted a waving American flag with Uncle Sam next to it, but he stopped before putting in the twin towers of the World Trade Center when he passed out in the July heat and fell off the scaffolding. He said he came to in mid-fall and grabbed a railing of the scaffolding, saving himself from possible injury.

But he’s pleased with the way Uncle Sam turned out.

"I wanted him with a sincere look, but mad because of an injustice being done to him — and definitely defiant," he said.

Church said he’ll finish the mural when the weather cools down.

The artistic endeavor began when Marc Sandifer, a food service specialist chief, arrived at the Sandy Hook Coast Guard station about a year ago and set out to spruce up the mess hall.

"It had been untouched for years — not neglected, but untouched," said Sandifer, who is in charge of the galley and mess hall. "It was drab and dreary. It was painted dark brown, and the ceiling was beige — I don’t know if it was from smoke or if it was the color of the paint."

Having seen Church’s handiwork in a painting of a ship on the door to the communications center and one of Church’s designs on the back of Coast Guard T-shirts sold in the exchange, Sandifer approached him about painting something in the mess hall.

Sandifer said he envisioned something relatively simple — some blue sky and maybe a maritime scene.

"Mostly, I just wanted a pleasant environment to sit in," he said.

What he didn’t know is that over many a meal in that room, Church had surveyed those dull walls and developed an idea of his own. He hadn’t said a word about it to anyone.

"I thought it would be really cool to have something here where you could sit down and read a little something about the Coast Guard’s past," Church said.

"He came up with the history — the time line," Sandifer recalled.

So Sandifer and other Coast Guard personnel, including Jeff Lacombe, a food service specialist, painted the walls and ceiling white and encased the brown Sheetrock columns framing the windows overlooking Sandy Hook Bay in a light-colored wood, providing a backdrop for Church to work on.

"The deal was that if he (Sandifer) bought the airbrush paint for $200, I would do the mural," Church said.

Sandifer said Church kept his work covered up until it was finished.

"It was opened to the public on Coast Guard Day, and the overall reaction was astounding," Sandifer reported.

"I knew it would be good," he added. "But it came out more than I could ever imagine. It far exceeded my expectations. There’s history there I didn’t know about. It brightened the room up.

"As much as he’s done, I’m anxious to see the rest," he said.

Before painting the mural, Church said, he had to develop a history of the Coast Guard. He said that during his initial research, he was confronted with a vast void. He contacted the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., but said it was of little help.

He said a Coast Guard Internet site was more helpful, but he got the greatest assistance from Josh Graml, a library assistant at the Mariners’ Museum, a privately owned museum in Newport News, Va. Church said Graml steered him to where he should look — the Navy archives.

When he finishes the mural, Church said, he wants to write a book covering the Coast Guard history he dug up.

The scenes he depicted in the mural — 56 in all — include the Sandy Hook lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in continuous service in the country, which dates back to 1764. In 1789, the Lighthouse Service, one of the four precursors of the Coast Guard, was established in the Department of the Treasury.

The Revenue Cutter Service, created by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in 1790, was another precursor.

In 1848, Church said, the need for a Life Saving Service became apparent to William A. Newell, a state congressman, after he witnessed the sinking of the Terasto, which resulted in the death of all 13 crew members.

Newell lobbied Congress for a federally supported lifesaving service, reporting that 158 sailing vessels had been lost off the Jersey coast between 1839 and 1848. He asked Congress to appropriate $10,000 to build eight "lifeboat stations" equipped with surfboats, lifeboats and other means to help those shipwrecked. The stations were completed in 1849. In 1871, the lifesaving service was reorganized and the Life Saving Service was officially established.

Church said that on Jan. 28, 1915, four entities — the Lighthouse Service, the Life Saving Service, the Revenue Cutter Service and the Steamboat Inspection Agency — were melded into one and turned into the Coast Guard.

The mural shows scenes from World War I, Prohibition, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

"The Coast Guard had been involved in every war we’ve had," Church said.

He said he could have focused the entire mural on World War II, beginning with the Coast Guard’s participation in the Lend-Lease program with Britain before the United States entered the war.

"The Coast Guard was escorting all this equipment to Britain before the war," he said.

Church said the Coast Guard sank 11 enemy submarines off the coast of the United States in that war and made the first capture of an enemy ship, the Boskoe, a German trawler with spies on board.

The war also produced a comic touch — an emblem with Donald Duck as a pirate. Church explained that one of the members of the Corsair Fleet, civilian volunteers who patrolled the coasts to look out for submarines, was Walt Disney, who drew the design for the emblem.

Church’s biggest tribute from World War II was to Douglas Albert Munro, the only Coast Guardsman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. He said Munro received it for heroism when the United States was landing troops at Guadalcanal and 500 Marines became trapped.

Church said Munro took a Higgins boat and drove it between the Japanese, who were firing from offshore, and the Marines on the beach and turned his guns on the Japanese, keeping them at bay while the Marines escaped. Unfortunately, Munro was killed.

Church said his mural for 9/11 will be a tribute to the Coast Guard’s actions in providing port security, evacuating people and transporting firefighters and their equipment into the city from outlying areas.

"As I was doing the research, I thought, ‘Wow!’ I didn’t realize what it (the Coast Guard) had done and how involved it was with history,’" Church said.

"There were things I couldn’t put up there because there was no room," he continued. "Perhaps my biggest regret is that I missed SPARS, the women volunteers who patrolled the beaches."

Church, who hails from Watertown, N.Y., has been a Coast Guard member for nearly seven years. He was due to be discharged nearly a year ago, but after 9/11, he signed on for one more year.

Church said he is now scheduled to get out in January and has begun a search for a post-service job.

He said he went to college "for about an hour" at Jefferson Community College in Watertown to study art but left because he couldn’t relate to what was being taught.

"The teacher wanted to throw paint on a canvas, and I wanted to do fine art," he explained.

Church said it took him six months to paint the mural. He worked on it during his downtime while on duty, fortified by a lot of coffee, and during his off hours.

The hardest part?

"The writing was very hard because I have very, very, very bad handwriting," Church confessed. "Some people write calligraphy; I draw calligraphy. It actually improved my writing doing this."