Justin A. Rice for Boston.comAfter being part of a 20 to 30 man crew that closed the Salem Air Station in 1970, Edwin Merta never returned to the defunct U.S. Coast Guard base on Winter Island.
Until Monday morning that is, when 15 retired U.S. Coast Guard members who were stationed at the Salem Air Station gathered at the old dilapidated hangar for an unofficial reunion and photo shoot.
“I just about cried when I saw the condition of the facility,” said Merta, 76, who flew in from Bellingham, Wash. after only learning about the event about two weeks ago. “We knew the city was going to get [the hanger]. I did not expect them to let it go like it has.”
The hangar and barracks were turned over to the city in 1972 and have more than deteriorated over the years. Inside the boarded up hangar, the Harbormaster’s boats are stored along with several green barrels and other items. One wall is covered with spray-painted messages such as “Brownie Magie Loves Knick” and PJ’S Place 79 + 78.”
The city, however, is currently trying to redevelop the old hangar and its former barracks as part of the $10 million Winter Island Master Plan, which estimates the capital coast of redeveloping the hanger at about $4.5 million and the barracks at $3 million.
An identical former Coast Guard hangar in Florida has been successfully converted into a function hall.
“It would be [troubling] to me if some of my old duty stations, if they just went to pot,” said Robert Nersasian, a retired Army Colonel who currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Friends of Winter Island, which is advocating the redevelopment of the 32-acre harbor-front park.
“But it’s tough economic times. If grant money is there the city will find it. But the clock is ticking. We’re close to the point of no return.”
Coast Guard Petty Officer, Connie L. Terrell, who is based in Boston, began organizing the event a few weeks ago.
“It actually has kind of taken on a life of its own,” Terrell said during a telephone interview on Friday afternoon. “I intended it to be a photo shoot for a history project we’re working on; when old retired Coasties hear ‘Reunion’ they get excited.
“It’s kind of like a reunion for them even though it’s not an official reunion,” Terrell said. “It’s a lot of guys who served at the air station from 1935 to 1970 when they closed it. So we’ll have a lot of history there.”
Terrell, who advertised the event on an e-mail listserv for former Coast Guard aviators called the Pterodactyls, said after she got some responses she reminded the retired servicemen that it was not a formal reunion.
“I’m not planning anything, there will not be a lunch or dinner,” she said. “They are still planning on coming.”
Terrell said the photos will be used for an internal history project.
In 1935 the Coast Guard established a seaplane facility at Salem because there was no longer space to expand the Ten Pound Island Gloucester air station, according to the Coast Guard’s website, which also says that the facility consisted of a single hangar, a paved 250 foot parking apron and two seaplane ramps leading down into the waters of Salem Harbor.
In 1941 air crews from Salem began to fly neutrality patrols along the coast and in 1944 the facility was officially designated as the first Air Sea Rescue station on the eastern seaboard.
At the time, it also had state of the art communications and modern repair facilities. Barracks, administrative and dining facilities and motor pool buildings were also part of the complex.
After the war, the base primarily launched search and rescue missions while also hunting for derelicts and conducting medical evacuations. After Salem Air Station closed in 1970, the facilities operations moved to Otis Air Force base where the Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod was established.
Coast Guard Commander Stewart R. Graham, the second helicopter pilot ever in the Coast Guard, was also at the photo shoot on Monday. The 94-year-old who lives in Naples, Maine was stationed in Salem from 1957 to 1960.
“It brings back good memories,” said Graham, who will have a Coast Guard hanger on Cape Cod dedicated in his name in July. “I’m kind of looking forward to it; and I’m still on this earth, not beneath it.”
Don Calderwood, who served in Salem from 1968-70, asked Graham to autograph a picture of a Coast Guard helicopter.
“It’s pretty neat,” Calderwood said as Graham signed the old photo. “I just loved the helicopter.”
An actual, helicopter, however, did not land at the old hangar located at 50 Winter Island Road, despite Terrell’s best efforts.
“There hasn’t been a documented landing there since they closed the air station in 1970,” Terrell said. “Our aircrafts are very different than what was flown in in the 1960s and 1970s so [Coast Guard officials] weren’t sure [about landing there]. With boats being there, they didn’t feel comfortable landing there just for a photo op.
“We decided to err on side of caution, not to damage anyone’s sailboats on blocks there.”
During the reunion, the former Coasties swapped stories, caught up and filliped through binders of old photographs and newspaper clippings furnished by a local historian, including a1952 Associated Press photo featuring a Coast Guard photographer stationed in Salem who allegedly took a picture of an Unidentified Flying Objected flying above Winter Island.
Wearing his old brown flight jacket, Brian Wallace of East Sandwich recalled how the base offered all-you-can-eat lobsters for $3 on Friday and how the bomb shelter was converted into a haunted house for children each Halloween.
“We had a lot of good rescues, just a lot of fond memories,” said Wallace, who served in Salem from 1967 to 1970. “I can still picture the choppers inside the building. It is rough to kind of see nostalgia go by the wayside.”
Justin A. Rice can be reached at email@example.com.