LCDR Dennis Branson (U.S. Coast Guard retired)
Barbara Nichols and Kathy G’Sell (daughters of Coast Guard veteran Jim Evans)
In 2016, I was speaking at a Kansas City area “Living History” event on the sinking of World War II troopship Dorchester when I ran into an eyewitness of World War II history. During my presentation, I noticed a gentleman wearing a Coast Guard ball cap. When I asked the audience whether anyone had been to Greenland (a line usually met with blank stares), the man in cap raised his hand. When he began recounting his memories, I realized I was talking with an actual member of the Coast Guard’s storied Greenland Patrol. A few weeks later, I took time to talk with this Kansas City Coastie–Mr. Jim Evans. Ironically, Evans and his bride of over 50 years, Ernesteen (“Ernie”) lived just minutes from my office. After my first visit, I realized what a special person Evans was and I knew I had to capture his story.
Meet World War II veteran Jim Evans
James Edward Evans was born in Saint Louis, Missouri, in December 1922. His childhood was spent in Catawissa, Missouri, living on a farm where he remembered picking cotton. One of six children, Jim was especially close to his older brother Charlie. Evens and Charlie left early for school to get the wood-burning stove going in the one-room school house before the rest of students arrived. Evans’s father was a machinist in a car shop and taught Evans all the mechanical practices he knew. Evans celebrated his 19thbirthday just two days before the enemy attack at Pearl Harbor. He recalled how he heard of the infamous attack on the car radio while driving around with friends that Sunday afternoon.
When he heard the news of the attack, Evans knew he would serve his country, so the next day he and a friend set out to enlist at the Saint Louis Army Air Corps recruiting station. In an ironic life-changing twist, the Air Corps had met their daily quota and told Evans to return the next day. Instead, he walked into the adjacent Coast Guard Recruiting office and enlisted right away.
On January 3, 1942, Jim departed Saint Louis for Norfolk, Virginia Coast Guard basic training. He began his two months of training at the famous Pea Island Life Boat Station on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. In addition to learning how to march, he drilled on boat rescue operations. After two months, his recruit “class” moved several miles down the beach to the Oregon Inlet Boat Station, where it operated a 50-foot, self-righting motor lifeboat. Evans recalled the 30-second self-righting process and how amazing that was. The recruits also manned a watch tower and patrolled a 15-mile stretch of beach. Of the many memories of those days on the Outer Banks, the one that he recalled best was how many times he saw the night sky light up from the explosions of merchant vessels attacked off the coast by Nazi U-boats.
Seaman Evans was talented and eager serve his country, so he signed up for every Coast Guard training course offered including meteorology classes in Lakehurst, New Jersey. He took added courses at the Weather Bureau School of Meteorology in Atlanta learning how to properly observe, collect, record and analyze meteorological data. Upon completion of his meteorology courses, Petty Officer Evans returned to the Outer Banks and began honing his craft as an aerographer for the Kill Devil Hills weather station. For nearly eight months, he reported weather by night and played baseball by day.
In April 1943, Evans was assigned to Coast Guard Cutter Northland in the famed Greenland Patrol. He reported to Northland, then docked in Boston, excited to use his meteorology skills, but he soon discovered that the cutter had no weather equipment. Recognizing his abilities, Northland’s command asked him if he knew anything about photography and he soon became the ship’s photographer. In addition to his daily duties, Evans took numerous pictures of the crew, posted them in common areas and made copies for any sailor that wanted one.
Evans sailed on three missions on board Northland, which escorted vessels to Greenland twice, and then to Iceland on his final mission. In January 1947, his service commitment came to an end and he returned to Saint Louis. He married in 1948 and began to raise a family. He built a career working for Western Auto Company and retired in 1989.
In my first visit with Evans, his wife Ernie, and their daughter Barbara, it was obvious they really cared about Evans’s Coast Guard career. A few months later, I had learned that a friend I knew at Coast Guard Headquarters had taken command of the current Coast Guard Cutter Northland. After a quick email to my friend, a plan took shape to honor Evans on board the Northland at Coast Guard Base Portsmouth, Virginia.
By the time everything came together, Evans had a veritable entourage including Ernie, daughters Barbara Nichols and Kathy G’Sell, and his sister-in-law Shirley Dippel. Thanks to the hard work of my friend Commander Marc Brandt, his crew and Coast Guard staff, Evans and his family were honored first on board Northland and then at a cutterman call at the Base Portsmouth Support Center. After the event, Evans’ daughters Kathy and Barbara wrote a tribute to the organizers:
“Today was a day our family will always remember. Dad and our family were escorted by Dr. Bill Thiesen (Coast Guard Historian), Command Master Chief Bill Princiotta and Public Affairs Officer Littlejohn from our hotel to the Coast Guard base where we were welcomed aboard the new Northland. Dad was presented with a shadow box that contained a flag that flew over the ship earlier in the year, a photo of the ship and handwritten notes from the commander and many of the crew. He spent an hour in the ward room visiting with the crew and sharing his photo albums from his time on the Northland. Stories were told, questions asked and laughs shared. As we were leaving the ship, Captain Marc Brandt presented us with a hat and a challenge coin. We went to the Wheel House for a lunch with other officers, sharing more stories, experiences and laughter. Finally, Master Chief Princiotta presented Dad with his personal challenge coin–a perfect ending to a perfect day.”
“Watching my father walk through this day brought tears to my eyes. Hearing him share memories of his Coast Guard years with a roomful of young crew members was remarkable. Seeing the new ship and thinking about what all of it was like when Dad was a 19-year-old walking on board for the first time. While Dad spoke, and answered questions, the crew members looked through all the pictures Dad had in an album. They turned the pages and pointed at certain photos and whispered to each other. At one point they brought in a framed photo of the Northland that Dad was on. He didn’t say much, and took his time looking at the photo.”
“The truly special moment for me came when Dad was leaving the ship and started down the gangplank. He stopped, paused, then turned and saluted the flag, something he said they did every time they left the ship. I never asked what he thought at that moment, but for me watching him standing there with the sun shining behind him, I was choked up. In my mind I saw Dad as a young man again making that final salute and saying a final farewell to his time in the Coast Guard. The whole day was about Dad getting a moment of honor for something he did over 70 years ago. Many Coast Guard crewmen came up to shake his hand and thank him or ask a question about how things have changed since the time he served. As we drove away, we passed the marque that welcomed Dad to base, an incredible moment. I think we all felt the weight of it as we scrambled out to take a picture of that marque. We all just felt so proud of Dad and what he did when he made the decision to sign up to join the Coast Guard. This was a big day for our family. Watching as our father had the incredible opportunity to return to his Coast Guard roots was a once in a lifetime experience.”
In 2020, Jim and Ernie are still going strong. I was able to honor Jim at a World War II 75thanniversary event and look forward to his participation at another event in Kansas City next fall!