The U.S. Coast Guard honored Capt. Joachim Wedekind for 30 years of service in the all-volunteer Auxiliary at the USCG Auxiliary Change of Command held in New Orleans January 13, 2018.
Included in the recognition were letters of appreciation from RADM Paul F. Thomas, Coast Guard Commander of the Eighth Coast Guard District, and Commander F. L Gilmore, Director of Auxiliary, Coastal Region, Eighth Coast Guard District.
Sector New Orleans Commander Capt. Wayne Arguin made the presentations to a surprised Capt. Wedekind. He had not been told the presentations were going to be made.
Capt. Wedekind, now 95, was initially certified as a basically qualified member of the USCG Auxiliary on Dec. 1, 1987. His nautical career began in the German Merchant Marine before World War II, and he would crew on four merchant ships torpedoed and sunk, including the converted passenger liner STEUBEN, with the loss of more than 4,000 lives.
One of his first projects as an Auxiliarist was to help the Coast Guard develop training and certification requirements in the New Orleans area for Auxiliary aircraft commanders. Capt. Wedekind owned a six-place Cessna 206 and then a Cessna 210, and had them certified as Auxiliary facilities.
From 1987 until May 19, 1996, he participated in the Auxiliary Aviation program flying under operational control of Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans.
He flew in an innovative program based at the USCG Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Ala. working with USCG aircrews to safely and effectively operate the HU 25 C Interceptor Falcon jets for drug smuggling interdiction missions using then-new infrared equipment.
Many of the missions involved night flying, he remembers, as active duty Coast Guard crews were learning to use night vision equipment.
“I learned a lot from those pilots,” he said. “They were professionals and taught me precision flying.”
During a typical training mission over the Gulf of Mexico, the Coast Guard pilots flying chase jets would order “lights out.” Wedekind would turn off the navigation lights of his fast, single engine propeller plane, and dive for the deck. He said he knew where the small coastal airfields were and he could activate the runway lights to land by keying his plane’s microphone.
It was not uncommon for him to land, then call the Coast Guard jet and say he was on the ground, keying his mike to light up the runway landing lights so the crew could find him.
During one mission, the Coast Guard jet flew within 200 feet of his plane. He snapped a photo and set his camera on the passenger seat. The Coast Guard pilot was so close, he saw the camera and asked about it.
That photo hangs on the wall in his home in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. He brought the photo to the retirement ceremony in which Rear Adm. David Callahan, a USCG pilot, was relieved of command of the Eighth Coast Guard District and retired. After the ceremony, Capt. Wedekind showed RADM Callahan the photo.
“Yes, that was me flying the jet,” Capt. Wedekind remembers RADM Callahan saying. It was the first time they met after many years.
Capt. Wedekind participated in numerous search and rescue (SAR) missions, pollution response flights and hurricane damage assessments after Hurricane Andrew.
He also provided many transportation flights for District officers and enlisted personnel.
“I would get a call asking if I could fly an admiral or captain the next day,” he said. “My single engine propeller plane could cruise at 180 knots and was much more fuel efficient than a Coast Guard jet. Officers were always looking for ways to cut expenses.”
When he stopped flying, he took the required training and became authorized to stand watch as a Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Operator directing ship movement in the New Orleans harbor, often working at the Gretna light when it was manned during high and low water periods between July 1996 and July 2000.
From February 1999 until 2014 he also served with the Marine Safety Office New Orleans, Safety Inspection Team that conducted the required three-month inspections of foreign-flagged passenger vessels.
Included in that work was a trip to the shipyard at Monfakone, Italy from October 13-18, 2002, in which he assisted six Coast Guard officers charged with the Initial Control Exam of the cruise ship Carnival Conquest, at the time the largest cruise ship in the world. It would later be home ported in New Orleans.
From Feb. 14 to May 17, 2004 Capt. Wedekind was actively involved in the Coast Guard investigation of the collision between the container ship ZIM Mexico III and the offshore supply boat Lee III.
The collision occurred in heavy fog near the mouth of the Mississippi River and resulted in the loss of life for all five crewmen on the Lee III. During hearings, he was instructed to sit next to the officer conducting the investigation.
Also, on Jan. 1, 2000 Capt. Wedekind received USCG foreign linguist certification for German, Spanish and the Scandinavian languages. His duties often overlapped, flying one day, working VTS or as a marine safety inspector the next.
Career in German Merchant Marine
Capt. Wedekind was born in Berlin, Germany in 1922. His mother died during childbirth. His father had served on the staff of Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg during World War I and wrote of his wife’s death to von Hindenburg. The future President of Germany was touched and asked to be godfather of the young Joachim. The letter is framed on his wall at home.
Capt. Wedekind’s father was an inventor and developed the earliest model of a photocopying machine. His father expected young Joachim to enter the family business in a period when Germany did not have many jobs in the aftermath of the First World War.
But Joachim was fascinated by the sailing ships he watched as a youth when he attended summer camp and vacationed on the Baltic Sea. He told his father he wanted to go to sea.
The president of a shipping company had lunch with his father and learned of the youth’s interest in the sea instead of the family business. The shipping executive suggested taking the young Joachim on as a cadet on a square-rigger sailing ship, a tough job which they felt would break his desire to go to sea. Then Joachim would return to the family photocopy business.
At the time, German merchant mariners would begin as cadets, advance to able-bodied seamen and then attend maritime schools for officer certification.
So at age 15, Joachim went to sea on a sailing, square-rigged merchant vessel. The ship had no main engine for propulsion, relying on sails lone. The first voyage lasted nine months.
As part of his duties, the young Joachim was required to climb the sail rigging more than 100 feet above the main deck each watch. The vessel called on ports as far away as South Africa.
Instead of being broken of his desire to go to sea as his father hoped, Joachim loved it.
He began sailing as an officer in the German merchant marine in 1938. Lining the walls of the office at home are stacks of brief cases filled with photographs and documents from his years at sea.
His father had given him a Leica camera to record events before his first voyage.
Using his files, Capt. Wedekind has started writing a book of his nautical adventures.
During World War II, the merchant marine was conscripted into the German Navy. Most of the merchant mariners “could not stand the political people” of the Nazi party, he said.
He would spend the war as an officer on troop transports, ferrying soldiers and supplies to battle and returning with the wounded, bringing them to hospitals. He would sail the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic Seas.
His ships, hauling tanks, troops and supplies for the invasion of Norway and later Gen. Edwin Rommel in North Africa, were frequently bombed and torpedoed. The voyage supplying Rommel passed near Malta, a British base that launched air, surface and submarine attacks against German shipping.
The most tragic sinking he experienced was in the Baltic Sea only months before the war ended. While his regular ship was in for repairs during the winter of 1945 Capt. Wedekind found himself in Pillau, East Prussia. The tide had turned for the German Army and Russian troops were pushing westward.
Stories of the brutality by the Russian Army terrified Prussians and East Germans in the path of the advancing Soviet Army. In response, Adm. Karl Doenitz, commander of the German Navy, developed a plan to use 1,100 vessels to transport civilians to western Germany, much like the well-publicized evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk.
Troop transport ships would load injured soldiers. Then civilians were allowed on board, crowding the decks. The plan to evacuate civilians was not approved by Hitler and the evacuation, which eventually moved more than 2.5 million civilians, was one of the many secrets of the war.
In the port cities, Gestapo agents would watch the civilian refugees board the ships. Boys, as young age 14, would be taken to join the army. The merchant sailors did what they could to conceal the youthful refugees.
“I signed on as an officer of the 550-foot STEUBEN,” Capt. Wedekind said. “While we were loading passengers, a German Navy captain handed me a pistol, not to shoot Russians, but to protect the refugees from the Gestapo.” It was the first time he was issued a pistol during the war.
The STEUBEN, which normally carried up to 800 passengers, was loaded with 1,000 wounded soldiers. Then the captain allowed civilians on board. It was a brutal winter, with sub zero temperatures. The civilians often had only the clothes on their back and were exhausted from their trip to the port. To Capt. Wedekind, it was heartbreaking.
With passageways and decks crowded with refugees, the STEUBEN set sail. Capt. Wedekind estimated there were 5,200 people on board, although the ship’s log reported many fewer, in part to conceal the numbers from Nazi officials in Berlin.
Exhausted from his departure duties, Wedekind and several other officers met in the stateroom of the ship’s second in command for conversation and to drink brandy. By 1 am, the gathering broke up and, sedated by alcohol and lack of sleep, Wedekind fell asleep on the sofa in the officer’s area.
While there were concerns about mines, Russian submarines were not thought to be operating in that area of the Baltic Sea, although the ship did maintain a zig-zag course. Radio silence kept communications very limited.
Unknown to the STEUBEN crew, the Russian submarine S-13 torpedoed a larger converted German cruise ship, the WILHELM GUSTLOFF, on Jan 30, 1945, near the same course the STEUBEN would take only days later.
Wedekind did not sleep long. Capt. Wolfgang Kalisch, the STEUBEN’s No. 2 officer, shook him awake.
“The ship is sinking!” Capt. Kalisch said. Groggy and not fully awake, Wedekind could not believe it. While asleep, he did not feel the first torpedo hit.
Then the second torpedo slammed into the starboard bow. He knew the feeling from being torpedoed before—the shudder, the bow jerking upward, then down.
He grabbed his uniform jacket and raced to the bridge. He helped relay orders. Some officers raced to the lifeboats. But the frigid sub-zero temperature had frozen many of the lines and some of the lifeboats could not be launched. There were not enough lifeboats, anyway, for the passengers who had crowded aboard the heavily loaded ship.
It was about 15 minutes before the water reached the bridge. Wedekind said he found himself alone, the captain having left, possibly for his cabin to go down with his ship in the nautical tradition, he said.
Below deck, pandemonium had broken out. He heard refugees running and fighting. He also heard gunshots, as injured soldiers committed suicide, knowing they could not survive the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea.
From the chart table, Capt. Wedekind grabbed the chart that marked the STEUBEN’s progress, folded it several times, and stuffed it into his uniform jacket. The ship would sink in 18 minutes about 40 miles from the German coastline. It was Feb. 10, 1945.
When he stepped out onto the deck, he slipped down because of the ship listing. The bow was down and the stern was out of the water. He slid into the frigid water and saw ice floating on the surface.
During the interview, Capt. Wedekind said he could no longer take cold weather anymore. A freeze had just hit the New Orleans area and it made him miserable.
In the icy water he swam furiously until he came to a capsized lifeboat and climbed onboard. Then he blacked out
Hours later he awakened in the engine room of a boat that had been converted into a minesweeper. That vessel would rescue about 100 victims.
Only 650 of the estimated 5,200 persons on the STEUBEN would survive the sinking. By comparison, the TITANIC sank with a loss of life of 1,503 persons.
Capt. Wedekind would finally reach shore in the East Prussian port of Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland. He delivered the chart to a German admiral, marking the location of the sinking.
In 2004, German divers working for the Polish government discovered a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea. The ship was covered in fishing nets and difficult to identify. Capt. Wedekind learned of the discovery through a Dutch online maritime connection he maintained and offered to help identify the vessel. It was the STEUBEN.
The writer of an article describing the discovery in National Geographic, published in its February 2005 edition, interviewed and quoted Capt. Wedekind.
He would also reluctantly attend an international conference as a speaker, discussing his experience onboard the STEUBEN, one of three converted German cruise ships sunk by Soviet submarines in the waning days of World War II.
The documented losses were of the Jan. 30, 1945 sinking of the WILHELM GUSTHOFF, with 10,000 persons aboard and only 1,132 survivors; Feb. 10, 1945 linking of the STEUBEN, with 5,200 persons on board and 650 survivors; and the April 16, 1945 sinking of the GOYA, with 7,200 persons on board and 172 survivors.
Because the ships carried unauthorized refugees, and the action took place in the German/Russian theater, not much was recorded for historians about the unauthorized evacuation of two and a half million Germans from the path of the advancing, and brutal, Soviet army, nor of the sinkings.
In the spring of 1945 with the Russian army approaching, it was time to get out of Germany, he said, and he caught the last ship that left to Denmark, where he would spend three years in a refugee camp as a fire chief.
Later, he heard Argentina was accepting German refugees so he made his way there, approved by the government as a refugee. He worked as a truck driver, having had enough of the sea. He would sleep under his truck and said pay was terrible.
But the allure of the sea lingered on. He started sailing on tankers again and by 1950 the Argentine-flagged ship he sailed on called on the port of New Orleans. He instantly fell in love with the city.
By 1957, he would settle in New Orleans, working as a marine surveyor for insurance and shipping companies. Eventually he would work as the vice president for a subsidiary of Lloyds of London and be an agent for the island nation of Barbuda and Antigua. He still represents that government’s marine interests.
After his first wife died of a long illness, Capt. Wedekind married Alice Spicer in October 1971.
“Alice’s seven children do not let me call them ‘step’,” he said with a warm smile. To them, he is their father, he says proudly.
Alice was known for her numerous dinner parties, many of them formal black-tie affairs. It was at one dinner party at the New Orleans International House that she was seated next to RADM Paul Yost, then the newly-installed commander of the Eighth Coast Guard District.
RADM Yost told Alice he had just arrived and did not know anyone in New Orleans, so she invited him and his wife Jan to a pool party at the Wedekind home the next evening. During the next few months, they would frequently host each other in their homes for dinners.
Learning of Capt. Wedekind’s many qualifications--master mariner; senior marine surveyor and vice president for a subsidiary of Lloyd’s of London; and instrument-rated pilot and owner of a Cessna aircraft-- RADM Yost recruited Capt. Wedekind to join the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
That was the start of Alice and Capt. Wedekind hosting many dinner parties for Coast Guard personnel, getting to know them and offering to assist in flights and many other activities. In addition to the Yosts, Capt. Wedekind said he developed close friendships with many Coast Guard officers and enlisted personnel.
Following three years of illness, Alice would pass away at age 95 on July 10, 2016 after 45 happy years, he said. Now, a year and a half later, the sadness is still visible in his eyes when he speaks lovingly of her.
"As an overall memory of my time with the Coast Guard Auxiliary, I have to point out that it would not have been possible to do without the help of my dear wife, Alice, and that some things worked both ways: I learned much about precision flying from the professional Coast Guard pilots as well as the handling of the heavy and complicated Mississippi River vessel traffic conditions at Algiers Point, and lastly that Alice and I both enjoyed to be part of the many Coast Guard activities to which we were allowed to participate,” Capt. Wedekind wrote in a letter to the Coast Guard.