The motto of the US Coast Guard is Semper Paratus, which translates as “Always Ready” or “Always Prepared.” That ethic was certainly in evidence last week when the USCG Cutter Walnut diverted from a planned mission and instead transported urgently needed water supplies to Tokelau.
As I discussed in a previous post on October 5th, severe drought conditions in Tokelau created critical shortages, leaving Tokelau’s residents with less than a week’s worth of drinking water. Walnut was well placed to assist because it is outfitted with an onboard water desalination plant, routinely carries emergency water supplies, and was already nearby, en route to a port call in Pago Pago.
As we had arranged with our Kiwi friends, Walnut onloaded in Pago Pago several large, empty military water storage containers and a relief team flown up from New Zealand by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The cutter then made for Tokelau at full speed, stopping at each of the small nation’s three populated coral atolls to deliver tanks and water.
Walnut‘s captain, Lieutenant Commander Brian Huff, tells me that the crew worked hard, and that shifts were arranged so that everyone went ashore to assist on at least one of the atolls. Tokelau residents welcomed the crew with singing, dancing, traditional gifts made from shells and flax, and effusive hospitality. From all the stories I’ve heard, it is clear that the crew was profoundly moved by the beauty of Tokelau, the warmth of the people, and the opportunity to assist in such a powerful way.
One of my favorite stories recounted by the crew concerns a bell. Village elders told Lieutenant Andrea Holt that the Coast Guard had been to Tokelau before, to protect the islands during World War II. They also stated that a Coastie had violated protocol one day by ringing a church bell that was only supposed to be used for calls to prayer. It turned out that the Coastie had just received word of Japan’s surrender, and he rang the bell to celebrate the end of the Pacific War.
Walnut‘s crew was unaware of a Coast Guard presence in the South Pacific during the war, and Lieutenant Holt thought that the elders had confused the Coast Guard with the Navy. Later, however, after completing their work on Atafu, one of the Walnut teams visited the local church. Curious, they looked closely at the church’s main bell and discovered engraving at the very top, readable only through the lens of a digital camera, that said “USCG 1942″.
It remains a mystery how a US Coast Guard bell found new life as a church bell on a South Pacific atoll. The details, though, don’t really matter. The bell’s there … and it’s meaningful … a real goose-bump moment for the crew, encounting a piece of their own history in such a distant place, seventy years after other Coasties had rendered assistance during another time of need.
The several days of relief activity in Tokelau demonstrated the power and importance of practical, flexible collaboration among friends. Desperately needed water was delivered because the US and New Zealand pooled assets and were prepared to interoperate. Plans were made for addressing systemic water shortages going forward. And new friendships were enriched by working together, celebrating cultural touchstones, and rediscovering prior ties.