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Coast Guard Auxiliary key in shore protection for 70 years

CAPE MAY, N.J. — Walt Niwinski teaches seamanship to U.S. Coast Guard recruits at the Training Center Cape May, but he’s not in the Coast Guard.

Joe Giannattasio flies an airplane for the Coast Guard on observation missions, but he’s also not a member of the Coast Guard.

And Judy Dempsey helps lead tours of the training center. Nope, not in the Coast Guard, either.

They’re all members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, whose Northern Region Division 8 — which runs from Brigantine to Cape May and along the southern Delaware Bay — celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2012. And the fact that they’re in the auxiliary means these people are volunteer.

The 375 or so Division 8 members do much more in South Jersey that goes unnoticed — everything from serving breakfast to recruits and their families on the Training Center’s graduation days to relieving active-duty cutter commanders on days when their boats are in home port, in Cape May.

“They are an integral part of our team,” said Chief Warrant Officer Donnie Brzuska, the Training Center’s public affairs officer, “and we honestly couldn’t do what we do day-in and day-out without their help. ... It’s pretty incredible how integrated they are into the team here.”

The Coast Guard Auxiliary was created by Congress in 1939, and the current Division 8 was formally born in 1942 — at a time when one of its main duties involved keeping a lookout for enemy submarines from watch towers along the South Jersey coast. Local members are proud that their history stretches back as far as it does.

“We’re up there,” said Jake Lincoln, of Lower Township, a 23-year auxiliary member and the division’s historian. “I don’t know exactly where we fit in, but we’re one of the oldest districts in the country.”

Niwinski, a former commander of his local flotilla — there are six of them in Division 8, based from Brigantine to Cape May — has been in the auxiliary about 10 years. But at age 69, the retired telephone worker from Lower Township has been involved with boating for almost 50 years, and now he teaches seamanship to recruits on their way to being full-fledged, professional members of the Coast Guard.

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That’s not all he does, and the volunteer commitment is a big part of his life: Niwinski figures he puts in 1,100 to 1,200 hours a year, which would be a busy part-time job — except that he doesn’t get paid a dime.

“I enjoy working on the base,” he said. “I’m with these young men and women, and it makes you feel young.”

Niwinski also is part of the auxiliary’s boat-safety checks and boater-education classes — probably the auxiliary’s two most publicly visible roles.

“I like being on the water,” he explained.

Giannattasio, 54, of Middle Township, is a private investigator who also runs an ice cream business. But he was the commander of Division 8 until his term ended earlier this month, and he regularly volunteers to help the Coast Guard well above the waterline.

He’s a licensed pilot who figures he averages about two observation flights a week — in private planes — along the South Jersey coastline. But Giannattasio adds that there is a Division 8 volunteer making such a flight almost every day of the year — another little-known part of what the group does.

“We’re monitoring the waterways, looking for debris spillage, looking for aids to navigation, to see if (marker) buoys are knocked out,” he said. “And we do ice patrols in the winter, and help in search and rescue.”

He also is a licensed boat captain, and does patrols on the water, too — and he adds that his nine years in the auxiliary has helped his skills both in planes and in boats.

But some members of the group like to keep their feet firmly on the ground. Take Dempsey, who lives in Cape May part-time and is proud to say her roles in the auxiliary are mainly administrative.

She coordinates the regular public tours of the Training Center — which can have audiences ranging from two to 35 or so people, everyone from Boy Scout troops to former Coasties returning to their old boot camp for a bit of nostalgia.

Many of the people taking the tours are also the families of the current trainees, which brings up another auxiliary role — the group’s “Breakfast Brigade,” as they like to call it.

“We cook breakfast (for the recruits) and their families every time there’s a graduation,” said Bruce Long, 75, of Middle Township, who has been a member for more than half of Division 8’s existence, and his own — 38 years now, and counting. “We’re serving and greeting all these families in the Harborview Club, right on the base. ... That’s another fun thing we do.”

When he joined the Auxiliary in 1974, Long remembers that one fellow member was a Pearl Harbor survivor. Long himself has played lots of roles over all those years, and one of his favorites was helicopter operations, or “helo ops,” which usually involve Auxiliary volunteers going out in small boats and pretending their vessels are dead in the water — so rescue crews can fly in and practice their skills.

“That’s probably more fun than anything we do,” he said, although he has given it up in the last few years. “Picture a wind turbine about 20 feet above you, with winds about 120 mph — spilling water all around you.”

But this veteran member also finds it fulfilling to go into a classroom at the Training Center and quietly, calmly teach personal, financial literacy to the recruits. He qualifies for that job, he adds, because “I’m an accountant in a former life.”

There’s much more the auxiliary does for the regular force — and that’s even now, when most local small-boat owners have them off the water for the winter.

“This is the sleepy time of year for us,” agrees Long, the veteran — until he starts remembering more volunteer roles he and his fellow members play.

“They do a lot of the jobs that don’t require military or law-enforcement authority,” said Brzuska, the Coast Guard spokesman. “I mean, they fill in everywhere.”

MDeangelis@pressofac.com
 

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