Fish Tugs of the Greatest Lake
by Steve Ceskowski
The Energy as she appeared at the time of this story.
(Photo courtesy Steve Ceskowski)
Author's Note: This story was told by my Dad, Lawrence Ceskowski.
I have paraphrased the narrative and added pertinent historical information for the benefit of the reader.
It was the autumn of 1943 that found the fish tug Energy setting back two gangs of large mesh trout nets on Julian's Reef, a three-hour run southeast of Waukegan. Julian's Reef was a favorite gathering point for huge lake trout just prior to spawning. It was named for Julian Ellefson who pioneered fishing there in the 1930's. In the World War II years prior to the invasion of the lamprey eel, huge lifts of mature lake trout could be found there, perhaps one of the last refuges for Lake Michigan lake trout. My grandfather, Steve Ceskowski, then owner of the Energy, reported one lift of 6400 lbs there the previous autumn.
That autumn day, they had cleared 1700 lbs of trout and were resetting back half their wet nets with another half gang of dry nets. Adam Detlaff, owner of the Doughboy, had doubled-up with Steve Ceskowski due to the shortage of crew due to the war. Leo Lenz was engineer on the Energy. Joining them that day was my future father, Lawrence, then 18, home on leave from the United States Merchant Marine, the sailors who crewed the merchant ships from Murmansk to New Guinea during the war. Lawrence had just returned from an Atlantic crossing and was back home awaiting orders for a Pacific sailing. During that interim time he helped the family with their fishing business.
Julian's Reef was offshore Highland Park, Illinois, and that day they had company.
Steaming in their vicinity was the U.S. Navy training aircraft carrier USS Wolverine.
The Wolverine was a converted side-wheeled paddleship that had a flight deck installed above the hull. Fledgling Naval aviators flying out of Glenview Naval Air Station trained taking off and landing from this "flat-top" in the safety of U-boat free waters. The Wolverine had a companion ship the USS Sable, also used for training pilots, both 500' ships being docked in Chicago.
As they were lifting, the Energy's crew kept a watchful eye on the Wolverine as it conducted training flights from its decks. It was hard not to watch the junior aviators trying to line-up with the ship and then come skipping down the deck to a landing. Usually a small auxiliary boat accompanied the Wolverine to aid in recovering pilots who misjudged their landings. On this afternoon the wind and seas were building as the Energy ran down-swell to set. After the first gang was set, the Energy ran upwind and upreef to set the second gang. The outside end buoy being thrown out, the five boxes of dry nets were the first to go out the door, then the 60-70 Kahlenberg was checked down to reset the five boxes of wet nets. My father Lawrence and his father Steve were doing the resetting aft as Adam Detlaff wheeled the Energy. Leo Lenz was dressing trout on the front table, ready for an engine command if needed. The Wolverine was steaming up the port side of the Energy continuing to land aircraft about a quarter mile away.
USS Wolverine, IX-64
It was then that Detlaff yelled, "One of those planes just hit the water!" Sure enough, as everyone looked they could see the airplane beginning to settle in the waves, the pilot exiting the cockpit with his bright yellow "Mae West" life jacket gleaming in the late afternoon sun. The little fighter had fallen from the flight deck in an attempted landing.
The auxiliary boat was unable to be seen, and the Wolverine just kept on steaming getting ready for the next aircraft to land. Steve Ceskowski then yelled to Leo to "check her down" and told Lawrence to tie the bridle on the box of nets that they were setting, and get ready with the anchor and buoy.
Steve resumed the wheelhouse and announced that they were going after the downed pilot. The Kahlenberg answered the bell and off they went. About 10 minutes later they had the pilot by the side doors aft. Timing the roll of the swell, Steve and Lawrence reached down and grabbed the aviator by his shoulder straps and muscled him aboard. By now the wind was really breezing up and the waves were in a cross-swell of roller and chop.
The auxiliary, a small ship of about 90' came steaming up to the Energy about 15 minutes later with the idea of transferring the pilot rail-to rail. With no radio and a lot a shouting ship-to-ship, it was decided to be too dangerous to do the transfer at sea. The pilot would ride back to Waukegan.
The Energy set course for Waukegan as the crew closed up the tug for weather. They had three unset boxes of nets, and a very damp naval officer aboard. The pilot was given hot coffee, warm dry clothing, and a seat near the "Warm Morning" coal stove that took the chill off the inside of the tug. A lot of small-talk ensued as a fresh lake trout "domer" was unwrapped and shared by the crew with the pilot. The trout were dressed and iced, the tug washed and pumped, the Kahlenberg oiled, the Energy chugging to the poetry of the Kahlenberg's 'bump-bump-bump-bump" on her gate at about 8 mph!
Entering Waukegan harbor, there was much commotion seen at the City Dock, not the usual slip dock of the Energy. An entourage of official looking cars was obviously awaiting the Energy...and her guest of honor. A couple of light grey cars with the letters "U.S. Navy" stenciled on the doors accompanied a local police car. Upon shoreing up lines, the aviator was given assistance onto the dock, handshakes all around were in order and the pilot was whisked away back to his base in Glenview. The Energy then slipped her lines and proceeded up the channel to her home slip where the nets and trout were unloaded, fish weighed, nets reeled, and the crew found their way home. For my father it meant another week, and a cross-county train ride, before his next ship, a fast troop transport, sailed for the Pacific from San Francisco.
Two weeks later, a grey Chevrolet truck with the letters "U.S.Navy" stenciled on the door, pulled into my grandfather Steve's reel-yard in Waukegan. Two enlisted men dropped the tailgate and rolled out a large spool of 2" Nylon line.....Nylon!...that miracle fabric with the strength of steel, that never rotted! No more rotten cotton or hemp for the Energy....no sir! For the rest of the war and for many years after the Energy had the best lines in the harbor...a fact that gave peace of mind to the Ceskowski family when the strong surges invaded the harbor on northwest gales.
I think the Energy smiled.
Still in service: the Energy at Little Sand Bay, Wisconsin, summer 2008.
Many years later, the Energy faced a memorable winter challenge off Lake Superior's Devils Island. Read the story:
The Ordeal of the Energy