Edward Didion got to visit one of his boyhood "homes" last Saturday. It was anchored at Robinson Terminal, and he was joined by hundreds of other Alexandria and area residents.
Now a successful Alexandria businessman, Didion was only 12, a vagabond World War II orphan, when he was adopted by the first American crew of the newly acquired spoil of war, the Horst Wessel, a German training ship. Today we know it as The Eagle.
The 295-foot, tri-masted sailing ship has served as a teaching vessel for the U.S. Coast Guard since it became American property at the conclusion of World War II. It visited Alexandria for one day of public tours after serving as the backdrop for the Coast Guard Change of Command last Friday at Fort McNair.
Didion served as the ship's mascot for five months in 1946 after he traveled with a U.S. Army outfit from his home in the French/German border area of the Saar. "The outfit shipped home from Bremerhaven, but I had to stay behind because I only had a French passport," Didion explained.
That's when the small boy, in a makeshift Army uniform, attached himself to the new American crew and its first captain, Gordan McGowan. In his book "The Skipper and The Eagle," published in 1960, the late Capt. McGowan devotes nearly two pages to Eddie Didion and his crew's attachment to him.
MCGOWAN EXPLAINED his introduction to Didion as follows: "Early in the fitting-out period, a handsome youngster with blond curly hair had been hanging around the gangway.... In contrast to most German children, he was rosy-cheeked and looked well-fed. One day he showed up on deck in a miniature suit of dungarees, wielding a paint brush alongside one of my men.
"He spoke English with no trace of an accent. When Normandy was invaded, Eddie attached himself to an American regiment and had been unofficially adopted. After nearly two years with what he called his "old outfit," the regiment had sailed for home.
"His training in the Army had been excellent. He always said 'Sir' when spoken to; he stood at attention when addressed; he kept himself neat and clean and had a warm and friendly smile for everyone. Eddie's status as a crew member became more firmly established each day. He acquired a hammock, a suit of blues; he even had his own deck scrubber."
But when it came time for The Eagle to leave for America, the same fate awaited Eddie Didion as when his old outfit shipped out. He had to be left behind and was turned over to the Red Cross.
Eventually, Edward Didion was informally adopted by retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Mike Augustine, who was running a scrap metal business in Europe. In 1949 Augustine returned to the Phoenix, Ariz., area, and two years later Didion joined him there.
AFTER FINISHING high school in Scottsdale, Ariz., Didion served two years in Korea with the U.S. Army. He finally moved to Washington, D.C., in 1964 and went to work for the U.S. Travel Agency Inc. and became manager of, what else, its Caribbean Cruise Lines.
While employed there, he met his second wife, Karen, and they opened their own travel business in 1980, located in Washington, known as Didion World Cruises. This past January they relocated the firm to 820 N. Fairfax St., in Alexandria, within walking distance of their home on Princess Street.
In 1979, as manager of Caribbean Cruise Lines, Didion was instrumental in getting the first cruise ship into Alexandria. In 1992, as the owner of his own company, he was in sole control of bringing in The Monarch for cruises from the Port of Alexandria. The last cruise ship to sail from Alexandria under his aegis was The Leeward in 1998.
Last Saturday he once again confronted his past as he and others ascended the gangplank and stepped onto the deck of the now modernized floating classroom of the U.S. Coast Guard. The Eagle is the largest tall ship flying the American flag and the only square- rigger in U.S. government service.
Now under the command of Capt. Ivan Luke, it cruises for five months each summer from its home port at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., to a variety of ports to provide actual sea experience to cadets. It carries a crew of 150 cadets and 75 Coast Guard personnel.
"This is my dream job. I worked for 15 years before I got it," Capt. Luke emphasized. "It's the challenge of helping the cadets in becoming successful. We are sailors but we are really teachers, and this is the ideal classroom."
LUKE FURTHER explained, "Their summer on The Eagle is the lab experience to complement the academics at the Academy. Being a sailing ship, it teaches the cadets teamwork, how to solve problems, and how to relieve stress under tense and demanding situations. Sailing also ties them to the sea and wind and teaches them what it's all about."
Built in 1936, The Eagle was one of four training ships built for the German Navy. At the end of the war, one went to the Russians, one to Portugal, one to Rumania, and America got The Eagle. It has served as a Coast Guard training vessel since 1946. Germany built a sister ship in 1956, which it now has.
"This cruise began on May 13 from New London. First, we went to New York City to take part in Fleet Week and then here for the change-of-command ceremonies," 1st Class Tom Warren, a training officer, explained.
"From Alexandria we go to Nassau in the Bahamas, then back to Fort Lauderdale, St. Petersburg, Mobile, Key West, and finally Charleston. That's where the summer cruise ends for the cadets," Warren specified.
Immediately after leaving Alexandria last Sunday morning, The Eagle stopped at Quantico Marine Corps Base to lower the main mast. "We have to strike the mast in order to get under the bridge at Route 301. The mast is 143 feet tall, and the bridge is only 135 feet," according to Luke.
FOR 1ST CLASS Cadet Arron Casavant, being a part of the training staff aboard The Eagle is a far cry from his home in Littleton, Colo. A member of the Academy's class of 2003, Cassavant finds the opportunity “to be on The Eagle and participate in the training of the Class of 2005 is really awesome."
He said, "I'm having a fantastic time. I had no idea I was going to fall in love with the sea when I entered the Academy. I knew I wanted to go to a military academy. I got offers from the Merchant Marines and the Coast Guard. Eventually I'd like to be stationed at Port Canaveral, Fla., aboard a fleet cutter."
Cadet Cathy Gabinelle, 19, a member of the Class of 2005, has closer ties to the sea. She is a native of Westfield, Mass., and her father was in the Navy, she said. "I was aboard The Eagle for one week last year. It's a lot of hard work, but I'm learning a lot," she emphasized.
Another cutter hopeful after graduation was Cadet Elizabeth Murtha, also 19 and a member of the 2005 class. She hails from Woodbridge, N.J., and her father served in the Marine Corps. "I love this experience. There's so much to learn, and we work with such a great crew," she enthused as she explained various rigging to the visiting tourists.
According to Luke, The Eagle has hosted up to 10,000 visitors in a single day during his three years as skipper. "When we stop in various ports, I tell my wife I have a girl in every one — and she is it. She was in New York when we docked and will meet us again Nassau. This stop was too packed with the ceremony and all to get any free time," Luke stated.
THE LUKES, who have been married for 26 years, have two sons. One is also in the Coast Guard and the other is in college. "After this cruise The Eagle will undergo heavy-duty maintenance throughout the winter, according to Luke. "She may be 66 years old, but she is a thoroughly modern ship and has the latest of all technical equipment. It is kept up-to-date through the maintenance schedule," Luke assured.
It is the seventh Coast Guard ship to bear the name "Eagle" dating back to 1792. This Eagle was one of five ships originally built at the Blohm and Voss Shipyard in Hamburg, Germany. Collectively they were known as the "Five Sisters."
In making the trip to New England, following World War II, under American command, with a combined crew of Americans and members of the German crew still on board, The Eagle had to maneuver through sunken ships and mines before reaching the open sea, McGowan related in his book.
Sailing The Eagle is accomplished by handling 22,000 square feet of sail and five miles of rigging. Over 200 lines control the sails and yards. This gives practical meaning to Luke's statement, "The Coast Guard has always had the tradition of training its cadets under sail."