On his first night standing watch, World War II Coast Guardsman Gerald “Pat” Patterson had visions of Axis powers storming the quiet shoreline of Garibaldi, Oregon.
Now 98 years old, Pat reminisces about his time in the war and how the small port town he was stationed in along the Oregon Coast became the place he would serve for the rest of his life.
Donning his new uniform with a 35-pound radio on his back, the setting of Pat’s military service is not commonplace in the history told of the Greatest Generation’s war. Threats of invasion along U.S. shorelines seemed imminent as word from the frontlines reached stateside servicemen at military posts up and down the West Coast.
Pat answered the call to arms by enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard as a teenager in Sacramento, California, in 1943. After basic training, Pat and his fellow guardsmen joined the ranks of World War II servicemen and boarded a train for Seattle.
Pat assumed he would be deployed to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, which had become a contentious battleground.
As the soldiers fell in line to hear their assignments, Pat was chosen to go to Garibaldi—a small coastal town nestled near the mouth of Tillamook Bay.
“Nobody had ever heard of Garibaldi, Oregon,” Pat says.
Pat patrolled the beaches of Garibaldi on foot and horseback from 1943 through 1946. Much of his time was spent near the Coast Guard station and the boathouse—two Garibaldi buildings that are still standing today.
During his service, Pat helped save a fellow serviceman who fell into the bay at night when the tide was going out. Thinking on his feet, Pat extended a nearby ladder into the water within reach of his comrade.
“He was a spicy guy,” says Pat. “He was the nicest guy you ever saw after that.”
Pat was also part of a rescue team for a crabbing crew whose boat got stuck in the ocean’s swells and moved dangerously close to rocks near the shoreline.
While Pat did not see combat, one night he was given a stark reminder of the dangers hidden beneath the stretch of coastline he was sent to protect.
At 2 a.m., the only sounds to be heard were the dark waters seesawing at the mouth of the bay. Pat was fighting back sleep at his post during night patrol. Suddenly, his emergency radio crackled to life. A voice abruptly cut through the quiet night with “one, two, three, four, drop.”
The stillness of the night was disrupted as Pat felt the reverberations from a blast hit the shoreline. This went on for hours as Pat stared out into the night unsure what danger was encroaching offshore.
In the daylight, word spread that blimps from nearby Tillamook Naval Air Station had dropped depth charges on a submarine 10 miles south of Cape Meares.
Pat spent the final six months of his service at Cape Meares. He was one of the last Coast Guard keepers at the lighthouse, which is now a popular scenic viewpoint.
The ending of a war for many who serve means making the long journey home from overseas. For Pat, Garibaldi had become his home.
“I married a red-headed girl who lived in Garibaldi,” Pat says. “I went to work at her father’s company, and I stayed there for 30 years. I was dumber than a stick, but I was a good worker.”
Pat spent his career at the Port of Garibaldi working at his father-in-law’s fishing and crabbing company.
“One night had 10 ton of Dungeness crab,” Pat says. “That’s why I’m bent over.”
Pat’s service to the Garibaldi community continued long after he hung up his uniform. He has spent close to 70 years as a member of the Garibaldi Lions Club, working on service projects, such as revitalization of the local park and preservation of local history. He also helped establish the Tillamook County Transportation District to provide local commuter bus services.
“He is an ambassador to our country,” says local resident Judy Riggs.
She turns to Pat and says, “Every time you speak, your passion for your country comes through.”
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, Pat is one of roughly 240,000 living veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I believe I am as close to God as I will ever get,” Pat says. “It’s hard to believe that I’ve lived this long.”
The city of Garibaldi celebrates March 7 as Pat Patterson Day to commemorate his service to his country and his community. This date coincides with establishment of Coast Guard Station Tillamook Bay in 1908.
“Pat, you are a national treasure,” Capt. Scott Jackson, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Columbia River, said at a ceremony honoring Pat last month. “You’ve served not for fame, not for fortune, but because it is the right thing to do.”
Humbled by the city’s first-ever proclamation and the recognition from residents, Pat acknowledges all of the people who have given back to the country and the local community.
“I hope I’m not the story, but I am part of it,” Pat says.