Within a day we had been contacted by Bob Guenthart, Captain/owner of Renegade charters in Manistee and organizer of the event. Talking with Captain Bob I learned that his idea started with hopes that he could get twenty charter boats to volunteer their day to take up to 60 Michigan veterans out fishing. Preference would be given to wounded veterans first. Not one captain he asked told him no and his efforts quickly grew. By the time the event kicked off, 38 charter boats had donated their time and crews and 160 veterans were signed up to go fishing! Sponsors quickly came on board with the Little River band of Ottawa Indians and Little River Casino signing on to be the premier sponsor. They provided banquet facilities and a fabulous served dinner for the veterans, their families, the captains, their crew and the volunteers (in addition to financial support). Viewing the long list of sponsors quickly highlighted the phenomenal support from the community and local businesses in honoring our Veterans.
Unfortunately, most of the UNJ staff had prior obligations and the only staffer able to attend was yours truly…oh, darn I have to schedule a day out of the office so I can ride along on a fishing charter in Lake Michigan. Somebody had to do it.
When the day finally arrived, I pulled into the Manistee City Marina parking and unloaded the camera gear. 5:30 am and it was already almost 70 degrees out and the start of a beautiful day. I made my way down to the docks and immediately was greeted by Captain Bob (whom I’d never met yet). Captain Bob’s boat, the Renegade, was parked at the gas dock were there was a lift unit to assist in getting wheel chairs onto his boat. Next to the Renegade was the Sandpiper III and Bob introduced me to her owner, Captain Kevin Hughes (at least in this huge crowd of wonderful folks there was one name I didn’t have to worry about forgetting!). Captain Kevin had volunteered to allow me to ride along with him and his crew to film the event first hand. I was quickly introduced to Kevin’s First Mate, Glen and their 3rd crew, Pat.
Around 6 am our first veteran arrived. David Peck, a wounded and wheel chair bound Navy veteran from Vietnam. Luckily, the layout of Sandpiper III allowed David to be hand lifted in his chair down to the fishing deck. In no time at all I was chatting with David and found out that he is the Vice President of Paralyzed Veterans of America, Michigan Chapter. David told us that he had lost his leg when a 750lb bomb was exploded under their boat while on patrol and this was his first time on a boat since that incident. Shortly after David was on board, our next veteran arrived. Ike Eickholdt another Navy Veteran who served on the USS Bainbridge as a EWT Second Class Petty Officer.
With a 7 am tournament kick off, the other boats were starting to leave dock and we’ve yet to load our third veteran. Seems the loading ramp for the bus had stuck in the down position and we were waiting for a second bus to arrive. When the backup bus showed up and Glen is bringing our third veteran down to the docks, we’re the only boat still tied up, the rest had left the harbor. Our third veteran is another Vietnam wounded Navy man, Russell Stewart. Russell is quickly lifted down to the deck in his wheel chair and Captain Kevin gets us on our way. Even though we’re late getting started, everyone is all smiles and good cheer and if there is an award for that, I’m sure Russell would take the prize…I don’t think he stopped smiling the entire trip.
Figuring we’d missed the tournament start you can imagine our surprise to find every single boat waiting for us just outside the mouth of the harbor! This event was not going to start off without every vet present and accounted for. As we came to a stop we received a call to shut down our engines…
Silence on the water, a light and eerie fog floating as a shallow mist, centered in the circle of charter boats, at the heart of all these veterans, from the bow of the US Coast Guard vessel came the sound of Bag Pipes honoring our troops, our fallen, it sang across the waters for all to hear. I can only imagine the thoughts and feelings our veterans were feeling as more than one eye was teary as the pipes completed their song.
A moment of silence and the announcement to get under way. Time to FISH!
One thing I’ll note is that every time I said “just tell me if I’m in your way”, every single one of these gentlemen would immediately tell me the same thing. They went out of their way to make sure I had access to film from what ever angle I needed to. Captain Kevin even told me he’d turn the boat if needed (as much as he could) to change the sun angle if it was interfering with filming a fish on. I can not express my thanks adequately enough to them for going out of their way to accommodate my activities while they were working.
If you’ve never had a chance to go on a charter boat, you don’t know what you’re missing! The Sandpiper III is a 36’ Tiara open and perfect for fishing Lake Michigan. While Captain Kevin was heading towards his location to fish, Glen and Pat were getting the rods rigged and ready. David, Russell and Ike all had that look of excitement and I felt part of a special group, heading for an incredible day.
Dipsy divers, lead core, ten color, 4 color, blue dolphins, planer boards, down riggers, clips, monkey shines, bumble bees, superman, down speed, top speed, temperature…. Ok, I’m lost… let’s just say that these guys knew what they were doing and seeing everything that was going on was fun and informative.
It took a little while but Glen decided to give a couple solid “come on” fish claps and WHAM! FISH ON! Russell was first up but unfortunately the first fish of the day decided that he’d rather stay in the water… At least the excitement factor was working! Shortly after and another rod starts screaming out drag…. David is up and the hook is set. Glen and Pat get a couple rods out of the way and David soon has the first fish in the boat! While the day ended up being a bit slow for fishing, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. We all learned about each other, the veterans and myself learned a lot about fishing in the Great Lakes and we got to spend a lot of quality time with new friends.
As the weigh in time approached, Kevin informed us it was time to start bringing the lines in, so if we were going to say a prayer for a last fish, now was the time. I doubt the final Amen and been silently uttered when one last rod started running out line and Russell brought in the last fish of the day. As we entered the harbor we were greated by flags all along the pier, presented by the Rolling Thunder riders.
Here’s the group with the day’s haul…
While our fish didn’t win the tournament, they certainly won the enthusiasm of our veterans.
The awards banquet that evening started off with a repeat of our mornings bag pipes and the traditional warrior and honor songs by the Chippewa Band of Indians Warrior Society. The opening ceremony speech was given by Brigadier General Carol Ann Fausone and a special presentation was given to our attending Medal of Honor recipient Cpl Duane Dewey. It was amazing to see Cpl Dewey, almost 79 years old, walking past me when you realize that while being treated for wounds to his feet from a grenade, he threw the medical corpsman out of the way as another grenade landed next to him and jumped on top of it…he not only survived but recovered. President Eisenhower was right when he told him, “You must have a body of steel.”
Following the welcome, singer Kelly Trudell sang the National Anthem and we followed up with the Pledge of Allegiance. After a wonderful dinner, the awards were presented for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place of best fish weighed in and for best catch boat division (won by Trout Scout). In addition, a Governor’s Cup Award was presented to the best team (Navy, Army, etc…) along with a congratulatory letter from Michigan’s Governor Jennifer Granholm.
After the evening closed with Taps, I was able to sit down for a few minutes with Captain Bob and talk about the event. I’m looking forward to next year and plans are in the process of looking to a couple of close by cities like Ludington and Frankfort to add to the boats available for Veterans. I hope those plans include inviting the UNJ crew back up for some more video opportunities.
Thank You to our Veterans, our service men and women and to all the armed forces that protect our freedoms and our families.
It’s a bit long, but I’m going to list the primary sponsors because they really went out of their way to honor our Veterans.
Little River Casino Resort, Manistee County Charter Boats, Luna Entertainment, Design Comfort Heating and Cooling, Blarney Castle Oil, Ted and Pam Arens, Bonnie and Joel Kenny, Michael Nauta, Onekama Marine, Paul Downs, Pro Seal Service Group, Ridgeback Rattler Custom Awards, Riverside Taxidermy, City of Manistee, Customs-N-Classics Car Club, Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources & Environment, E-Coolers, Grand Rental of Manistee, Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary, Little River Band Warrior Society, Manistee County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Manistee County Sport Fishing Association, National Association of the Physically Handicapped, Northern Spirits Gift Shoppe, Pepsi, Phyllis Hanna, Rolling Thunder, Seng Family, Showspan, Sports Ink Screen Printing, Steven MacNeil, Tournament Trail, United States Coast Guard, United Veteran’s Council Manistee
And that list does not even include the 40 different Prize Donors!