Key West, Fla. — As thousands of Cubans continue to express abhorence at Fidel Castro's rule of their homeland by streaming away from it in almost anything that can float, the US Coast Guard is laboring mightily to ensure their safe arrival on these shores in one of the biggest peacetime operations it has ever mounted.
Since the freedom "boatlift" began April 23, ships and aircraft from Coast Guard Group Key West have mounted some 400 search and rescue sorties, plucking fleeing Cubans from the sea and transferring others from crippled and overloaded boats to a veritable armada of cutters.
Many Coast Guard boat crews are working 24-hour watches, with a day off in between each, and expect, with a day off in between each, and expect to maintain this exhausting schedule until the emergency is over. Shore personnel are working 12-to 14-hour days.
"Some are only catching a few hours of sleep before returning to duty," says Chief Petty Officer Ed Lewis as he watches the oceangoing tug Dr. Daniels approach Key West harbor festooned with some 700 refugees wildly chanting "libertad!" and hurling a rich variety of epitaphs at Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union.
In normal circumstances, 150 men and women and two cutters constitute Coast Guard strength here. But as the size of the refugee wave became apparent, personnel and craft were rushed to Key West from other states, including Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, and Massachusetts. Coast Guard Group Key West now boasts 13 cutter and 600 hands.
The numbers of ships and personnel may well be increased if, as expected, additional refugees -- encouraged by fair skies over the Straits of Florida and President Carter's pledge to extend to them "an open heart and open arms" -- swell the freedom flotilla. To date, 18,761 have arrived in Key West in some 500 boats. A total of 3,000 arrived May 6.
News That the US is considering replacing the chaotic seaborne exodus with an orderly airlift would be generally welcome here by the overstretched Coast Guard , though the service has relished the opportunity to display its mettle in the current emergency -- "semper paratis" being its watchword.
The largest vessel employed in the emergency operation is the 378- foot, high- endurance cutter Dalas, which is serving as a seaborne command center. The rakish vessel, which mounts a three-inch gun on its foredeck, stopped at Key West at noon May 6 to replenish food and fuel and then steamed back into the straits at 8 a.m. the following morning.
The Dallas is supported by another high- endurance cutter, the Ingham, and the medium-endurance cutters Diligence, Dependable, Dauntless, vigorous, and Vigilant -- besides a number of patrol and utility boats. The larger vessels have been steaming within 15 miles of the Cuban coast.
Air surveillance, considerably increased since the boatlift began, is provided by Coast Guard and Navy Lockheed HC-130 and HC-131 fixed-wing aircraft and Sikorsky H-3 and HH- 152 helicopters flying from Boca Chica Naval Air Station at Key West, and Opa-Locka Airport near Miami.
Surveillance flights, which range up to 30 miles from the Cuban coast, counted 374 boats heading for Key West and 77 for the Cuban port of Mariel on May 6. Occassionally, reconnaissance flights sight Cuban naval craft in the straits. On a recent helicopter sweep, the Coast Guard photographed a Soviet OSA-class missile-firing patrol boat.
To meet its aerial surveillance duties, the Coast Guard has brought in helicopters from other Coast Guard stations. Some are beginning to show the strain of sustained patrolling. Coast Guard helicopter 14-30, a Sikorsky HH-3S from Elizabeth City, N.C., was forced to abort a surveillance flight after 40 minutes and return to base May 6 after it developed both engine and communication problems. They had happened to sweep the Florida Straits for some two hours counting boats and hovering low enough to record the names, radioing the information back to headquarters at Key West.
The Coast Guard continues to be astounded at the risks taken by those who set out for Cuba in small craft. "They're out there in 22-foot runabout," gasps group executive officer Lt. Roland Isnor. "It's crazy, what these people are doing. We plead with them not to go."
Observing that only 500 boats have returned from Mariel, where there are reportedly 2,000 to 3,000, he notes that there are "a lot of boats to come." But he says reconnaissance indicates that a reduced number have been setting out for Cuba in the past few days.
Chief Lewis says that people are even attempting the crossing in 16-foot boats. As far as he is concerned, only well-qualified skippers familiar with navigation who have good, seaworthy boats over 50 feet long should be making the voyage.
He says that in many instances boat owners know little more than how to turn a key to start their boats. "They're never had any kind of classes in boat handling and boat safety."
With a note of incredulity in his voice, Chief Lewis says that skippers have radioed Coast Guard vessels to ask if they have a chance or to inquire what a particular light is. "One man asked if we could identify a green and white flashing light. It turned out to be the control tower light at Key West Airport."
But only six fatalities have been recorded to date by the Coast Guard.
Chief Lewis is in a utility boat loaded with press photographers waiting for the tug Dr. Daniels under a cloudless blue sky. As he lingers near the harbor entrance, the cutter Point Huron glides by. On deck are some 70 refugees rescued from two drifting motor launches, now bobbing astern on towlines.
"It looks like a cruise boat," noted the chief, dryly. It seems incredible that the frail craft could have accommodated them all.
Within minutes, the Dr. Daniels is alongside, escorted by the cutter Vigilant from New Bedford, Mass. Registered in Georgetown, capital of the British Cayman Islands, the Daniels' frenzied refugees are waving.
Seaman Steven Begich says, "It feels good when you see people cheering for our country. It's been a long time."
The oceangoing tug ties up alongside a mobile canteen fairly bursting with cans of soda pop. "Here's the real thing," proclaims a large red-and-white placard.
For the refugees, the real thing was US soil.