A Story to Be Told

by Ed Howard
Reprinted from Society News, the newsletter of the Arcadia Area Historical Society
November 2018. Volume 24 Issue 2.

When some townspeople reported seeing submarines off Arcadia’s shoreline during WW II, it probably created quite a stir—until, of course, they learned that these U boats were actually being built in Manitowoc, Wisconsin and were being tested in the deep waters off our shores. Most would think that this was the last and only time anything of any military intrigue took place in waters this close to home. But, a couple years ago, Starke Point resident and avid fisherman, Charlie Mange, suggested otherwise.

Charlie had a story he thought ought to be told and did so at a meeting of Arcadia’s VFW Post 3314. He detailed the account verbally and also left it as a one-page report. At the time, Charlie presumed he was the only living person to witness the event and knew of no written narratives. I’m not sure if his fellow vets were left skeptical, but, fishermen and seamen are known for their tales.

His story went like this: On a day in early April of 1989, after the ice had cleared from Arcadia Lake and the channel, Charlie cruised out of the harbor and turned south to fish along the big lake shoreline. He was seeking the early brown trout which, when waters began warming, came there to feed on the plentiful alewives. As he trolled south, he routinely watched the shoreline for deer which often walked there that time of day. No deer, but, surprisingly, he saw two human heads pop up just above the low dunes. They appeared not to want to be seen. On the return troll, he saw them again and couldn’t believe they’d been camping there as folks often did later in the season. This remained a personal mystery, until a few days later, as he was trolling the big lake, Charlie made radio contact with fellow fisherman, Captain Earl Janssen of the charter boat “PJ.” Charlie told Earl of the bobbing heads sightings.


Earl Janssen

PJ Captain Earl Janssen
Just "Big Earl" to many friends and associates

The PJ

The PJ
Earl and Bob Peters are at the controls.

Earl was not equally mystified. He told Charlie that a few days prior two unknown men had come to his door wanting to charter the PJ. He was at first happy that he could gain an outing that early in the season, but, then, disappointedly, had to say no when the men said they wanted to do a night cruise without lights in order to observe the night sky. He told them he could lose his license running without lights at night. Persistent, they came back the next day and offered more money to do the same, but, again he said no—until they assured him that Coast Guard Chief Johnson had approved it. Earl knew the Chief well, so saw him to verify. That part was approved, but, then the men stipulated that they needed to be picked up on the shoreline. Again Earl refused, emphasizing that he could only board them from his dock; he would not risk the surf and his boat. They accepted that and, even without them aboard, employed Earl to, on a given day and hour, head the boat to Frankfort.

The time came, and Earl and his mate departed for Frankfort without lights. They glassed the horizon along the way, but, the lighted pier at Frankfort became their main guide. Eventually reaching the piers, they passed through into the harbor and docked at the Coast Guard station as directed. To their dismay, as they entered the station from the ramp, they saw station personnel leaning spread eagle against the wall. They were asked to remain silent and wait further directions. Directions soon came; they were told to return to their boat and await six men who would go into the cabin. After the boarding, Earl was instructed to depart the harbor on a given compass heading. During departure, they were hailed on a special radio and directed by spotlight to a giant ship which they could soon see was draped with cargo nets. The six male passengers exited the cabin and clambered up the nets onto the ship. This strange charter was finally completed after Earl transported two more loads of men to the waiting ship—which he had immediately recognized as the 290’ Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw.


"To their dismay, as they entered the [Coast Guard] station from the ramp, they saw station personnel leaning spread eagle against the wall."

The Mackinaw

The Mackinaw
This is the U.S. Coast Guard cutter involved in the intrigue along Arcadia's shores. The ship is now a museum.

US Coast Guard Station


US Coast Guard Station
This view is from a postcard from Frankfort, MI.

As he further discussed the event with Charlie, Earl said he had learned later that certain operatives in training, perhaps CIA, had been parachuted at night over various rendezvous points in Michigan and that the Arcadia pair had been transported to Frankfort by closed U-Haul trailer.

To better comprehend Charlie’s story, we need to remember the strained relations taking place between Panama dictator Manuel Noriega and the United States in 1989. Noriega had once served as an important conduit for U.S. aid supporting the Nicaraguan contras, but, at the same time, was shipping arms to Marxist rebels in El Salvador, passing classified information to Cuba, Libya, and Warsaw Pact states, and dealing with terrorist organizations. In February, 1988, two separate grand juries had already indicted him on trafficking and racketeering charges. Noriega had responded with a systematic campaign to harass U.S. Military personnel and dependents stationed in Panama. There were over 600 incidents between February 1988 and May 1989 and many were brutal. Most memorable was the incident in March 1989 when Panama Defense Forces pulled over 21 U.S. school buses and held hundreds of American schoolchildren at gunpoint for hours.

President George H. W. Bush made the final decision to remove Noriega at a war council meeting December 17, 1989; Congress had approved his removal long before. Training missions for his removal, like the one being described here, would have begun much earlier. We now know the President used Southern Command’s plan to do a full force invasion which would, and did, overwhelm and demolish Panamanian Defense Forces before they could seize U.S. hostages. A once considered commando type raid to seize the dictator was deemed infeasible. It was a full Green Berets, SEALS, Air Force Commando, and Delta Force involvement which began December 20 and was basically over in four days. Manuel Noriega was found and imprisoned on January 3. (The interesting full story of Noriega’s capture can be found on the internet.)

Shortly after Arcadia Daze this year, Charlie Mange, to his great satisfaction, found he was not the only living being (Earl Janssen had passed away) who bore witness to this strange episode in 1989. Luckily, because of a chance telephone inquiry about his health and wellbeing, Charlie was able to gain the telephone number of Bob Peters, the very “mate” who was with Capt. Earl the night of that lights-out charter to Frankfort. He lived in Berkley, Michigan. In a long telephone conversation, Peters corroborated many details of the long ago event and provided much added information. He informed Charlie that all such operatives were trained at Fort Bragg and qualified as paratroopers before being sent on these secret missions.

This story seemed intriguing enough as told above, but, this writer decided he might discover even more pertinent details if he called Bob Peters himself. Glad I did. Rather than mate, Bob would probably be considered co-captain on that lights-out cruise. He’d been a charter boat captain since the year of Arcadia’s centennial celebration, 1980, and on until about 1995. Bob had actually financed the purchase of the PJ, and the letters “PJ” simply represented the names Peters and Janssen. He and the entire Janssen family were from Berkley, Michigan and knew each other well. Bob was a U.S. Navy Korean War vet and seemed to have kept some interest in military operations.

He agreed that operatives from Fort Bragg had been dropped throughout Michigan during this training mission, but that the drop, probably in pairs of two, had occurred 3-4 months before the delivery to the ship Mackinaw. These men were to blend themselves into their assigned communities and, by whatever means, become familiar faces amongst the folks. Bob said the Villa Marine Bar was a frequent haunt for the Frankfort area contingent, and there they did, indeed, blend in. Bob added that there were actually 4 or 5 charter boats involved in the Mackinaw deliveries, including “The Sea Joy” owned by Mike Bradley of Frankfort.*

When I asked Bob about the surprise of finding the Coast Guard personnel spread eagle against the wall, he laughed and said, that became part of the story as Earl later told it to patrons at The Big Apple. The Coast Guardsmen did remain silent like all the others, but, they were standing ever-ready for regular duty. Bob hinted that Earl sometimes added to the narrative just to increase listener interest. Beer may have encouraged the process. He said it was good I hadn’t heard the part about the machine guns.

Did I mention earlier anything about stories told by fishermen and sailors?