The Adventures of W. W. Hawkins
A seasoned veteran looks back on nearly a century in sporting field, battlefields and oilfields.
By Mike Beno
The brittle, yellowed clippings read like a script from one of those fuzzy, World War II newsreels. You know the ones. Olive-drab boys march stiff-legged in ultra-fast motion, as Lowell Thomas narrates to a rousing accompaniment of John Philip Sousa flourishes.
Reading the clippings during peacetime, from a safe distance of four decades, the faded words of Collier’s on October 21, 1994, or in the Dallas Morning News, December12, 1943, might wax cornball. Both articles describe the “Swamp Angels,” a crack wartime Coast Guard unit that operated along Louisiana’s Gulf coast.
COLLIER’S: The most unusual outfit in the U.S. armed forces.
NEWS: No wiser fellows exist . . . they dare the marshes and desolate coastal lines for 70 miles in a 24 hour vigil that is maintained by foot, boat, and horseback.
COLLIER’S: They are the only men who can go into the swamps and come back alive.
NEWS: Men who fight a thousand kinds of death against nature.
COLLIER’S: (They track and find) half-crazed men who wander aimlessly in the swamp until they lie down to die.
NEWS: No one questions their loyalty, skill and boldness . . . commanded by Lieutenant Win Hawkins, the unit has executed superhuman rescues.
All stop for breath.
Just who, then, is this Win Hawkins?—leader of an elite fighting force and intrepid engineer of daring rescues. Let’s let this pirogue-poling marsh master tell it himself: “Me pushin’ a pirogue? Well, ta tell ya the truth, I ain’t the best in the country about that. Hell, I’ve fallen from both ends.”
Unless a person possesses all the mental agility of a semi-ripe turnip, he very quickly realizes that you just won’t win if you act too seriously around William Winford Hawkins.
A rambunctious 92 years old, “Uncle Win,” as he is known to legions of Louisiana admirers, was born June 25, 1890. Since then, he has taken precious few pauses for breath himself. A man with a penchant for regaling all within earshot, his reputation as a story spinner of the first order is difficult to match. After nearly a century of running around assorted sporting fields, battlefields and oilfields, Hawkins has accrued ample ammo to keep any number of listeners in hee-haws. It’s a safe bet that some would argue, with a degree of justification that old ducks who spin yarns can be found most anywhere. But it’s a safer bet yet, that these persons have never ventured to laid-back Lafayette Louisiana, for a visit with Uncle Win.
“I’m so happy to see you,” says the petite, soft-spoken woman who just opened her front door to these three doughty visitors. “Come right in and sit down.” After meeting Mabel Hawkins, Win’s wife of 53 years, you suspect that if you were to look up the definitions of either “warmth” or “charm,” you’d find no text on the page of your trusty Webster’s, just this woman’s picture.
The visitors had heard that ol’ Win was recovering from a hospital stay a few days earlier, and with this in mind, the three expected to be treated to a short, subdued chat. After all, a person recuperating from a bout with surgery might be a smidge on the tired side.
“Hey, boys! Well how ya’ll doin’!” Win crows, as Miss Mabel leads the visitors into his room.
Sitting bolt upright in his bed, the long, tall gent with a thick thatch of silver-gray hair is a picture of animation. Fingers drumming, hands waving, legs kicking, Win is cranked up, ready to start in with what he loves best—working an attentive audience.
When you hear the threadbare expression “southern drawl,” your brain’s audio archive probably dusts off images of a molasses-smooth, drawn-out speech pattern. Given this stereotypical picture, it seems impossible that a person could speak with such a drawl, and do so at supersonic speeds. Somehow, with decades of practice behind him, Hawkins has mastered this syntactical paradox. Take one part stock southern drawl, and a handful of rapidity, mix in a dollop of gravel, and you have a small idea of the Hawkins Delivery.
A former farmer from Greenville, Alabama, Hawkins was lured to Cajun Country by oil. One of the last remaining “Oil Boomers” from the early 1900s, he landed in south Louisiana in the 1920s. “We started in Eldorado, Arkansas, and gawd dawg, I never saw anything like it in your life. There were 15 people livin’ in that town, and when they hit oil, 60,000 more showed up in 30 days.” So went the grind, Hawkins says, as he (and eventually, Miss Mabel followed the herds about the countryside, hitting some 70 different booms. Dealing in leases, Hawkins bought and sold his way from Arkansas clean down to Lafayette.
While it’s true that black gold lured him to Louisiana, it is equally true that Hawkins was held there by something more valuable—the regions waterfowl. Had he not ventured there, Hawkins might never had met up with a fellow by the name of Pops Glassell (DU President 1944-1945), who gave Uncle Win his Ducks Unlimited start in 1938.
“Did you know what a duck was before you came to Louisiana?” asks one guest.
“Well, I think I’d maybe seen one once,” Win deadpans. “In Alabama if ya got two ducks a day you were doin’ great.” Hawkins view of waterfowling changed dramatically in the 1920’s, with his first trip to Cameron Parish. A limit of 25 greenheads, in less than an hour, was something of a feat to a young pup from Alabama. So even though the Alabaman wasn’t too sure that Louisiana waterfowling he’d have no trouble getting used to. Win Hawkins set up his first duck camp in 1938, and in one form or another, has run one ever since. If he has missed a day of duck hunting in all that time, no one remembers it.
Over the years, at his various camps, Hawkins has never suffered for company. Just some of the persons who’ve kept time with him and his Cajun guides were Robert Taylor, Robert Ruark, and Nash Buckingham. Then there was an assistant secretary of the navy, who later made a somewhat bigger name for himself. To many, though, he is more readily known by his initials than his name. “Yeah, we had that one who was president for so damn long,” recalls Uncle Win.
During one freezing fall (another yellowed clipping from Miss Mabel’s scrapbook tells us) Franklin D. Roosevelt, his guide, and 14-year-old Elmo Ogle were hunting near Grand Chenier, and eagerly hit the swamps for a shoot. “Ol’ Roosevelt, he went out, and his guide lost the boy in the marsh,” Hawkins says. “The guides looked all night, and next morning the ol’ man says `Nobodys goin huntin’ today—we’re findin’ that boy.’ Well, after a long while ol’ Roosevelt, he and his guide finally found that boy. He was layin’ in the marsh almost frozen stiff. Roosevelt pulled the boy up, wrapped him in some of his own clothes, and carried him out on his back. Then when they took the boy to camp in the boat, he stayed there with only a light sweater on. He hadda’ get his huntin’ in,” says Hawkins with a headshake.
“Mister Win,” one of the visitors cuts in, “what about that time that famous golf pro came to see you?”
“Yeah—he was pretty good,” says Win with a mischievous grin.
“He and his wife come down to hunt with me. That golfer had a brand-new gun—never been shot—and I didn’t know, I thought maybe he hunted a lot. So ol’ Traville Broussard was his guide, and he took the man and his wife and some society folks from Dallas out. It was a big thing for them to go out with a pro golfer,” Win says, choking off a laugh.
“We gave him five boxes a’ shells—two for him, two for his wife, and one for the guide. Well, boys, he never gave none to the guide, he never gave none to his wife, he shot every damn one of `em.
“The other folks finished in no time, and it was startin’ to get cold as a well digger’s can. They was all about to freeze to death waitin’ for him. You know, you get all that little ol’ fine stuff all around . . . like they got in Maine. . . . “
“Yeah, anyway, they’s waitin’; and he’s shootin’; and they’re getting’ madder. Gawd dawg but you never heard such shootin’.”
At day’s end, says Hawkins, the golfer returned to camp—gun well broken-in, shell pockets empty, and one duck slung over his shoulder. Even though he planned a two day hunt, he told his host that he was thinking about leaving early to get back on the tour. The pro made final this decision, as Hawkins’ guide Blacky, who had heard the golfer shoot 125, spotted the linkster with his single duck. “Hey Mistah, Hey Mistah,” says Hawkins, mimicking Blacky’s Cajun chatter,” I hope you damn sure better brought your putter with you.” Pausing to catch his breath through chuckles, Hawkins adds “An’ that ain’ all. Later on I went to Traville and said `Well why didn’t ya go ahead and kill him some ducks? Turned out he did shoot that man’s duck. He had one shell in his pocket leftover from the day before. Traville said “I tell ya , I couldn’t do nothin’ like dat , dat’s a big man, and he mighta’ smashed my head off. When I shot dat gun, and dat duck fall, he looked over at me like, `ya sumbitch, ya think I can’t hit em?’”
Hawkins’ laughing guests have barely caught their collective breath as he knifes off on another story about his camp visitors.
It was not unusual in the 1940s, Hawkins maintains, for him to host military brass—including Lieutenant Generals Ben Lear and Walter Krueger, commanders (respectively) of the United States Second and third Armies. The generals, along with a young colonel named Dwight Eisenhower, decided one weekend that they’d take an unscheduled hiatus from the Louisiana Maneuvers in order to sneak in a quick round of duck shooting, Hawkins says.
“That’s when the Japanese busted up our stuff down there,” Uncle Win reminds his visitors. “The boys hunted Saturday, and nobody in the world knew they were there. At two o’clock on Sunday, they were getting ready to go goose huntin’ . . . .”
When the guests head about the action in Hawaii, Hawkins says, it was somewhat amusing to stand back and watch the ensuing fire drill. Half dressed, the United States’ top generals preformed slightly frantic versions of the polka, as they pulled on their pants while beating it out the door of the Grand Chenier Hunting Club. “One general came a runnin’ outta there in their drawers! We hadda’ send all their clothes, all the ducks, all the geese, all the guns—they even left their driver behind.”
As loud squawks of laughter emanate from the bedroom, Miss Mabel pokes her head in the door, considerate as always.
“Are you getting a little tired yet, Win?”
Looking up, the old boy summarily chases his concerned wife from the room with a smirk and a concise: “We’s jest BS’n. BS’n never gets ya tired! So anyway. . . . “
While the war stories and duck stories continue non-stop, Win’s visitors find that the two subjects are much more intermeshed in this old marsh dog’s life than an occasional hunt with a few brass hats. In fact, the entire reason Hawkins ended up serving in World War II can be traced back to waterfowling.
By the time the big conflict roiled u, Hawkins was a retired veteran, already having done his time in World War I.
“What rank were you then?” inquires a guest.
“Oh shoot, I’s a high-rankin’ man,” says a straight-faced Hawkins. “Buck private in the rear rank!”
The private first saw action in June of 1916, when his National Guard unit—the famous Fighting 69th, later known as the “Rainbow Devision”—was called up to help extirpate Pancho Villa. Then, in 1917, the crew was herded onto a cattle boat for a two week cruise to France. After bayonet fighting with Germans in the bloody Aines-Marne Offensive, Hawkins came home figuring his military days were finished. His duty done, he adjourned to south Louisiana for a few years of restful bayou blasting with his trusted covey of Cajun guides—that is, until the call came from New Orleans, in 1942.
“It was Admiral Farley from the Coast Guard; the only way he knew me was because I had that camp down there,” Hawkins recalls.
The admiral, it seemed, needed some help—help that only seasoned locals could provide. The Coast Guard was dissatisfied with security along the Gulf coast. The labyrinthian creeks, inlets and sloughs of the Louisiana shore have, since the days of the pirate Laffite, provided prime access for vessels to slink inland unnoticed. The Coast Guard was in the process of setting up a new security plan, because on the night before Farley’s call, the border patrol happened across 26 aliens strolling merrily down Highway 90 near Grand Chenier. Having paid their way from Poland to Cuba, the group, lugging possessions in bags the size of Santa’s sacks, simply trundled right in at night.
Clearly, a nation at war needed to prevent spies, or others for that matter, from penetrating its border at vulnerable points.
“Farley wanted someone to make him a map of the coast.” Win says. So Hawkins and duck hunting partner Jack Fransisco sat down and drew up the chart, denoting all the winding creeks, slough, inlets and trapper’s shacks, “We made him this map, and like a fool, I signed it,” Hawkins snorts.
Upon inspecting the diagram, the Coast Guard concluded, quite sagely, that no one but natives could adequately patrol such a tangled morass. Farley again dialed Hawkins’ digits. “He told me to come to New Orleans at 11 o’clock the next day. Well sir, I left Mabel at the hotel, and said `You stay here, I’ll go see what the devil I can do to help him.’ When I came back I was wearin’a uniform.”
Buck private no longer, Hawkins was commissioned lieutenant junior grade and given the command of the all new Grand Chenier Coast Guard Station (formerly his duck camp).
With that, he promptly repaired to camp and deputized his guides. They in turn, headed out to the bayous and rounded up all their friends and kin. Enter the Swamp Angels. Eventually numbering 120 volunteers, all showed up, without question, to help his country when it called. More amazing yet, none of the men expected to be paid.
“There was sons, an’ there was daddies, an’ there was everything else,” Hawkins says. “Some of ‘em had no teeth. None of them had any army record at all, but they’s the finest soldiers you ever saw. They furnished their own horses, and never said a word about it.
“The next night I had a unit, an’ the whole coast was covered. We had two men on every little stream from Vermillion Bay all the way to the Mermentau River (a stretch of about 70 miles).”
It is highly unlikely that a more ragtag gang could have been assembled. The Cajun Coast Guard, as the4 trappers, hunters, and fishermen came to be called, never worried themselves too much with rules or military decorum. Regulation uniforms were seldom worn, and in fact, most of the men never even received an entire uniform. Sailor’s cap or duck hunter’s hat, it didn’t matter. Formal orders, too, were conspicuously absent. If the Lieutenant told his men to go somewhere, they simply went. No passes were given because everyone worked every day.
The guardsmen maintained their 24-hour vigil on horseback, in small camps, and from observation towers, doing do unarmed for the most part. On a certain night, as one of the many stories goes, Hawkins’ men spotted the signal light of a boat, which was riding about four miles out in the Gulf. Since for the past few days, the men had heard rumors of a possible landing attempt, they got heated. Anticipating a boatload of wild-eyed saboteurs, eight of Hawkins’ troopers ran into the marsh, ripped apart a wooden bridge, and deployed themselves, ready to take on the landing party with two-by-fours. Prepared to wale, the men kept sharp eyes on the ship, whose skipper spotted no response to his signals. The captain presumably thought better of the attempt, and steamed off into the night. While the capable Cajuns kept intense watch over their coast, the group had still another function: search and rescue. In this capacity, without doubt, the Cajun Coast Guard was indispensable.
With a nearby airbase, and the sky thick with military aircraft on practice runs, mishaps were commonplace. And when a plane went down in the middle of the marshes of south Louisiana, you could just about write off its unfortunate crew. If the survivors tried walking out, they quickly got lost, mired down, and gave up from exhaustion. If the men simply sat down and waited, mosquitoes by the millions (quite capable of killing cattle) would descend upon their victims to feast. More times than not, regular army search parties would sally forth, and get equally lost in the hopeless tangle, necessitating the dispatch of a second, or even a third party.
Such was the miserable fate of downed fliers—until the Cajuns recruited.
“We picked up 67 people like that,” says a proud Hawkins. “If we hadn’t a’ been there, a lot more woulda’ been lost.”
Many of the fliers saved by Hawkins’ searchers were found half-dead, bloated from insect bites, wallowed down into the bayou ooze with only nose and eyes exposed, to escape the bloodthirsty swarms.
On only one occasion did the Cajun crew fail to find their men on the same day that the fliers crashed. One night, a pair of downed airmen crawled from their craft, and found themselves on a beach. From their comparatively open vantage point, they spotted the flares of a far-off oilfield. Neither realizing the light was too many miles away, nor understanding what awaited them in the marshes, the men decided to try for it.
Razor-sharp saw grass, thick, gripping mud, and mosquito clouds soon began work on them. As the men wandered further into the thickness, they became disoriented, and eventually began walking away from the oil rigs.
“Next day, we took out after `em, an’ those Cajuns can track a man like a dog,”Hawkins says. “We ran them people for God knows how long. We tracked `em every inch, every inch, every inch. When we got in the middle of the marsh, the tracks were gone!” (What had happened, the rescuers later found, was that about 2,000 “marsh cattle” which had been turned out to free range, began following the men and obliterated their tracks).
Thoroughly baffled, the Cajuns figured a boat might have picked the men up. But they could not stop the search until they were sure of the flier’s fate. Having lost the trail, 52 Coast Guardsmen spaced themselves 150 yards apart, and made a drive that covered nine and one-half miles, poling pirogues, and escorted by a pair of “Marsh Buggies.” Invented by a couple of the Cajun Coastguardsmen, these marvelous contraptions stepped through the bogs on eight-foot-wide wheels, powered by antique Ford engines.
“Just when we were starting our last drive, drive, damn it if we didn’t find `em both,” Hawkins smiles. Lying in the mud, holding hands, eyes swollen shut from mosquito bites, the men were practically dead.
“I’ll never forget it,” laughs win. “When we got the younger one up on the Marsh Buggy, he got a little bit of sense back, and he just started pattin’ that ol’ thing, sayin’ `Oh, I love you, I love you just like I do my momma.’ ”
While Hawkins has spent much of his long life in the military, with lots of time spent helping fliers, it might seem strange that through his first 91 years, he never rode in a plane. After a 1954 air crash claimed several close friends, he lost his taste for even attempting a flight.
Nearly 92 years of well-cultivated stubbornness fell by the way this year, however, as the old boy boarded his first aircraft, for a trip which took him near dauphin, Manitoba. The occasion: the dedication of DU’s Meadowlands Marsh Project. Financed by Louisiana Sportsmen, this project was added to Ducks Unlimited’s inventory of developed acreage in the name of Win Hawkins.
We know how he got started in DU, the question is, how did he get coaxed onto that plane?
“Ah, hell, the boss said I hadda go,” he grumbles, referring to his ferocious 100-pound wife wife. After so many years of marriage, Hawkins has learned to think better of incurring Miss Mabel’s Cajun wrath.
Hawkins says his only regret while touring the 253-acre project was that the late Pops Glassell couldn’t be around to see it.
Hawkins laughs as he recalls Glassell’s money-making tricks. One day, Hawkins says, Glassell had 16 friends (Hawkins included) at his camp for a two-day hunt. To make things interesting, Glassell made each man throw $20 in a kitty. The hunter who bagged the most ducks with the least shots, walked it home.
As the hunters drew for guides, Hawkins says, he got one of the best.
“Pops knew the boys was gonna have hell beatin’ me—and remember, we’re talkin’ about givin’ me money!” So Glassell promptly re-assigned the guides to even things out.
“Huh, he give me one about that tall,” grunts Hawkins, holding his hand barely higher than a canoe paddle stands. “The sumbitch couldn’t see over the blind atall. Couldn’t do nothin’ but push a pirogue.”
But push he did, and before the day was done, had steered Hawkins into seven mallards in seven shots.
“I’s the only one who did that,” he grins. That evening, in another attempt to even the odds, Glassell ruled that anyone bagging a Canada goose would have five bonus ducks added to his score.
“Next day, I got another good guide. So pops, he cussed me, an’ give me some guy with one leg. Gawd dawg, how in the hell can ya walk in the marsh with a peg leg?” Hawkins cackles.
“But that fella had the finest dog you ever seen. . . “
The result: six mallards in six shots.
“I thought someone could still beat me, an’ I had 12 minutes left,” he says. “Then, boys, I ain’ BS’n ya, I turned and saw four ring-necked geese. Got two with my last shell.”
When a grinning Hawkins returned to camp, a down, but not defeated Glassell was waiting. “Pops had all the $20 bills sittin’ there. He says `real good, Win, ya won it easy.’ Then he reached over and took it. He gave it all to Ducks Unlimited!” Hawkins laughs.
All was not fun and games for the two, however, as they did put in a little work in raising their money. Hawkins still cringes as he recalls the time Glassell kept him camped in the Louisiana State Legislature for 60 straight days. The upshot of this excursion (besides getting to know the legislators quite well) was the first-ever designation of state sportsmen’s license fees to DU.
As the powwow comes to a close, and the yellowed, brittle clippings are returned to the scrapbooks, Mabel Hawkins enters once more. On the way out, one of the visitors asks, quite innocently, if it has been a might trying for her to follow an oil boomer all over the land, or for that matter, to put up with 53 years of a crazy old duck hunter, and even crazier duck hunting stories.
“Well,” she smiles, “I guess it just takes a little understanding.”
Almost before the last word leaves her mouth, she realizes what’s coming.
“Yeah,” barks a laughing Win, “an’ she ain’t understood a thing I said yet!”