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64 years later, the Golden Rule takes to the water to challenge nuclear weapons

In the spring of 1958, four pacifists, including David Gale, who grew up in Carver, Minnesota, left California for the Marshall Islands to protest nuclear testing by the United States there. Their 34 foot boat was named the Golden Rule.

Gale, then 25, fell seriously ill and the boat developed mechanical problems, and a huge storm over the Pacific Ocean forced the crew to turn around. A second journey was launched, this time with another pacifist replacing Gale. But the crew was arrested by the US Coast Guard near Honolulu and went to jail.

On Sunday, the newly revamped Golden Rule will set off again to protest nuclear weapons, this time from St. Paul on the Mississippi River to New Orleans. It’s the start of a 15-month, 11,000-mile journey sponsored by Veterans for Peace that will eventually take the crew up the East Coast, across the Great Lakes and to the Gulf of Mexico, with stops in 100 cities.

“We want to put pressure on the United States to sign the United Nations treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons,” said Helen Jaccard, project manager for the trip.

Hawaii’s Kiko Johnston-Kitazawa will captain the boat for the first five months, taking it to Jacksonville, Florida. He was working last week on rigging lines at the St. Croix Marina in Hudson, Wisconsin. “I have been interested in peace and nuclear disarmament work since I was 15,” he said.

Mike McDonald, former president of the Twin Cities chapter of Veterans for Peace, which sponsors Golden Rule events in the metro area, will be on the boat for the first leg of the trip. “If someone starts a nuclear war, it won’t be good for anyone,” he said.

The Golden Ruler’s 1958 trip to the Marshall Islands made national news. In the previous 12 years, the United States had dropped 67 nuclear bombs on Bikini and Enewetak atolls, equivalent to the energy yield of 7,000 Hiroshima bombs, according to Scientific American.

Gale died in 2016 aged 83, but his family remains enthusiastic that the Golden Rule continues to cause a stir and carry the anti-nuclear message.

“I am delighted that it is being renewed,” said his widow, Margaret Gale of Princeton, Illinois, also a committed pacifist. “I still believe in what this boat stands for.”

“That’s who he was,” said Andy Gale of San Diego, one of David’s sons. “He was a pacifist and strongly opposed war all his life.”

save the boat

David Gale and his crewmates had no idea what they would encounter at sea, according to “The Voyage of the Golden Rule,” a book by boat captain Albert Bigelow.

Gale, a graduate of Chaska High School and Macalester College, was living in Pennsylvania and working with the American Friends Service Committee when he volunteered for the trip. He wrote to his parents in Minnesota “that he might never come back, that he was not afraid, that it was the right thing to do,” said Margaret Gale.

The Golden Rule set out first for a 2,300 mile trip to Honolulu, where the crew planned to stop and take on additional supplies before heading to the Marshall Islands, 2,500 miles away. But during that first leg in Honolulu, Gale fell ill.

“He was pitifully weak,” Bigelow wrote in the book. “His courage, however, was as strong as ever. He heaved himself out of his bunk; slowly shoved his way into his bad weather gear, slowly hauled himself up the companion ladder, walked to the bar on his hands and the knees; fasten his safety line, and relieve the watch.”

Gale’s crewmates urged him to abandon the trip and be transferred to a nearby Coast Guard vessel they were in contact with. But he insisted on staying on board. After the crew returned to California, he was replaced by 28-year-old Orion Sherwood, who taught at a Friends school in Poughkeepsie, NY.

This time they arrived in Honolulu, where they docked for more supplies and repairs. But as they were leaving for the Marshall Islands, the Coast Guard arrested the entire crew. They spent 60 days in the Honolulu City Jail, ending their journey.

The Golden Rule was sold and the crew lost track of her whereabouts. But in 2010 it appeared in northern California, where it sank during a storm. Leroy Zerlang, who operates a shipyard in Samoa, California, said the boat belonged to a man who failed to pay mooring fees and neglected it. Zerlang went to see the boat.

“A dock got on it and pretty much crushed it,” he said. “We sent a diver in and pulled him onto the beach. He was pretty battered.”

But after discovering on the internet that the Golden Rule was once famous, Zerlang decided to try to save the boat rather than destroy it. He contacted Chuck Dewitt, a friend who belonged to Veterans for Peace. Zerlang, who describes himself as a “pretty right-wing Republican,” asked Dewitt, “Do you want to save him?

Dewitt did. Some local Veterans for Peace members donated $1,000 each and issued a broader appeal for more donations. “We ended up sinking about a quarter of a million dollars into restoration,” Dewitt said. “We had three highly skilled boat builders working there.”

Since then, the Golden Rule has cruised the West Coast, conducting educational programs on nuclear warfare.

With a host of volunteers and fundraising efforts, the Golden Rule was trucked east to Minnesota for its trip to Mississippi. After traveling up the East Coast to New Hampshire, it will return to New York, travel up the Hudson River, take a left at the Erie Canal, then cross the Great Lakes to Chicago.

From there it will descend the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, ascend the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, then descend the Tombigbee River to Mobile, Alabama on the Gulf Coast. Various crew members will be added along the way, and Johnston-Kitazawa said it’s always possible to apply for a slot.

“I can’t wait,” said Johnston-Kitazawa, 64. “Even getting ready is great. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve learned to love this boat. is that it can contribute to averting a nuclear catastrophe.”

One of the crew is Stephen Buck, a Vietnam veteran from Eureka, California. A former nuclear reactor operator in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Sacramento, Calif., Buck has said he is pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear.

Sherwood, now 92 and living in Salt Lake City, is the only surviving crew member from the 1958 voyage. He does not regret his participation at the time. “It was very important for those who are committed to a world without war,” he said.

There will be a Draft Golden Rule program at 11:30 a.m. Sunday at Crosby Farm Regional Park in St. Paul, with a potluck and a chance to meet the crew before the boat departs.

Personal Librarian John Wareham contributed to this report.

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