The U.S. Coast Guard played a key role during World War Two. Here, I clarify the varied and important role the service played in saving lives and contributing to the US and Allied Powers’ war efforts around the globe:
The naval history of World War II is propense, given the size of the war and participation of nations involved. And more often than not, the United States Navy offers a huge and understandingly repetitive presence over the naval history of WWII. More often than not however, it is the United States Coast Guard’s selfless service and true expense that is lost in that large shadow. As an Honorably Discharged U.S. Coast Guard Veteran, I wear a Coast Guard “Excellence” Ribbon, as well as the 9/11 Transportation Medal for service in the 9/11 attacks in 2001. With experience in rough seas, law enforcement, and search and rescue – I am pleased to share this story about the U.S.C.G. in WWII.
In November of 1941 the Coast Guard went from the Treasury Department to the Department of the Navy; so perhaps this was why the histories of WWII usually look past or only shortly mention the Coast Guard’s priceless role in the great event. The United States declared war after the Japanese surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor, and spent four years and eight months in the fray of internal and external conflict. It was this catalyst that the Coast Guard’s accountabilities to its service to country extended significantly, being valued more than just search-and-rescue, and law enforcement; now it was seen completely integrating militarily.
The Coast Guard was actually involved in some very significant events in World War II. How effective were they? Seaman John Cullen, for instance, was walking the beach performing routine night patrol on the 13thof June of 1942. During his walk Seaman Cullen observed four Germans landing ashore, on a saboteur mission code-named Operation Pastorius. Seaman Cullen of the U.S. Coast Guard was actuallythefirstAmerican who came into contact with the enemy on the shores of mainland USA during WWII.Another incident, CGC Icarus (WPC-110), a 165-ft patrol boat that once had been a rumrunner chaser during Prohibition, put a German U-352 under water on 9 May 1942, off the south coast of Charleston, South Carolina.The Icarus crew took on 33 prisoners that day. They were the first German nationals taken in combat as prisoners by any U.S. armed force.
During the entire length of WWII, U.S. Coast Guard elements sent 12 German and two Japanese submarines to the bottom of the ocean, and would end up capturing two German warships. Finally, Signalman 1stClass Douglas A. Munro was the only Coast Guardsman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. It was at the 2ndBattle of the Matanikau, Petty Officer Munro was tasked with leading the extraction of 400 United States Marines that had been beaten and overrun on the Japanese island. Munro used a 7.62 mm deck-mounted machine gun aboard his “Higgins Boat” to direct a suppressing fire against the Japanese positions as the other recovery boats took on the beaten and battered American Marines. He would end up selflessly putting himself between heavy fire from the Japanese forces and the U.S. Marines – leading the ten landing craft and saving all five-hundred U.S. Marines, including 25 wounded, all escaped.
A DRIVING FORCE
The United States Coast Guard wasand continues to remain to be the most professional, elite, and underappreciated service out of the 5 branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. In WWII history, evidence suggests the U.S. Coast Guard was more involved than the history books lead on. So, justhow effective was the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II? Admiral Chester Nimitz highly praised the valuable and selfless performance of Coast Guard men and women in World War II by stating: “I know of no instance wherein they did not acquit themselves in the highest traditions of their Service, or prove themselves worthy of their Service motto, ‘Semper Paratus’—‘Always Ready.’”
It was back in 1837 that the Coast Guard went even further with the order to save lives and property. The main functions of the service were no longer just law enforcement related, but now relied upon as the saviors of life and property with maritime safety taking up an equally important role. For a branch of service that has less peopleserving in it than the New York City Police Department, it always seems it is the U.S. Coast Guard that always stands out at the end of their long days. The Coast Guard has been involved in every single one of our nations wars at sea –along the side of their Navy counterparts. These brief aforementioned illustrations stand as evidence to the examples of the Coast Guard, its crew, and its mission capabilities. Of course, all of this centered around being a 5thmilitary branch of service, with all privileges entitled.
There is another historical event that would equal silenceto the incredible effectiveness of the Coast Guard’s mission capabilities. Signalman 1st Class Douglas A. Munro, is the aforementioned Coast Guardsman who would equally compare in this quiet and unpromoted glory in while their service. Its interesting in part to think about just how unrecognized the service is. Proof? Half of my recruit training company didn’t even know the Coast Guard was a seagoing service when asked about it by the Company Commanders.If recruits are naïve about the mission, is it unreasonable to assume that the general public wouldn’t have an idea of Coast Guard’s mission effectiveness? Of course not.
The mission effectiveness pre-dating our modern era is apparent when looking back in the historical entries. The Revenue Cutter Service (as it used to be known) was re-named United States Coast Guard in 1915, after the U.S. Government observed justhoweffective they were as a wartime andnon-wartime entity.It is amazing that with such successes in the field and low publicity, both publicly and within the other four military branches, the Coast Guard still continues to remain the mostunderappreciated branch of the services.
UNDERAPPRECATED, MOST EFFECTIVE
Overall, the Coast Guard performed valiantly with statistics of their own military accomplishments during WWII. 12 submarines were sunk in the Atlantic Theater by Coast Guard Cutters, Coast Guard Anti-Sub Planes, and Coast Guard-crewed naval vessels. The U.S. Coast Guard documented that from 1941, to the end of the war, Coast Guard crews had served successfully on board Navy attack transports (APs & APAs) and with personnel to spare. They continue on to say, “It was an obvious choice to let the Coast Guard continue to assist in manning various ships of the ever-increasing Navy fleet. They readily took to all of the various types of landing craft utilized by the Navy, including the Landing Craft Infantry, Large, or LCI(L)s, beginning in 1943.”
Technologically, the Coast Guard headed a cooperative effort between scientists and the U.S. Navy, to develop the Long-Range Navigation (LORAN) system. The Coast Guard stated that, “Pulse transmission of radio waves permits LORAN to measure the time a signal travels. This allows an infinite number of lines of position to be placed over the Earth’s surface by radio. Using special charts and a simple receiver, a plane or ship could determine its general location within a few miles by longitude and latitude. LORAN is the first use of electronic navigation, precursor to Global Positioning System (GPS).”
In June of 1942, legislation in the Executive Branch changed the face of the U.S. Coast Guard forever sealing their fate as a military service. Further, the presidential decree allowed for the centralization of the Coast Guard as the premier multi-mission branch of service.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard Historians Office:
“The President delegates port-security to the Coast Guard. Responsibilities included: Control of anchorage and movement of all vessels in port; Issuance of identification cards and the supervision of access to vessels and waterfront facilities; Fire-prevention measures including inspections, recommendations and enforcement; Firefighting activities, including use of fire-boats, trailer pumps and other extinguishing agents; Supervision of the loading and stowage of explosives and military ammunition; Boarding and examination of vessels in port; Sealing of vessels' radios; Licensing of vessels for movement in local waters and for departure; Guarding of important facilities; Enforcement of all regulations governing vessels and waterfront security; Maintenance of water patrols; General enforcement of federal laws on navigable waters and other miscellaneous duties.”
Handling and piloting these small boats in the rough surf is most certainly a specialized skill. Additionally, this type of emphasized skillset was not common among men in the Navy. Not guys in the Coast Guard though. Many of the coxswains (small boat handlers) had learned this skill from pushing boats through the surf at coastal lifesaving stations. Coast Guard small boat handlers were actually only at lifesaving stations. Most were highly seasoned small-boat handlers, as this proved valuable to the service. Maneuvering landing craft through strong currents, reefs, sand bars and heavy surf, is what these lifesavers excel at. Further, their aid to amphibious operations during the entirety of the war is infinite.
The experience of these surf-men were priceless during amphibious operations. The Coast Guard's surf-men acted as trainers and coaches to the U.S. Navy small boatmen trying to learn the complexities of controlling craft in the rough waters and heavy seas. During the early period of WWII, thousands of Coast Guard and Navy personnel were skilled and apt to handle landing craft in preparation for the beaches.
Part of that landing craft mission was landing troops at D-Day, but, given the sheer size of the operation, the Navy and Army asked that the Coast Guard also provide a flotilla of ships to rescue Americans stranded in the water. The Coastie’s punctually rose-up to complete the challenge, pulling from their daily experience in saving lives for over a century. The Coast Guards Cutters and other small-craft went to war on D-Day. They were literally behind the first wave of landing craft hitting the beaches of Normandy. They had been told to stay two miles away from the shoreline, but most of the Coastie’s took their craft closer to shore where they could rescue more lives.
The United States Coast Guard pulled over 400 men out of the water that day. One small-boat named "Homing Pigeon," manned by the Coast Guard, rescued 126 lives in one day.It was the Coast Guard Cutters Eastwind and Southwind that would end up capturing the Nazi vessel Externsteine off the coast of Greenland doing weather and supply duty after a brief fire-fight with nobody killed. The Coast Guardsmen gave the newly captured Nazi ship the name USS Eastbreeze and placed 37 men on board to man the vessel. Eastbreeze would end up sailing to Boston where the U.S. Navy renamed her USS Callao. Nazi supply vessel Externsteine was the only enemy ship captured while at sea by any U.S. naval forces during World War II.
What was the scope of the Coast Guard’s rescue operations in WWII? A thorough examination of the United States military’s records in the European phase of the war will reveal just how operationally effective the small services were outside of battle. 4,243 servicemen and merchant mariners were saved, and of these 1,658 survivors were picked up from being torpedoed along the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. 810 souls were saved in the North Atlantic, and in the Mediterranean 115 saved. Further, 1,660 were saved from rescue cutters from the English Channel at D-Day. The fact is almost four and a half million fighting soldiers would embark by ship, to fight the enemy in Europe and Africa. Of all who were deployed , 3,954 were lost at sea.
THE TOUGH KEEP GOING
Over the course of World War Two, the U.S. Coast Guard remained completely active with the remaining landing forces until Japan surrendered. Other operations that contributed to the Coastie’s efforts were mine-sweeping off the coasts during occupation. At the finish of major military operations in the Pacific, the soldiers., sailors, and airmen being ferried home by the Coast Guard would come to know the last ride home as… “Magic Carpet” rides. These rides home would have to have been one of the most relieving moments of any war wearied serviceman.
The Coast Guard contributed as much as any other branch of service to the war effort as part of the amphibious forces in the Pacific theatre of war. The men of this nation's smallest branch of service, – smaller than the N.Y.P.D. to be exact – proved as heroic and valiant as the men in the other branches. The Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, in 1946, would stand on the podium and publicly state that during the war the United States Coast Guard "earned the highest respect and deepest appreciation of the Navy and Marine Corps. Its performance of duty has been without exception in keeping with the highest traditions of service."
The fact of the matter is…“Their experience in operating in all types of surf conditions as well as on the high seas made the Coast Guard crews a valuable addition to the Allied invasion fleets.”The United States Coast Guard continues to be the most elite branch of service operational today, also making the Coast Guard statistically, the best the five branches of military has to offer. The truth is that for being the most underappreciated branch of service; the men and women of the Coast Guard display their moral and ethical principles in the line of duty.They truly were mission effective in WWII.
Happy Memorial Day 2020 and God Bless Our Armed Forces!
Daniel L. Smith,
Bishop, Eleanor C. 1989. Prints in the sand: the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol in World War II. Missoula, Mont: Pictorial Histories Pub. Co. https://archive.org/details/printsinsand00bish_0.
Walling, Michael G. 2008. “Dangerous Duty in the North Atlantic.” Naval History http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=31947742&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Ibid., pp. 204-207.
Ibid., p. 208.
Quesada, Alejandro de. 2011. US Coast Guard in World War II. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd. WorldCat Reference Center, Online. p. 97.
U.S. Coast Guard, Statistical Division/Historical Section, Public Information Division, The Coast Guard At War (Washington: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 30 June 1944–1 January 1954), (monograph 7).
“USCG Basic Training Experience, Delta-162” Daniel L. Smith, 2002.
U.S. Coast Guard, Statistical Division/Historical Section, Public Information Division, The Coast Guard At War (Washington: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 30 June 1944–1 January 1954), (Monograph 17)
"U.S. Coast Guard Manned LCI(L)'s." U.S. Department of Defense. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://media.defense.gov/2017/Aug/08/2001789793/-1/-1/0/LCIS.PDF.
"Time Line 1900's - 2000's." United States Coast Guard (USCG) Historian's Office. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www.history.uscg.mil/Complete-Time-Line/Time-Line-1900-2000/.
Ibid.(USCG) Historians Office.
Christy, Gabe. "How 60 Coast Guard Cutters Saved Over 400 Men On D-Day." WAR HISTORY ONLINE. Last modified September 14, 2017. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/60-coast-guard-cutters-saved-400-men-d-day.html.
"What’s in the Coast Guard’s Secret Sauce for High Retention?" Federal News Network. Last modified January 16, 2018. https://federalnewsnetwork.com/dod-personnel-notebook/2018/01/whats-in-the-coast-guards-secret-sauce-for-high-retention/.
"From the Homefront: Top 10 Things We Wish People Knew About Coast Guard Life « Coast Guard All Hands." Coast Guard All Hands. Last modified February 5, 2014. https://allhands.coastguard.dodlive.mil/2014/02/05/from-the-homefront-top-10-things-we-wish-people-knew-about-coast-guard-life/.