7 crazy things the Coast Guard did during World War II
The Coast Guard doesn't always get a lot of respect, but the fact remains that the service and its predecessors have fought in every American war since the Revolution, they deploy to locations around the world, and were absolute slayers in World War II. For the naysayers out there, here are just seven of the awesome things puddle pirates did in the greatest generation:
1. The Coast Guard conducted the first U.S. raid of WWII
The USCGC Northland in World War II.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
On Sep. 12, 1941, nearly three months before the Pearl Harbor attack, the crew of Coast Guard cutter Northland conducted the first U.S. raid of the war. The cutter was operating under a defensive treaty with Greenland and moved to investigate a tip that a suspicious landing party was operating in a nearby fjord. They investigated and found the SS Buskoe.
While interrogating the ship master, they found signs that the ship was acting as a relay for Nazi radio stations. The Coast Guardsmen went after the landing party and raided an onshore radio station, capturing three Norwegians and German communications equipment, code words, and military instructions. Members of the ship and radio station crew were arrested.
2. Coast Guard led the operating, maintaining, and salvaging of landing craft
The Coast Guard's war started in the Pacific, but they were quickly employed in the Atlantic overseas as American deployed to Africa, the Mediterranean, and Europe. In all of these deployed locations, the Coast Guard was tasked with providing many of the crews for landing crafts, and it was Coast Guardsmen who were landing troops under fire everywhere from Guadalcanal to Normandy.
This was a natural evolution for the service, which had greatly increased its shallow water capabilities during Prohibition in America, learning to land teams and send them against bootleggers, possibly under fire. This led to the only Medal of Honor earned in Coast Guard history as Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro gave his life while saving Marines under machine gun fire at Guadalcanal.
At Papa New Guinea, Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Richard Snyder was landing supplies when he and his unit came under Japanese fire. He grabbed weapons and hand grenades from the supplies cache and rushed the caves from which the fire originated. The grenades went in first, followed quickly by Snyder himself. He slaughtered four Japanese fighters and re-secured the beach, which earned him a Silver Star.
3. The Coast Guard scooped 400 men out of the water on D-Day
The Coast Guard Cutter 16, the "Homing Pigeon," crew celebrates their D-Day success pulling 126 drowning men from the waters off the Normandy coast on June 6, 1941.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
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 puddle pirates quickly rose to the challenge, pulling from their experience saving mariners for over a century.
The "Matchbox Fleet," a flotilla of small cutters and other craft, went to war on D-Day right behind the first wave of landing craft. They had been told to stay two miles out, but most boats moved closer to shore where they could rescue more men. Overall, the service pulled over 400 men out of the water. A single boat, the "Homing Pigeon," rescued 126.
4. Coast Guardsmen defended the fleet during the Philippines landings
The USS Callaway, crewed by Coast Guardsmen, in World War II.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
Similarly, the Coast Guard provided landing support and lifesaving services during the amphibious landings to retake the Philippines. Many of the supply ships and landing craft piloted by the Coast Guard came under attack, making many of their personnel de facto guardians of the fleet.
And Coast Guardsmen distinguished themselves during this defense. In one, the men were defending their portions of the fleet from attack when three kamikaze pilots made their final approach at the supply ship USS Callaway. The Coast Guard crew were rattling off all their rounds in defense, but the gunners started to melt away when it became clear that at least one plane was going to make impact.
At least seven stayed in position, downing two of the planes but suffering the impact of the third and dying instantly. But the ship survived the fight, and the landings were successful.
5. The Coast Guard manned floating weather stations under fire in the Atlantic
The U.S. advantage in the Battle of the Atlantic sometimes came down to weather reports. D-Day was partially successful because the U.S. knew about a break in the storms that wasn't obvious to the Nazis. But manning weather stations, especially ones at sea, was risky in the wartime environment.
The Coast Guard sent relatively old and under-armed ships to the weather monitoring missions where they would stay in one spot and collect data, making them highly susceptible to attack. In September 1942, the USCGC Muckeget suddenly disappeared in what was later found to be a torpedo attack, claiming the lives of over 100 Coast Guardsmen as well as four civilians. Those civilians would receive posthumous Purple Hearts in 2015 for their sacrifice.
6. Coasties interrupted German saboteurs landing on American soil
John C. Cullen.
(U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program)
In June, 1942, a German U-boat surfaced off the coast of New York and dropped off a team of four saboteurs that made their way to the coast. Their goal was to cripple U.S. aluminum production and hydroelectric power production through a terror campaign, weakening the U.S. and hopefully coercing the U.S. population to vote against the war.
The endeavor was quickly foiled thanks to the Coast Guard beach patrol. Coast Guard Seaman 2nd Class John Cullen came upon the group changing into disguises in the sand dunes on the beach, and offered them shelter and food at the Coast Guard station. They refused, and Cullen quickly became suspicious of the group. He played along like he believed their story of illegal fishing, but then immediately contacted the FBI.
The FBI arrived after the saboteurs had left the beach, but they were able to recover the German's buried supplies and launch an investigation that rounded up all four men before a single attack. It also allowed them to learn of a similar landing in Florida which resulted in four more arrests with no damage done.
7. It hunted U-boats, especially near the U.S. coast
U.S. Coast Guard World War II recruiting poster
(U.S. National Archives and Records Center)
It was kept largely secret during the war, but both U.S. coasts actually came under heavy and sustained U-boat attack during World War II. Most of the attacks were subs hunting merchant vessels, but the Germans occasionally shelled towns as well. It was the Coast Guard's job to hunt these boats, sometimes with Navy blimp support.
In fact, the U.S. actually reached deep into the bench and called up civilian sailors to help with the task of hunting subs, then put the Coast Guard in charge of them. The Coast Guard allowed the civilians to help look for enemy vessels, but then sent their own crews to hunt the enemy when they were found.
The civilian vessels and crews were often surprisingly good at the task, especially since many of them were wooden-hulled, sailing boats. German sonar couldn't detect the sound of the sails like they would an engine, and they couldn't bounce other signals off the wooden hulls, so they only knew one of the ships had spotted them when a Coast Guard hunter bore down on them.
- Coast Guard Records | National Archives ›
- War in the Pacific NHP: The Coast Guard in World War II ›
- The Coast Guard's World War II Crucible | U.S. Naval Institute ›