Semper Paratus as seen through WWII
During WWII, the Coast Guard bloomed from under 20,000 to more than a quarter million at its height in June 1944. At that time, the service contained 9,874 commissioned officers, 3,291 warrant officers and 164,560 enlisted personnel, augmented by another 125,000 Temporary Members of the Coast Guard Reserve who were conducting beach and harbor patrols back in the U.S. which in turn were augmented further by nearly 70,000 volunteers of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
With so many men and (over 13,000 women) under arms and in uniform, what was the service doing in 1944?
Well, a little known fact is that a tremendous number of small naval surface combatants on the Naval List were manned entirely by USCG/USCGR crews to include a number of patrol craft and submarine chasers (PC/SC) and at least 75 303-foot/1,300-ton Tacoma-class patrol frigates (PF) while a legion of the Coast Guard’s own cutters also served the same duty in ASW and amphibious warfare support.
Speaking of the ‘phibs, when FDR gave away 10 250-foot Lake-class cutters to the Brits as Lend Lease in 1940, this left over 3,000 Coasties without a ship– and the Navy promptly took them to man 53 cargo ships and attack transports (APs & APAs)– armed freighters stuffed with bunks for troops.
As the war expanded, the Navy, acknowledging the Coasties’ knowledge of working in the shallows and surfline, soon tasked them with other assignments closer to enemy beaches. As such many of the landing craft taking troops ashore from Guadalcanal to Normandy and Iwo Jima, were manned by Coastguardsmen.
By the end of the war, the service manned at least 77 LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank), 28 LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry, Large) and an amazing 288 vessels for the Army Transportation Corps that consisted of AMRS (Army Marine Repair Ship), TY (tankers), LT (large tugs), FS (freight and supply vessels), and F (Freight vessels) that shuttled around and carried the logistics of war that are so often overlooked.
On Normandy Beach during D-Day, a fleet of 60 USCG 83-foot patrol boats, dubbed Rescue Flotilla One, pulled over 400 soldiers from the water on June 6th alone. This “Matchbox Fleet” lost four of their own vessels that day to submerged German mines and coastal artillery. Four LCI(L)’s manned by the USCG were also lost at Normandy.
In all some 37 USCG vessels or USCG-manned Naval vessels were lost during the war including the Treasury-class cutter Alexander Hamilton who was torpedoed 29 January 1942 by a U-boat in the North Atlantic.
The highest cost in terms of lives came when the 14,000-ton USS Serpens (AK-97) a USCG-manned Crater-class cargo ship was destroyed by explosion, 29 January 1945 off Laguna Beach in the Solomons.
She was packed full of depth charges and artillery shells.
An eyewitness to the disaster stated:
As we headed our personnel boat shoreward the sound and concussion of the explosion suddenly reached us, and, as we turned, we witnessed the awe-inspiring death drams unfold before us. As the report of screeching shells filled the air and the flash of tracers continued, the water splashed throughout the harbor as the shells hit. We headed our boat in the direction of the smoke and as we came into closer view of what had once been a ship, the water was filled only with floating debris, dead fish, torn life jackets, lumber and other unidentifiable objects. The smell of death, and fire, and gasoline, and oil was evident and nauseating. This was sudden death, and horror, unwanted and unasked for, but complete.”
In all, Serpens lost 198 members of her crew and 57 members of an Army stevedore unit that were on board the ship in an explosion whose cause has never been determined but remains the largest single disaster ever suffered by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard lost a total of 1,917 persons during the war with 574 losing their life in action, died of wounds received in action, or perishing as a Prisoner of War. Almost 2,000 Coast Guardsmen were decorated, one receiving the Medal of Honor (the only one issued to the Coast Guard), six the Navy Cross, and one the Distinguished Service Cross.
The MOH went to SM1c Douglas A. Munro, USCG, who, appropriately enough, was killed trying to rescue men off the beach as officer-in-charge of a group of landing craft at Point Cruz on September 27, 1942, during the Matanikau action in the Guadalcanal campaign.
“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as Officer-in-Charge of a group of Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a Battalion of Marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on September 27, 1942. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered Marines, Munro, under constant risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave up his life in defense of his country.”
“Upon regaining consciousness his [Munro’s] only question was ‘Did they get off?’, and so died with a smile on his face and the full knowledge that he had successfully accomplished a dangerous mission.”
For more on the USCG in WWII, click here and dig in