Warship Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021: The Jeep of The Deep
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021: The Jeep of The Deep
Here we see USCG-6, one of the hardy members of the skull-and-crossbones emblazoned Coast Guard “Match Box Fleet” that rode shotgun in the shallows off Normandy during the Neptune/Overlord landings in June 1944. Unlikely– and quite frankly very dangerous– vessels, these 83-foot patrol boats provided unsung service not only during WWII but for generations after.
The Coast Guard’s first modern 20th Century mid-sized offshore vessels, the massive 203-vessel 75-foot “six-bitter” patrol boats, were a child of the Prohibition-era crackdown on rumrunners and bootleggers. However, these cabin cruiser-style all-wooden boats were some of the slowest boats in the sea. Equipped with two 6-cylinder gasoline engines, they could make 15.7 knots– on a calm sea and with a light load.
By the 1930s and with the rapid expansion in the number of powerboats in consumers’ hands, the Coast Guard ordered 19 so-called “400 series” patrol boats with speed as a requirement. These craft, built by five different yards in four different types, were an important evolutionary step, not only for the USCG but also for the Navy, who about the same time was looking to get into the PT boat game. Shallow-draft wooden-hulled boats with streamlined cabins, they were packed with multiple high-octane engines below deck with the goal of breaking 20+ knots with ease.
By 1941, the Coast Guard had settled on a new design following lessons learned by the “400 series.”
Designed to use a pair of large, supped-up gasoline engines, the agency ordered 40 of these new 83-foot crafts on 19 March 1941 from Wheeler Shipyard in Brooklyn. Powered by two 600hp Hall Scott Defenders, it was expected they could make 20.6 knots at delivery. Armament was slight, just a manually loaded 1-pounder (37mm) gun forward, and a pair of .30-06 Lewis guns on the wheelhouse wings.
The first boats of the series, as it turned out, were very different from what the class would soon evolve to become. Designed to use a smooth prefabricated Everdur bronze wheelhouse, as wartime material crunches came to play just 135 hulls would have these, the rest making do with a flat and angular plywood affair. In a below-deck change, after the first five hulls, the powerplant changed to a pair of the Sterling Engine Company’s TCG-8 “Viking II” engine, a beast referred to by Engine Labs today as the “World’s Largest Inline Gasoline Engine.”
The TCG-8 was an inline-eight-cylinder, four-stroke engine, which consumed gasoline… and lots of it. An undersquare design, the engine featured an 8.00-inch bore and 9.00-inch stroke, for a total displacement of 3,619.1 cubic inches, or 59.3 liters, making it one of, if not the largest inline gasoline engine in the world.
The engine itself was relatively compact, at 12 feet, 2-9/16 inches long and only 44-9/16 inches wide, which allowed the two engines to fit comfortably side-by-side in the 83-footer’s hull. Housed in a gray-iron block, the crankshaft was a forged chromoly steel piece, with separately attached counterweights, which were affixed to the crankshaft via a dovetail and bolts. There were nine traditional babbit-style bearings, 4.00 inches in diameter, which measured 2.75 inches in width on eight journals, with the thrust bearing measuring a beefy 3.437 inches wide
In all, 230 of these boats would be constructed for the Coast Guard and another 12 for overseas allies (19 units originally delivered to the USCG were also transferred). The initial 1941 contract was for $42,450 per hull, a cost that would rise to $62,534 by 1944 due to the increasing sensor and armament load.
By the end of the war, these boats were carrying depth charges aft, Mousetrap ASW projectors forward, and a 20mm Oerlikon as well as a SO-2 radar and QBE sonar when fully equipped. That’s a lot for an officer and a 13-man crew to take care of.
All were numbered 83300 through 83529, with corresponding (and confusing) hull numbers CG 450 through CG 634, although boats after 83384 apparently did not get said overly complicated hull numbers.
The most significant combat “kills” attributed to the 83s came from a Cuban-manned boat, Caza Submarino 13 (CS-13). One of 10 delivered to the Cubans at Miami, CS-13 splashed U-176, a Type IXC on 15 May 1943 in the Florida Straits northeast of Havana.
Deployed far and wide, the 83s in USCG service were often the first on the scene to pick up wrecked mariners after a U-boat slipped back under the sea, especially during 1942’s Operation Drumbeat offensive.
83305– Rescued 11 from the freighter City of New York.
83309– Pulled nine survivors of the schooner Cheerio from the water.
83310– Rescued 25 from the tanker C.O. Stillman and another 50 from the tanker William Rockefeller.
83322– Rescued 14 from the freighter Santore.
In the lead-up to Overlord/Neptune, a group of 60 83s along with 840 Coasties were assembled on the eastern coast of England, under the suggestion of FDR himself. Dubbed Rescue Flotilla One under the command of LCDR Alexander V. Stewart, Jr., they would accompany the waves of LCIs and other landing craft into the beaches and, using their 5-foot draft, close in with sinking vessels to recover survivors and floaters.
To keep things easy, the craft were renumbered USCG 1 through USCG 60 and given a large white star on their wheelhouse for aerial recognition.
They landed most of their armament and trained in triage and lifesaving– ready to lower rescue swimmers over the side with a rope if need be.
A superb reference for the “Matchbox Fleet” at Normandy is the 1946 Coast Guard at War: The Landings in France which covers the operation of the flotilla across some 30 pages. Drawn from that is this page on the prep on these “Sea Going Saint Bernards”:
As noted by the Coast Guard Historian’s Office:
They earned the nickname “Matchbox Fleet” due to their wooden hulls and two Sterling-Viking gasoline engines — one incendiary shell hitting a cutter could easily turn it into a “fireball.”
They were assigned to each of the invasion areas, with 30 serving off the British and Canadian sectors and 30 serving off the American sectors. During Operation Neptune/Overlord these cutters and their crews carried out the Coast Guard’s time-honored task of saving lives, albeit under enemy fire on a shoreline thousands of miles from home. The cutters of Rescue Flotilla One saved more than 400 men on D-Day alone and by the time the unit was decommissioned in December 1944, they had saved 1,438 souls.
Do not get it confused, the Coasties weren’t just there as sort of a seagoing ambulance service, untargeted by enemy bullets. They took the fire of all sorts all day. McPhail’s CG 16 for instance “nosed in among the struggling groups of men floundering in diesel oil and debris. Although shells were splashing around it and mines were detonating, the cutter’s crew calmly went about the rescue work. With 90 casualties as its first load, the cutter sped to the Coast Guard transport Dickman.”
The boats of the Matchbox Fleet remained offshore for days, dodging gunfire from marauding E-boat raids, magnesium flares dropped by German planes at night and bumping up against parachute mines.
There were many other USCG-manned and operated craft off Normandy for Overlord/Neptune.
Many also performed yeoman service that day.
In the days immediately after the landings, six 83-footers of the Matchbox Flotilla were detailed to operate a rush cross-channel courier service, making four crossings a day carrying mail and urgent Army dispatches to France every six hours. While the Army had originally planned to use planes for the task, it was found that the boats could get there more reliably, even if they had to maneuver around floating mines and unmarked wrecks in the process.
Meanwhile, the 83s were involved in the push toward Tokyo as well. In January 1945, 30 boats were formed into USCG PTC Flotilla One and sent to Manicani Island in the Leyte Gulf, where the U.S. was busy rooting out Japanese holdouts in the quest to liberate the Philippines. Some eight miles west of Guiuan, Manicani would become a major destroyer repair base and a ship repair unit. Another 24 boats were dispatched late in the war to operate with the 7th Fleet at Okinawa, Saipan, Guam, Eniwetok, and elsewhere to serve as harbor defense vessels, on guard against Japanese suicide attacks and frogmen.
Speaking of which, one such vessel, USCGC 83525, was dispatched with Navy RADM M.R. Greer (COMMFLTAIRWING 18) from Tinian to remote Aguijan Island in the Northern Marianas on 4 September 1945 to accept the surrender of the tiny garrison from 2nd LT Kinichi Yamada of the Imperial Army. The Coastie was sent as a larger vessel could not negotiate the shallows of the island.
When Yamada climbed aboard from a landing craft, his greenish pallor matched the color of his faded uniform. He looked even smaller than he had at our first meeting, encumbered as he was with an outsized dispatch case. The confined deck space on the slender vessel posed a problem: where to place the surrender documents for the signing. Finally, the skipper of the Coast Guard boat suggested using the cover of a ventilator just behind the wheelhouse, and that was where the parties arrayed themselves, the Americans on one side and the three Japanese on the other. Nobody invited me to be part of the U.S. contingent, so I positioned myself directly behind Yamada.
Further, the 83s were influential to the war effort in a quiet way, as they were a big feature on period recruiting posters for the Coast Guard. Of course, less than 3,000 of the service’s 170,000 men at its wartime peak were assigned to these hardy boats at any given time, but you got to get the kids off the farm somehow.
USCG Combat Artist BMC Hunter Wood, a skilled maritime artist, spent some time among the 83s in the New York and New England area during the war and left a series of beautiful sketches of them at work.
Their wartime service was largely forgotten, the 83s earned no battlestars and unit citations. Those sent overseas were largely left there, either to rot or to be transferred to overseas allies. Several were lost during the war: 83301 and 83306 to a 1945 typhoon in Okinawa; 83415/CG 27 and 83471/CG 47 sank in a storm off Normandy two weeks after D-Day, their hulls were torn open on submerged wreckage, and 83421 was lost due to a midnight collision with a subchaser while on a blackout convoy. Others were soon disposed of in the inevitable postwar constriction of funds.
These wooden boats, after several years of hard work, were overloaded, stressed, and could typically by 1945 just plod along at about 12 knots, sustained by. By 1946, around 100 remained in Coast Guard custody, with many of those laid up. The Navy picked up a handful for such miscellaneous use as range control boats, yard boats, and torpedo retrievers.
Some were upgraded with Cummings diesel engines and all-white peacetime schemes and continued in Coast Guard service through the 1950s. Notably, their armament in peacetime seems to have solidified with a single 20mm Oerlikon over the stern, four abbreviated two-can depth charge racks clustered around the gun, and two mousetraps forward although the latter feature was not always mounted.
With the service gaining new and improved patrol boats of the Cape and Point classes, the days of the old 83s were fading. In the early 1960s, the remaining 44 hulls still holding on were liquidated, with many being disposed of by fire or scuttling post-decommissioning. The last on the USCG’s rolls was CG 83506, disposed of by sinking on 22 March 1966.
Vessels in overseas service remained around for a few more years. The type was used by Cuba (12), the Dominican Republic (3), Haiti (1) Venezuela (4), Colombia (2), Peru (6), and Mexico (3).
Notably, four transferred to Turkey in 1953 were noted in Janes as late as 1995, still with their mousetraps.
Some remaining vessels were converted into yachts, fishing boats, dive charter vessels, or workboats and ultimately faded into history.
Others had more pedestrian fates.
CG-83527, which served on anti-submarine duties in the Gulf of Mexico in WWII, ended her career in Tacoma, Washington in 1962. She was saved in 2003 and restored slowly and extensively over a decade to roughly her 1950 appearance. Its operators have an extensive website with many resources on the class including a full set of plans.
Another of the class, 83366/D-Day CG 11, was purchased by a Seattle couple in terrible condition for $100 and they are in the process of returning her its 1944 arrangement.
Speaking of vets, the 83-Footer Sailor portal, long maintained by Al Readdy, seems to be offline but can still be found via archives. Meanwhile, those interested in Coast Guard patrol boat history, in general, should check out HMC James T. Flynn, Jr., USNR(ret)’s excellent 61-page essay.
Today, the USCG Museum has a panel dedicated to the work of the Matchbox Fleet in their D-Day exhibit.
Specs: (extracted from U.S. Coast Guard Cutters & Crafts of World War II by Robert Scheina)
Displacement: 76 tons fully loaded
Length: 83 ft
Beam: 16 ft
Draft: 5 ft. 4″
Main Engines: 83343 through 83348: 2 Hall Scott Defenders, 1.200 rpm; all others: 2 Sterling Viking II SHP All units: 1,200
2 Propellers: 34″Dia X 27° Pitch (Pitch varied with the mission)
2 Kohler Generators 120/240 VAC 60 cycle
Max Speed 15.2 kts, 215 mi radius (1945); 23.5 statute mi (trials,1946)
Max Sustained 12.0 kts. 375 mi radius (1945)
Cruising 10.0 kts, 475 mi radius (1945)
Economic 8.2 kts, 575 mi radius (1945)
Gasoline (95%) 1,900 gal
Complement 1 officer, 13 men (1945)
Detection Radar SO-2 (most units)
Sonar QBE series (none on 83339. 83367-83369, 83427, 83476-83480)
1941 1 1-pounder. 2 .30cal mg
1945 1 20mm/80,4 dc racks with 8 Mark VI depth charges. 2 Mousetraps; none on 8330
83312, 83335, 83342, 83367, 83387, 83388, 83392, 83427, 83470, 83475. 83491. 83492. 83494,
83501, 83507, 83512, 83515, 83516, 83518-83521, 83529
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