Lawyer Turned Lookout: The Hooligan Navy

–The 80th anniversary of the founding of the Coast Guard Reserve is this month. Of note, of the 214,000 personnel that served in the USCG during WWII, 92 percent were in the USCGR, with an additional 125,000 personnel serving in the Temporary Reserve.–

Feb 1943. Official caption: Coast Guard Auxiliary. Guardians of inland waters. The Marblehead unit of the Coast Guard Auxiliary includes among its members Bill Welch, a Boston lawyer, junior commander of the flotilla. He contributes twelve hours a week to patrol duty, during which time he assumes regular Coast Guard status as a temporary reservist.

Photo by Alfred T.Palmer, via Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress) LC-USE6-D-010130 

Welch and his flotilla were part of the so-called Hooligan Navy or Corsair Fleet, members of the volunteer Coast Guard Auxillary ordered on 4 May 1942 by Chief of Naval Operations, ADM Ernest J. King to organize into an anti-submarine patrol force officially termed the Coastal Picket Patrol.

Made up primarily of private yachts– the plan was advocated King by the Cruising Club of America– and fishing boats, crewed by their owners, and converted for ASW use, the small craft of all sizes made regular sorties along the American coast into October 1943. Equipped and outfitted with whatever arms and uniforms the service could spare, these vessels were assigned 15-mile patrol squares extending from the beach to the 50-fathom curve.

In all, a remarkable 2,067 converted private motor and sail craft, numbered CGR1 to CGR9040 served with the patrol, with missing numbers in that range for boats that were surveyed but not taken into service.

The program peaked November 1942 with 1,873 boats in commission with the Coast Guard Reserve, a figure that slowly declined from there, dropping below 1,000 in November 1943, under 500 in April 1944, and under 100 in June 1945, with the last craft disposed of at the end of that year. 

Private “Commuter Yacht” Aphrodite built by Purdy Shipyard in May 1937, serving as CGR557 Corsair Navy. Schena notes that CGR557 was 73 feet oal, was assigned to the 3rd Naval District, taken into service April 1942, and disposed of in July 1945, at which point there were only 80 CGR vessels left on the roster. She was reportedly used as a chase and security boat for the Elco PT-boat factory in Bayonne, New Jersey, and tapped from time to time during the war to transport President Roosevelt to and from his home at Hyde Park on the Hudson River. She was originally built for Wall Street financier and later Ambassador to the Court of St. James, John Hay (Jock) Whitney of Manhasset, Long Island.

Coast Guard schooner CGR 2502 of the Corsair Fleet on patrol for German submarines. Note the Coastie on the bow with a Thompson gun. The craft is listed as a 90-foot schooner, formerly the Duchess, that was taken into service in June 1942. She served in the 1st Naval District out of Boston until July 1944. NARA 026-g-014-057-003

Coast Guard Hooligan Fleet member, the 97-foot schooner CGR-2469, came to the Olson & Winge Marine Works yard as the Columbia for conversion during World War II. She had been built in 1914 as the King & Winge, one of the most famous ships ever constructed in Seattle, spending the 1920s as a well-known rum runner after her initial years as a halibut schooner. After the war, she would be a pilot boat, yacht, and crabber. She sank in high seas in the Bering Sea, without loss of life, in 1994. Image via the Museum of History and Industry, Seattle.

Coast Guard schooner CGR 2520 of the Corsair Fleet, with another behind her. This vessel is listed as a 52-foot schooner that was taken into service July 1942, decommissioned in December 1943, and disposed of, likely returned to its previous owner, in July 1944. During her wartime service, she served in the 1st Naval District (Maine-Massachusetts) on nearshore/offshore patrol. NARA 026-g-014-059-001

Humphrey Bogart, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Great War as a helmsman of the captured German liner SS Vaterland/USS Leviathan, tried to re-enlist during WWII. When he was rejected because of his age (74), Bogie volunteered for the Coast Guard Temporary Reserve and patrolled the California coast with his 55-foot staysail schooner, Santana, as part of the Hooligan Navy assigned to the 12th Naval District.

Although actual combat with U-boats was slim for the group, they did provide lots of help in so far as OPSEC was concerned as they often shielded coastwise convoys from random small boat traffic and would board vessels to seal their radios in such instances so that random commo traffic wouldn’t accidentally give away positions to those who were listening for that type of thing. 

The nicknames of the force were fitting, as the volunteers, at least in the early days of the patrol, ran the gamut from semi-reformed smugglers and rumrunners to boy scout troops and yachtsmen such as the good Mr. Welch, our trusty lookout in the first image.

Hunter Wood, a skilled maritime artist in the New York City area, joined the Coast Guard in WWII and served as a combat artist. He captured a few of these CGR schooners at work. 

Eyes Off Shore, 6/7/1943, Coast Guard Reserve schooner of the Corsair Fleet by Hunter Wood NARA 205575831

Coast Guard Corsair on U-Boat Hunt, 2/11/1944, by Hunter Wood NARA 026-g-022-015-001

There was even something of an embrace of the term, with Disney pitching in to make an unofficial insignia, that sadly was never issued to the units and men involved. 

For a good doc on the Hooligan Navy, A&E– before they were all aliens and mermaids– had an excellent show called Sea Tales and they covered the USCGA in WWII, to include interviews with veterans of the force. 


Further, a number of those classic yachts and powerboats are still around. For instance, Aphrodite/CGR-557 is still stately at age 83. 

Looks different without the haze grey and machine gun!


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