Coast Guard Codebreakers: Inspire Those Who Serve

By Captain Raymond J. Brown, U.S. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard independently solved the cipher of German high command's intelligence service, the Abwehr, in January 1943. This was a cipher quite different from those of the regular armed forces and constituted a feat regarded by the legendary codebreakers at London's Bletchley Park as close to an impossibility. In addition to monitoring merchant vessel radio traffic beginning in 1939, Captain Farley pushed hard to exploit any link between clandestine transmissions and U-boat operations. In 1943, the efforts of CG Unit 387 helped make possible psychological operations important in obviating the planned U.S. destruction of the French Caribbean naval order of battle and attendant invasion of Martinique, to have coincided with the invasion of Sicily. Having compiled a superb record, at war's end CG Unit 387 simply ceased to be—mission done, victory won. Today, histories of the Coast Guard fail to mention them. But these Coast Guardsmen fulfilled their vital mission with honor, respect, and devotion to duty in the highest traditions of the service. A much-delayed after-action report has some interpretive lessons that the Coast Guard of that earlier day might have called aids to information .

CG Unit 387 Used the Past

By the time World War II began, the Coast Guard had an established tradition of operational intelligence. Accordingly, immediately after the 1938 Munich crisis and by direct order from the Secretary of the Treasury, CG Unit 387 applied its past to the new challenges of Nazi aggression and coming war. This recycling of history has not often been the Coast Guard way, which tends to be captive to the present. We thereby rob ourselves of inspiration and easily available professional advice. On that sort of inspiration, musing on the legacy of Medal of Honor recipient Douglas C. Munro, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Vince Patton recently remarked on the importance of "understanding the organization of which you are a member . . . [the] tradition and heritage . . . I would like to see our folks today in the Coast Guard develop a greater understanding of ourselves."' We Coast Guardsmen, who, when it comes to required shipboard instructions or effectual law-enforcement tactics, are so happy to visit another cutter and accept "stolen with pride"-type information, seldom do the same with Coast Guard history. Conversely, CG Unit 387 did not start anew in World War II, but made minor alterations to intelligence operations already embedded in Coast Guard lore. However, in the drug war, the Coast Guard did start over, never supposing that the sequence of route denial and migration, the use of spotter planes, and the standard tribal characteristics of various smuggler types all had been encountered before-during Prohibition. Nor did we recall that Caribbean choke point campaigns had been waged against French privateers in 1799 and against U-boats in World War II.

CG Unit 387 Worked Well with Others

CG Unit 387 formed an integral part of an intelligence team that included the U.S. Navy, the Office of Strategic Services, the Army, the Federal Communications Commission, British Security Coordination in New York, Bletchley Park Government Code and Cipher School, the Royal Navy, and the Canadian "Y" Service. There were some uncordial exchanges with the FBI, but running afoul of J. Edgar Hoover simply assured one of a reservation in the least exclusive club in the communications intelligence community. More emblematic of the professional relationships fostered was that CG Unit 387 came to be the contact most valued by Royal Navy Captain Edward Hastings, the British liaison to the U.S. communications intelligence community. Similarly, the U.S. Navy's Office of Communications, notwithstanding its notable and not always noble intrigues in 1942, afforded CG Unit 387 autonomy and formidable bureaucratic defense against those who would reduce or duplicate its mission. Both Captain Farley and Commander Jones were accorded important positions in the interagency and international deliberations of the Navy with the many other players in the intelligence community. In fact, the Coast Guardsmen often are listed simply as members of the Navy representation. This capacity for cooperation is an enduring and endearing Coast Guard characteristic.

CG Unit 387 Focused on the Caribbean

For the United States, the Caribbean seems to figure little in strategic thinking but mightily in expenditure of blood and treasure. There, the Coast Guard often has been in the forefront of various crises and even more often picked up the tab afterward. Though one can go back to the days of pirates and privateers, one might simply catalog the military confrontations and interventions, the hurricane relief and counter-rioting operations, the many boatlifts, and the narcotics smuggling of the past generation, and recall that this is how it has always been. CG Unit 387 accorded particular effort toward the Caribbean in light of oil tankers proceeding from Venezuela, Aruba, and St. Croix, U-boats proceeding toward the tankers, and a labyrinth of sympathies and conflicts in many nations and colonies. Almost lost to memory is the fact that some 300 Allied merchant ships were sunk in the Caribbean, as well as 17 U-boats. The Coast Guard today continues this hard southern look, for Caribbean crises keep cropping up. The Coast Guard continues to be a uniquely suitable instrument of national security in the region. Like CG Unit 387, we never must let down our guard on the southern flank. We also ought never to become myopic toward a single mission there, as the time when there was almost a two-year hiatus from narcotics interdiction in the early 1990s, because of refocus on mass migrations. We lost our edge and gapped the pass-down-the-line experience of several years' worth of newly commissioned officers.

CG Unit 387 Never Forgot the Sailor

Though he had other communications duties, Captain Farley provided oversight for CG Unit 387 from 1937 until 1942, when he attained flag rank. Very much a seaman, he never lost sight of what communications intelligence should mean for the sailor. When the FBI sought to wrest the clandestine collection efforts from the Coast Guard, Captain Farley stubbornly resisted, as he believed strongly that intelligence efforts that might affect sailors—here considering the U-boat threat—were better in Coast Guard hands. In this case, Captain Farley also was standing against a prevalent trend to concentrate upon political threats. In 1942, the famed Marine Corps author John W. Thomason was the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) assignee for Latin American intelligence operations. Major Thomason, an iconoclast, decried the tendency of so many supposedly seagoing types to expend energy on diplomacy and economics instead of what might be useful to sailors. In many endeavors, political temptation all too often replaces the seamanlike priorities of mental and emotional effort as Coast Guardsmen climb the professional ladder. We sometimes wind up defining professional worth by status of shoreside staff billets.

CG Unit 387 Used Brain Power

The accomplishments of CG Unit 387 demonstrated very junior people doing some pretty incredible things. That is the Coast Guard way. During the migration crises of the early 1990s offshore Cuba and Haiti, people were amazed to see the aging USCGC Gallatin (WHEC-721) performing functions of command and control considered (by specialists who knew what they were talking about) feasible only by an Aegis cruiser. Attracting bright and dedicated people and then affording them commensurate trust is perhaps the Coast Guard's greatest strength.

CG Unit 387 Was a Meritocracy

Among the accomplishments of his 20 years of sea duty, Captain Farley commanded the Ponchartrain in the heroic 1933 rescue of the schooner Uvira and 25 distressed mariners off Cape Hatteras. He was a taciturn sea dog, not at ease in public appearances. Yet, based on mutual respect for ability, he forged a team with Mrs. Friedman, the proper and thoroughly civilian academic, that linked cryptanalysts to linguists to operators. CG Unit 387 meant hard work for which there could be no public recognition. No officer assigned there would return to sea for risk of capture and compromise of the ULTRA secret. Within the team the currency of approval was performance. To listen to the "I'd get killed for political incorrectness if anyone heard this, but" lines repeated about personnel selection and accession, one cannot help but surmise that not a few Coast Guardsmen believe that professionalism has been weakened in the course of accelerated diversity.

CG Unit 387 Used Peacetime Functions in War

The transition from criminal clandestine intelligence to Axis clandestine intelligence was direct. Similarly, what the Coast Guard does best in armed conflict are those same missions it does in peacetime. Maritime-intercept operations, search and rescue, and establishing security zones require no Coast Guard metamorphosis. This approach to contingency preparedness affirms that our workaday missions naturally involve readiness training. Such an approach is an effective use of time and money. Moreover, there is yet another reason for ensuring alignment of wartime missions with those of peacetime—to the extent peace ever really exists for today's Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is stretched almost too thin to allow for adequate, dedicated training time. Brassey's Seapower series argues that patrol cutters, fully engaged as they are in current tasking, actually need to have greater fleet numbers than peacetime missions strictly require so that training for wartime may be addressed adequately. That is a perfectly solid professional postulate that never would survive the preliminary steps of an acquisition process. But what can be done is to ensure that notional planning and assignments for war reflect the current operational experience.

CG Unit 387 Understood Operational Security

The Axis powers never even suspected that the Allies had penetrated their codes and ciphers, though that penetration occurred on a grand scale. Certainly CG Unit 387, whose existence before the war was a matter of record and had been written about a number of times with respect to interdiction operations during Prohibition, seems to have kept complete operational security about wartime exploits indefinitely in the years since 1945. No Coast Guardsman assigned to CG Unit 387 seems ever to have recounted his wartime duties. There seems to have been no official history of their existence. We could all take a lesson from that reticence. Today's Coast Guard air and sea movements are obtainable from scanners, the Internet, electronic-warfare equipment available on the open market, cellular phones (theirs and ours), and our own human tendency to slip into routine. A 1997 survey of Coast Guard patrol efforts offshore the northeast United States demonstrated that in excruciating detail.

CG Unit 387 Knew the Navy Was a Friend

Without loss of identity, CG Unit 387 nonetheless was fully integrated into the Navy's communications intelligence organization. The transition was easy. Most equipment and much of the training originally had come courtesy of the Navy. The ties between the two services in training, procedures, organization, and doctrine are incredibly close, with most differences a matter of emphasis instead of fundamentals. The Coast Guard always is going to know more about the Navy than the Navy does about the Coast Guard. Our destiny always will be tied closely to the Navy's actions and reactions to the issues of the day. We should remember that minus the training (with which we certainly assist), the provision of electronics and ordnance, and the extensive supply network that the Navy makes available, the Coast Guard would be something less than the world-class organization that it is.

CG Unit 387 Placed Qualified People in Billets

The unit was small—just 20 in a Navy communications intelligence effort that by 1945 totaled 8,454 people—allowing no slackers. Among the truly professional, in any endeavor, fewer often is better. However, in today's Coast Guard, largely because of a personnel shortage, we tend to waive too many prerequisites in small crews. A fully trained cutter requires an available cadre of transients and trainees en route and having just left. Unfortunately, that portion of the Coast Guard has all but ceased to be. But today, qualification codes mandatory for independent duty frequently are forsworn. It is not uncommon for a petty officer to be one or two ratings below dictates. New cutters coming on line are slated to be "optimally crewed"—which formerly was called "minimal manning." The assumption for optimal crewing is that people will be fully qualified for assigned duties. But by way of illustration, not exception, the assigned engineer officer for a new coastal buoy tender, an electrician by background, recently reported to a newly delivered cutter with no pipeline training completed whatsoever. The executive officer of a new seagoing buoy tender, deployed overseas, recently reported for duty not having completed pipeline training. It reflects well upon Coast Guardsmen that they still manage not only to fulfill the mission, but to excel.

As a matter of living up to the core value of respect, we should know something of those Coast Guardsmen who have gone before us. By taking the best our forebears have to offer—which was very good indeed—the Coast Guard of the 21st century can be even better.

Captain Brown is Chief of the Intelligence and Operational Law Enforcement Branch on the staff of Commander, First Coast Guard District, in Boston.

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

2015 WEST Conference

Tue, 2015-02-10 - Thu, 2015-02-12

Co-sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute, West 2015 is the largest event on the West Coast for...

2015 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

Ultimate Skybox at The Diamond View Tower

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership