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Admiral Merlin O’Neill, USCG (Ret.) (1898-1981)

Based on four interviews conducted by Lieutenant (junior grade) Peter H. Spectre, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, from January 1970 to March 1971, the volume contains 139 pages of interview transcript plus a comprehensive index. The transcript is copyright 2004 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

In 1921 O’Neill graduated from the Coast Guard Academy after a three-year shortened course resulting from World War I. In the 1920s he served in several cutters during the anti-rumrunner patrols of the Prohibition era: the USCGC Gresham (WPG-85), Haida (WPG-45), Algonquin (WPG-75), and Mojave (WPG-47). In 1925-27 he was executive officer and later commanding officer of the destroyer USCGD Ericsson (CG-5). He served on the staff of the Coast Guard Academy from 1927 to 1930, had brief duty in other destroyers in the early 1930s, and commanded the USCGC Apache, 1933-35. O’Neill had a long stretch in Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington from 1935 to 1942, during which time he helped establish the Coast Guard Reserve and Coast Guard Auxiliary. He commanded the Navy attack transport USS Leonard Wood (AP-25/APA-12) from 1942 to 1944, during World War II amphibious operations. After that he headed the Baltimore subsection of the Fifth Coast Guard District and then commanded the entire Fifth Coast Guard District. O’Neill served 1946-49 as Assistant Commandant of the Coast Guard, and from 1950 to 1954 he was the seventh Commandant of the Coast Guard.

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

In this selection from Admiral O'Neill's second interview at his home in Lusby, Maryland, on 4 April 1970, he describes some of his experiences in Operation Brushwood, the Allied landings at Fedala, Morroco, which formed part of the larger effort to capture Casablanca as part of Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, in November 1942.

LTJG Spectre: How much time did you have to train before you began the voyage to North Africa?

Admiral O'Neill: They had been training at Cove Point several times before I joined the ship. We made one what we called a dress-rehearsal run, after I joined. Then, when we came back from the North African landing, we began training for the Sicily landing. We made many trips up there. Load the troops and take them up for two or three days and send them ashore, and bring them back aboard, take them down to Norfolk, and then get ready for another group to take up to Cove Point.

LTJG Spectre: In other words, you didn’t just train with the people who were going to go across with you?

Admiral O'Neill: Our own boat crews had to be trained.

LTJG Spectre: You weren’t carrying troops when you were practicing up at Cove Point?

Admiral O'Neill: Oh, yes, the whole works. Our men were training at the same time. In other words, the lowering of the boats, the hoisting of the boats. They were getting great experience at that. And the men handling the cargo booms—the fictitious cargo. We had pine logs that we loaded in the hold of the ship to represent shells and ammunition—all kinds of fake things like that that had to be hoisted out of the hold and lowered into the boats after the troops. You’d send the troops in first, and then the boats came back, and you loaded ammunition and water, medical supplies, small tanks, vehicles, bulldozers, and everything had to be pub in the boats and sent ashore. Then what they did ashore, I don’t know. Then it all had to be brought back, and all that stuff had to be loaded back in the hold of the ship and the crew and troops brought back aboard. And then, the following morning, we’d do it all over again. It was quite a rigmarole.

LTJG Spectre: Were there other transports with you? So what you were doing was conducting the North Africa invasion in Chesapeake Bay?

Admiral O'Neill: Yes, exactly. We were making the North African landings right up here at Cove Point. At one time there were about 15 or 20 transports. Then we had these small lighters, these LCTs that carried the heavy equipment ashore, like the big tanks. The heavy tanks were carried up on the cargo ships, what we called the AKs.

LTJG Spectre: How many ships went across to Africa? Did you steam in a squadron.

Allied Landing convoy off Fedala, Morocco, December 1942Admiral O'Neill: Oh, yes. It was a very large convoy. I think out of Norfolk there were about 15, but we were joined by other ships from other ports along the coast to meet up with us out at sea. So by the time the entire convoy was assembled, it looked like the whole ocean was full of ships. The total number there, I have no idea, because that’s not only the transports and cargo ships but also the escorts, the flagships, and all. The escorts and the screens, they call it, too. There were a great many Navy destroyers, battleships, everywhere. The whole ocean was covered.

LTJG Spectre: This was the first U.S. invasion during the war?

Admiral O'Neill: It was the first in the Atlantic, but I think maybe the first was down in the South Pacific. I believe down in Guadalcanal was the first.[1] I wasn’t there.

LTJG Spectre: You had never had any experience in a convoy before this point?

Admiral O'Neill: No.

LTJG Spectre: What was it like? Did you have any troubles?

Admiral O'Neill: Well, as I say, I was fortunate in having a number of officers aboard who had been on these expeditions when the ship was just a troop carrier. They’d had some convoy experience and were familiar with the zigzag patterns. We also carried the Navy staff, the amphibious force commander, aboard ship.[2] Then, later on, after that operation, the division commander stayed aboard and eventually went with us to the Pacific. But what we’re talking about now is the North African invasion.

LTJG Spectre: What happened when you arrived at the beaches in North Africa?

Admiral O'Neill: We landed at a small place called Fedhala, and unfortunately there was heavy surf. The ships were to land about daylight, and most of the transports lost most of their small boats. The troops could get in to the beach. The boats could drop their ramps, and the troops could get out and wade ashore. And before the boats could back off, the surf would throw this boat back up on the beach, and we lost practically all of our boats in the landing.

LTJG Spectre: Did you get all the men ashore, though?

Allied equipment washed up on the beach at Fedala, Morocco, 1942.Admiral O'Neill: Oh yes, we got the men ashore, but we had no salvage equipment, none of the ships. There were many ships around there, and they all lost most of their boats. We weren’t the only one. But there was no salvage equipment, no tug or anything to come up and yank the things off the beach. I think it was the first night in there, when the German sub got in there and sank two of the transports and a destroyer, maybe three transports.[3] We got under way and went to sea to get away from the sub so we could go out and zigzag and get the screening up to protect us. Then we came back into the harbor of Casablanca so we could unload the supplies. We couldn’t unload our equipment and supplies, because we had no boats and the surf was up there. The landing was in terrible condition.

Peter Spectre: Your original intent was to land the supplies with men?

Admiral O'Neill: So we had to go in the harbor, alongside the pier, and unload and dump the stuff out on the pier. Then the Army had to take over and haul it to wherever they needed it.

LTJG Spectre: It was lucky that we had Casablanca.

Admiral O'Neill: Yes. By that time it had been subdued. The resistance wasn’t too much there. The French put up some resistance in the beginning, but it didn’t amount to much.

There’s an interesting story there. I don’t know all the details of it, but aboard our ship we carried an Army officer, a colonel, who had attended a French military academy with some of these French officers that were in command of the French forces there. They had been close personal friends. He had a secret letter that he carried inside his pocket. He told me about it; I didn’t see it. He was the first one to be put ashore in a boat with a Jeep. He was to fly this French flag and this American flag on the Jeep and get into contact with these several French officers to make sure they would tell their forces to not put up any resistance. How well that worked, I don’t know. Apparently it worked to some extent, because the resistance was very mild and casualties very few.

Of course, before that there had been some diplomatic maneuvering going on. I think there was a man by the name of Murphy.[4] He was supposed to have contacted the French forces, and we had orders that if the French searchlights on shore were showing straight up to the sky, then they would offer no resistance. When we went in there, as we approached, they could hear us, I guess, or maybe saw us with their radar, and the searchlights began pointing straight up. So that was fine. Just a few minutes later, the lights lowered and shone right on us and started shooting. There was a little gunfire back and forth between some of the shore batteries and the destroyers that were protecting us, but it didn’t amount to too much.

LTJG Spectre: How long were you there before you made the return trip?

Admiral O'Neill: We were there, I guess, altogether, about three days. Because as soon as we unloaded at Casablanca we got out of there. Formed up the convoy offshore and came on back to Norfolk.

[1] On 7 August 1942, U.S. Marines invaded the islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomons chain as part of the first U.S. counteroffensive in the Pacific War. The primary purpose was to gain control of an airstrip on Guadalcanal and thus to prevent the Japanese from achieving control of the surrounding air and sea regions. The campaign was long and difficult before organized Japanese resistance finally ended on 9 February 1943.

[2] Captain Robert R. M. Emmet, USN, commanded the center attack group transports.

[3] For details on the ship losses, see Morison, Volume II, pages 283-294.

[4] Robert D. Murphy, counselor of the American Embassy at Vichy, France. See Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: the War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2002).



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