The Coast Guard's World War II Crucible

By William H. Thiesen

In the summer of 1939, the U.S. Lighthouse Service was consolidated into the service, resulting in the transfer of 5,200 personnel, as well as ships, depots, and district offices from the Commerce Department to the Coast Guard and Treasury Department. The merger also meant that the Coast Guard was then responsible for manning and maintaining 30,000 aids to navigation—buoys, day markers, radio beacons, lightships, and lighthouses along America’s seacoasts, lakeshores, and river systems—in peacetime and war.

New Duties during Tense Times

Coast Guard units served with distinction in missions supporting the war effort even before formal U.S. entry into World War II. On 3 September 1939, two days after the German invasion of Poland, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. On 5 September, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed U.S. neutrality and ordered units of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard to establish a “Neutrality Patrol.” Its duties included observing and reporting belligerent warship movements in a cruising area that extended far into ocean waters adjacent to U.S. shores. Built in the late 1930s, the service’s high-seas Treasury-class cutters (sometimes referred to as Secretary-, or 327-foot-, class cutters) became a mainstay of the neutrality patrols.

In January 1940, President Roosevelt directed the Coast Guard to establish the Atlantic Weather Observation Service using its oceangoing cutters with U.S. Weather Bureau observers on board. Twice daily, the weathermen measured atmospheric conditions using balloons and recorded water temperatures. Remaining on station for a month at a time, these cutters served as aids to navigation for military and commercial vessels and transatlantic air traffic, and their radar and radio equipment were manned around the clock. The weather ships also provided medical services to passing merchant ships and served as search-and-rescue platforms. This assignment could prove deadly; in 1942 the cutter Muskeget (WAG-48), a Coast Guard weather ship, would be lost with all hands after a U-boat attacked her.

As the nation crept closer to war, the Coast Guard received ever more responsibilities. In June 1940, Roosevelt invoked the Espionage Act of 1917 and tasked the Coast Guard with port-security duties, including guarding piers and patrolling water approaches to shipyards and strategic waterfront facilities. With the assignment, the service governed the anchorage and movement of all ships in U.S. waters and provided protection to American ships, harbors, and waters. In October 1940, Congress passed the Dangerous Cargo Act, which assigned the Coast Guard oversight of ships carrying high explosives and dangerous cargoes. And in the spring of 1941, the service seized scores of Axis merchant ships in its role as the nation’s port-security enforcer.

Overall, the Coast Guard’s port-security program was well organized and effective despite the tremendous responsibility it placed on the service before and during World War II. For example, in 1943 a fire broke out on board the cargo ship El Estero along the docks in Bayonne, New Jersey, just after she had taken aboard about 1,500 tons of bombs and ammunition. Coast Guard fireboats and a detachment of Coast Guard Reservists immediately responded. Service personnel later scuttled the ship and prevented a detonation that would have leveled parts of New York’s waterfront and killed thousands of local residents. Throughout the coming conflict, U.S. logistical centers controlled by the Coast Guard would remain secure from similar mishaps as well as sabotage attempts.

Additional Assignments

In the spring of 1940, Nazi Germany occupied Denmark, and a year later the United States incorporated the Danish territory of Greenland into a hemispheric defense system. President Roosevelt designated the Coast Guard as the lead military service responsible for Greenland operations, including convoy duty, search and rescue, and defense against German infiltration.

On 12 September 1941, the cutter Northland (WPG-49) spotted a fishing trawler flying the colors of German-occupied Norway near MacKenzie Bay on Greenland’s eastern coast. The Northland’s CO, Commander Carl Christian von Paulsen, sent an armed party aboard the ship, the Buskoe. One of the 27 persons on board revealed that the trawler had dropped several “hunters” with radio equipment ashore, and equipment discovered in the vessel indicated she was radioing weather and shipping information to U-boats and German shore installations. The Buskoe was seized along with those on board. That night a shore party from the Northland located a German weather station and captured its crew.

The Northland was the first American unit to make contact with the enemy in World War II, and her crew made the first U.S. naval capture of the war. The Greenland Patrol would remain under Coast Guard oversight for the rest of the conflict.

By 1941 war clouds had formed off both the U.S. East and West coasts, requiring further organizational change in the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard Reserve was established by passage of the Coast Guard Reserve and Auxiliary Act in February 1941. The Naval Reserve served as a model for the Coast Guard Reserve, which included full-time paid reservists, who served alongside active-duty regulars for the duration of the war. In addition, a new corps of Temporary Reservists served in volunteer and paid assignments to support the war effort at home. The February legislation also established the Coast Guard Auxiliary (an organization of civilian yacht and boat owners that promoted safety on waterways), which had been known as the Coast Guard Reserve.

The Coast Guard underwent more changes as the United States was drawn into the war. For example, the 1941 Lend-Lease Act permitted President Roosevelt to transfer ten 250-foot Lake-class cutters to the Royal Navy. On 1 November, Roosevelt signed an executive order reassigning the service’s duties from the Treasury Department to the Navy. After the start of the war, in February 1942, the President transferred the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to the Coast Guard. Already responsible for merchant-marine personnel and ship safety, this added mission gave the Coast Guard oversight of merchant vessel safety from the drawing board to the scrap yard. Marine safety developed into such an important service mission during the war that the Coast Guard retained responsibility for it after the conflict.

War Arrives

Official Coast Guard combat operations began on 7 December 1941 at Pearl Harbor, where cutters put up antiaircraft barrages against Japanese aircraft and performed harbor and antisubmarine patrols alongside U.S. Navy assets. The service suffered its first combat casualties when enemy forces attacked two Coast Guard–manned vessels serving on opposite sides of the globe. Off Iceland, U-132 torpedoed the Secretary-class cutter Alexander Hamilton (WPG-34), which suffered 26 killed and 56 wounded. She capsized and had to be sunk by friendly fire on 30 January 1942. The Hamilton was the first American warship lost to enemy action after the United States had entered the war. That same day, the Coast Guard–manned troop transport USS Wakefield (AP-21) was refueling in besieged Singapore when, during a Japanese air raid, a bomb penetrated the ship’s B deck and exploded in her sick bay, killing four Coast Guardsmen. Despite the casualties and damage, the Wakefield delivered her cargo of civilian refugees to India.

The use of beach patrols dated back to the old Life-Saving Service. In late 1941, the basic structure of wartime beach patrols was set in motion with the Navy maintaining offshore patrols and the Coast Guard working along the nation’s coasts. Coast Guard lifesaving stations and lighthouses became bases for a force of nearly 25,000 Coast Guardsmen patrolling thousands of miles of shoreline on foot or horseback, in vehicles, and with and without dogs.

In 1942 U-boats supporting German Operation Pastorious landed two sabotage teams on the East Coast, one in Florida and the other in New York. Each team of four men was to attack key U.S. factories and railroads. During his regular beach patrol on a foggy evening in June, Coast Guard Seaman Second Class John Cullen encountered the first German team shortly after it landed on Long Island. Slipping away from the suspicious group, he rushed to his Coast Guard station and reported the incident. Within weeks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had apprehended all the enemy agents, in New York and Florida, and six of the eight were hanged.

In May 1942, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King requested that the Coast Guard Reserve organize a unit to supplement coastal naval forces employed in antisubmarine and rescue duties. Often referred to as the “Hooligan Navy” or “Corsair Fleet,” the Coastal Picket Patrol was composed of privately owned yachts—each equipped with machine guns, four depth charges, and a radio—that were supposed to attack enemy submarines whenever possible. Yacht owners usually remained in command of their boats with a temporary enlisted rank of chief boatswain’s mate. Initially, college boys, Boy Scouts, beachcombers, ex-bootleggers, and former rumrunners served on board the vessels. Almost anyone who could reef a sail and steer a course, and many who could not, could qualify as a crewman. Later in the war, however, Corsair Fleet crews comprised better trained and more experienced seamen.

Support, Combat, Rescue Missions

During the war, the Coast Guard played an important role off home shores and on the high seas. Using more than half of its wartime personnel, the service manned 802 Coast Guard, 351 Navy, and 288 Army vessels to support land, sea, and air forces in all combat theaters. Coast Guard troopships, attack transports, cargo transports, fuel ships, and auxiliary vessels supported Allied amphibious operations, fighting fleets, and land forces throughout the world. It was dangerous duty. Late in the war, the Coast Guard–manned transport Serpens (AK-97) suffered an accidental detonation of her cargo of depth charges that killed all but two of her 200-man crew. It was the largest single loss of life in Coast Guard history.

Naval historians generally overlook the Coast Guard’s participation in the Battle of the Atlantic. The service’s fleet of medium- and high-endurance cutters, as well as numerous Coast Guard–crewed destroyer escorts and patrol frigates, served a vital role as convoy escorts. The service even manned the Big Horn (AO-45), a heavily armed tanker “Q-ship,” designed to lure U-boats before unmasking her hidden guns and attacking the unsuspecting enemy submarines. All of these warships helped protect Allied convoys, ensuring the timely and safe arrival in Europe of personnel, food, and matériel.

Besides duty in the North Atlantic, Coast Guard vessels escorted convoys across the Central Atlantic, in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, and along American shores. In May 1942, Lieutenant Commander Maurice Jester was CO of the 165-foot escort cutter Icarus (WPC-110) when she depth-charged U-352, sinking the submarine off the North Carolina coast and taking aboard 33 of her survivors. Captain of the first Coast Guard–manned vessel to sink a U-boat and the first U.S. naval ship to capture a German sub crew, Jester received the Navy Cross. Over the course of the conflict, Coast Guard crews would sink 11 U-boats.

Involved in the Pacific war from the start, the service’s first major offensive took place at Guadalcanal in August 1942. Coast Guard–manned ships transported Marines, supplies, and equipment to the island, and boats crewed by Coast Guardsmen landed them. And when the Marines needed small boats for reconnaissance and combat missions, Coast Guard crews were always ready to man them. Assigned to Guadalcanal, Signalman First Class Douglas Munro, the only service member to be awarded the Medal of Honor, received it posthumously for performing a mission common to the Coast Guard—rescuing those who go in harm’s way. In this case, Munro’s flotilla of landing craft evacuated a Marine battalion ambushed by the Japanese at Point Cruz.

The Coast Guard also participated in all of the Allied amphibious operations in North Africa and Italy, beginning with the November 1942 Operation Torch landings in French-held North Africa. The service’s extensive record of transporting and landing troops made Coast Guardsmen the U.S. military’s experts in operating, maintaining, and salvaging landing craft.

During the war, the Coast Guard’s combat missions required the taking of enemy combatants’ lives; however, its search-and-rescue mission required the service to save the lives of all victims of the naval war. Coast Guard lifeboats brought in scores of survivors from tankers and cargo vessels torpedoed along the East Coast, and its amphibious aircraft guided surface ships to survivors along the coasts or landed on the open ocean to perform water rescues. In December 1942, Lieutenant John Pritchard piloted a Grumman J2F Duck from the cutter Northland to rescue a downed B-17 bomber’s aircrew on the Greenland ice cap. He died when his plane crashed in whiteout conditions trying to evacuate the survivors from the Flying Fortress.

Like the service’s aircraft and lifesaving boats, the Coast Guard’s ocean-going cutters performed the same rescue mission in the Atlantic Ocean, from Greenland to the Mediterranean. Lieutenant Robert Prause served on board the cutter Escanaba (WPG-77) and developed a specialized rescue system that included tethered swimmers wearing rubber exposure suits. When the Army transport Dorchester was torpedoed in Greenland waters in February 1943, the Escanaba and cutter Comanche (WPG-76) steamed to the rescue and saved a remarkable 300 passengers and crew. Prause died five months later, when the Escanaba exploded and sank with the loss of nearly all hands. Overall, Coast Guard cutters and aircraft rescued nearly 1,000 Allied and Axis survivors along the North Atlantic convoy routes, 1,600 along the American coast, and 200 in the Mediterranean, thereby continuing one of the Coast Guard’s most important missions.

Final Ops

Coast Guard officers, including Lieutenant Commander Quentin Walsh, helped plan Operation Neptune, the naval portion of Operation Overlord, the 6 June 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy. Coast Guard personnel manned assault transports; cargo ships; 83-foot rescue cutters; landing ships, tank (LSTs); landing craft, infantry (LCIs); and smaller landing craft along Omaha and Utah beaches. In fact, Coast Guard photographers shot the first and most famous photographs of the invasion. The service’s 83-foot cutters rescued 1,468 men from the surf and sinking ships offshore.

Later, during the Normandy campaign, Walsh earned the Navy Cross for assisting in the capture and subsequent operation of the port of Cherbourg. Walsh’s naval reconnaissance unit captured more than 700 enemy troops, freed 50 American paratroopers taken prisoner by the Germans, and opened the damaged port to Allied shipping. The Coast Guard played a vital role in all other European amphibious operations, including the August 1944 Operation Anvil landings in southern France.

By early May 1945, the German war machine had collapsed, and on the 8th, Adolf Hitler’s successor, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, broadcast the order for all German military units, including U-boats, to surrender to Allied forces. The U.S. Navy selected six patrol vessels as its “surrender group.” Three of the warships were the 165-foot cutters Dione (WPC-107), Nemesis (WPC-111), and Argo (WPC-100), and the Navy selected the Argo’s skipper, Lieutenant Eliot Winslow, to lead the unit. Five submarines surrendered to the Americans. As it had overseen the capture of Arctic trawler Buskoe, the first enemy vessel captured by U.S. forces, the Coast Guard also brought in the last enemy vessels from the Battle of the Atlantic.

In the Pacific and Far East, Coast Guard personnel served in a variety of roles, from dog and horse instructors for Nationalist Chinese forces to Office of Strategic Services intelligence operatives along the coast of Burma to beachmasters overseeing landings on far-flung enemy-held islands. However, most Coast Guardsmen manned transports, LSTs, and landing craft in support of amphibious operations. These landings included the Aleutian Islands, Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and the Philippines. Coast Guard assets continued to operate through the end of the Pacific war, supporting amphibious ops against Okinawa. And before Japanese forces ceased fire in August 1945, the service’s strategists were heavily involved with the planning of Operation Olympic, the invasion of Japan’s southernmost main island, Kyushu.

The war officially ended on 2 September 1945, when Japanese representatives signed the articles of surrender on board the Missouri (BB-63) in Tokyo Bay. Before this historic event, Coast Guard headquarters had devised a detailed demobilization plan. Coast Guard transports had shipped hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen to the war zone. And, in the late summer and fall of 1945 as part of Operation Magic Carpet, Coast Guard–manned transports began returning them back home. Also in September, separation centers in various Coast Guard districts began processing out as many as 14,000 men and women per month.

On 1 January 1946, the service reverted from Navy control to its previous place within the Treasury Department. On that same day, after a 40-year Coast Guard career, Admiral Waesche retired as Commandant. Serving nearly ten years as head of the service (the longest tenure of any commandant) and its first flag officer appointed vice admiral and four-star admiral, Waesche had overseen scores of organizational and mission changes. Two weeks after he retired, Navy Secretary James Forrestal decorated him with the Distinguished Service Medal, and in March President Harry Truman nominated him and nine other flag officers to permanently retain their wartime ranks. Waesche died later that year and was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

As with all wars, World War II had a transformative effect on America’s military services. To support the cause, the Coast Guard expanded to a record high of more than 170,000 men and women serving in uniform at one time, with nearly 250,000 personnel serving over the course of the war. The Coast Guard supported both combat and traditional-service missions, including search and rescue, marine safety, convoy escort duty, troop transport and amphibious operations, port security, and beach patrol. By doing so, the U.S. Coast Guard proved itself Semper Paratus—Always Ready—to perform any maritime missions required by the war effort.


Jeffery B. Floyd and Dean S. Veremakis, “Semper Paratus” Honors to the U.S. Coast Guard in World War II (Tavaris, FL: Tavares Printing, 2008).

Reg Ingraham, First Fleet: The Story of the U.S. Coast Guard at War (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1944).

Arch A. Mercey and Lee Grove, eds. Sea, Surf, & Hell: The U.S. Coast Guard in World War II (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1945).

Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, 15 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1947–62).

J. Rohwer and G. Hummelchen Chronology of the War at Sea, 1939–1945: The Naval History of World War Two (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2d ed., 1992).

Robert L. Scheina, U.S. Coast Guard Cutters & Craft of World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982).

U.S. Coast Guard, Historian’s Office, “World War II,” .

U.S. Coast Guard, Statistical Division/Historical Section, Public Information Division, The Coast Guard At War (Washington: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 30 June 1944–1 January 1954), 30 monographs.

John M. Waters, Bloody Winter (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984).

Malcolm F. Willoughby, The U.S. Coast Guard in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1957; rev. ed., 1989).

Opening Up the Service

Like previous conflicts, World War II altered the U.S. Coast Guard’s ethnic makeup and advanced the role of minorities (see “Change Hastened by Conflict,” February 2015, pp. 26–31). The first 150 African-Americans volunteered for the service in March 1942 and received training at its desegregated facility at Manhattan Beach, New York. In May, all Coast Guard rates were opened to minorities; however, initially those personnel were assigned to food-service jobs on board cutters. Other African-Americans received shore duty, such as at the Tiana Beach Station, an all–African-American lifesaving station on Long Island established in December 1942.

In late 1943, with the support of Commandant Russell Waesche, the Coast Guard–manned USS Sea Cloud (IX-99) became the nation’s first deliberate test of shipboard desegregation. The Sea Cloud’s desegregated crew members messed at the same galley tables and bunked in the same berthing spaces, and the cutter’s senior leadership included African-American non-commissioned and commissioned officers. The Sea Cloud experiment predated the Navy’s more famous first steps at desegregation on board a few of its warships, such as the Mason (DE-529) in 1944.

Late in November 1942, Congress had approved legislation creating the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. This female corps adopted the term SPAR, an acronym for the Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus (Always Ready). The establishment of the SPARs gave legislative recognition to American women’s duty and right to serve as members of the armed services. More than 10,000 women volunteered for the SPARs between 1942 and 1946, including the service’s first active-duty minority women.

—William H. Thiesen

Wartime Technological Advances

During the war, the Coast Guard led in the development of certain maritime-related technologies. LORAN is the military acronym for long-range navigation, which used radio waves to help planes and ships determine their exact location in any weather condition. A cooperative effort led by Commander Lawrence Harding, USCG, a former U.S. Lighthouse Service engineer, and including civilian scientists, the Navy, and the Coast Guard, developed this transmitter-based system. In March 1942, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered the service to design, construct, and operate a chain of LORAN transmitting stations. Harding oversaw the construction of 49 installations, stretching from Greenland to the Pacific, to assist military aircraft and ships conducting combat operations. Though built to support the war effort, the system was adapted for civilian use, and the Coast Guard continued to man LORAN stations until the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) made them obsolete.

In June 1942, when U-boat attacks reached their wartime high, U.S. strategists decided the development of the helicopter might help combat the underwater menace. Due in large part to the insistence of Commandant Waesche, the Chief of Naval Operations placed responsibility for rotary-wing aircraft development with the Coast Guard. By early 1943, Coast Guard Captain Frank Erickson joined aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky at New York’s Floyd Bennett Airfield to develop the helicopter as a naval and maritime aviation asset.

In January 1944, the destroyer USS Turner (DD-648) suffered an internal explosion while anchored in New York Harbor, and with victims’ lives at stake, Erickson lashed cases of plasma to an early-model helicopter. While an automobile would have taken hours to deliver the plasma, Erickson took only 15 minutes, demonstrating the usefulness of the aircraft. The helicopter would prove invaluable to the service, and rotary-wing aircraft have since become a staple of military and civilian aviation throughout the world.

—William H. Thiesen



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