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Chapter 10

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 12
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p99  Chapter 11

Coast Guard Aviation

No account of naval aviation in World War II would be complete without some reference to the contribution of its wartime brother, Coast Guard aviation. Traditionally the Coast Guard is the "policeman of the sea," enforcing customs regulations and various laws of the ocean, and also is an important agent in protecting and saving life and property. Its air branch was established to assist in these same duties. After World War II broke out in Europe, this traditional role was gradually thrust into the background at all the Coast Guard air stations except one, the exception being the San Diego station, which was selected by officials to maintain its peacetime functions. Supervision of neutrality rules, and, after the attack at Pearl Harbor, anti-submarine patrol and other defense duties became of prime importance.

The aviation arm of the U. S. Coast Guard during the war consisted of nine air stations and Patrol Bombing Squadron 6, which was attached to the Naval Greenland Fleet Air Group. The nine stations were at Salem, Massachusetts; Brooklyn, New York; Elizabeth City, North Carolina; Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida; Biloxi, Mississippi; San Diego and San Francisco, California; and Port Angeles, Washington. In addition, a detachment was commissioned in April, 1942, at Traverse City, Michigan, for patrol of the Great Lakes. A small parachute group operated in southeastern Alaska, a unit was maintained at headquarters, and individual planes were assigned from time to time for special duty with Coast Guard vessels in various districts.

On 1 November 1941 the President put the Coast Guard under the operational control of the Navy, and routine duties became subordinated to national defense. From our entrance into the war through 30 June 1943, Coast Guard aircraft made sixty‑one bombing attacks on enemy U‑boats, but their principal value in anti-submarine warfare was as "watchdogs" or harassing agents. During this same period the planes  p100 located over a thousand survivors and themselves rescued ninety-five persons.

The station which had the easiest transition to wartime status was the air station at San Francisco, commissioned in 1940 and the last Coast Guard aviation unit to be established. It was recognized from the beginning for its potential value in war duties in the San Francisco Bay region, and anti-submarine patrols were begun at this station immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack. Assistance flights in 1943 numbered 98, and in 1944 totaled 99. During 3,688 other flights in 1943, 3,159 vessels or planes were identified, 169 persons and 7 medical cases were transported and 57 other government agencies assisted. Flights during 1944 included 675 anti-submarine patrol and convoy coverage trips.

Farther north on the west coast the station at Port Angeles, Washington, experienced a rapid expansion when war came. In 1935 it had started operations with three 75‑foot patrol boats, four picket boats and one Douglas amphibian plane. For the first three years of its existence, the station, lacking a landing field, was forced to operate only as a seaplane base, but in 1938 a hard surface runway constructed on the naval reservation was leased to the Coast Guard. When war came, old planes were armed and new ones assigned, and the station sandwiched rescue operations between anti-submarine patrols and convoy escort flights.

Protection of the Gulf region was entrusted to the Army, Navy and Coast Guard, working together. The joint operations plan specified that air patrols from the Coast Guard air station at Biloxi should cover the Mississippi Delta, the shipping lanes south and southeast of the station, and certain parts of the Gulf not under the jurisdiction of Pensacola and Corpus Christi. On 24 December 1941 it was made a task group unit in the new defense scheme, and in July, 1942, an air detachment was established at Houma, Louisiana. Planes operated by this station increased from 16 in January, 1943, to 25 during the winter of the next year. Operations reached their peak during 1943, reports showing that the station at Biloxi had more flight hours during the year than any other Coast Guard air station in the eastern or Gulf areas. In September, 1943, one of the busiest months, the station conducted 109 submarine patrols, of which 43 were made by the Houma detachment. During that same month 22 aerial convoy coverage flights were made by the two units, providing protection for 144 vessels. Daily patrols were continued until the summer of 1944, when the danger of enemy attack had subsided enough to permit resumption of normal rescue activities. Action reports record numerous attacks, which, if they did not result in  p101 sinkings, at least damaged enemy subs or drove them from the coastal area.

When the United States entered the war, the St. Petersburg station had nine planes in operation. At that time the station was operating in air, on sea, and on land, but in October, 1942, all duties related to aids to navigation, coastal lookout stations, and land and water patrols were removed from the station's jurisdiction, and from that time the station operated strictly as an air unit, retaining only closely related aviation activity. Ambulance and assistance flights become more frequent as the war progressed. During this period the Coast Guard planes operated with the Navy, first under the Inshore Patrol and later as part of the Gulf Sea Frontier Command, and they executed patrol, convoy, and observation assignments, besides doing administrative and utility work. Seaplanes maintained regular anti-submarine and security patrol over the St. Petersburg area during 1942, 1943, and part of 1944. In June, 1943, a detail at Port Saint Joe, Florida, was incorporated into the regular patrol.

Regular daily observation and security patrols were inaugurated at the station at Miami on 11 December 1941. As the Miami coast area was in the heart of the German submarine danger, the number of sunk or damaged vessels mounted alarmingly during 1942 and 1943. For several months Coast Guard planes and boats were the only rescue agents available for the region, and the average number of monthly flights increased from 48 in 1941 to 349 in 1943. Among the vessels torpedoed in this area was the tanker, Gulfstate, and survivors of the torpedoing owe their lives to an officer attached to the Miami station. While patrolling in an OS2U‑3, the pilot was directed by radio to search for survivors of the Gulfstate. Upon sighting the wreck, he also spotted three groups of survivors. After jettisoning his depth charges, he landed and picked up the three men in the first group, then taxied to the second group to give them a rubber raft and went on to take aboard a badly burned man of the third group. The pilot then stood by to protect the drifting survivors from sharks until other assistance arrived.

At the Elizabeth City station, the first station order from the Navy after our declaration of war was for an air patrol of "steamer lanes and offshore approaches to Chesapeake capes; on alert for enemy submarines." This patrol, extending fifty miles out to sea and as far south as Cape Lookout, was maintained every day that weather conditions permitted. At the time thirteen pilots and ten planes were available for the anti-submarine patrols. At first, Coast Guard planes were unarmed,  p102 but on 22 January 1942 armed craft were assigned to the station. Received at that time were two J2F‑5's, equipped with machine guns and bomb racks, but best designed for observation and scouting. Planes more adequately equipped for the duty assigned were procured in December, 1943. The admirable location and size of its field made this station a nucleus for war expansion in the area. In May, 1942, an air squadron of the 34th Coast Artillery Brigade was based at the station, and the Navy used the field for blimp operation. Eventually the Navy completed its own station about a thousand yards from the Coast Guard site, but before that time the Coast Guard facilities and air station had been a navy operation base for squadrons flying between Bermuda and the United States.

During 1943, over 8,300 hours were flown, over 24,900 planes and vessels were identified, 29 others assisted. Altogether 69 assistance flights were made, in which 12 government departments and 76 persons were assisted and in addition 16 medical cases and 96 persons were given special transportation. During 1944 the 3,228 flights included 56 assistance and 1,692 anti-submarine or convoy coverage flights. Nine vessels or planes were assisted and 21 rescues accomplished during the year.

From time to time pilots hazarded the dangers of crashing to effect landings. The first of such landings was made by an unarmed PH‑No. 183 on 1 May 1942, when thirteen survivors were saved after drifting at sea for six days. Two men were flown to Norfolk and the remaining eleven were picked up by a Coast Guard cutter. The next day, another offshore landing saved the lives of two men adrift on a raft. In July, 1942, a plane picked up seven German survivors from the submarine Dergin which had been sunk by an army plane, and for this feat the pilot received his second Distinguished Flying Cross. These rescues represent only three of the assistance flights made during the period from 7 December 1941 to 1 July 1944, during which time 22,951.1 hours were flown, including 4,875 convoy and anti‑sub flights and 2,550 training, test, and administrative flights.

In preparation for a "state of readiness," Coast Guard planes at the air station at Salem began regular patrols in 1940. By the summer of 1942 the station had five OS2U‑3 seaplanes and three J2F‑5 amphibians, all armed with .30 caliber machine guns and 325‑pound depth charges. The remaining four planes, JRF's and a J4F, were unarmed. Four motor vehicles, one tractor, and a crash boat completed the equipment. Daily inshore patrols protected Boston Harbor and the approaches to the sea. Offshore patrols covered areas north of Boston, off the coast of Maine  p103 from advance bases maintained at Bangor, Portland, Rockland, and Lewiston, and to the south around Cape Cod, Buzzards Bay, Nantucket and Vineyard Sound. Many submarines were contacted, some were attacked, others driven from the area, but no sinkings were reported. During the years of 1942, 1943, and 1944, one plane and two men were lost in line of duty.

Helicopter to the Rescue

To protect the New York area, planes at the Coast Guard air station at Brooklyn were eventually armed with depth charges. No proved sinkings of U‑boats were recorded, but the planes no doubt scared off the enemy in a number of cases. As more aircraft were made available to the Navy, the station relinquished most of its purely military duties. Reconnaissance patrols, as well as escort and convoy duties, however, continued. Tapering off of these duties came about after Floyd Bennett Field at the Brooklyn station was designated on 19 November 1943 as a helicopter training base, with three helicopters assigned to it by the Navy. It was from this base that a helicopter rescue mission to Labrador was made which won commendations for six officers and men. A dismantled Coast Guard helicopter was picked up at Floyd Bennett Field by an Army C‑54 transport, which then flew a thousand miles to Labrador, where the helicopter was reassembled and used to rescue eleven Canadian fliers who had been marooned for thirteen days in a frozen wilderness. The helicopter made seven trips from Goose Bay to pick up the fliers, completing the entire mission in less than five days after the helicopter unit was notified. An attempt to rescue them previously had been made by ski‑equipped planes sent out by the Canadian Air Sea Rescue officials, and two of the group had been removed, but melting snows prevented further landings. To make matters worse, two more had been added to the party when one of the rescue planes crashed. Pontoon aircraft were of no more use than the ski‑equipped planes because they could not land on the surrounding lakes until the spring thaw had progressed further.

British helicopters were added to the Brooklyn station's equipment when it was agreed that the Coast Guard should train some mechanics and pilots at the request of the British Admiralty. The Royal Navy Helicopter Training maintained its own personnel and planes except one HNS for joint use. Other aircraft were used by both United States and British pilots. By October, 1944, the school was flourishing  p104 and the number of helicopters in use had been increased to thirteen. Both a pilots' course and one for mechanics were given at the field. By February, 1945, when the sixth pilots' class finished its course, the school had trained 102 helicopter pilots — 72 Coast Guard, 6 Navy, 5 AAF, 12 British, and 4 CAAF aviators, as well as one NACA, one PU Corporation and one McDonald Aircraft aviator. Only qualified volunteer aviators were selected for training. Helicopter aerodynamics are more complex than those of fixed wing planes, and a long period of ground training was necessary. Approximately thirty hours of flying time were required to complete the helicopter pilot training course. A deck-type landing platform was installed on the field to represent a rolling deck to give practice in landing the helicopter on a vessel during a storm. For more realistic operations the Coast Guard cutter Cobb was assigned in a training capacity.

Besides its helicopter training program, the Coast Guard has had a number of other training assignments. A preflight school was maintained at the Elizabeth City station from October, 1941, to January, 1942, for Coast Guard students, who went from this training to the Naval Air School at Pensacola, Florida. Temporary schools for aviation machinists' mates and for cooks and bakers were conducted at Elizabeth City station in 1941 and 1942; and from 15 March to 15 July 1944 the station trained VP‑6 personnel destined for Greenland duty. There was also a training program for new recruits and a cooks' and bakers' school at the station at Salem. During the early months of 1943 the St. Petersburg station assumed the unusual role of training Mexican pilots in anti-submarine warfare.

Coast Guard Aviation in the North Atlantic

The most color­ful of the Coast Guard aviation units was the special squadron assigned to the Greenland patrol, known as Patrol Squadron (later Patrol Bombing Squadron) 6, which was a special unit of the Atlantic Fleet. The squadron, commissioned on 5 October 1943 at Argentia, Newfoundland, was sent to Narsarssuak, Greenland, to relieve Bombing Squadron 126. It was the only naval squadron operating in the north Atlantic arctic region and the only squadron manned entirely by Coast Guard personnel.

Many months before the Jap attack on the island of Oahu, Coast Guard cutter-based planes were operating in Greenland, carrying out anti-submarine and coastal patrols and making heroic rescues. From  p105 time to time during observation or mail delivery trips, bombers sighted stranded vessels in the stormy northern seas and sent out radio messages, which brought Coast Guard cutters speeding to the rescue. Actually the equivalent of a co‑ordinated air‑sea rescue mission was in operation before the Air‑Sea Rescue service was instituted, and the changes effected were in organization rather than mission. It was not uncommon for ship-based or land-based planes to fly over several thousand square miles of the Greenland icecap under handicapping weather conditions in a single rescue search.

Perhaps the most daring Greenland rescue mission was that of the late Lieutenant John A. Pritchard, Jr., who lost his life attempting to save survivors of an American Flying Fortress stranded about forty miles from Comanche Bay. Pritchard and his radioman, Benjamin A. Bottoms, received the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously for this feat. The two men took off from the cutter Northland in a Grumman Amphibian late in November, 1942. Despite the signal of the stranded men that they should not try to land, the landing was accomplished as planned, by retracting the wheels, going into a glide and setting the plane down on a long down slope where heavy snow covered the ice. To the cheers of the Northland's crew, the plane returned to the ship with two survivors. But on the next trip to rescue the last survivor, although the take‑off was again success­ful, the return flight to the Northland was never completed.

The Greenland Patrol was inaugurated by Rear Admiral Edward H. Smith in October, 1941, to operate as part of Task Force 24.8 of the U. S. Atlantic Fleet. It consisted of Coast Guard and navy vessels, manned by personnel from the former service, and its function was to transport men and supplies and to combat the German submarine menace. Also, during the war, daily weather reports and ice observations from the Greenland area became necessary for transatlantic war operations. In the summer of 1943, the Coast Guard was directed to organize an air patrol squadron to be attached to the Greenland Patrol to provide air coverage for convoys, carry out anti-submarine patrols, deliver mail, undertake rescue missions and survey ice conditions.

The squadron's main base was at Narsarssuak, Greenland, and there were detachments at Argentia in Newfoundland, Reykjavik in Iceland, and in the Canadian Arctic. The patrol began operations with 6 PBY‑5A planes, 15 aviators, 3 aviation maintenance officers, 1 radio electrician, 1 aerologist, and 131 enlisted personnel, of whom 7 were aviation pilots. In April, 1944, there were 12 operational aircraft (PBY‑5A type Catalina  p106 planes) based at Narsarssuak, 5 officers, 24 aviators, 4 aviation pilots and a crew of 152 enlisted men, including the pilots.

Bad weather and difficult terrain limited aviation activities in Greenland. Fjords and harbors closed by pack ice during the winter, very high mountains, a great icecap covering about 85 per cent of the interior and raging cross-winds did not make the pilot's life a carefree one. The complement was replaced annually because of these factors, and assignments to Argentia, where living conditions were better, were rotated.

The squadron's main base at Narsarssuak had a single concrete runway down a sheltered fjord. The three-inch incline to the east permitted landing uphill and taking off downhill, regardless of the wind. During the period from August, 1943, to the end of November, 1944, the squadron flew 6,234.6 hours, representing 638,998 miles cruised with an area of 3,213,605 square miles covered. The Army Air Force in Greenland maintained a special Arctic Search and Rescue Squad, locally nicknamed "The Find 'em and Feed 'em Boys," which assumed most of the rescue responsibilities, and there has been in operation since 1941 a special "Sled Patrol," made up mostly of Danes and Eskimos. However, Patrol Bombing Squadron 6, during 1944, had its share of rescue missions, aiding 43 planes and vessels and rescuing or assisting 47 persons. One medical case and 87 other persons were transported during the year's operations, consisting of 71 assistance, 736 routine and 346 anti-submarine patrol and convoy coverage flights.

The Air‑Sea Rescue Agency

Because Coast Guard and navy officials agreed that some unit must carry on peacetime services, the San Diego station (which had grown out of a detachment to prevent smuggling across the Mexican border) continued with its regular duties and had few military assignments. The station had the same number of planes in 1943 as in 1938 and most of them were unarmed until early in 1944. The San Diego unit thus was the natural location for the initiation of air‑sea rescue service, which took place when the enemy threat decreased.

The Air‑Sea Rescue Agency was established in February, 1944, but actually a unit had been organized at San Diego in December 1943, to rescue fliers forced down on land or at sea. This group came into being under the guidance of Commanders Max I. Black, USN and W. A. Burton, USCG as a result of the increasing number of airplane crashes in that region. Investigation showed that rescue equipment was inadequate,  p107 that aviation activity had increased along the southern Pacific coast, that available rescue agencies were not well co‑ordinated, and that the system of disseminating information was inefficient. The San Diego Air station was the first air‑sea rescue unit to be organized and put into operation in the United States. All surface craft, blimps, and planes, together with any other rescue equipment used in rescue operations by army, navy, or marine agencies became a part of the new rescue organization. Information on accidents or emergency crashes was reported to the central rescue unit through the Naval Air Control Center. By the end of February, 1945, the personnel complement of the station was 42 officers, 341 enlisted men, and 73 students. During the first month of operation in 1944 there were 124 aircraft accidents in the San Diego area involving 201 persons, of whom 137 were saved. Considering that 59 were killed and no trace could be found of two others, the record is almost perfect. Of those saved, 25 per cent were rescued by Coast Guard planes or boats; the surface craft of the Navy rescued 27 airmen and fishing boats took aboard 37. Most rescues were executed in less than an hour, and some were made within six minutes after the crash.

Because of its past record, the Coast Guard, which had been organizing toward this end for some time, was the logical administrator for the new agency. As part of its beach patrol work, the Coast Guard had already established an efficient communications system which fitted ideally with the new setup, and air activities had been expanded to take over air‑sea rescue duties.

Co‑ordination of the army, navy, and Coast Guard rescue activities was achieved at the joint operations centers, while the actual rescues were the responsibility of each regional Air‑Sea Rescue Task Unit, generally headed by the commanding officer of the Coast Guard Air station. The central organization consisted of an Air‑Sea Rescue Agency, headed by the Coast Guard commandant and an advisory board of representatives from the Army, Army Air Forces, Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard. One by one during 1944 the various air stations took their places in the new organization. Actual operations were directed by sea frontier commanders and commanders of the various war theaters. The sea frontiers were subdivided into sectors with each sector comprising one or more task units. The Air‑Sea Rescue task units were composed chiefly of Coast Guard vessels, planes and rescue facilities. Coast Guard control of ASR craft and equipment was purely logistical. District offices and  p108 lifeboat stations were independent of the organization except as they might aid in rescues or maintain equipment.

Besides rescue operations, Air‑Sea Rescue service included development of equipment and training of personnel engaged in ASR duties. Under terms of the joint agreement of 17 August 1944, the Army Air Force was given the initial responsibility of co‑ordinating searches and rescue procedures over land areas. Sea rescue operations were primarily conducted by the Naval Sea Frontier organization. The Coast Guard's part was to maintain aircraft units and facilities. Unless it was necessary to attempt the rescue alone, the plane communicated with ASR stations and stood by to direct crash boats to the scene. Rescue boats, usually referred to as "crash boats," varied in size from less than 48 feet up to 104 feet and were provided with emergency equipment.

Experimental work indicated great possibilities in the future use of ASR blimps. Still more encouraging was the fact that an actual raft-to‑blimp rescue had been successfully accomplished. The Coast Guard sent a small number of officers and men to blimp training in order to have personnel experienced in that type of rescue operations. A departure from the usual plane-and‑boat or blimp-and‑boat combination in rescue missions was the parachute unit, organized in the Ketchikan District early in 1944. Its members, proficient woodsmen, were trained at the Forest Service Parachute Jumpers School at Missoula, Montana, and used a steerable chute which could be landed in a tree, from which the parachutist let himself down to the ground. A unique feature of the ASR training program at the Port Angeles station was the air‑land rescue ski squad, trained and assisted by the Port Angeles chapter of the National Ski Patrol for service in snow-covered mountain areas. The largest aviation unit in the ASR organization was at Elizabeth City. One of the most popular rescue planes was the stripped down PBY‑5A, equipped with droppable life rafts and other lifesaving equipment.

Wartime activities had taken Coast Guard aviation far beyond realms dreamed of in the normal days of peace. In the performance of these new and exacting obligations, the Coast Guard exceeded even its own high standard of devotion to duty in the face of all obstacles.

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