War on the Beaches

August 23, 2010

Spending time at the Jersey shore, as I have since I was a kid, always conjures up my parents and the things they talked about back then. For example, they remembered walking on the beach during the early days of World War II and seeing Coast Guardsmen on patrol amidst the debris of torpedoed ships. I think of those men often when I walk the beach, especially at night, when it’s easier to imagine the cold, loneliness, and boredom they endured as part of their contribution to the war effort.

After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Coast Guard continued its pre-war beach patrols – usually one man armed only with flares – to spot enemy submarines and watch for saboteurs who might be landing from those subs. All of that changed after June 13, 1942, when Seaman 2nd Class John C. Cullen was approached by a stranger on the beach near Amagansett, Long Island. The men and his companions were Nazi agents (an extremely incompetent group, fortunately) freshly landed from the German sub U-584. Their discovery and subsequent capture turned the Coast Guard beach patrol into an armed force that used men, dogs and horses (left) to patrol America’s shoreline for the balance of the war.

The Beach Patrol and Corsair Fleet, one of a number of booklets produced by the Coast Guard to commemorate the 50th anniversary of World War II, tells the little-known story of this aspect of the war. Although saboteurs never amounted to much of a problem, the patrol performed its most important service in its traditional role of lifesaving. A particularly dramatic rescue occurred off the coast of Washington State in 1943, when the Soviet freighter Lamut struck the rocky ground below a sheer cliff near Teahwhit Beach. Guardsmen hurled a makeshift heaving line from the cliff top to the freighter so the crewmen could ascend hand over hand, “Hanging between the black clouds above and the snarling, crashing breakers below…One slip on the wet line would have meant instant death.” Wow!

The Corsair Fleet, complete with a Donald Duck logo (left), was a motley conglomeration of yachts and smaller craft offered to the U.S. Navy by the Cruising Club of America for emergency U-Boat spotting off the East Coast in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. The Navy refused the offer until an avalanche of bad publicity forced its hand and it gave the Coast Guard permission to organize the Coastal Picket Patrol, more commonly known as the Corsair Fleet. During much of 1942, these ships and their amateur crews patrolled in all kinds of weather and spotted a few U-Boats before being eliminated as an economy measure in 1943. Shades of Ernest Hemingway’s private submarine patrols off Key West!

You can read this fascinating little booklet here or find it in a library here.

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