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Coast Guard Amphibious Operations

Amphibious Operations

When the US began planning for WWII, two geographic factor was overwhelmingly obvious, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Planners figured out early that they needed amphibious tactics and vessels to allow the delivery of the soldiers and Marines to the battles.

The Pacific Theater of Operations would be a long series of contested amphibious assault landings against the defended island strongholds of the Japanese and eventually on Japan herself. Once an island was captured, subsequent operations would be logistics in nature to build the island into a staging point for the assault of the next island. The Marines had actually been training for this for several years, but the Navy was a little behind them.

The European Theater of Operations would differ from the Pacific. Europe would not be a series of contested amphibious assaults on isolated islands. There would only be a six contested landings at different points on two continents. Still, once a foothold was attained on the continent, subsequent landings would be logistics in nature to build up a supply line to the front line troops pushing across the continent.

In both theaters four different types of ships were needed. First were large transport and cargo ships that could bring the Marines and soldiers from staging areas to the point of landing. These would have to be capable of standing off the beach and launching the assault waves onto the beach. They were attack transports (APA) and attack cargo ships (AKA). In 1941, very few of these ships existed. The Navy commandeered several civilian ships to fill the immediate need and began a building program to bring dedicated transport ships into the Fleet. Manpower for these new ships was an issue. No particular skills beyond good seamanship was needed, but the Navy just did not have the personnel to go around. As a result, several of the ships were Coast Guard-manned.

The second type vessel were small landing craft to bring the troops from the transports to the beach. These craft were also being built by the thousands. They were carried on the decks of the APAs and AKAs. The crews for these required special training because the craft would be going through the surf line to get to the beach. Very few Navy coxswains had any surf experience. On the other hand, Coast Guard coxswains routinely worked the surf. But the Coast Guard did not have the personnel to man all of the thousands of landing craft being built. So Navy coxswains began to attend Coast Guard training to acquire skills in handling small boats in the surf.

Also needed were specially designed amphibious ships that could land troops and equipment directly onto the beach without the need for landing craft. These were LSTs, LSMs and LCI(L)s. They started coming into the Fleet in November 1941.

Finally, after the islands were secured, naval facilities established on them, and they became forward staging areas for other assaults, transports and cargo ships would be needed to bring troops and equipment to them in routine logistics operations. These were transports (AP) and cargo ships (AK). Many of these ships were manned by Coastguardsmen.

Ship to Shore

The general theory behind amphibious assaults may seem straightforward, but it is really a rather complicated ballet. The assault fleet sails up to the island and drops anchor. The big guns open up to soften up the beach and destroy all heavy resistance (you know, the guns that are buried under so much sand that the shells never really touch them). The APAs use their cargo booms to lower the landing craft into the water. The coxswains hold the boats in position beside the ship while the Marines climb down rope nets into them. The landing craft form into groups and circle the APAs until they are all loaded and ready to approach the beach. Then they form into a line abreast and head off behind a guide boat, drive to the beach (up to 11 miles away), land at the planned location on the beach, the Marines charge ashore, a Marine marks the beach with a flag to guide follow-on waves, and the landing craft pull away from the beach so the second wave can come in. The second wave lands its troops and evacuates casualties from the first wave. This continues for as many waves are needed to secure the beach. Once the beach is secured, the LSTs can pull up and start offloading supplies and reinforcements. And this all works to perfection. Men never fall off the nets into the water, guide boats never hit mines or obstacles, the water is always deep enough for the landing craft to pull right onto the beach, nobody’s feet ever get wet, the shells from the enemy guns that were destroyed always miss, landing craft never broach in the surf, Marines never get so seasick on the boats that they can barely stagger ashore, the Marine with the flag is never killed before he plants it, and the beach never gets fouled with destroyed landing craft.

Anyway, it was all the individual could do to make sure that his little piece of the puzzle went as well as he can make it go. The job of the landing craft operators was to get the troops as close to the beach in as good a condition as he can. All Coast Guard coxswains were trained in handling small boats in surf conditions. The Navy started sending their coxswains to the training in early 1942. There was a definite technique to bringing a landing boat in. Too many times, rookies would hot rod to the beach and run the boat so far up that it has to be towed off. This fouled the beach until the tow arrives. A veteran soon learned to maneuver through the currents, reefs, and sandbars and surf the waves to a gentle landing and back his boat out quickly so the follow-on waves can come in.

Pacific Theater of Operations

The Coast Guard’s first major participation in the Pacific war was at Tulagi and Guadalcanal. Of the 23 naval transports attached to the amphibious force, 19 were manned or partially manned by the Coast Guard. Most of the LCVPs that took the Marines ashore were manned by Coastguardsmen or Navy personnel who had Coast Guard training. Coastguardsmen also worked ashore as beachmasters. Their duty was to supervise the offloading of supplies, stockpiling them, and moving them inland to the troops. They also supervised the evacuation of wounded. The Coast Guard continued its support role as the allies moved on from Guadalcanal. In June and July of 1943, the Army and Marines made several landings on Rendova, New Georgia, and Vangunu islands. Five Coast Guard-manned transports supported these operations.

On 15 August, Coast Guard-manned LSTs landed Marines on Vella Lavella. On 24 September, LST-167 brought supplies from Guadalcanal to Vella Lavella. As she was unloading, three Japanese planes attacked. LST-167 shot down two of them, but two bombs hit her causing a series of explosions and fires that destroyed the ship and killed two officers and eight enlisted men. An additional five men were listed as missing and presumed dead. Four Coast Guard-manned LSTs participated in the attack on New Guinea. They landed Australian troops at Finschafen.

The next major objective was Bouganville, the most northwestern of the Solomons. From Bouganville, air attacks could be launched on the major Japanese base at Rabaul. On 31 October, the amphibious force assembled at Guadalcanal. Of the 11 transports, nine were Coast Guard-manned. The Coast Guard-manned Hunter Ligget (APA-14) was the amphibious force flagship. On 1 November, Hunter Ligget led the amphibious force into Empress Augusta Bay and opened fire on Japanese positions on Cape Torokina. A portion of the island was secured and an airfield built, but fighting continued on Bouganville for the rest of the war, and for the rest of the war, Coast Guard-manned LSTs delivered supplies and evacuated wounded.

While the Solomons were being secured, the Adm. Chester Nimitz began to plan his island hopping campaign through the Central Pacific to Japan. The first objective was the Gilbert Island chain, specifically, Tarawa and Makin, in November 1943. The Coast Guard was well represented in the 200-ship amphibious force. At Makin, the landing craft got hung up on the coral reef at low tide and the soldiers had to wade ashore. Fortunately, the Japanese had chosen to defend the interior of the island rather than the beach and casualties were few. Tarawa saw the introduction of a new type of landing craft, the tracked landing vehicle. These LVTs were indigenous Marine units. But, just as the Navy provided the Marines with corpsmen and heavy engineering support, the Coast Guard provided the Marines with coxswains. The follow-on waves came ashore in LCVPs and, as at Makin, got hung up on the reef. Unlike Makin, the Japanese inflicted severe losses on the Marines wading ashore at Tarawa. After the initial landings, Coast Guard crews continued running supplies to shore and evacuating the wounded. The boat crews worked three days straight, with food being lowered to them from the transports. They caught naps when they could. Three Coast Guard officers and 43 enlisted men from Arthur Middleton came ashore to supervise the offloading of cargo and the evacuation of wounded.

The next steppingstone was the Marshall Island group, Enewetak, Kwajalein, and Majuro, in February 1944. The flagship of the 300-ship amphibious force was Coast Guard-manned Cambria (APA-36). The plan was to secure Majuro and Kwajalein, consolidate positions and assault Enewetak three months later. Textbook amphibious operations allowed soldiers and Marines to secure the Marshalls by 22 February, three months ahead of schedule.

Meanwhile, in the Southeastern Pacific, McArthur was moving from Finschafen to the coastal area of Hollandia and Aitape. On 21 April 1944, 21 Coast Guard-manned transports put the assault troops ashore at Humbolt Bay and Tanahmerah Bay. On 27 April, Japanese aircraft attacked the anchored fleet. A torpedo hit Etamin (AK-93) causing an explosion in the engine room that sank the ship. Only two of the crew of 200 Coastguardsmen and 150 Army troops were lost. In May, Coast Guard-manned LSTs landed troops on Wakde Island, 115 miles west of Hollandia. In July, the Coast Guard participated in amphibious operations against Noemfoor and Cape Sansapor. Coast Guard transports included ten LSTs and the frigates Bisbee, Coronado, Eugene, Gallup, Glendale, Long Beach, San Pedro, and Van Buren. These landings closed the New Guinea operations and cleared the way to the Philippines.

In the Central Pacific, Nimitz had set his sights on the Marianna island group, Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, in the summer of 1944. An amphibious force of 535 ships was assembled. The Marshalls brought a new tactic. Landing craft would bring the Marines from the transports to the edge of the reef. The Marines would then transfer to Marine-operated LVTs for the final race to the beach. As the battle raged, supplies were not reaching the Marines quickly enough and the main assault on the port town of Charan-Kanoa ground to a halt. Marines clung to a narrow beachhead with limited ammunition and supplies. The decision was made to bring larger landing craft directly to the beach. A Coast Guard LVCP probed the reef until a four-foot-deep, 150-foot-wide opening was found that allowed a steady stream of LCVPs to deliver supplies directly to the Marines. At Guam, Arthur Middleton made a diversionary landing to draw Japanese attention away from the real thing. She put her boats ashore without troops and immediately retracted them. The assault on Tinian was conducted by boats leaving from Saipan. The boats met Cambria and Cavalier, which brought the Marines. Later in the afternoon, Cambria evacuated 293 Marine casualties from Tinian by breeches buoy.

By September, McArthur was ready to move against the Philippines. First, he had to secure his flanks. Nineteen Coast Guard-manned ships participated in the unopposed assault and capture of the Molucca Island group. On 15 September, 800 ships brought 20,000 soldiers and 28,000 Marines to Peleliu and the Palaus. Leonard Wood was the flagship. Peleliu was one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific and Coast Guard LSTs brought supplies and evacuated wounded throughout the month-long slugfest.

Operation Kingpin consisted of 738 ships and brought over 190,000 troops to the Philippines. Coastguardsmen manned 35 of these ships and partially manned another seven. Leonard Wood again was the flagship. At 0700 20 October 1944, Leonard Wood went to General Quarters. Aquarious put an LCVP over the side for an advance beach party of four men. These four Coastguardsmen were the first men to land on Leyte Island. The Coast Guard participated in every landing during the Philippine campaign.

On 19 February 1945, 900 ships brought over 70,000 Marines to Iwo Jima. Once again, the Coast Guard was well represented in the amphibious force. Though Iwo Jima had no reefs, the surf broke directly on the beach, and most of the LVTs were broached and destroyed, fouling the beach for following waves of LCVPs. Soon, only LCIs were allowed to approach the beach until salvage tugs could clear the wreckage. The Coast Guard crew of LST-758 provided the flag for the first flag raising on Mount Suribachi.

The Coast Guard’s final major amphibious action was at Okinawa. A total of 53 Coast Guard-manned ships were in the amphibious force. Taney was the amphibious task force flagship. During landing operations, a Kamikaze smashed into LST-884, killing 24 men and sinking the ship. Ashore, the beachmasters had only a few hours around high tide to unloaded landing craft. They moved supplies inland at low tide.

The final action of the Coast Guard in the Pacific was Operation Magic Carpet, transporting thousands of troops back home.

European Theater of Operations
Torch, Husky, Avalanche, Shingle, Overlord/Neptune, and Anvil/Dragoon

The first American offensive against Nazi Germany came on 8 November 1942, in North Africa. Operation Torch was designed to take French Morocco, Algiers, and Tunisia from the Germans. Two convoys converged on North Africa, one from England and the other from Norfolk. Coast Guard-manned Leonard Wood (CDR Merlin O’Neill) was the flagship of the Norfolk convoy. Coast Guard-manned Samuel Chase was flagship of the England convoy. Also present were the Coast Guard-manned Joseph P. Dickman (CDR C.W. Harwood), and several other ships with partial Coast Guard crews. As in the Pacific, Coast Guard crews manned hundreds of landing craft. Coast Guard beach masters went ashore with the first waves to coordinate beach activities. Adm. Morison wrote, “The value of previous experience in small-boat handling was proved by the superior performance of the Coast Guard at Fedhala.” Both Harwood and O’Neill were awarded the Legion of Merit.

The next step in the European campaign was the “soft underbelly” of Europe, Sicily and Italy. Operation Husky aimed at Sicily on 10 July 1943. There were 580 American and 795 British ships in the invasion fleet. The Coast Guard manned two large transports, two sub chasers, three LSTs, and 21 LCIs. CDR Miles Imlay commanded Coast Guard LCI Flotilla Four. Several other ships had partial Coast Guard crews. The Large Stationary Targets had made a 32-day, 4,200-mile trip across the Atlantic fully loaded with troops who could not wait to get ashore in Africa to prepare for the landings. It was decided to make a surprise landing. There was no pre-landing shelling. The landings started on time in heavy weather. Later in the day, German planes added to the misery. The unloading proceeded for two days under heavy weather and heavy air attack. But all landings proceeded successfully. CDR Imlay was awarded the Legion of Merit.

The transports retired to Africa to prepare for Operation Avalanche, the invasion of the Italian mainland. Avalanche was targeted for Salerno on 9 September 1943. A new landing craft was going to debut at Salerno, the DUKW. As at Sicily, a surprise landing was planned. There would be no advanced shelling of Salerno. Unlike at Sicily, this time it was not to be. On 7 September, as the convoy was sailing out of Africa, it was detected by a German scout plane. It was under attack for the entire transit and LCI-624 was blown out of the water during the transit. The landing was hotly contested and the beaches would see the most difficult fighting of the European war to date. Nevertheless, DUKWs crawled ashore and a beachhead was secured. All the next day, Coast Guard ships evacuated casualties form the battle. With that, Coast Guard activity in Italy came to a temporary end. During the landings LTJG Grady Galloway was warded a Silver Star. He was commanding a rocket-armed scout boat from Dickman and leading landing craft to the beach when a machine gun opened up on the landing craft. Galloway silenced the gun from his boat. BM1 James Hasburgh was promoted to BMC for shepherding 24 landing craft at night for 20 miles without incident. LTJG Roger Banner was awarded the Legion of Merit for escorting 59 DUKWs 12 miles to their assigned beaches, navigating by stars through mine fields and shells. LCDR James Hunt was awarded a Silver Star for making an extended recon patrol alongshore in an assault boat under heavy artillery fire and obtaining vital information for the landing forces. BM2 Jack Miller made a successful landing, unloading and retraction under intense fire after being severely wounded. Coxswain Leonard Ruehle and his crew ran for 25 hours making 18 trips from lighter to beach and back. Coxswain Eugene Arndt made 14 round trips to the beach.

When the Italian campaign bogged down, it was decided to make an amphibious end run and land far up the coast at Anzio. Operation Shingle began on 22 January 1944. Ten Coast Guard-manned ships participated in this operation. The invasion fleet was forced to remain on station through May delivering supplies to the stalled beachhead. LT John Sting, CO of PC-545, was awarded a citation for conspicuous gallantry for his attack on a German torpedo boat on the night on 18 March. He sank the boat before it could launch torpedoes at transports.

The next amphibious landing in the European Theater would also be the final amphibious landing in the European Theater. It was Operation Overlord/Neptune, the landing in northern France that would breach the Atlantic Wall and put Allied troops directly into Festung Europa, Fortress Europe. It was scheduled for 5 June 1944. Weather forced a one-day delay to 6 June 1944. Neptune would consist of 5,000 ships carrying 500,000 men. Of the 5,000 ships, the Coast Guard manned 99.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was in overall command of the operation. The Western Naval Task Force, under the command of Navy RearAdm. Alan Kirk, transported the US First Army to the American assault area of Utah and Omaha Beach. The Eastern Naval Task Force, under the command of RN RearAdm. Sir Philip Vian, landed the British Second Army on Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches.

Most of the Coast Guard vessels were congregated in Assault Group O-1 that landed the First Infantry Division on the easternmost beaches of the Omaha assault area. Commanded by CAPT Edward Fritsche, this group consisted of Coast Guard-manned Samuel Chase, USS Henrico, HMS Empire Anvil, six LCI(L)s, six LSTs, and 97 smaller craft. CAPT Miles Imlay was the deputy commander and commanding officer of Coast Guard-manned LCI(L) Flotilla 10. The Utah beaches assault group was commanded by Navy RearAdm. Don Moon. His flagship was the Coast Guard-manned Bayfield (CAPT Lyndon Spencer). Other Coast Guard-manned ships were the Joseph T. Dickman and Barnett. Several other ships had partial Coast Guard crews. Four Coast Guard-manned LSTs and several ships with partial Coast Guard crews carried British troops to the Gold beaches.

On 28 May, the crews were sealed in their vessels and the troops were confined to their bases. The soldiers began to embark on 2 June. They would be aboard for three days before the invasion and were provided with motion sickness medication and bags, which the Army described as “Bag, vomit, one”. On 4 June, the ships sortied, but the weather grew so bad that Eisenhower delayed the invasion 24 hours. The ships returned to port. On 5 June, the weather cleared marginally. The tide and moon would not be right again for two weeks. Eisenhower thought for a minute and, at 0415 5 June, said, “OK, We’ll go.”

The fleet was in position off Utah Beach by 0230 6 June. Dickman’s 1MC announced, “Now hear this. Stand by all troops.” At 0353 Dickman ordered away all boats. Loading and leaving went off without a hitch, despite heavy weather. But the heavy seas washed over the landing craft drenching the soldiers and crews. It would prove a miserable ride to the beach. The troops on the Lousy Civilian Ideas were not any better off. Seasickness was rampant throughout the fleet. At 0530, the naval bombardment began. The beach stretched for about 3,000 yards and each of the LCVPs had a specific point on the beach to aim for. Two minutes after the initial assault wave, the second wave brought the underwater demolition teams who had 30 minutes to clear channels. Then new assault waves would follow at ten-minute intervals. By 0600, despite all the meticulous planning, confusion reigned on the Utah Beach. Control ships had struck mines, mine channels had not been cleared, smoke from the naval gunfire obscured the featureless beaches. Beach masters began sorting out the mess. But, the second assault wave brought in the underwater demolition teams and soon channels were cleared through the obstacles. With open channels, logistics runs began in earnest. In spite of all of the confusion, both transports and landing craft disembarked the troops and supplies on schedule. Landing craft bringing supplies to the beach brought casualties back to the transports. Seven of Dickman’s landing craft were lost. Bayfield did not loose any.

Similar events took place on Omaha Beach where the fleet anchored by 0315 and boats were away by 0530. The landing craft had a grueling 11-mile run to the beach. Most of the soldiers were soon seasick. But, as at Utah, despite the confusion, the soldiers and supplies landed on schedule and, for the most part, on target. LCI(L)-85 was hit by 25 shells as she unloaded her troops on the beach. She took aboard some wounded and returned them safely to Chase before she sank. Three other Coast Guard-manned LCI(L)s were sunk off Omaha Beach and several others were damaged. On D-Day, the Coast Guard lost more ships than on any other single day in history.

There were no Coast Guard losses at the British beaches.

Bayfield continued to operate off Normandy for 19 days as the command and control ship. The other ships continued to bring reinforcements and supplies from England and taking wounded back. LST-261 made 53 crossings in the days following D-Day. Operation Neptune officially ended on 29 June with the liberation of Cherbourg. All LCI(L)s off Flotilla 10 were awarded Coast Guard Unit Commendation Medals.

There were no Coast Guard manned vessels in Anvil/Dragoon.

As in the Pacific, the final action of the Coast Guard in Europe was Operation Magic Carpet, transporting thousands of troops back home.

Rescue Flotilla One, Normandy, 6 June 1944

A few weeks before the Normandy invasion, President Roosevelt suggested that Operation Neptune needed a rescueflotilla. The obvious source of the flotilla was the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard had a fleet of 83-foot patrol boats that had been built specifically for antisubmarine warfare off the East Coast. With the U-boat threat dying down, the boats became available for other missions. The Navy requested 60 for the invasion. The boats sailed to New York and were loaded aboard freighters bound for England as Rescue Flotilla One commanded by LCDR Alexander Stewart.

For the invasion, the boats were divided evenly between the two amphibious groups. Originally, only five boats were to be between the transports and the beach in each zone. The others were to remain with the transports where it was believed the most danger would be. This assumption was wrong, and soon all boats were prowling the surf line. Since the LCVPs had right of way, the rescue boats were not only dodging shells and beach obstacles, but the landing craft themselves.

Minutes after H-Hour, ENS Bernard Wood, Commanding CGC-1, made the first rescue less than 2,000 yards off the beach. Coastguardsmen had to go into the water to help survivors aboard. In all, CGC-1 picked up 47 survivors. ENS O. Tinsley Meekings’ CGC-2 rescued nine unconscious men from a swamped DUKW 300 yards offshore. Artificial respiration saved the men. After rescuing the crew of a sinking US tank, LTJG William Starret, in CGC-3, towed several disabled LCVPs close enough to shore to deliver their troops. LTJG James Smith’s CGC-4 also towed disabled DUKWs to shore. All of this was within the first 30 minutes after H-Hour. By noon, CGC-5, commanded by ENS S.G. Pattyson had picked up 34 men. When a German bomb set the British transport Fort Pick on fire, the troops panicked. ENS Richard Peer steered CGC-8 to the side of the ship and, using an electronic bullhorn, restored order to the men and convinced them to heed the transport’s commanding officer’s orders. The sight if the cutter standing by for rescue if needed had a calming effect and order was restored. A high-ranking British officer aboard the transport officially reported that the Coastguardsmen “showed great courage” and were “deserving of high praise”. The distinction of rescuing the most survivors went to LTJG R.V. McPhail in CGC-16, who delivered 126 survivors and one fatality to the hospital ships. ENS John Kellen took CGC-23 into Le Harve harbor, which was patrolled by German E-boats and ringed by German guns, to pick up the survivors of an Allied aircraft that had crashed there.

The rescues went on far after D-Day. In August, a British hospital ship hit a mine and sank quickly. LTJG Burke Powers, in CGC-31, rescued 99 survivors, including a British nurse. CGC-31 had the distinction of rescuing the only woman during the campaign. Though she was in shock form the immersion, she pitched in and helped the crew in aiding the other survivors. As late as September, the Matchbox Fleet was picking up survivors from ships of the vast supply fleet that kept supplies and reinforcements coming to the beaches.

Such were the accomplishments of Rescue Flotilla One. On D-Day alone they had rescued over 400 men. By the end of June, the number had grown to 1,438. Many of the deeds went unrecorded. Typical of these is the case of LTJG George Clark of CGC-35. Long after the invasion, LCDR Stewart received a letter on Admiralty stationary addressed to Clark. The letter stated, “I am commanded by My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to inform you that they have learned with great pleasure that, on the advise of the First Lord, the King has been graciously pleased to award you the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry and devotion to duty shown when in command of Coast Guard Cutter No. 35 in the initial landings of the Allied Forces on the Coast of Normandie on 6th June, 1944”. Clark’s trip report for that period simply states, “Survivors rescued, five. Corpses, none. Comments, none.”

For a complete list of naval amphibious vessels manned by the Coast Guard go to this Link.