On the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944, a group of US Coast Guard cutters were tasked with assisting any Allied ships in distress. While, on paper, their mission seemed simple, it was anything but in practice. The following log taken from CGC-16, nicknamed the “Homing Pigeon,” shows just how difficult the task at hand would ultimately be:
“0530, accompanied invasion barges into shore under severe shelling attacks and with mines going up all around us. 0730, LCF-31 hit by shell 800 yards off shore, sinking immediately. While engaged in picking up survivors, a shell struck the USS PC-1261, which disintegrated, scattering men and debris over a wide area.
“While so engaged, shells and bullets were falling nearby, and just after last man picked up, small landing craft only few hundred yards off shore blew up. Proceeded to spot and picked up all living survivors.”
Planning the US Coast Guard’s involvement on D-Day
The plan to have the US Coast Guard rescue Allied ships on D-Day originated just weeks prior. US President Franklin Roosevelt requested that Adm. Ernest M. King, chief of naval operations, create a small group of rescue ships to lower the casualty count. Knowing the service had the experience and ships necessary, King contacted Vice Adm. Russell R. Waesche, commander of the US Coast Guard.
Waesche selected the 83-foot cutters of the “Matchbox Fleet,” small wooden ships used for anti-submarine patrols off the coast. Sixty of these small, lightly-armored vessels were sent to the United Kingdom to prepare for the landings.
The US Coast Guard cutters received a mix reception on D-Day
From the very beginning of the action, it was clear nothing would go according to plan. Most of the Coast Guard cutters formed up with the rest of the fleet around 5:30 AM to a mixed reception. While some troop ships simply told these small craft to stay back, out of the range of enemy fire, the HMS Hind (U39) almost fired on four of them. There was a constant fear of German torpedo boats hindering the invasion, and, from a distance, German and US vessels looked similar.
Other ships, however, understood the usefulness of the cutters and greeted them enthusiastically. Despite the early snafus, these Coast Guard vessels proved their worth on D-Day. Out of the 60 that were present, three distinguished themselves.
CGC-1 is a clear example of the kind of rescues the Coast Guard performed on D-Day and the dangers they faced. Attached to the Omaha Beach Assault Sector, the cutter joined the force at 6:00 AM as the entire fleet began steaming toward the Atlantic Wall.
CGC-1‘s duty was to escort a group of Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnels (LCVPs) toward the beaches. However, two miles from shore, her crew spotted a sinking British Landing Craft, Assault (LCA). The cutter rushed to help, knowing hypothermia could kill in minutes, rather than hours.
The British soldiers and sailors were already feeling its effects and were too weak to climb up the vessel’s side. Without a second thought, the Coast Guardsmen onboard tied lines about their waists and jumped into the freezing water. They pulled and pushed the survivors up and onto the deck, saving 28. They then sped back to get them medical attention at a waiting hospital ship.
CGC-35 braved a burning sea to rescue a British crew. The Coast Guardsmen found a burning Landing Craft, Transport (LCT) full of fuel, oil and ammunition. The fuel had spilled into the surrounding water and immediately went up in flames. The vessel’s crew was sitting on a floating bomb, trapped on all sides by flames licking up at the steel hull.
Despite the immense risk, the small, wooden cutter sailed into the flames. To add to the danger, Coast Guard cutters had fuel tanks amidships, full of high-grade gasoline.
Thanks to the Coast Guardsmen’s bravery, the British crew was able to exit their sinking vessel and were taken to the safety of a hospital ship. For their actions that day, CGC-35‘s crew was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by the British First Lord of the Admiralty.
CGC-16 began rescuing crewmen almost immediately
CGC-16 was the most successful US Coast Guard rescue ship on D-Day. Her operational day started at 5:30 AM on June 6 when she met up with the rest of her convoy. They immediately joined the invasion force, and the entire fleet sped toward Normandy. CGC-16 was placed directly behind the landing craft of the Red Beach at the Omaha Sector. The Germans had placed mines and underwater obstacles to slow the invasion – and they proved effective.
While vessels had to worry about what was below, they were also shelled by the German shore batteries ahead of them. One craft, LCF-31, was hit at 7:30 AM, less than half a mile offshore. CGC-16 immediately sped to her rescue. Once all the crewmen were off the vessel, a 173-foot patrol craft, the USS PC-1261, was also hit. The small, 83-foot cutter picked all 90 survivors out of the water, then traveled toward a hospital ship.
CGC-16‘s job wasn’t done yet
These cutters were never designed to hold more than about 20 wound personnel, in addition to their 13-15-man crew, but often did so. Aboard CGC-16, the men were crammed into every available space, with weapons and wet clothing piled around the gun mount at the bow. Any wounded men unable to stand were laid on the deck. From the engine room to the crew quarters, there wasn’t an inch of unused space.
Once the cutter offloaded the 90 crewmen, she sped out to find more. Finding an LCT sinking and on fire, the Coast Guardsmen responded quickly. They knew that, if the ammunition and fuel onboard were to catch fire, everyone, including them, would be killed. They rescued all the survivors they could find and began pulling away.
However, one survivor told them there was a man still onboard, whose legs were badly injured. Coxswain Arthur Burkhard Jr. tied a line around his waist and made his way toward the LCT. Despite knowing it was only a matter of time before the fire reached the fuel and ammunition, the small cutter remained next to the transport.
Burckhard found the wounded man, picked him up and brought him to the ship’s rail. At this point, however, the cutter had to back off, for fear of being crushed by the much larger LCT. The Coast Guardsman ran out of options and threw the wounded man off the side of the ship, diving in after him. The crew aboard CGC-16 quickly got a line under the wounded man’s arms and hauled him aboard.
Just as Burckhard and the last survivor were crawling back onto the cutter, the transport finally capsized and sank – they’d made it off just in the nick of time.
CGC-16 sped back toward the hospital ships and offloaded her wounded. By the end of D-Day, the 15-man crew aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter had saved 126 souls, more than any other ship present that day. For their bravery, they were awarded the Bronze Star.
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By the end of operations on D-Day, Rescue Flotilla 1 had saved over 400 soldiers and sailors from the stormy sea. They were eventually disbanded in December 1944, after saving a grand total of 1,483 souls.