For the anniversary of D-Day this year, I wrote a piece recognizing the United States Navy’s important efforts that day. One of the responders to that article said that he wished that someone would tell the story of the United States Coast Guard’s involvement in the landings that bloody day.
I took him up on that challenge. Though I had reported that 18 Coast Guardsmen had been killed in action that day, I did not know any of the details of their heroic actions, or about the vital roles they played in the effort to get troops ashore.
Here is what I learned…
Just to give you a taste of what members of the U.S. Coast Guard did on that day,
I will share two of the stories I was introduced to in my research.
The first is about the Coast Guard-manned landing craft LCI(L)-85. It began its approach to Omaha Beach at a speed of 12 knots. As she drew near to the shore, the crew could feel and hear the crunch of the wooden stakes on the hull of the craft.
The Germans had set up these barriers to foil just such landings. They covered the beach and formed a formidable barrier to the landing crafts. These were supposed to have been cleared to open channels for the landing crafts, but when LCI(L)-85 approached there were no such clearings. They were ordered to go ahead anyway, straight through the obstacles. As LCI(L)-85 drew near to the shore they began to take heavy fire from German shore batteries and machine gun emplacements.
The landing craft soon ground to a halt on the bottom and hit a mine, which opened a huge hole in the forward compartments. The German batteries continued to pour heavy fire on them as well. The troops on board her were being torn to pieces before they could even get off the ship. The many hits the craft took destroyed the vessel’s landing ramps so even those who could still disembark were unable to get out of the ship.
Burning now, she backed off of the beach.
Some of her crew fought the fires in the forward compartments and the ship began to list with all of the water pouring in through the holes in her hull. Other crew members were kept busy pumps in an attempt to keep her afloat. They limped back to the transport area and off-loaded the wounded on to the USS Samuel Chase. Then they abandoned ship. They watched as the old veteran of so many other combat landings began to settle more deeply in the blood stained waters off of that Normandy beach.
It became apparent that she was becoming a hindrance to the navigation of the thousands of other ships and landing crafts. By this this time she had rolled over and exposed her hull. The crew of a salvage vessel placed a mine in her and exploded it, sending her to rest on the bottom of the English Channel.
One of the other elements of the Coast Guard’s involvement was with rescue operations. Prior to D-Day, President Franklin Roosevelt had suggested Operation Neptune would need a rescue flotilla. Resources were stretched to the limit though. The Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, USN, looked to the service whose mission it was to save lives at sea.
The Coast Guard had several 83-foot patrol boats (Cutters) in its fleet. These boats carried the nickname of the “matchbox fleet” because they were wooden hulled and had gasoline engines. They were available and had trained crews. King had 60 of these swift boats ordered to New York harbor where they were loaded onto freighters and sent to England to participate in the D-Day landings. They were renamed Rescue Flotilla One. Half of them sailed with the Eastern Naval Task Force and the other half sailed under the command of USN Admiral Alan Kirk’s Western Naval Task Force.
The 83-foot CGC-16, nicknamed the “homing pigeon,” arrived at the beachhead off of Omaha Beach
prior to the beginning of the invasion landings. When the invasion was underway, it began picking up the survivors from disabled landing craft. Throughout the morning they pulled 90 soldiers and sailors from the bloody waters. They provided first aid to the wounded and by 9:30 a.m. they had transferred them to the USS Dickman.
The “matchbox fleet” boats could not seek shelter, rather they braved the heavy enemy fire to accomplish their rescue missions.
They were supposed to remain near the transport ships off shore, but it had become evident very soon that they needed to be close to shore. Buy the end of the day, the crew of the “homing pigeon” had pulled 126 men out of the waters off of Omaha Beach. This would be the largest number saved by any ot the other boats of Rescue Flotilla One. In the meantime four LSTs under U.S. Coast Guard crews and 29 of the matchbox fleet cutters accompanied the British and Canadian assault forces on Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches.
D-Day would prove to be one of the bloodiest days in the long history of the United States Coast Guard.
Coast Guard Rescue Flotilla One carried out their time honored mission of rescue at sea that day with great courage and skill. By the end of the day, they would save more than 400 men off the beaches of Normandy. By the time they were decommissioned in December, 1944, they had saved 1,438 men.
We here at The Veterans Site are proud to honor the United States Coast Guard and its vital and noble efforts landing and saving United States troops in every one of the landing invasions of WWII, from North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, and throughout the Pacific. Our thanks goes out to all who served and who are currently serving in the United States Coast Guard.