WW II Attack on Port Angeles, Washington
© 1997 Barrett Thomas Beard Published in FOUNDATION, Fall 1999
The account of the bombing of the Coast Guard Air Station in Port Angeles in June 1942, six months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, is still remembered vividly by only a few survivors of time but goes unknown by most. The episode starts with the station’s Commanding officer at the time, Lieutenant Donald B. MacDiarmid, USCG.
Lieutenant Donald B. MacDiarmid, USCG
MacDiarmid, fresh from flight training in 1938, arrived at the Coast Guard Air Station, Port Angeles he once described as “the 8-ball station.” He served his first year of nearly five here as aircraft engineering officer. However, not one with a career for starting at the bottom, he filled out the remaining tour as commanding officer. At one time as the war manpower level bloomed, he had a command with thirty officers and six hundred enlisted men.
MacDiarmid, a real life character to rival screen portrayals of John Wayne, often expressed frustration over the lack of aggression by his officers. One comment he frequently wrote was, “The pilot assigned, if he prove inadequate, will either (a) fumble the mission through over-timidity and caution or (b) lose his ship and crew through a lack of ability or lack of horse sense.”
Even with the opportunities MacDiarmid enjoyed, he had greater ambitions. Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he initiated a glut of letters, official and unofficial, requesting “combat duty of any kind” as the war waged and he watched men assigned to him sent off to fight. MacDiarmid’s existence became a real life parallel to the fictional Mister Roberts fighting fruitless battles openly with equally irascible superiors. His personal skirmish was fought on the home front trying to feed, quarter, and train his men, acquire obsolete airplanes, supplies, and a few trained officers in the frantic scrambling to gear up for the big war. In his unceasing effort, “Captain Mac” was devoted to the chance that he might receive a transfer to combat, any combat.
MacDiarmid struggled with bureaucratic bumbling getting new men trained. Then he soon saw them leave for more dramatic roles in the new war, only to be replaced by more “boots.” He felt abandoned. In a plea exposing more of his feelings, typically using an encompassing population for his voice, he wrote, “The pilots of this station generally feel that they have been pushed in a corner and forgotten or that their potential fighting value is held in very low regard.”
This statement refutes contradicting information in a series of his reports where he states most of his pilots are new and inexperienced. And, furthermore, most of the experienced were transferred after only a short stay.
Each letter he wrote to superiors conflicted with previous missives. The subject depended on the point he wished to make at that moment. For example, in the following excerpt he might be the only “flyer” meeting the description except he did not have “thousands of hours,” at the time. No one did. MacDiarmid pleaded, “There are flyers available here with many years of sea service and experience as engineers and navigators and thousands of hours of experience in the air who are flying small obsolete ships [airplanes] on local escort missions—sometimes difficult enough considering the weather but offering no possibility of earning credit or promotion—while young Army Air Corps and Navy pilots some of whom are practically boys [he was thirty-five at this writing], are flying long range attack missions on the enemy.”
In frustration to the indefatigability of these demands for war duty, and perhaps the tone of the MacDiarmid’s monthly chiding’s disguised as official reports, an admiral reportedly offered him a spot promotion if he would just cease his demands for transfer to combat. In character, MacDiarmid refused the promotion.
One mission at the CGAS Port Angeles shortly after the War began was patrolling the eastern regions of the North Pacific seeking out Japanese submarines and offering protections for shipping in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and along the Washington coast. These patrols were flown twice daily from Port Angeles; once at dawn and again at dusk. Frequent submarine sightings were reported to the military authorities. Nearly all, however, were “dead heads,” derelict logs or limbs jutting just above the water’s surface. In the war panic at the time, sweeping through the coastal regions of the west, almost anything was Japanese invaders.
For MacDiarmid agitating for combat duty, chasing dead heads was more than a minor irritant. Unhappy,(not the word to describe MacDiarmid’s displeasure) with the patrol planes’ coverage of the area, he is claimed to have taken a reluctant pilot on a mission to show the hesitant airman what he meant by a long range mission.
On this day’s patrol, (to demonstrate his meaning of maximum range) after take-off with a twin engine JRF amphibian airplane, he switched both engines to run off one of two equal tanks of gasoline then proceeded westward away from the coast in a straight line out into the Pacific Ocean heading towards Japan. Later when the engines, starved for fuel coughed, he switched both over to the remaining tank and started back to base with the comment, “That’s what I mean about max range!”
If the story is true—and it probably has some base in fact—it demonstrates his dynamic action without regard to unforeseen circumstances. As a senior aviator, he still had only about three years flight experience as a designated aviator and most of it as the skipper with no servitude or internship as a junior member in the cockpit. He also had “washed” out of Navy flight school on his final flight. But somehow he was able to return to Pensacola six years later only to fail once again. This time, however, he was retained and completed through intervention by a sympathetic senior officer.
The Coast Guard Air Station on the end of the Ediz Hook in June 1942 consisted of a concrete building with offices and quarters for the crews, a hangar, seaplane ramp, docks, and two runways crossing at a shallow angle. The main east-west runway ran along the north beach and was then protected by six machine-gun emplacements, four at the corners and one each side the near the middle. Each nest held twin .30 caliber Lewis Machine-guns. The main building was set about the midpoint of the long runway on the south, or harbor side.
Demolition charges were placed at each end of this building. They were of the standard Navy 325 pound depth-charges fused with an electrical detonator to destroy the building in the event of an enemy landing. Early in W.W.II, the military on the West Coast was preparing for a Japanese invasion. And “Captain Mac” was not pleased with the preparation by his unit for war.
Despite repeated rebukes to his executive officer for his junior’s seemingly lack of energies dedicated to preparation, MacDiarmid deemed his station not ready for an attack. Therefore, he resorted to his typical brazen actions to remedy this problem.
MacDiarmid took William Morgan, Ordnanceman 3/c, and “Red” Merril, Boatswains Mate 1/c into his confidence. Morgan was directed to sneak around the barracks the night of MacDiarmid’s planned drill and gather up all the rifle ammunition. Each man had a Springfield rifle slung to his bedpost. Then early in the morning Morgan waited in the machine-gun nest across the runway from the crews’ building holding five sticks of dynamite. During the night also the bos’un created shallow puddles of oil scattered about the station.
MacDiarmid took off in a JRF from the local airport a few miles away from the Coast Guard Air Station where he had parked the airplane earlier in the evening. Shortly he had the amphibian screaming in at low altitude over the base in pre-dawn darkness.
This was the signal for Morgan to start flinging his sticks of dynamite out into the water off the north beach into the Strait, away from the station, then fire the machine guns at a smoke float dropped from the airplane in the water nearby. Meanwhile, Merril set the oil puddles ablaze creating a realistic scene.
Men came tumbling out of the building through doors and windows, carrying with them empty rifles, dashing to the air raid trenches. One sensible sailor, like the fictional television character, deputy sheriff Barney Fife, kept a bullet in his pocket, just in case. He was ready for the enemy—and the only one—but his rifle accidentally fired as he fell into the air raid trench. The bullet passed between the legs of an Ensign arriving just ahead of him.
Tracer bullets from the machine gun trained by Morgan were ricocheting off the water and making a fiery exhibition and the station glowed from Merril’s fires. Behind both and across the narrow spit a U.S. Navy ship lay at anchor in the peaceful harbor.
The Navy crew suddenly hearing the noises of war went immediately to general quarters. The ship’s gun crew was ready instantly; Pearl Harbor was not going to be repeated for this Navy ship. Gun crews at once commenced firing their 20 millimeter machine-guns at the only obvious target in the darkness, the circling U.S. Coast Guard JRF Goose. MacDiarmid suddenly discovered he was now an unarmed defender, with tracers blazing the night sky coming his way, instead of the attacker. He hurriedly retreated to safety north across the strait into Canada.
MacDiarmid’s, crew at the air station was a little more prepared than he assumed. One junior officer, before abandoning his post for the air raid trench, got a message off to headquarters in Seattle declaring the Coast Guard was under enemy attack. An immediate wartime invasion signal flashed down the entire west coast of United States putting all military on alert.
“Captain Mac,” was partly correct in his assessment of his units preparedness; no one remembered to detonate the charges to destroy the current administration building at the Coast Guard Air Station now named for Captain Donald Bartram MacDiarmid. And he finally got his wish for duty under fire.
Postscript from the WebMaster
The webmaster for the USCG Aviation History website recalls his meeting with the legendary “Captain Mac” when as a USCG Academy 2nd Class Cadet attending Aviation Indoctrination at CG Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina the good Captain addressed the group and spoke on his love of flying, Ecity, and the Coast Guard finishing his diatribe this way (all the time holding his beloved cigar in his fist as he waved his arm), “This is a pee-poor, penny pinching outfit, but I love it!” With that he jammed his salty, worn cap on his head and the cigar in his mouth and stomped out of the briefing room. Everyone in the Class of 1956 knew they had met “Captain Mac!”