The Growth Years: 1939-1956
The Coast Guard was transferred to the Navy Department by executive order 8929 on November 1, 1941. In actuality, certain units of the Coast Guard had been under Navy control for some time. Congress had passed the Neutrality Act on November 4, 1939. This legislation was designed to preserve the neutrality of the United States and made it unlawful for any U.S. vessel to carry material or passengers to any designated belligerent State. Coast Guard aircraft and vessels were used to enforce this act. In April of 1941 an agreement was signed with Denmark for the protection of Greenland. Cutter based aircraft played an important part in this operation.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and by December 11 a state of war existed with both Japan and Germany. The German U Boats immediately conducted a devastating attack on allied shipping along the Eastern Seaboard and then moved into the Gulf of Mexico in mid 1942. The Chief of Naval Operations, ADM Ernest J. King, did not aggressively oppose the German operation. The Coast Guard had a series of coastal Air Stations ideally suited for anti submarine patrol. They were located at Port Angeles, Washington; San Francisco, California; San Diego, California; Biloxi, Mississippi; St. Petersburg, Florida; Miami, Florida; Elizabeth City, North Carolina; Brooklyn, New York; and Salem, Massachusetts. The problem was lack of suitable aircraft. There was a total of 51 aircraft; none of which were armed. In the spring of 1942 the Coast Guard acquired 53 OS2U-3 Kingfisher aircraft for ASW patrols. It would be 1943 before the Coast Guard acquired ASW aircraft that could be considered combat capable and by this time the German submarine offensive had relocated to the North Atlantic. Nevertheless, beginning in January of 1942, the existing aircraft were armed to the limit of their capabilities and patrols commenced. Coast Guard aircraft delivered 61 bombing attacks on enemy submarines during World War II.
From the beginning Coast Guard patrol aircraft played an important role in rescuing survivors from torpedoed vessels. There are numerous stories in which these aircraft were landed in the open sea and picked up survivors of torpedoed ships. Many times they were so overloaded with survivors that they could not take off. In some cases they could taxi to shore but most of the time they would transfer the survivors to small vessels as soon as possible. At other times they would direct surface vessels to the survivor’s location. The experience the Coast Guard had acquired over the years served them well in the effective coordination of surface and air assets and the greatly enlarged search and rescue operations that would come.
In 1943 the loss of life associated with the tremendous increase in aircraft training activities and operational missions became a major concern of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Army and Navy. Admiral Waesche, Commandant of the Coast Guard, proposed that the Coast Guard be assigned Air Sea Rescue responsibilities to address this situation. The Joint Chiefs determined that the scope of the operation was beyond the capability of the Coast Guard but an Office of Air Sea Rescue, under the Commandant, was established to coordinate and develop Air Sea Rescue equipment and operational procedures. The Army and the Navy would remain responsible for providing their own Air Sea Rescue. The Navy, in turn, assigned Air Sea Rescue responsibility for all continental Sea Frontiers to the Coast Guard. This more than doubled the size of Coast Guard aviation. The first Navy Air Sea Rescue squadron was formed at San Diego, California, under the command of CDR Watson Burton, USCG, to provide ASR coverage for extensive West Coast pilot training. It was an all Coast Guard squadron equipped with nine PBY-5A aircraft and AVR rescue boats.
The Coast Guard’s association with the International Ice Patrol and its experience in Arctic operations lead to a primary role in the Greenland area. On 5, October 1943 Patrol Squadron 6 (VP-6CG) became fully operational. This was an all Coast Guard unit. The home base was at Narsarssuak, Greenland, code name Bluie West-One. It had 9 PBY-5A’s assigned. Commander Donald B. Mac Diarmid was the first commanding officer. As additional PBY’s became available, the unit’s area of operation expanded and detachments were established in Argentia, Newfoundland and Reykjavik, Iceland, furnishing air cover for North Atlantic and Greenland convoys. Many rescue operations were carried out during the 27 months the squadron was in operation.
During early stages of the war the Coast Guard became a driving force in the development of the helicopter. CDR. William J. Kossler, chief of the Aviation Engineering Division at Coast Guard Headquarters, was the Coast Guard representative on the Inter-Agency Board administering the Dorsey Act which pertained to the development of rotary-wing aircraft. The first official American helicopter demonstration occurred on 20 April 1942. CDR Kossler and CDR Watson A. Burton attended this demonstration. Impressed by the demonstration, both Coast Guardsmen agreed that the helicopter would meet many of the service’s requirements. During the summer of 1942 the number of merchant ship sinkings was horrendous. Erickson wrote a letter to Vice Adm. Russell Waesche, Commandant of the Coast Guard, outlining how the helicopter could be used in anti-submarine warfare. This was followed up by Kossler. During this period the British, who had also witnessed the original demonstration, put in an order for 200 helicopters. A helicopter demonstration was arranged for Waesche. He was very impressed. He contacted Adm. Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations on the subject. On February 19, 1943 King issued a directive which placed the development of the helicopter with the Coast Guard. There were no objections from the Army.
The first tests got underway in May of 1943 to develop the helicopter as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. The CGAS Brooklyn, NY was officially designated as the helicopter training base. CDR Erickson was the commanding officer. In January of 1944, Coast Guard helicopter pilot LTJG Stewart Graham made the first flight from the deck of a merchant ship in convoy in the North Atlantic. In April of 1944, experiments with dipping sonar commenced. By January 1945 the monthly sinkings of US merchant vessels had declined to 15,745 tons. With the threat of the submarine all but gone, the helicopter program was cut back.
Erickson, however, had simultaneously continued multi-purpose testing of the helicopter and submitted design recommendations to facilitate its use as a rescue vehicle. Perhaps the most significant development during this period was the development of the hydraulic hoist. On 6 February 1945 the training base at Brooklyn was closed and the aircraft stored. The Coast Guard was not interested in further development. It was a setback for Erickson but his work had not gone unnoticed. It was valued by both the Army and the Navy. His dream of a rescue helicopter and lifesaving machine came to pass during the Korean War. The Navy developed a helicopter ASW program using the expertise of the Coast Guard. In 1951 the Coast Guard was the recipient of the nation’s top aviation award. President Truman presented the Collier Trophy presented for the development of the helicopter.
Starting in early 1945, Capt. MacDiarmid, who was now the commanding officer of the Coast Guard Air station San Diego, initiated a multi-year study of open sea landing procedures. Tests showed that landing and taking off parallel to the swell was the safest course. Further experiments revealed that reversible pitch propellers shortened the landing run and jet assisted takeoffs (JATO) reduced the takeoff run. The results of this research work resulted in an internationally accepted manual on air sea rescue techniques. The Octave Chanute Award for 1950 was presented to CDR Mac Diarmid for his work.
After the war suitable search and rescue aircraft became readily available. The flying boat had always been associated with Coast Guard operations and reached its peak during this period. At one time, midway between 1945 and 1950, the service was operating some 56 PBY-5As plus 24 PBM-5 Mariners. It is fortunate that a surplus of existing Navy aircraft was available. The Coast Guard was downsized significantly and the budget was severely restricted. Additional Air Detachments were established but they were limited in size. The PBYs were phased out and replaced by long range search aircraft such as the PB-1G flying Fortress, the P4Y-2G Privateer, and the R5D Skymasters. It was not until 1951 that the UF-1G Albatross and the HO4S were procured. The PBYs were gone by 1954. The PBMs were reduced in number with the procurement of the UF and were gone with the purchase of seven P5M-1Gs acquired in 1954 and the T-tailed P5M-2G that followed.
North Korean forces crossed the thirty-eighth parallel in June of 1950 resulting in the Korean War. The Coast Guard remained under the Treasury department throughout the conflict. The Navy requested that the Coast Guard assume the responsibility for port security and also requested additional Ocean Stations and search and rescue capability in the Pacific. Search and Rescue Groups with enhanced communication equipment and one or more cutters assigned were established at Sangley Point in the Philippines and on the islands of Midway, Wake, and Guam. This was necessitated by the dramatic increase in air traffic between the United States and the Orient. The Navy and the Air Force desired more extensive LORAN coverage and Coast Guard aviation soon found itself in an increased role in LORAN station supply efforts. LORAN station supply would continue long after the war ended and the Coast Guard began to set up air stations with logistics as the primary mission.
World War II had a profound affect on many things. This was the case with Coast Guard Aviation. It more than doubled in size; assumed a primary roll in Search and Rescue; and over the next several decades assumed additional missions and expanded horizons.
Search and Rescue
Prior to World War II Coast Guard Aviation operated a total of 51 aircraft from nine air stations along the coastal regions of the United States. Search and rescue was local in scope. During the war Coast Guard aviation was assigned a specific roll in developing the capability and operational evolution of Search and Rescue. Rescue Coordination Centers were initiated and effective utilization of both aircraft and surface vessels over a wide area was established. The budget was tight but by the mid 1950s there were 127 aircraft assigned to 22 Air Stations and Air Detachments stretching from Sangley Point in the Philippines to San Juan Puerto Rico. The number of survivors rescued and lives saved increased dramatically and would continue to do so.
The rescue aircraft of choice was the seaplane/amphibian. Starting in late 1947 the first of a small number of HO3S helicopters was purchased. By 1951 the number of helicopters had doubled with the procurement of 14 HO4S-1/2’s. This was followed by an order for 23 HO4S-3Gs. They had a more powerful engine, carried hydraulic hoists and the Coast Guard designed rescue basket. They also were equipped for instrument and night flight operations. With the loss of life and aircraft while attempting open sea landings and a series of stunning helicopter rescues, such as the one at Yuba City, Arizona where two crews alternated flying a HO4S and rescued 138 people, it became obvious that the helicopter could perform missions that no other aircraft could perform. The helicopter had become, and would remain, vital to Coast Guard rescue operations.