How 60 Coast Guard Cutters Saved Over 400 Men On D-Day

A British LCA in 1944.

“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, shell struck 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.” (CGC-16 Log.)

This is how June 6th, 1944, began for the crew of CGC-16. They were part of a group of US Coast Guard patrol boats assigned to the Invasion of Normandy during World War 2. On paper, their mission was simple: assist any allied ships in distress. In practice, though, it proved to be anything but.

A map showing the Naval Bombardments, and landing zones of D-day. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

A map showing the Naval Bombardments, and landing zones of D-day.

The plan to have Coast Guardsmen rescuing ships in the invasion originated only a matter of weeks earlier. President Roosevelt requested that Admiral Ernest M. King, chief of naval operations, create a small group of rescue ships to help lower the casualty count at D-Day. Knowing the Coast Guard had the experience and ships necessary, King then contacted the Coast Guard Commander, Vice Admiral Russell R. Waesche. 

Waesche selected the 83-foot cutters of the “Matchbox Fleet”, small wooden ships used for antisubmarine patrols off the coast. 60 of these small, lightly armored ships were sent over to England to prepare for the invasion.

A German "E-Boat" torpedo boat. Its similarity to the Coast Guard 83 foot cutters nearly cost the lives of 4 crews. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

A German “E-Boat” torpedo boat. Its similar appearance to the Coast Guard’s 83 foot cutters nearly cost the lives of 4 crews.

From the very beginning of the action, it was clear nothing would go according to plan. Most of the cutters formed up with the rest of the fleet around 05:30 AM, often to a mixed reception. While some troop ships simply told these small craft to stay back out of the fire, HMS Hind almost fired on four of them. There was a constant fear of German torpedo boats hindering the invasion, and from a distance, the German and American vessels looked similar. Other vessels, though, understood the usefulness of the small ships and greeted them enthusiastically. And despite the early SNAFUs, these ships proved their worth during the battle. Out of the 60 ships, three especially distinguished themselves.

Photograph of CGC-1 During D-Day. Source: USCG.Mil/ Sargent/ Public Domain

Photograph of CGC-1 During D-Day.

CGC-1 is a clear example of the kind of rescues these ships performed, and the dangers they faced. Attached to the Omaha Beach Assault Sector, CGC-1 joined the force at 06:00 AM on June 6th, just as the entire fleet began steaming towards the Nazi Atlantic Wall.

Its initial duty was to escort a group of LCVPs towards the beaches. But two miles off the shore they spotted a sinking British LCA. The cutter rushed to help, knowing that 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 side of the cutter.

Without a second thought, the Coast Guardsmen on board tied lines about their waists and jumped into the freezing water. They pulled and pushed the survivors up and on to the deck, saving 28 men in total. They then sped back to get them medical attention at a waiting hospital ship. But the freezing water wasn’t the only trouble these men faced.

LCVPs preparing to hit the beaches during the invasion of Normandy. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

LCVPs preparing to hit the beaches during the invasion of Normandy.

CGC-35 braved a burning sea to rescue a British crew. They had found a burning LCT, full of fuel, oil, and ammunition. The fuel had spilled out into the surrounding water, and immediately went up in flames. The crew was sitting on a floating bomb, trapped on all sides by flames licking up at the steel hull. Despite the amazing risk, the small, WOODEN, cutter drove into the flames, up to the side of the landing craft. To add to the danger, the cutters had fuel tanks amidships, full of high-grade gasoline.