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6 June 1944
few weeks [sic] prior to D-Day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested
that Operation Neptune needed a rescue flotilla. Since resources were stretched
to the limit the commander in chief of the Navy, ADM Ernest King, looked to the
service dedicated to life saving at sea. The Coast Guard had 60 83-foot patrol
boats, nicknamed the "matchbox fleet," on anti-submarine duty along the East
Coast of the United States. Although they were constructed of wood and had
gasoline engines, hence the nickname, they were available and had trained crews.
King secretly ordered them to New York harbor where all excess gear
was stripped from the decks and they were hastily put aboard freighters
and shipped to England.
Their English home port was the guay at Poole, England. Rescue Flotilla One-better known as ResFlo One-was a fleet of sixty 83-foot Coast Guard cutters also called the "Seagoing St. Bernards" and the "Matchbox Fleet." Lieutenant Commander Alexander Stewart, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, was in command. True to its tradition of saving lives, the U.S. Coast Guard answered the call to man the cutters, which were to rescue those who suddenly found themselves dumped into the Bay of Seine. The cutters were renumbered CG 1 to CG 60. Crews averaged 13. Besides the captain and chief boatswain's mate, there were three motor machinist mates, one fireman, one radar-soundman, one gunner's mate, three boatswain's mates, two seamen, and a cook.
On D-day approximately 2/3rds of the CG manned vessels were 83 footers.
The original plan was to have five of the 83-foot Coast Guard cutters in positions between Navy transports and the Normandy beaches. Planners had anticipated that another 25 would stay near the transports, where they expected the most casualties. The U.S. sector of Omaha and Utah beaches had 30 boats (CG-1 to CG-30) assigned to them, while 30 more (CG-31 to CG-60) were slated to assist in the British assault area at Gold Beach, the Canadian objective at Sword Beach, and the combination British and Canadian objective at Juno Beach. Now the Match Box Fleet and their crews would be put to the test off the coast of France. That night, heavy seas contributed to a difficult voyage from England to Normandy for the cutters as well as problems with uneven speed in the transports. Currents in the English Channel were so great that courses sometimes shifted as much as 12 degrees. The rolling seas also made the troops seasick as they approached the far shore.
Dawn's early light revealed that German shore gunfire was sinking many small craft, which indicated that the first rescues would be closer to the beaches than planned. The sky grew dark with aircraft, then lit up intermittently from tracer shells passing overhead. Shells from battleships contributed to the cacophony.
As landing craft proceeded to the beaches, the rescue cutters took up their places behind them. Each cutter's boatswain mate and seamen did the steering, but all lent a hand when it was necessary to haul in survivors. All rank was forgotten in the heat of battle; each man was too busy doing his job to think about the danger.
Landing craft had the right of way, which often hampered rescue efforts, forcing the cutters to back off and thus causing the loss of precious moments to bring men on board. The rescue operation began even before H-Hour, when the CGC-29, under command of Lieutenant (junior grade) William H. Williams, rushed into action. Just before daylight, a marauding German motor torpedo boat (E-boat) placed a torpedo into the side of one of a wave of English LCTs. The resulting explosion forward left only the craft's stern afloat, with men trapped on the blasted hulk. As other escorts chased the E-boat, the rescue cutter picked up 14 crewmen and two badly burned officers. Diverted from the convoy, the cutter sped to a British tank landing ship (LST), transferred the survivors, then rejoined the wave of LCTs on their trip to the French coast.
At the Omaha sector, many of the landing craft were hung up on submerged obstacles placed there by Germans. Troops became bogged down; the landing craft continued to come it; rescue operations began. The men on the rescue boats tied lines around themselves and pulled the wounded aboard. The water was so cold that the soldiers could not reach up. Because they were so weighted down by their heavy packs, it usually took two men to haul in the soldiers. Motor machinist, boatswain mates, seamen, and even the skipper, all helped in the rescues.
The person at the wheel would call out, "Over there". The boat would then rush the survivors, taking care not to tangle them up in the engine's propellers. Gasoline tanks filled with almost two thousand gallons of high-test gasoline were amidships, adding to the danger.
Three Coast Guard-manned transports had delivered the troops and were anchored offshore to receive the wounded. The Joseph T. Dickman (APA-13), the Bayfield (APA-33) and the Samuel P. Chase (APA-36)-and many of the LSTs - were equipped with hospitals, doctors, and dentists.
The CGC-16, commanded by Lieutenant (junior grade) R. V. McPhail, rescued the most men on D-Day at Omaha Beach, and the CGC-34, commanded by Lieutenant (junior grade) Gordon W. Crafts, rescued the most men in the Eastern Task Force, which comprised the British and Canadian units at Gold, Sword, and Torch beaches.
McPhail's cutter went right in behind the landing craft at Red Beach in the Omaha Sector, where floating mines had sunk many of them. In addition, at about 0730, intense fire from the Germans ashore sank a landing craft that had been converted to an antiaircraft ship 800 yards off the beach.
Immediately, the CGC-16 sped to her rescue. No sooner were all the survivors picked up than a shell blew apart a patrol boat* nearby. All 90 survivors from the boat were also put on board the cutter.
The relatively small cutter could hold only about 20 wounded men at a time, and double that number were often taken aboard. But in one instance, 140 men shared 1,000 square feet. Casualties and unwounded survivors crammed the forecastle, pilot house, and engine room, and those incapable of going below lined the deck topside, side by side. Walking wounded were jammed into the tiny crew's quarters and piled into bunks in three tiers of four.
The 140-square-foot pilot house accommodated eight men at a time. Many were so weak that they were incapable of standing, so they lay prone, complicating movement about the cabin. The engine room became the "thawing out" room, accommodating the most severely chilled men. Five more men crowded the space used by the motor machinist trying to answer engine signals from the bridge as the cutter tried to navigate at various speeds.
Storing survivors' gear and clothing also presented a problem. Fortunately, allied air support had virtually eliminated enemy aircraft, making it possible to pile clothing around the 20-mm gun mount. The stockpile eventually reached five feet high, ten feet in length, and ten feet in width, with heavy jackets, weatherproof clothing, underway coats, gas-impregnated coveralls, underwear, socks, helmets, gas masks, and dungarees.
Cutter crew gathered personal belongings, such as wallets, money, pictures, pocket-bibles, and identification cards. Rifles, carbines, and automatic pistol were stacked below.
Survivors were taken to the Joseph T. Dickman. Doctors boarded the cutter to help with the stretcher cases. Those who were not wounded climbed the gangplank. The doctors declared one man dead and another beyond hope. The dead man and the dying man were placed in the lazarette until they could be buried at sea.
Crewmen in the transport lowered a piece of steel onto the cutter's deck. Coast Guard crewmen secured the dead body to the steel plate. Lieutenant McPhail appeared on the deck with a Bible and for the first time in 40 hours, the cutter's engines were stilled. Men mustered by the rail of the boat and took off their steel helmets in silence. With the far off sound of gunfire, the skipper intoned, "For I am the life everlasting and the glory forever and ever, and do receive this body unto the sea." McPhail then paused, nodded his head, and watched two of his crew slide the body over the rail. As is disappeared into the green water, he said "Amen," and several men crossed themselves. A moment of silence followed, broken by the buzz of the bridge signal to the engine room for the engines to push ahead full speed.
During the ceremony for the dead man, the supposedly dying man stuck his head through the hatch and declared to the ship's company: "If you guys think you are going to do that to me, you've got another guess coming. How about some hot coffee but for God's sake gimme a cigarette." A half-hour later, he was transferred to a medically equipped LST.
After delivering the wounded man, an LCT was sighted sinking by the stern, 1,500 yards from the beach under enemy fire. The CGC-16 maneuvered alongside the discovered it was loaded with ammunition and on fire. The wounded made it off, but as the cutter was pulling away, one of the survivors told Lieutenant McPhail that a man with nearly severed legs was still on board the landing craft on one of the guns tubs.
Chancing the possibility of the ammunition exploding from the raging fire surrounding it, McPhail ordered the cutter to pull alongside again. Coxswain Arthur Burkhard, Jr. jumped over the side of the rescue cutter and quickly went to the man's aid. Placing a line around his waist in spite of the smoke pouring from the LCT's hatches.
The man was so badly wounded he could not talk, but he still kept a grin on his face. As the rescuers cut off his clothes in order to administer morphine, the brave man even winked at those we were helping him. Burkhard tried unsuccessfully to lower him from the sinking LCT to the rescue cutter.
As the LCT dropped lower and lower, it was impossible for McPhail to keep his craft under her side, for fear of being pinned beneath it. Burkhard was forced to throw that wounded man off the LCT's deck into the water. In order to save him, he had the man pull himself hand-over-hand up to the side of the rescue cutter, which had towed him to the boat's side.
Burkhard in turn jumped from the LCT and made his way back to the cutter. But he could not swim and was dragged by his shipmates. Two minutes later, the LCT sank.
All hands were involved in the rescue operation and in administering first aid to the survivors. Even Cook Second Class George I. Banks, in charge of feeding the crew of the CGC-16, said, "The boys were too busy to get hungry, and so I didn't start any lunch that day. As a matter of fact, I was too busy myself tending wounded on deck to go below to the gallery."
Most of the wounded had broken legs, split heads, sprained backs, and smashed ankles. Many cried out for medication. Banks propped lifejackets under their heads to keep them from knocking on the deck, as the cutter bounced around on the water from the shock of shells from enemy shore batteries. He then took off their sopping, oil-soaked clothes. Finding it impossible to untie some of the knots, he went down to the gallery, got one of his sharp bread knives, and used it to cut the wet clothes from the wounded. He then covered them with dry blankets.
By mid-morning, the ship's medical locker was open, and Banks began doling out first-aid supplies. Because the cutter could not speed directly to the Joseph T. Dickman until all the men in the water were rescued, Banks began to give the most seriously injured a shot of morphine to reduce their suffering.
There were packets of morphine syrettes in our medicine chest, and each syrette was good for one man. Before I'd inject a fellow, I'd check with the skipper just to make sure that the man's condition justified morphine. If the skipper agreed, and he did every time, I'd roll up or cut away the man's sleeve, and give him morphine on his upper arm. Then I'd mark on his forehead with a wax pencil "Morphine."
In addition, Banks applied tourniquets to those whose legs were dangling only by skin and muscle and were losing terrific amounts of blood from cut arteries.
Not until the cutter pulled up alongside the Joseph T. Dickman to unload survivors did the cook go down to the gallery to brew some coffee, making his way to the stove. The coffee began to percolate, and the cutter sped to a burning and sinking LCT that was also carrying ammunitions. Men were trapped in a gun turret on her stern and included four soldiers with badly twisted limbs.
As soon as the cutter's crew rescued the men. Banks followed his routine and had them put on board an LST. Then he returned to the gallery and cooked pork chops, potatoes, peas, and raisin pie. The CGC-16 had rescued 126 men-only one died. McPhail and his crew of 15 were awarded their Bronze Star for their bravery.
Specialist First Class Carter Barber was a combat correspondent who assigned
himself to the CGC-16. As the cutter approached the beach, he remembers, the
noise was terrific, and nearby LCT took a hit.
When he saw the LCT hit and rushed to her aid, I noticed plenty of men already floating face down in the water. They might have just been stunned, sure. But I had to agree with the skipper that we couldn't stop for them just then, but must keep on to get the other men floundering about.
Barber, also a Bronze Star recipient, started taking pictures; after three minutes he went forward and began heaving lines to the other men in the water:
Two or three of them were screaming 'Oh save me. I am hurt bad - please, please.' And I yelled back, 'Hang on, Mac we're coming.' I watched one man from the bow. He shouted: 'I can't stay up, I can't stay up.' And he didn't. I couldn't reach him with a heaving line, and when we came toward him his head was in the water. We didn't stop, and went on to seven or eight men we got them aboard.
After what seemed like a long day of hauling men on board, removing their wet clothes, tending to their wounds, and ferry them to the Joseph T. Dickman - with no survivors in sight - the men of the CGC-16 took a break. It was 0930, and Barber soon began to write material to fill his bags, labeled PRESS in red letters a foot high.
The intensive first-aid training the men had received at Poole, England, began to pay off, After rescuing badly wounded survivors from a sunken destroyer, Chief Motor Machinist Mate Spaulding E. Michot took over as an emergency pharmacist mate and laid the wounded out on the gallery table he used to operate. Standing in a small compartment with the boat pitching back and forth, he stitched wounds and splinted fractured legs, with blood smeared bulkheads as a backdrop.
The crews transferred the wounded from the rescue cutters with skill and care. Rough seas still presented a real challenge, crashing the smaller boats against the larger ships. Litter cases had been covered with blankets in an attempt to protect them from the soaking spray as they waited their turn for transfer. Straps were slipped under the ends of the stretchers and quickly hoisted to waiting doctors and corpsmen in the LSTs or transports equipped with hospital facilities.
Once on board, the men in stretchers were taken to operating rooms below, and the less seriously wounded received first aid in the wardroom.
Two RAF flight crew members from a Mosquito bomber that crashed in the English Channel are rescued by the crew of a Coast Guard 83-foot cutter of Coast Guard Rescue Flotilla One.
After the cutters finished their rescue duty, they returned to their English home port. Several ran out of fuel and were towed or beached. At Poole, the cutters were hauled to repair damage sustained during rescue operations.
Thirty of these 60 cutters were returned to the United States, 24 remained in Europe, 4 were transferred to the Royal Navy, and the 83415 and 83471 foundered off Normandy on 21 June 1944 in a storm from damage sustained during rescue operations.
50 Years Later
At the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, a Memorial Plaque for the Matchbox Fleet was erected at the quay in Poole, England.
The plaque reads:
A special thanks to Jack Read, MoMMC, who supplied many of these pictures
The D-day accounts extracted and edited from "Naval History" United States Naval Institute published May/June 1994 and an article by Captain Ken Frank, USCG (Ret.)