During World War II the Coast Guard was assigned two little-known roles to protect the United States. One was to protect shipping off the East Coast and the other was to prevent enemy infiltration from the sea by patrolling the beaches and coastline of the United States. There were fears that Nazi submarines could easily infiltrate the Eastern coastline of the US, while in the West there were reports of Japanese submarine sightings off the coast. Beach patrols were not new to the Coast Guard, they had been patrolling the beaches and coastline of the US since 1871, and during the first few months of the war nothing changed with how the patrols were conducted. It wasn’t until 13 June 1942 when a young Coastguardsman by the name of John Cullen was patrolling the foggy coast of Long Island, NY and stumbled upon four men claiming to be fishermen that beach patrolling started to change.
When John Cullen Seaman 2nd Class started asking the fishermen questions he grew suspicious of their answers, even more so after hearing what he recognized as German when the men were talking to each other. Cullen, deciding to let the men go, ran back to his base and reported what he had found; it turns out what Cullen stumbled upon was Operation Pastorious, a German plan to invade the United States. Prior to Cullen’s discovery, beach patrols were not taken seriously, one man would walk the beach armed with only flares, even though the FBI had issued numerous warnings about the possibility of enemies coming ashore. The flares were used to alert others to possible enemy sightings, but other than that, the sand pounders, as they were called, provided little security from enemies coming ashore. After Cullens had reported what he had seen, the beaches were searched and explosives were found, the FBI was notified and within weeks the German invaders were captured.
The uncovering of Operation Pastorious was a turning point in the way beach patrols were carried out. The Coast Guard worked with the FBI, Army, and Navy while patrolling the coastline of the US. The three basic functions of beach patrol were to detect and observe enemy vessels operating in coastal waters and to transmit info on these craft to the appropriate navy/army command; to report attempts of landings by the enemy and to assist in preventing landings; and to prevent communication between persons on shore and the enemy at sea. The beach patrols were the communication link between the Coast Guard and the Army, Navy, and FBI.
The beach patrols consisted of ten districts, approximately 24,000 coastguardsmen and covered close to 4,000 miles of coastline. The teams walking on the beaches and coastline consisted of at least two men, armed with rifles, pistols and flares, a change from the earlier beach patrols. The patrols were performed all year long, in all conditions. Along the Gulf Coast patrolman had to deal with swamps and alligators; along the northeastern and northwestern coasts patrolman had to maneuver between slippery rock and slimy kelp, as well as snow and ice during the winter months.
While patrolling the coastline the Coastguardsmen were often the first to spot vessels in distress. Some of the most outstanding work of the beach patrol during WWII was its role of life saving. In March 1943, the Soviet freighter Lamut struck ground and became stranded. The gale force winds pounded the ship against the rocks forcing the ship to settle on its side. The beach patrolmen risked their lives rescuing the crew of the Lamut; making their way onto a narrow ridge they dropped a rope for the crew to climb up. The rescue was dangerous for the patrolmen as well as the crew of the Lamut, one slip and the crewman would have perished in the rough, rocky water, luckily the 52 crewmen all made it to safety. Beach patrols were cut in 1944 due to a diminishing threat to coastal invasions of the US as well as the need for more men needed to fight the war at sea. By July 1944 only 800 men were patrolling the west coast.
The value of the beach patrol may never be known or fully be appreciated, but during World War II they played a vital role in the security of the United States.