By Captain Bob Desh Regent USCG (Ret’d)
Foundation for Coast Guard History
In the early evening hours of Sunday, Jan. 11, 1942, the German submarine U-123 attacked and sank the British steamship Cyclops off the coast of Cape Sable, Nova Scotia. The U-boat’s attack on the Cyclops was much more than the sinking of another merchant vessel by a German submarine. The attack marked the opening of a deadly new phase in the Battle of the Atlantic: a six-month assault on shipping off the east coast, and in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
Code named Operation Drumbeat by the German navy, it is sometimes called America’s second Pearl Harbor. The loss of scores of vessels and the valuable cargoes they carried was a huge blow to the war effort. However, the greatest losses were the skilled merchant mariners, no matter the flag country of the vessel, who perished with their ships.
In January of 1942, the Coast Guard was already on a wartime footing. Operating as a service within the United States Navy, the Coast Guard had already been engaged in operations to protect Greenland. It had rapidly improved the armament and combat capabilities of scores of veteran Coast Guard cutters that had fought the “rum war at sea” in enforcing Prohibition laws. These cutters were on patrol, doing their best to protect merchant shipping and rescuing survivors from vessels that succumbed to U-boat attack. The service had also taken delivery of the first of a fleet of 230 83-foot patrol boats specifically designed for anti-submarine warfare and coastal rescue operations.
The wave of submarine attacks of Operation Drumbeat triggered a range of responses and initiatives by the U.S. military, including the Coast Guard. One of them was formation of the Coast Guard Reserve Coastal Picket Force (CPF), including a collection of rugged offshore sailing yachts known as the “Corsair Fleet” that would be pressed into service to hunt the deadly submarines.
In 1939, the Coast Guard began to learn how to use the boats, personnel and capabilities of its new civilian Auxiliary. Throughout 1941, the efforts and enthusiasm to organize Auxiliary flotillas grew rapidly. As the war came closer to U.S. shores, Auxiliary boats and personnel were being utilized for coastal Neutrality Patrols in many locations.
In July 1941, as the need for patrol vessels increased and the nature of the mission intensified, the Coast Guard took over 280 Auxiliary vessels. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war, Auxiliary patrols dramatically increased. However, the Coast Guard was not alone in its interest in utilizing readily available civilian boats to help stem the disastrous onslaught of successful enemy submarine attacks along the Atlantic coast.
The Dunkirk Factor: Why not use volunteer small boats?
The losses did not go unnoticed. Coastal citizens, government officials and the national press were confused and angry, and they demanded action. The following is an extract from a letter sent by British representative of the Ministry of War Transport to Sir Arthur Salter of the Office of the British Merchant Shipping Commission:
There is a rather alarming sense of disquiet among many merchant seamen in vessels arriving at Canadian ports … I think the morale would be enormously improved if the U.S.A. could organize and publicize a voluntary fleet of small craft which would undertake patrols. Of course, I do not know what sort of arrangements have been made, but there must be any number of Americans who, if the government could supply them with some sort of craft, would be only too willing to take a crack at it. After all, we have the example of Dunkirk where every available craft that could float was pressed into service.
His letter was forwarded by Adm. Sir Charles C.J. Little at the British Embassy in Washington, to Adm. Harold Stark, then Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).
This was not, by far, the earliest correspondence by senior naval officers highlighting the potential value of acquiring and employing civilian small boats for coastal defense. On Sept. 22, 1941, Commander North Atlantic Naval Coastal Frontier wrote to the CNO, explaining:
It is considered important that contacts and means be arranged for using the eyes and ears of yacht clubs, power squadrons, fishing fleets, and marine supply stations, etc. to obtain certain types of information … it is considered that the Coast Guard is the Service best equipped and organized, in view of its general duties, to obtain most of this information.
On March 10, 1942, Stark wrote, “The situation on our coasts with regard to patrol vessels is well known. … District Commandants should leave no stone unturned in the search to acquire vessels which may be useful … The local knowledge of Coast Guard officers and officials of yacht clubs should be utilized.”
This is a small sample of the correspondence from a variety of sources championing the idea of acquiring civilian small craft for rescue operations, anti-submarine patrols, port security, and coastal defense. Of all these letters, one of the most influential was written by Alfred Stanford, Commodore of the Cruising Club of America.
On Feb. 23, 1942, Commodore Stanford proposed to the Eastern Sea Frontier Commander the use of oceangoing sailing vessels for anti-submarine patrol work. The Eastern Sea Frontier command immediately encouraged Stanford to draw up a detailed plan to bring his proposal to fruition.
Stanford presented the following outline to the governing board of the Cruising Club on March 5 and then to the annual meeting of the Cruising Club on March 24. The eight primary tactical advantages of using sailing vessels for anti-submarine patrol were listed as follows:
- A vessel under sail gives no warning of her presence or approach to a submarine. (This advantage is shared by no other type of craft, either water or air. Even a blimp can be heard or, in the day, be seen, in time for the surfaced submarine to submerge into deep water. The minor water noises of a sailing vessel would allow her to come very close to a submarine before detection on listening apparatus.)
- A vessel ‘hove to’ (headsails backed, helm up) is a steadier type of observation platform than a destroyer or other type of patrol craft. (This is due to the keel in the water and the counterbalancing keel action of the sail in the air. An observation post aloft at the hounds, 40′ to 60′ from the deck, gives approximately the same or better height of eye as the bridge of a large patrol vessel.)
- There is less leeway or drift with a sailing vessel properly ‘hove to’ due to the counterbalancing action of the rudder forcing the ship up into the wind and the backed headsail or reefed foresail tending to drive the bow off. (Under gale conditions this leeway will not amount to more than 1 1/2 knots or at the most 2 knots. Thus, a small vessel can comfortably, safely, and effectively hold her station at sea, as has been demonstrated many times in our members’ experience.)
- There is less noise on a sailing vessel — there is no engine noise to compete with the audible submarine diesel proceeding on the surface at night or charging her batteries. It is surmised that this submarine diesel exhaust can be heard 2-5 miles depending on conditions.
- A sailing vessel is cheap and quick to build. While at war, economy is not a governing consideration, speed of construction is. We estimate the rough finish production cost of a 50′ sailing vessel as being about $20,000-$25,000 on a production basis, maybe lower. There are probably in excess of 100 small yards on the Atlantic Coast not now engaged in naval contracts that could be geared up to handle this type of production. (A fleet of only 80 such vessels — 40 operating; 40 relief — could constitute an observation and patrol screen at 10-mile intervals from Cape Cod across the Gulf of Maine to Cape Sable and up the coast to Halifax; or from Ambrose Light Vessel down the Jersey Coast, across the Delaware Bay area to Cape Hatteras.)
- Construction of a fleet of such wooden sailing vessels — should the experiment prove successful — would not compete for steel plate, specialized welding and riveting shipyard labor.
- Having only auxiliary power, these vessels would not require engineer personnel. (A regular crew member could be quickly trained to give the relatively simple power installation such attention as it might require afloat.)
- Cruising range, due to tankage being available for water rather than fuel and space for provisions rather than machinery, would extend far beyond normal for patrol craft of considerably greater size. (Such vessels as are being proposed could keep the sea for a two-week tour of duty easily, 30 days in emergencies.)
By the end of March, the Eastern Sea Frontier Commander informed the Cruising Club that arrangements were underway for volunteer ships to go on offshore patrols June 1. To supervise plans for using sailing vessels, auxiliary yachts and fishing boats, he appointed Cmdr. Vincent Astor, U.S. Naval Reserve, a yachtsman in his own right. Thus, the stage was set for the use of small craft in various phases of anti-submarine warfare off the east coast.
For many months, new Chief of Naval Operation, Adm. Ernest King, had resisted using civilian small boats. However, the pressure to do more to combat submarine attack combined with the support of his advisors, including Commander Eastern Sea Frontier and the Commandant of the Coast Guard, resulted in his order of May 15, 1942: “It has been directed that there be acquired … craft that are in any way capable. … These craft will be acquired and manned by the Coast Guard as an extension of the Coast Guard Reserve.”
Birth of the Corsair Fleet
With its decades of experience in small boat operations and the ready resources of its civilian Auxiliary, the Coast Guard was the logical service to bring the CPF concept to fruition. The task would fall to the district Coast Guard officer in each naval district acting under the Sea Frontier commanders.
The commandant’s letter of June 25, 1942 set the general policies for procurement of vessels. Procurement included voluntary induction into the Reserve, gift or purchase for nominal consideration, requisition by charter, and requisition by purchase.
The last piece of the puzzle was crewing. This issue was solved by an amendment to the Coast Guard Reserve and Auxiliary Act in June 1942, which gave the commandant authority to enroll members of the Coast Guard Reserve for temporary duty. It provided considerable leeway on age and physical qualifications. This step facilitated rapid induction of skilled yachtsman and those boat owners who might want to come with their vessel as it transitioned to wartime haze gray.
Those volunteering their vessels were often tasked with finding their own crews. There was a widely held belief that the majority of boat owners took advantage of the ability to accompany their vessel. While this was sometimes the case, it was more the exception than the rule, particularly with the large sailing yachts. Some examples of this actually occurring include renowned yachtsman Charles Vose lending his schooner Sea Gypsy and being enrolled as a chief boatswain’s mate to be her skipper. John Pugh went into service as a member of his schooner Bettatrix’s crew, given a rating in the Temporary Reserve as boatswain’s mate second class. Laurence and John Ely would serve with their steel-hulled schooner Askoy as officer in charge (aka skipper) and executive petty officer.
The more common crewing model saw the owner choosing a known, trusted sailing master as the officer in charge, who would then help round up a crew. The skipper was enrolled as a chief boatswain’s mate, the next most skilled and experienced crewman as a boatswain’s mate first class, and the rest of the crew as seamen first class. The size of the vessel dictated crew size — typically six to nine personnel. They underwent a background check and physical examination, and were then enrolled directly into the Coast Guard Reserve (Temporary) on a full time, with pay status.
Training was accomplished on the job. The volunteer manner of the process resulted in enrollment of some of the best-known pleasure craft along the east coast being guided by men whose sailing knowledge and ability had been acquired through years of experience. Many of the younger men who enlisted were so much at home on sailing craft that they needed little training.
Of the hundreds of sail and power boats that served in the CPF, the rugged oceangoing sailing yachts definitely held the greatest mystique. Surrendered for wartime duty by some of the nation’s most famous yachtsmen, they were manned by young crews in the harshest conditions. When other vessels of the CPF were ordered to seek cover because of foul weather, they continued to stand the watch. Proudly known as the Corsair Fleet, they were — rightfully so — the media darlings of the CPF.
A dramatic surge in warship construction at shipyards across the country eventually provided a fleet of much more capable vessels well-suited for the anti-submarine mission. This, combined with a shift in emphasis and tactics by the German submarine force, eliminated the need for the offshore efforts of the CPF.
By fall of 1943, the process of decommissioning the majority of the Corsair Fleet sailing vessels was well underway. Many of those still in suitable condition were returned to their original owners. The end of the Corsair Fleet would mark the last time that a significant U.S. naval force went to war under sail. The crews who took these rugged sailing yachts to sea certainly hold a very special place in U.S. military and Coast Guard history.