The history of Coast Guard aviation in World War II is replete with accounts of heroic service and devotion to duty under the most difficult conditions. One such chapter recounts the story of how Coast Guard aviators, in one inhospitable corner of the earth, assumed and carried out with great skill and courage the mission of maritime patrol traditionally assigned to the US Navy.
During the early years of World War II in the North Atlantic, German submarines harassed and sank Allied ships with virtual impunity. On 9 April 1941, by agreement with the Danish government, the US undertook the defense of Greenland. The Act of Havana of 30 July 1940 had already conferred upon the USA the responsibility for the defense of the western hemisphere.
The Coast Guard's long association with the International Ice Patrol and the Bering Sea Patrol made that service uniquely qualified for Arctic operations. Consequently, during October 1941, Commander Edward H Smith, USCG was appointed overall commander for Greenland defense reporting to the Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet.
With the entry of the United States into the war, the air patrol requirement in the Greenland area was greatly expanded. From this requirement was born a special patrol squadron manned entirely by Coast Guard personnel and considered by many to be the most colorful of all the Coast Guard aviation units of World War II.
On 5 October 1943, Patrol Squadron Six (VP-6 CG) was officially established by the US Navy at Argentia, Newfoundland, relieving the US Navy's Bombing Squadron 126. The new squadron's home base was at Narsarssuak, Greenland, code name Bluie West-One (BW-1). Designated as a unit of the huge Atlantic Fleet, it was under the direct operational control of Commander Task Force Twenty-Four (CTF-24) with administrative control vested in Commander Fleet Air Wing Nine (CFAW-9). All personnel matters, however, remained the responsibility of Coast Guard Headquarters.
Commander Donald B MacDiarmid, Coast Guard Aviator #59, a seasoned professional and flying boat expert, was selected to command VP-6. Thirty officers and 145 enlisted men were assigned; twenty-two of the officers were aviators and eight of the enlisted men were also aviation pilots, most with considerable flying experience. All of the aircraft and ground crewmen had years of aviation service, every bit of which would be taxed to the limits during the more than two years of flying they would accomplish in the hostile environment of the North Atlantic.
The aircraft assignment called for ten Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina patrol bombers, nine to be operational with one spare. However, because of delivery problems, flying operations commenced with only six aircraft. The PBY was a remarkable aircraft and quickly gained the respect and affection of pilots and crewmen for its rugged dependability. It could carry 4,000 pounds of bombs, two torpedoes or four 3251b depth charges. Cruising range at 105 knots was over 2,000 miles. It did magnificent work and was employed for every conceivable mission. Some units nicknamed it "Dumbo." It could carry a crew of between seven and nine, and by 1945 the Coast Guard had no less than 114 on its inventory.
The mission of VP-6 was five-fold: anti-submarine patrol, known as ASW (anti-submarine warfare); air support for North Atlantic convoys; search and rescue; surveying and reporting ice conditions; delivering essential mail and medical supplies to military bases and civilian villages and outposts. German U-boats were operating almost at will in the North Atlantic and the number of convoy sinkings was staggering, giving VP-6's rescue duties high priority.
On 28 November 1943, not long after VP-6 had been commissioned, a US Army Air Force Beechcraft AT-7 twin engined trainer was reported lost, and several Catalinas from Narsarssuak conducted a search over a wide area. Lieutenant A W Weuker finally located the wrecked advanced training aircraft on the edge of the Sukkertoppen Ice Cap on 1 December. On the second flight six days later, Weuker marked the spot with flag stakes; on 21 December photographs were finally taken successfully to guide a rescue party. A Coast Guard PBY-5A from VP-6 directed the actual rescue party, on 5 January 1944, over the last ten miles to the wreckage, dropped provisions to the rescuers, and two days later contacted the rescue group on the return trek and again dropped provisions.
As additional PBYs became available, the units area of operations broadened in scope and detachments were established at several locations. Two PBYs and -crews were based at Reykjavik, Iceland, furnishing air cover for US Navy and Coast Guard vessels operating against the enemy and providing ASW services for North Atlantic convoys and search and rescue operations in conjunction with the Royal Air Force Coastal Command. Whilst carrying out their missions, these units provided their own ground support.
An additional detachment of two aircraft and crews was assigned to the Canadian Arctic in support of vessels entering the Hudson Bay area during the navigation season. Antisubmarine patrols were required in the Hudson Strait, Ungava Bay and Frobisher Bay area regions. Two more aircraft were assigned on a rotational basis to the US Naval Air Facility at Argentia, Newfoundland, where all major repairs to the Catalinas were carried out. The widespread dispersal of aircraft and crews posed many administrative and logistical problems that made an already difficult situation even more unwieldy. But that was the hand VP-6 of the Coast Guard was dealt, and play it they did.
The operation was focused on Greenland, the largest island in the world, which lies almost entirely within the Arctic Circle. It is 1,600 miles north to south and nearly 800 miles wide. Eighty-five per cent of the island is covered with a great ice cap of unbelievable thickness. It was not uncommon for VP-6 aircraft to fly thousands of miles over the ice cap under the most trying weather conditions in a single search. Strong wings of 120 to 150 knots were a constant threat. Flying in those weather conditions, far from bases and with few navigation aids, required a high degree of pilot skill and courage. Only well trained, savvy pilots and crews could have survived.
The Consolidated PBYs of VP-6 often sighted stranded vessels and crews that had sometimes been adrift for weeks in stormy seas. Two officers and twenty enlisted men on board the 110-foot British trawler HMS Strathella, disabled in a heavy storm, faced death after being adrift in the North Atlantic for over a month. They were dramatically rescued on 13 February 1944 by the combined efforts of a Coast Guard PBY-5A, piloted by Lieutenant Commander John D. McCubbin, on a routine air patrol to check ice conditions and deliver mail, and the Coast Guard cutter Madoc. Sighting a red flare in position 60° 03' N, 45° 24' W, west of Cape Farewell, McCubbin requested the ship's identity by blinker light, received her name in like manner, and was told of these victims being adrift for five weeks, their food and water exhausted and their radio unserviceable. McCubbin radioed to shore and within the hour Madoc was on its way to the rescue. It towed Strathella 100 miles safely to the Greenland base. A second VP-6 PBY-5A was also involved in the rescue.
That rescue and hundreds of others were carried out by VP-6 during its 27 months of operations, frequently during high winds and near-zero visibility. During a three month period in early 1944, for example, Lieutenant Carl H. Allen, USCG, flew more than a hundred hours each month over difficult Arctic terrain to and from convoy support duty and ice patrol. One flight took him over the magnetic North Pole.
By early 1944, rapid expansion of Coast Guard aviation had produced a shortage of seasoned pilots and crews. The squadron was forced to maintain a comprehensive training schedule to ensure its crews were at peak readiness. To provide some relief for the squadron, a pre-training syllabus was set up at Coast Guard air station, Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Coast Guard Headquarters meanwhile decreed that a one-year tour of duty in Arctic regions was sufficient, and ordered that pilots and crews not requesting an extension of their tour be relieved as soon as possible. Reliefs therefore were staggered over a four-month period to permit absorption and orientation for replacements without disruption of operations.
On 15 May 1944 Commander William I. Swanston, USCG, relieved Commander MacDiarmid as commanding officer of VP-6, and Lieutenant Commander G. Russell "Bobo"' Evans, USCG, became executive officer. By then the squadron had twelve PBY-5A aircraft, with two in Iceland, two assigned to Canadian Arctic, three at Argentia and five at BW-1 Narsarssuak.
Throughout the summer of 1944, the squadron was extremely busy. An expanded part of VP-6's operations involved ASW operations in the Baffin Bay, Davis Strait and Labrador Sea areas to protect US ships transporting cryolite, urgently needed in the production of aluminium for the US aircraft production program.
To comply with a US Navy directive dated 1 October 1944, patrol squadrons (VP) and multi-engine bombing squadrons (VB) were renamed and redesignated patrol bombing squadrons. Thus VP-6 (CG) became VPB-6 (CG).
From September through to 16 November 1944 two PBYs and their crews commanded by Lieutenant Commander Evans, operated from Reykjavik and provided ASW sweeps, ice reconnaissance and logistic support for a task group of four Coast Guard cutters engaged in smashing a Nazi effort to establish weather stations in north-east Greenland. In the autumn, winds of gale force sometimes produced turbulence so severe that bombs had to be jettisoned.
Telling of his experiences flying from Reykjavik, Iceland, former VPB-6 executive officer Captain G.R. Evans, USCG (Ret), said: "The airport was under repair most of the time and only half of the 150-foot wide runway was available to us. At night, we actually navigated our Catalina around obstacles during take-off and laming: We were motivated to achieve accuracy by the line of 50-gallon drums separating the two halves of the runway. The oil drums were virtually under one wing each time we had made a take-off or landing. The wing-span of the PBY-5A was 140 feet. Another time we became completely weathered out of Iceland with none of the alternates open. So, we flew all the way to Stornoway, Scotland. We arrived in a blinding rainstorm without an assigned IFF - Identification Friend or Foe - code and made our landing approach by a ground-controlled system we had never used before. Sometime later, I learned that my two crews and others in the squadron had affectionately dubbed our extensive flying program in Iceland "Bobo's Flying Circus."
At BW-1 Narsarssuak, surface winds were rarely less than 25 knots. The single concrete runway had a considerable slope down from the edge of a mountain towards Narsarssuak Fjord. Thus, all take-offs were downhill and landings were uphill regardless of the wind direction. Under inclement weather conditions, it was necessary to fly up or down the fjord at low altitudes to get in or out of B W-1. With 4,000-foot mountains on each side, it was like flying down a giant tunnel. Its elevation was 112 feet above sea level and was positioned 61° 10' N, 45° 26' W.
Recalling those days, Commander John C. Redfield, USCG (Ret) said: "Most of the time, our return to BW-1 during bad weather conditions was an exercise in nail chewing, turning to stark terror. We had very few instrument landing aids. Sometimes when we were inbound up the fjord with one-quarter to one-half mile visibility, we would receive a report that another plane had just departed BW-1 on a priority flight and was outbound down the fjord. Sure was good for growing gray hair. After radar was finally installed, we were better off. We could fly up the fjord at 400 to 600 foot altitudes and negotiate the twists and turns as directed by the radar operator. At the last turn to the west, if we couldn't see BW-1, less than a mile away, we would pull up and climb out."
Lieutenant Commander William C. Wallace, USCG (Ret) said of his VPB-6 days: "Even though there were many problems and difficult things about flying the Arctic in those days, there was beauty unsurpassed at times, such as the aurora borealis - the Northern Lights - which were beautiful and awesome with streamers of red, green and yellow across the heavens. The stark isolation of the ragged peaks and rocks along the shorelines, the tremendous icebergs and solid ice fields stretching to the horizon, days without nights and eternal nights in winter, the nearness and remoteness of the great ice cap where depth perception was non existent, made lasting impressions."
Like any other squadron, VPB-6 had its characters. There were Lieutenants Harry H. "Shakev" Eckels, whom everybody teased about his red nose; E. P. "Barefoot"' Ward who could never find his shoes; Frank "Wallbuster" Hodge, former football player, who lived up to his nickname; and Carl .H "Deacon"' Allen and William H. "`Bull" Durham who were full of humor, jokes and sea stories. They were experienced pilots and were a real inspiration to new and less experienced pilots coming into the squadron. Said one former squadon member, "Those men were the real heroes. They kept us laughing and helped to make Arctic duty bearable for everyone in the squadron."
Recreation was available at BW-1, such as movies, bowling, skiing, skeet shooting and, occasionally, a USO show. At Argentia, known as the Utopia of the North, all the comforts of the USA could be had- almost. Because of crew rotation, everyone usually had two tours there.
The surrender of Germany in May 1945 brought U-boat activity to a standstill. However, VPB-6's operations in search and rescue, ice patrol, logistic support of military bases, LORAN stations and civilian facilities continued unabated. An entry on 22 May 1945 reported a typical day's operation from BW-1 after hostilities ceased in Europe: BPY-5A BuNo 46575 departed BW-1 in the early morning to survey ice conditions along the west coast of Greenland. En route, passengers were landed at Ivigtut. PBY-5A BuNo 46458 returned to BW-1 with passengers and mail from BW-8. By 08.00 hours, the US Army Air Force advised VPB-6 that a Consolidated B-24 Liberator heading for Iceland from Goose Bay, Labrador, was in distress with two engines out. The PBY-5A BuNo 46572 responded immediately and, within one hour, the B-24 was contacted and escorted safely to BW-1. After refuelling, BuNo 46572 departed BW-1 again on ice patrol, plotted an ice navigation chart and dropped it at Ivigtut to assist a ship, convoy moving down the Davis Strait.
On 30 May 1945, Commander Loren H. Seeger, USCG, relieved Commander Swanston as commanding officer of VPB-6. On 12 July administrative control of the squadron was transferred from Commander Fleet Air Wing Nine to Commandant US Coast Guard and it was redesignated a noncombat squadron. Operational control, however, was retained by Commander Task Force Twenty-Four. In August 1945 VPB-6 received a directive to transfer its base headquarters from BW-1 Narsarssuak to the US Navy facility at Argentia, Newfoundland, where it was disestablished as a US Navy squadron in January 1946.
The accomplishments of this outstanding World War II Coast guard squadron have remained relatively unknown. However, the men who served on Arctic duty and the Greenland Patrol and their dedication to the job assigned added a heroic chapter to the story of Coast Guard Aviation.
By October 1944, the submarine menace along the Atlantic Sea Frontier had largely disappeared, though occasional sinkings continued. Coast Guard aviation had generally ceased anti-submarine patrols at that time, and the organization underwent transition to an integral part of the newly organized Air Sea Rescue Forces. As naval, air force and merchant marine operations daily increased, the number of aircraft and vessels requiring assistance grew constantly. It was to facilitate saving the lives of countless aviators and seamen that Air Sea Rescue was born. Thereafter, wartime air activity was almost entirely confined to rescue operations, the normal peacetime function of this fifth branch of the US Services.
The first Air Sea Rescue unit was established at San Diego, California, during December 1943. The regular National Air Sea Rescue Agency was established in Washington DC on 22 February 1944, and its administration was placed under the Coast Guard. Maximum co-ordination of all rescue efforts of the Army, Navy and Coast Guard was the major responsibility of each regional Air Sea Rescue Task Unit, headed by the commanding officer of the Coast Guard air station. Except where this Agency was concerned with rescues before the end of World War II, it was primarily a postwar organization. Upon receipt of information from any source that an accident had occurred, the sector headquarters sent out an appropriate search from the nearest task unit or, if the situation warranted, indicated a general `alert' for the entire section area. Thus, all services, operating under a unified command, coordinated their activities in a general search.