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