Heroism Unknown: US Coast Guard in WW 2

“the Jaws of Death”
 Omaha beach, early morning of June 6th 1941. D-Day.

 

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“The Jaws of Death.”

  US Coast Guard-manned LCVP from the U.S.S. Samuel Chase lands troops of the U.S. Army’s First Division on Omaha Beach, morning of June 6, 1944 (D-Day). Official Coast Guard Photo #2343 by CPHOM Robert F. Sargent. This photo is in the public domain and cannot be copyrighted. 

Many websites place their copyright on US Government photographs which is against the policy of the Federal Government.

LCVP was an acronym for”landing craft, vehicle, personal.”

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The parent ship of the landing craft pictured above was the  USS Samuel Chase, was a specially designed attack troop transport ship. During World War Two, the ship was manned by the US Coast Guard. The ship was named for Samuel Chase, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. Held in the US Navy’s reserve fleet for decades, the Samuel Chase was sold for scrap in 1973. US Coast Guard manned attack transport USS Samuel Chase circa 1941. Official US Coast Guard photo in the public domain.

While not well-known today, the officers and men of the US Coast Guard performed heroic actions in World War Two. Their history gets subsumed into the history of the US Navy because the President of the United States has the authority to place the US Coast Guard under the command of the navy in time of war. This happened in both world wars although the USCG retained its status as an independent service.

 

 

US Reinforcements being landed Normandy invastion

American reinforcement troops arriving at Normandy coast, France, in 1944. Official US Coast Guard photo in the public domain.

 

 

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A LCT  (Landing Craft, Tank) and an US Coast Guard-manned boat operating off Normandy, France, June 1944; note jeep vehicles on board the LCT. (photo courtesy of the US National Archives and in the public domain)

Many landing craft and small boats were manned by US Coast Guardsmen both in the European Theater and the Pacific Theater.

 

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“From Coast Guard-manned “sea-horse” landing craft, American troops leap forward to storm a North African beach during final amphibious maneuvers.” James D. Rose, Jr., ca. 1944. 26-G-2326. National Archives Identifier: 513171.  Official US Coast Guard photo in the public domain.

 

 

USCG Guadalcanal

World War Two: US Marines show their appreciation to the Coast Guard during the invasion of Guam 21 July 1944 – 10 August 1944. Guam is part of the Marianas islands which lie to the east of the Philippines and to the south-south-east of Japan. The United States Navy captured Guam from the Kingdom of Spain on 21 June 1898 during the Spanish–American War.  Official US Coast Guard photo in the public domain.

 

 

“It’s the Invasion!….Ten Thousand Ships Headed Right at Me!”

 The Germans on D-Day

“Which way are the ships headed?” 

 “Right for me!”

At dawn on 6 June 1944, from this German bunker on a rise above Omaha Beach, Major Werner Pluskat was the first German officer to see the Allied invasion fleet which he described as headed  “straight at me.”  During the Normandy invasion, he served as the commander of  the artillery battalion of the German 352nd Infantry Division.

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German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day, based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.

(Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

According to The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan, Pluskat told him the following in a personal interview.

Dawn on 6 June 1944.

From his bunker overlooking Omaha Beach, Major Pluskat rang through to the headquarters of the 352nd Infantry Division to which his artillery battalion was assigned:

“It’s the invasion! There must be ten thousand ships out here!”

Division HQ: “Which way are the ships headed?”

Pluskat: “Right for me!”

Division to Pluskat several minutes later: “What’s the situation?”

“We’re being shelled!”

“Exact location of shelling?”

“For God’s sake, they’re falling all over. What do you want me to do? Go out and measure the holes with a ruler?”

 Pluskat obviously survived the war, surrendering to the Allies on 23 April 1945.

Hans Christian Blech in The Longest Day

German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day.

In this movie still from 20th Century Fox, Major Pluskat is talking to his division command after intense shelling. However, most German bunkers were well constructed and stood up well to Allied naval gunfire.

Unfortunately, the naval guns of the era had a relatively flat trajectory. While a battleship could, and did, hit German units 30 miles inland, targets as close as Pluskat’s bunker were harder to destroy because naval guns could not generate plunging fire like an army howitzer. So complete was Allied control of the sea, that the battleships assigned to the bombardment force actually anchored in a long row in the English channel.

On Omaha, for instance, where very few tanks made it ashore, smaller ships such as destroyers and destroyer escorts closed the beach and directly engaged the German artillery firing from bunkers. So there were times when the Germans were firing over the heads of the GIs on the beach at the US and British destroyers who were firing back.

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Like most accounts of historical events, there is controversy over Pluskat’s whereabouts at dawn on 6 June.  Speculation on a number of World War Two discussion boards suggest Pluskat wasn’t at his post at dawn on 6 June and made-up his entire story which became part of the historical record and has been repeated a thousand times in various books until taken for truth.

Yet Pluskat did command the artillery battalion of the 352nd German Infantry division. This division was dug in behind Pluskat’s artillery. The task of 352nd was to defend the stretch of beach known as “Omaha” to the Allies.

And Pluskat’s command bunker was on the heights above Omaha and remains there to this day as shown in the first photo of this post. His battalion did not retreat until they had fired all of their ammunition. So we know that he basics are true.

In an article about D-Day  in the German weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, on 3 June 1964, their reporter writes:

“Major Werner Pluskat, commander of four coastal batteries the 352nd Division in the landing section “Omaha” was one of the first who saw the Armada. From its in the cliffs of the coast concrete, forward command post, he peered through the telescope, when morning dawned and the mist of the night lifted above the sea: The horizon was dotted with ships – ten thousand estimated the Major. The inferno broke out.”

 

Cornelius Ryan, who wrote the book, The Longest Day, was a well known journalist of the era and a careful researcher. Born in Ireland (he became an American citizen in 1957) he worked as a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph of London.

Incredibly, he flew 14 bombing missions over Germany as part of his work as a journalist although not required to do so. He also witnessed the D-Day landings as a journalist. It would have been difficult to fool him.

Since Ryan interviewed so many participants in the battle, Allied and German, I find it hard to believe that Pluskat made up the story about himself he told Ryan. Further Pluskat only died in 2002 at age 90 so other German veterans of D-Day from the 352nd Infantry Division, had decades to accuse Pluskat of lying. To my knowledge such accusations were never made.

Ryan’s book is a well-written narrative history of the D-Day. It contains a number of small inaccuracies. However, these are mainly due to his lack of access to records about D-Day which were still classified at the time he wrote the book in 1957 and 1958. But his interview with Pluskat is accurate.

The Longest Day was published in 1959.

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Sadly, Cornelius Ryan died tragically early in his life at age 54 in 1974 of prostate cancer.

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