Remembering the Coast Guard’s Role on D-Day

Remembering the Coast Guard’s Role on D-Day

It often comes as a surprise to visitors to the National D-Day Memorial when we mention the US Coast Guard’s involvement on D-Day. Everyone knows the army and navy were there, and that there were pilots and aircrew flying overhead. But the Coast Guard? Didn’t they stay closer to American territorial waters during the war?

Certainly the USCG played a valiant and crucial role in the waters off of the US, but it’s also an historical fact that coastguardsmen were to be found in any combat zone where the Navy was (albeit in smaller numbers). Normandy was no different. Men from the USCG served individually on naval and merchant marine vessels supporting the invasion, and also crewed several of their own craft, including five attack transports, eleven Landing Ships Tank, and twenty-four Landing Crafts Infantry. Many of the smaller Higgins Boats taking men to the beaches on June 6, 1944 were manned by coastguardsmen. It’s also worth noting that perhaps the best known photograph of D-Day was taken by a Coast Guard photographer. Officially titled “Taxis to Hell – and Back – Into the Jaws of Death,” this iconic image was captured by chief photographer’s mate Robert F. Sargent off of Omaha Beach.

Into the Jaws of Death–the iconic photo taken by a Coast Guard photographer.

There is much else to the role of the Coast Guard on D-Day. Some items recently donated to the National D-Day Memorial’s collection help to highlight a forgotten—but vital—component of the invasion: the heroic Matchbox Fleet.

Carl Packer

Carl Packer was a coastie who served aboard Coast Guard Cutter Number 57 in the English Channel in June 1944. That small vessel (originally designated 83512) was one of sixty 83-foot wooden cutters that comprised Rescue Flotilla One, deployed in support of the Normandy invasion. The armada of fragile wooden vessels with underpowered gasoline engines was unofficially dubbed the “Matchbox Fleet.”

The Matchbox Fleet operated all along the invasion zone with the assignment of rescuing downed airmen or any personnel from landing craft stranded in the channel. By the end of Operation Neptune, Rescue Flotilla One had been credited with saving more than 1400 soldiers, sailors and airmen from the treacherous waters of the English Channel. Its service became a model for similar operations in the Pacific War. While the Matchbox Fleet is hardly a household name today, for those hundreds of desperate men it represented the difference between life and death.

Packer’s collection includes impressive (if tiny) photos of Cutter #57 in England and in the Channel, as well as personal mementoes. It’s clear that he was immensely proud of his service and of the success of his Matchbox Fleet. Curating this collection is one of many ways the National D-Day Memorial pays tribute to the heroes of Overlord.

 

The crew of Coast Guard Cutter 57

One of the fliers rescued by the Matchbox Fleet from the Channel–one of many.

The role of the Matchbox Fleet and the rest of the Coast Guard in the Normandy invasion will be permanently recognized on Veteran’s Day 2019 when a fitting brass plaque is unveiled. Sponsored by Vietnam veteran Capt. T. E. Deming, the plaque closes with these fitting words: “For more than two centuries the Coast Guard has ably served the nation, protected our national interests, and assisted those in need at sea. Never was the Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus” (Always Ready) more impressively demonstrated than in the English Channel and along the Normandy coastline in 1944.”

11 Comments
  • Joanna Wood
    Posted at 18:21h, 25 March Reply

    My father was the skipper on USCG-56 (83511) of the Coast Guard Rescue Flotilla. His cutter (nicknamed “Snafu”) was assigned to the Gold Beach invasion. His cutter also shuttled General Montgomery and Rear Admiral Vian to meetings with General Eisenhower, and acted as Color Guard for King Philip when he visited Normandy 10 days after the invasion. I have photos, newspaper articles and some charts directly related to his involvement in Operation Neptune. I would appreciate hearing from others whose family members were part of the Matchbox fleet, especially USCG-56.

    • Gordon Jones
      Posted at 00:57h, 03 February Reply

      Hi Joanna, my father ‘s name was Bill Jones and he was on the 56. I have some notes that he wrote on June 24th 1944 and from June 30th to July 9th when the 56 was on patrol off the coast of France. I would be very interested in any information you have and would share what I have with you. Please e-mail me and let me know.

      • Joanna Wood
        Posted at 19:26h, 04 February Reply

        Gordon, it brings tears to my eyes to know that your dad and mine were together! I found a crew list that is probably from the 56, but it may take me a week or so to locate it again. We recently moved and so much of the WWII info is still in boxes. I will certainly make all this info available to you and others once I uncover it.
        How very exciting! I also just saw your phone number and will call you — how about the 11th or 12th? That gives me some time to gather up more info. Thx!!

        • Gordon Jones
          Posted at 00:31h, 05 February Reply

          Hi Joanna, the 11th or 12th sounds good, I never imagined this and am very much looking forward to talking. It was only a year ago I that I learned what my Dad did while he was in the Coast Guard as he never talked about it. I think I visited this site last winter in one of my searches but it was before your post. I’m glad I found my way back here! I will wait for your call. Gordon

    • Gordon Jones
      Posted at 19:12h, 04 February Reply

      Hi Joanna, I would like very much to talk to you, you can call me at 603-219-8704. Thanks! Gordon

      • Joanna Wood
        Posted at 19:12h, 05 February Reply

        Gordon, I did some digging this morning and found a crew list plus other interesting docs. If you will send me your email address I will forward this info to you before we talk on the 11th.
        Thx!
        Joanna

  • Katherine Wallace
    Posted at 16:26h, 02 November Reply

    Hi Joanna,
    My father was on USCG-13 (83372) of the Coast Guard Rescue Flotilla in the Normandy invasion, Operation Neptune. Other than stories he shared with my brother, he did not talk about his wartime experiences at all.. I have a newspaper article and 1 picture of him but nothing else. If you by chance have any information about what beaches individual boats were assigned to, I would appreciate hearing from you or anyone else whose family members were part of this historic fleet.
    Thanks,
    Kathy

    • Joanna Wood
      Posted at 16:55h, 01 February Reply

      Hi Katherine. I just saw your comment, and wanted to reply. I plan to get much more involved in research on the CG and D-Day invasion, so will keep an eye out for info on your dad’s cutter. I have found some interesting articles on the Matchbox fleet and was able to cut and paste a very brief description of cutter 83372 for you to read (below). I am unable to attach pdfs or jpegs on this site, so if you want to contact me let me know your email address and I will send this info on to you. Thx!!

      83372 (ex-CG 623)
      1942-44 assigned to the GULFSEAFRON-stationed at Key West. FL; 1944-45 assigned to the
      COMI2THFLEET-stationed at Pool, England; Jun 44 assigned to USCG- Rescue Flotilla No. 1-served
      in Normandy Invasion as USCG-13; Jul 45 returned to the U.S.; 21 Nov 47 transferred to the USN.

      • Katherine Lifland
        Posted at 14:10h, 03 February Reply

        Hi Joanna
        Thanks for responding….yes any info you have would love to share. I have a few files from research on internet. Have corresponded with the Historian’s office of USCG. They were very helpful but archives closed for research/copying due to Covid. I am very interested in trying to obtain copies of ships log for D day & days following. My email: kathlifland@gmail.com
        Thanks!

  • Barry N Miller
    Posted at 17:18h, 31 January Reply

    Joanna. I’m a amateur historian and I’ve been writing a book (actually its an on line book, available for free) on the Canadian Landings on Juno Beach. While doing this I found out about the role of the US Coast Guard Rescue Flotilla One, which part escorts the Canadian portion of the Normandy Landings. As part of my book I’ve added a table with each of the Coast Guard cutters, which Group they were assigned to (Force “G”, “J”, “S”, “U”, “O”) and they name of the vessel commander. I’ve been able to find quite a few of them, but not ALL of them. So when I saw your post on this site, I thought “maybe” the information you have may give me more names, or at least confirm the Boat Commander that your father was the skipper of. Any help on this would be much appreciated……..and I will also give you a link to my book or at least the US Coast Guard information I have. I’m not sure if this site will give you may e-mail………but if not it is. Barrynmiller@shaw.ca.

    Thank you for any help you can give me

    Barry Miller

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