The Coastal Picket Patrol
The inaugural history column that appeared in the February 2002 Log referenced the club schooners Nighthawk and Windflower that were called into the U.S. Coast Guard service to patrol for German U-boats off the Virginia Capes during the early part of WW II. Also mentioned were the 1942 UYC Commodore J. Rucker Ryland and Secretary Joseph Kelly, both of whom volunteered to serve aboard these patrols. Thanks to a recent article in the May/June 2004 issue of Ocean Navigator magazine and a copy of an article from the NorfolkVirginian Pilot recently forwarded to me from an alert member, we now have more information on this program that was intended to reduce the wartime threat to allied shipping and on the role that our members played.
According to Ocean Navigator, "when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Germans had already deployed their most experienced U-boat captains along the coast of the United States, and as soon as war was declared, the submarines let loose. Up and down the coast and into the Gulf of Mexico, German U-boats soon exacted a heavy toll on U.S. and allied shipping.
In the ensuing months, 432,000 tons of shipping sank in the Atlantic – 80 percent of that off the American coast. In March 1942, 20 ships were sunk along the cost. The Germans referred to this period as "the American hunting season."
As a result of these depredations, Adm. Ernest J. King, chief of Naval Operations, reluctantly allowed the formation of the Coast Guard Reserve picket patrol. King direct the commander of the Eastern Sea Frontier "to put out a call for all boats which could remain seaworthy for 48 hours in good weather." These vessels – mostly sailing yachts and powerboats – were instructed to patrol inshore and offshore areas along the 50-fathom curve. By September 1942, there were 480 picket patrol boats working from 30 bases strung along the coast from Halifax into the Gulf of Mexico."
Even Ernest Hemingway got into the act. Convincing the U. S. Government to pay for all of his expenses, he equipped his fishing boat Pilar with a machine gun and set off with his cronies from his base in Havana, Cuba to patrol (unsuccessfully) for German subs. According to one account, the Papa’s patrols quickly degenerated into boozing sessions occasionally interrupted by target practice on sharks and empty whisky bottles.
Since these were the days of the diesel/electric submarines when the U-boats spent more time on the surface than submerged, the picket patrols were armed with light machine guns and expected to not just to report the location of these marauders but to attack them as well. However, there were no reports of any hostile encounters between the pleasure craft and the German Wolf Pack during the defense of our shores.
In later years, several members of the patrol were interviewed for details of their experiences. One of the interviewees was Joseph Kelly, a former UYC member, and his story that was published about 5 years ago by Allan Flanders in the Norfolk Virginian Pilot follows:
The late Joseph Kelly, a Norfolk attorney, recalled his days aboard the coastal pickets in the Fifth Naval District. "We were under the general command of Admiral Andrews of course, but whether he had the slightest interest in us, I do not know. I myself did not know whether we would be of any value. But then I had several months of training when I did consider that we might indeed be very discouraging to the German offensive and U-boats safely appearing on the surface without being spotted," he said.
At any rate, Kelly found that he would be accepted by the coastal pickets even with his poor eyesight. Admitting that he literally knew nothing about the military, he took the rate of specialist under this first skipper, Rucker Ryland, who came in as a Chief Boatswains Mate (First Class) and, like Kelly, had been previously turned down by other services because of any injury. Both men had considerable experience in yachting and had sailed together earlier as members of the former Urbanna Yacht Club, now the Fishing Bay Yacht Club on the Chesapeake Bay. In fact, both sailed the yacht Nighthawk that later became the coastal picket CGR 2008. He subsequently joined Ryland on the CGR-2022 (pictured here), a Block Island racing boat that, according to Kelly, had belonged to a descendant of the great American navigator Nathaniel Bowditch.
It was on this vessel that he sailed his first series of "five days out and two days in port" patrol rotations from Little Creek, along with six others. According to Kelly, the coastal pickets were painted "battleship gray" and identified by a large designation on the sail, similar to pilot boats, which read "CGR" and the number. "On the top of the mast," said Kelly, "there was a light in a cup in the truck (rigging) at the top of the mast so that only aircraft could see you and no surface boat could see you. Of course we were blacked out and there was always danger of running into another ship."
"There was a base already at Little Creek to supply our boats," Kelly added. "The Ocracoke base on the other hand had nothing there except for a few fishermen. We lived on our boat until they built a supply and repair facility. There was no difference at that time between being in the Navy and the Coast Guard. However, we always identified ourselves as United States Coast Guard Reserves."
Kelly recalled that during the first weeks, they passed their time fitting out their boat, painting, getting the rigging out, adding ratlines, and overhauling their auxiliary engines. At the same time, Naval officers from the Norfolk Operating Base came down to the private yard during the overhaul period and went over basic navigation with them.
Of the two yachts being fitted out for patrol, Kelly remembered that only one had a sextant and that his had a binnacle compass on board. Recalled that he met picket patrol seamen who sailed from New Jersey and off New England later in the war, he criticized the lack of training he first received and called his first boat "ill-equipped as any of the others."
Never a viable weapon of war, those beautiful yachts of the Coast Picket Patrol recaptured but for a moment some of the sailing gracefulness of earlier men-of-war. Although their combat record lists no enemy ships sunk, it is quite possible that they did harass some U-boats.
The U-boats, upon hearing the sonar’s "ping," had ample time to withdraw. Although the program was dropped on Nov. 9, 1943, the "Hooligan Navy" gave many local "salts" some real adventures as the area’s first line of defense during those opening days of war. If nothing else, the graceful lines of their boats almost made going to war a beautiful thing.
While the coastal pickets never encountered hostile action, the effort was not without its perils. The 57-foot yawl Zaida, built for the famous sailmaker George Ratsey by Henry Nevins, and designed by John Alden, was donated to serve on the picket patrol. She numbered CGR 3070 and was based in New York. During the harsh winter of 1942, according to Ocean Navigator Magazine, she was caught in a horrific storm. After a near capsize off Nantucket Shoals, she was pushed south to Ocracoke Inlet, N.C., traversing nearly 3,100 miles over the course of 20 days. The search for the helpless Zaida was the largest search-and-rescue operation the Allies held in the Atlantic during World War II. Fortunately, all of the crew of nine were recovered unharmed.
(Special thanks to FBYC member Bill Egelhoff for sending us a copy of the Norfolk Virginian Pilot article that spotlighted our members’ role in the Coastal Picket Patrol. Bill wrote that, "I was his (Joe Kelly’s) crew back in the 50’s in Norfolk. Also back then I crewed in Commodore Laird’s Bugeye in a race against Garland Miller’s pristine log canoe – Norfolk to Fishing Bay. Yes, we lost!")
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