World War II Coast Guard Horse Patrol

By Dan Hoff

(Reprinted from the Humboldt Historian, this article was written by Dan Hoff, with the help of W.J. Tyson, a Coast Guardsman in 1942. This article was submitted by CDR Alexander Smith, USCG, (Ret.) and published in the USCG Retiree Newsletter, February 1986)

Back in the early days of 1942, World War II was in full swing and the Japanese had intentions of gaining ground nearly everywhere in the Pacific theater. Pearl Harbor was fresh in every American’s memory, having occurred only few short months before. The United States, following the initial shock, had to now fight a full scale war with the Germans across the Atlantic to the east and the Japanese to the west.

The various branches of the military were, for the most part, ill equipped and unprepared for such a sudden undertaking. The Navy had by fortunate circumstances managed to hold onto what would soon be its most valuable warships, the aircraft carriers that had not been at Pearl Harbor on December 7. The Air Corps, at that time a part of the Army, was flying mostly obsolete aircraft, with too few planes that could challenge those of the Japanese. And finally, the Army and the Marine Corps had to immediately boost the numbers in their ranks and their amount of equipment for the island hopping campaigns in the years to come.

With all these factors in mind, the military was painfully aware that there was a couple of thousand miles of virtually unprotected and unpatrolled United States coast-line, susceptible to landing parties or penetration by aircraft. For the most part, any kind of large invasion wasn’t expected, but sabotage and the mere presence of the enemy on the shores of the United States could easily cause panic and a loss of morale for the population at large. The electronic wonder of radar was still in its infancy and thus it was quickly realized that organized patrols and lookouts were a necessity for the east and west coasts. This job fell to the Coast Guard, the smallest branch of the military. The Coast Guard’s primary function before the war was the protection of life and property in the event of trouble at sea with commercial or pleasure craft. They maintained all the navigational equipment along the coastline, including buoys and lighthouses. During prohibition, the Coast Guard had chased many a rumrunner trying to smuggle in the illegal goods from outside of the United States.

The young men from the Midwest who enlisted in the Coast Guard in the spring of 1942, and who were eventually formed into Company C, 12th Regiment, may have had visions of speedy patrol boats and action at sea. It is doubtful any of them had any idea of the duty that lay before them in the many months ahead. The men who came from all parts of the Midwest were formed into a unit at Omaha, Nebraska. From there, they took a seven-day ride on a military train, arriving on the West Coast in mid-July. The formation and training of the units had somewhat been delayed while the new base at Alameda was completed. Here the unit of 80 men took their six weeks of basic training and were soon to be assigned to duty. After basic training the unit boarded buses for a long trip up the coast to Eureka and Humboldt Bay.

Receiving their orders and boarding the buses for the trip north, the men still had no idea of what they would actually be doing. On arrival, they were shown their temporary quarters at the Naval Section Base on Samoa. This base was located between the present day boat launching ramp and the Coast Guard Life Boat Station. At that time, the boat ramp and surrounding area were part of the Navy Base. The question of what their duties would be was quickly answered. The next day they were out on patrol.

Those early days of the beach were filled with long hours on patrol coupled with a lack of equipment and communications. The communication and equipment problem was no one’s fault. It was simply a case of a job having to be done quickly and with the materials that were available. Willis J. Tyson, who still resides in Eureka, spent his early days at Samoa on patrol and was later assigned to transportation of supplies and patrols for the unit. He recounts that the early patrols consisted of two men who were assigned to one to two miles of beach. The two would walk the beach together for the shift that often lasted twelve hours, dusk to dawn. The men would patrol two nights and then have one night off. Later when the shifts were cut to about six hours, they worked four nights and then had one night off. Virtually all patrolling was at night, except in the case of heavy fog when a skeleton crew was sent out to the beaches that were obscured by the cold damp fogs. Communications consisted of a few radios on the vehicles. There were no portable radios or anything like walkie-talkies. In the beginning vehicles were also scare. The first patrols sent out the day after the arrival of the unit were taken to their patrol areas on a dump truck borrowed from the Coast Guard Lifeboat Station. There was a lack of heavy weather gear for the men to protect themselves from the cold, damp nights on the beaches. The men were equipped with side arms, .38 revolvers. However, initially there was often one gun for each two-man patrol.

The men were told to report anything suspicious. All friendly ships including fishing boats had to be blacked out at night, no running lights were allowed. Although there were never any major alerts along the Humboldt coast, there were a few times when a fishing boat or similar craft would forget to douse its lights and would cause a stir. However, throughout the war the Japanese did make appearances in other places along the coast. There were reports of a Japanese submarine surfacing off the Seaside, Oregon coast and firing a couple of rounds from its deck gun at a tiny military installation called Fort Stevens. There were reports of the attempted sabotage of oil reservoirs in the Santa Barbara area, and sightings of single Japanese aircraft that had been launched from submarines. Locally, the torpedoing of the tanker Emidio off Blunts Reef and Cape Mendocino was cause for checking out suspicious happenings or lights off the shores of the Humboldt coast.

The beach patrol was not alone in its watchful vigil. The Navy had its blimp based at Samoa that spent the day aloft over the ocean searching for signs of submarines. They maintained crash boats for use if any of the aircraft from the Navy controlled McKinleyville airport went down at sea. There were civilian manned posts for scanning the skies in search of enemy aircraft. The State Guard was assigned the task of guarding bridges along the highways. Automobiles driving roads bordering the ocean were required to drive with blackout-type headlights.

Two weeks after arrival, the beach patrol moved into new quarters. They were large barracks, buildings that had been used by the Hammond Lumber Company adjacent to the present day Samoa Cookhouse. Shortly thereafter stations were set up at intervals along the coast. Twenty men were assigned to the old Table Bluff hotel off old Highway 101, the home of J.A. Mouat. Other stations were at Davis Creek, several miles north of the Mattole River; Centerville Beach at the Moranda Bros. Ranch; Machado Ranch at McKinleyville, and the Christensen Ranch on the Arcata Bottom. The number of men in the unit eventually reached about 250.

While this work was being done, Seaman First Class Tyson and seven or eight men were sent to the San Francisco Bay area for some additional training and equipment. Until they arrived, they didn’t know what this was to be. Tyson was sent to a warehouse to pick up some equipment. When he arrived he realized what the matter concerned. Waiting for him were 50 or 60 Army saddles that had been pulled out of storage from the First World War. The saddles were all in fine shape and looked brand new. The men returned to the headquarters with their consignment of cavalry gear, and a load of genuine Army horses arrived shortly by ship.

Most of the men were a little startled by the prospect of roaming along the beaches on horses, but it turned out to be a good idea. Each man assigned to the actual patrolling had his own horse and gear he was responsible for. The stations near the ranches now used the facilities at hand with the cooperation and help of the ranchers. A “genuine” cavalry officer from the First World War was assigned to the unit as the official Coast Guard Veterinarian. This was U.S. Army Captain C.O. Enge, who was described as being “a great guy,” happy to be able to work with horses in the military again.

Now the men patrolled the beaches on horseback and could cover more area than before. For this reason the shifts were cut down to about six hours for most of the patrols. However, in areas where neither man nor horse could patrol there were lookouts and watchtowers. In the areas that weren’t accessible by horses the patrols on foot continued. Often the men used dogs. These were regular attack dogs that could only be handled by one man and were not to be fooled with by anyone else. The majority of these were German Shepherds.

With the horses and dogs came the establishment of a landline communications system. Phone lines, strung on poles or occasionally underground, ran from just north of Trinidad to the Mattole River. Every few miles or so along the patrol route were small shacks where the men could stop for a rest and a cup of coffee, and to check in with headquarters. This phone system was set up just for the use of the beach patrol and was dismantled when the program was terminated.

According to Willis Tyson, this area in general had great liberty towns. The local people accepted the horse-riding sailors well and were glad to have somebody out there patrolling their beaches. There were USO’s in Eureka, Arcata, Fortuna, and Ferndale where the men could spend their off hours pleasantly. Local people struck up friendships with the men and often had them to dinner at their houses. Tyson remembers having dinner with other men at the home of a Mrs. T.W. Hine on Fairfield Street in Eureka.

By this time transportation had been improved and there were vehicles running almost daily to all the stations along the coast, giving the off duty men a chance to spend a day in town before returning to duty. The friendships that developed with the civilian population accounts for the many men who eventually married local girls and settled down here. Several, including Tyson, are still here today as a result of being stationed here during the sar. Others who stayed include Russell Allen, Eldon Brom, James Cook, Lee Coyle, Robert Griggs, Edward Kennedy, William McDonald, Norman Mudie, Harry Stephenson, Roy Wilde, Arthur Byerly and Jerome Wilcox.

Although there were never any major alerts or emergency actions, the patrol was not without serious incident, and in this case a tragic one. The patrols near the Mattole River had to cross that river at its mouth by boat to patrol the beaches on the north side. They did this with a small rowboat using oars. On this particular occasion the boat contained four men and two dogs plus their equipment. As the boat was about in midstream, a large unexpected swell came rolling in from the ocean and caught the boat sideways, capsizing it and dumping its load into the cold waters of the Mattole. The men, weighted down and encumbered by their heavy-weather gear had only a slim hope of reaching the banks of the river. One man did, however, the only member of the patrol to survive to tell the details of that fatal incident. This was the only incident involving the loss of life during the duration of the patrols in the Humboldt area.

With the events of the war in the far off Pacific Islands, the apparent need for the beach patrol on the west patrol began to subside in the spring of 1944. Men began to be assigned to other areas and the skeleton crew that remained was moved to new barracks that had just been constructed nor far from where the old Clam Beach Inn stood before the freeway came through in the late 1960’s. By July and August of 1944 most of the men were gone and the few that remained were there primarily to maintain communications. Their stay in the new barracks lasted only a few months as the program was phased out. Willis Tyson, one of the few who remained until the end, went on leave and found to his amazement when he returned that he received new orders to be assigned to the Coast Guard Life Boat station at Samoa, only a couple of miles from the original headquarters of the beach patrol.

In its nearly two years of full operation from September of 1942 to the summer of 1944 the program had served its purpose well under the initial hardships of a lack of equipment and time to prepare the program. The men in the initial unit of 80 sailors from the Midwest did their work well and were appreciated by the local community for guarding the beaches that were potentially open to the enemy for sabotage or any other panic causing disruptions that could have occurred. Many members of this unit continue as friends to this day. After all, you couldn’t help but get to know your partner while you were trudging through sand all night in those early days of the patrol.

Yes, there really were mounted Coast Guardsmen, galloping up and down the Humboldt beaches on horseback over 40 years ago during World War II. Perhaps they were an odd sight then, and still would be today if they were needed for such action along our damp and often storm plagued beaches of Humboldt County.


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