The U.S. Coast Guard, long one of the nation's armed forces, has seen combat in virtually every conflict fought by the United States since 1790. World War II saw the Coast Guard come to grips with the empire of Japan as well as the armed might of Nazi Germany. This included going into action against Adolf Hitler's vaunted submarine fleet. Coast Guardsmen who went against these submariners in battle on the high seas gave the U-boats the nickname "hearses."
During the war the U.S. Navy credited Coast Guard forces with sinking or assisting in the sinking of thirteen of Hitler's U-boats, although the number was probably closer to ten. In the Pacific Theatre the Navy credited Coast Guard warships with sinking one Japanese submarine but they probably sank two. Coast Guardsmen also captured two Nazi surface vessels and they can take pride in knowing that they were the only United States' service to do so during World War II. Additionally two U-boats surrendered to Coast Guard-manned warships at the end of hostilities, including one, U-234, that was bound for Japan transporting a cargo of uranium and the latest German jet and rocket technology.
Although the Coast Guard is one of the nation's armed forces, they entered the war as novices in anti-submarine warfare. Nevertheless Coast Guardsmen learned their trade quickly and adapted to combat on the seas in an efficient and deadly manner. During the long campaign across the open waters of the North Atlantic, battling fierce storms as well as the highly trained and well equipped German U-boat fleet, the famous Treasury Class and other cutters earned the respect of both allies and enemies. Later, Coast Guard-manned Navy warships joined the battle and continued escorting convoys and sailing in hunter-killer groups through the end of the war.
Smaller cutters made history by fighting and sinking U-boats right off the coast of the United States. One of these cutters, USCGC Icarus, sank the U-352 and then rescued the surviving crewman off North Carolina (left) in 1942. The crewman of Icarus have the distinction of being the first U.S. servicemen to capture German prisoners of war in World War II.
Cutters and their crews gained international recognition during a number of combat actions in the North Atlantic and in the waters off Greenland and Iceland. USCGC Spencer, one of the 327-foot Treasury Class cutters, attacked and sank U-175 in the open Atlantic (right) after the hearse attempted to attack the convoy that Spencer was guarding. This action was unique in that two combat photographers caught the battle on film, providing an unmatched visual record for posterity of the destruction of one of Hitler's vaunted U-boats and the rescue of its crew. Some of Spencer's crew actually boarded the stricken submarine, becoming the first U.S. servicemen to board an enemy warship that was under way at sea since the War of 1812.
The campaign was not all one-sided as a number of cutters and Coast Guard-manned Navy warships were damaged or sunk by the enemy in both theatres of operation. Some of the losses were heavy, including all hands of the weather ship USS Muskeget, all but two of the crew of USCGC Escanaba, and 158 out of 186 of the crew of USS Leopold. USCGC Alexander Hamilton, torpedoed and sunk in January, 1942 with a loss of 26 of her crew, was the first U.S. naval vessel lost in combat after the tragic day at Pearl Harbor. Other vessels were damaged in combat with U-boats, including USCGC Campbell, and USS Menges, but were repaired and returned to duty.
Since the end of the war divers have discovered submarines where none had been documented as having been sunk while the sea floor remains empty where it was thought a "hearse" was positively destroyed. Due to the nature of anti-submarine warfare at sea many of the officially credited sinkings were in fact incorrect. Enemy submarines that the Allies were sure had been sunk at a particular time and place were in fact only damaged and did make it back to port. When no prisoners were taken or debris found it was at best an inexact science to determine if a submarine had indeed been sunk.
Destroyed in Action: