Date of Commission:
1934 – Coast Guard Commences Aerial Border Patrol
In the early 1930s Prohibition had been the law of the land for over 10 years. The Coast Guard was heavily involved in maritime interdiction and the Customs Service and Border Patrol had the enormous task of combating the smuggling of alcohol, illegal aliens and drugs along 5900 miles of open border. Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933 but seven states remained “dry” and the others were allowed local-option. In Texas 242 of the existing 252 counties remained “dry”. Liquor distribution was government controlled and excise and local taxes equated to a little over one-third the purchase cost. Thus liquor smuggling remained extremely profitable and illegal alien and drug smuggling remained unaffected by the repeal of Prohibition.
On the Mexican border especially, communications were primitive and communities were isolated centers connected by dirt roads and a few railroads through a vast expanse of harsh terrain. Local Border Patrol and Customs officials realized that aircraft flying patrols would be of significant benefit. The problem was that neither agency had aircraft or the money to operate them. The smugglers themselves provided the solution. Some smugglers utilized aircraft to carry out their operations and one by one Customs seized these aircraft. Before long Custom officials in Texas had created their own ad-hoc “Air Force” composed of a rag-tag collection of confiscated airplanes. No money was provided for their operation and their use was officially discouraged by Washington. But the locals were undaunted and with the assistance of the U.S. Army at Dodd Field, Fort Sam Houston, near San Antonio, Texas, obsolete parts, materials and an old hangar were obtained. That they were able to fly the aircraft at all is amazing; but fly they did and they were extremely effective in stemming major smuggling activities. In fact so effective that Washington could no longer ignore the operation.
Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, who was favorably disposed toward aviation, provided the solution. He directed that all flying activities of the Treasury Department be consolidated under the cognizance of one organization and he determined that to be the US Coast Guard. The Coast Guard had a cadre of trained pilots and maintenance personnel, access to well qualified training programs and was presently engaged in the expansion of its aviation program. No doubt this was a blow to the individuals that had created this special “Air Force” but the blow was mitigated by the induction of four of the Custom pilots into the Coast Guard as Chief Petty Officer Aviation Pilots.
On March 9, 1934 all air operations of the U.S, Customs were transferred to the Coast Guard. Air detachments at Buffalo, New York, San Diego, California and San Antonio, Texas were established to support Custom operations. A unit of five men commanded by LT Clarence Edge arrived at Dodd Field shortly thereafter. LT Elmer Stone commanded the San Diego Detachment which was located in one-half of a commercial hangar located at Lindbergh Field. Available information on the Buffalo Air Detachment is extremely limited.
Transferred to the Coast Guard were 15 additional aircraft seized over the previous few years. Official records are not clear on exactly what these aircraft were, it is believed that in the mix was two Curtiss Falcons, two Curtiss, Robins, a Douglass Mailwing, two New Standards, a pilgrim, a Command-Aire 5C3, a Sikorsky S39 and two Waco 10s. While on paper this would look good in reality most of the aircraft were in extremely poor condition and unsuitable Eventually all were replaced except for the two New Standards. During 1934-1935 six Vought O2U-2 model aircraft were purchased by the U.S. Navy on behalf of the Coast Guard and four were utilized for the aerial patrol.
At the end of a year operations were transferred to Del Rio Texas. This placed the Detachment on the border within the area of patrol and made the operation much more effective. The Detachment operated from the commercial airfield and relied upon American Airlines facilities and assistance. Coast Guard Headquarters, much to the pleasure of the city of El Paso, ordered the relocation of the Detachment to Biggs Field, Fort Bliss Texas in December of 1936. After an amazing chain of endorsements including the Treasury Department, War Department, Army Eighth Corps Fort Sam Houston, Chief of Staff US Army Signal Corp, and the Commanding Officer of the Air Corps Detachment at Fort Bliss, the Coast Guard Air Patrol took up residence in a small hangar at Biggs Field in February 1937. Biggs Field was able to provide better support and El Paso was in fact more centrally located within the operating area. Working in tandem with the Border Patrol, Coast Guard aircraft patrolled the border looking for smugglers and illegal aliens crossing the border in remote areas. The tendency to raise dust when transiting the terrain made it easier to spot a stray vehicle or groups of people or cattle which would be reported to the Border Patrol for interception. The smuggling of cattle had become lucrative because of an import tax imposed by the U.S. government and an export tax levied by the Mexican Government. For those wishing to avoid paying taxes, the remoteness of the border also made a prime location for hidden stills.
The clear air allowed for easy spotting of other aircraft at great distances. At time the Coast Guard aircraft would spot aircraft coming across the border and force them to land for inspections. The Coast Guard crews carried side-arms and a Thompson sub-machine gun. If signaling did not get the desired response –showing the Thompson usually clarified the message. There were also the more traditional missions that the crews performed such as medical evacuations and searching for people lost in the wilderness.
During March of 1937 the Coast Guard procured three cabin model Waco biplanes designated J2W-1. They were versatile and could be used as a landplane or fitted with floats or skis. They were intended to be put on board cutters and used for operations such as the Bering Sea Patrol. The V-159 was based on the USCGC Spencer home-ported out of Cordova Alaska during 1937. Eventually the J2Ws were all assigned to the Air Patrol Detachment at El Paso. In August, 1937 LT Perry Smith Lyons took command of the Detachment from LCDR M. M. Nelson.
The Air Patrol Detachment suffered its first casualty on the night of 19 December 1938 when J2W V157 crashed in flames near the town of Boerne after departing the air field for Houston. All aboard were killed. They were Coast Guardsmen LT Lyons, ENS Clyde H. Teague, Jr., AMM1 Rupert H. Germaine and an Army passenger, Corporal George C. Latham, AUSA. The cause of the crash was never determined. An El Paso newspaper article reporting on the crash noted that LT Lyons "frequently had assisted local peace officers, as well as federal executives in searching for lost persons on the desert and in hunting for criminals" which gives some indications of the Detachment's duties.
The Detachment suffered another tragedy on 6 April 1939 when LT Lyon's replacement as commanding officer of the Detachment, LTJG Robert Leven Grantham, was killed when J2W V158 he was piloting crashed. LTJG Grantham and three crewmen had departed Coast Guard Air Patrol Detachment El Paso enroute to Galveston, Texas. Shortly after takeoff the airplane encountered a dust storm, high winds, and then icing. When the icing became too severe he ordered his crew to bail out. After the last crewman had exited the plane, he too jumped but his parachute caught on a wing and he was carried to his death.
His obituary in the May, 1939 Coast Guard Magazine [page 5] stated: "The historic sod of Arlington National Cemetery last month closed over yet another Coast Guard hero. Lieutenant (j.g.) R. L. Grantham, USCG, flyer. Not for the first time in recent Coast Guard history has an officer given his life for enlisted men. Lieutenant Grantham's case left no doubt of his actions and heroism in sending his men to safety while he died at his post. Caught in a dust storm near Alpine, Texas, the plane was buffeted about by high winds, completely out of control. Lieutenant Grantham ordered his men to jump. They did, the three men landing safely. They were Clifford J. Hudder, James A. Dinan, and Robert S. Paddon. They realize full well that Lieutenant Grantham died that they might live. Ages ago it was written in letters to the sky, 'Greater love than this hath no man than that he give his life for his friend.' There is no finer way to die. To make sure his men were clear, Grantham stuck at the controls too long. When he tried to clear the plane it was too late to save his own life. Married only last May, Lieutenant Grantham's widow at least has the memory of a man whose name will go down in the annals of the Coast Guard and the United States as all officer, all gentleman, and ALL MAN!"
At the end of 1939 it was decided to close the El Paso air Detachment. All three J2Ws had been lost to accidents during the year and officers and men were assigned other units. The San Diego Detachment had become an air station and Buffalo had been closed. The official reason sited for closing the detachment was a decrease in smuggling but in truth world events were overtaking the remote border patrols. The President had invoked the Neutrality Law in September 1939 and the assets were needed elsewhere.
Unless otherwise indicated all photos are official U.S. Coast Guard photographs. Any original caption information is included in the text beneath each photo, along with a date, if known.
No original caption/date/photo
number; photographer unknown.
The transfer of a litter patient to an ambulance from a USCG J2W-1.
number; photographer unknown.
A Coast Guard New Standard NT-2. Note the USCG livery.
Air Station Files, U. S. Coast Guard Historian's Office
Arthur Pearcy. A History of U. S. Coast Guard Aviation. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989.