U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
Radar and Loran were two great electronics advances to come out of World War II. Much of the work was done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Before Pearl Harbor, the British and Americans weren’t too friendly sharing informational secrets.
The British needed accurate positional equipment in order to bomb German war plants. Their physicists developed a system of measuring distances accurately using the speed of radio waves, a constant. This system was called the Gee system and operated around 30 MHz. Once high enough these “ground waves” were displayed on an oscilloscope for the navigator. The system allowed the navigator to know how close they were to the target area. Another pulsed signal allowed him to tick off the distance along the base line. At the right distance their bomb load was dropped without ever seeing the target.
The U.S. Navy was a sponsor of the M.I.T. think tank. Running a convoy with large numbers of ships across the stormy Atlantic was one of their daunting tasks. Navigation was by celestial navigation. Often the weather was so bad that the sky wouldn’t be visible for the entire trip. Convoys needed to be close and sometimes lost sight of the other ships. The need for a long range navigation was obvious. The Navy had good reason to seek a better navigation system. The Army air Corps hadn’t run into the long range bombing missions as yet.
After Pearl Harbor there was more cooperation between Great Britain and the U.S. on these secret projects. As work progressed on a long range system based on the speed of radio waves (300,000,000 meters per second), a test of such a system became necessary. The system needed a set of three stations to work. They needed an over-water path of several hundred miles between them.
The Navy had acquired the U.S. Coast Guard from the Treasury Department as the law required. The Coast Guard had many small surf stations along the coast that had been closed by the Depression and the decreased need. The think tank was given a pair of deactivated Coast Guard stations and the men to man them and provide necessary security. One station was Fenwick Island, Delaware and the other was Montauk Point, actually Hither Plain. The Canadian government built stations in Labrador for the north end.
Coast Guardsmen and Navy radio technicians were sent to a special “Navigation” school run by M.I.T. near the campus. It was a small and super secret place. The Navy men were taught to set up and service the LORAN receiver-indicators. The Coast Guard techs learned about the high power transmitters. One couldn’t listen in on the other. Even the word LORAN was classified until after the war.
When I joined the Coast Guard in New York City I was sent to St. George, Staten Island to repair radios on CG Temporary Reserve boats and regular CG cutters. Soon I was sent to Radio Repair School, from there to LORAN School in Boston. Somehow the Coast Guard became the personnel pool for LORAN. I guess you might say it all started on Eastern Long Island.
In joint British and American ventures the first LORAN chains spread across the North Atlantic enabling the Allies to tip the scales away from the tremendous losses incurred upon allied shipping by the German submarine fleet.
It wasn’t long before the Army recognized the need for a viable navigation system for aircraft in the Pacific Theater of the war. The Japanese were spread all over the Pacific Ocean on small islands and bombing runs were hard to complete without running out of fuel. The Coast Guard by this time had set up Construction Detachments somewhat like Navy Sea Bees. A crew of about 25 specialists was shipped along with a permanent crew of about 25 people to small Islands in the pacific to set up loran systems.
By this time LORAN receivers were developed that were light enough to be carried aboard a bomber. All B-29s came off the production line with a Loran APN-9 as part of the navigator’s equipment. This would have included the Enola Gay, carrying an atomic bomb. Bombing runs over Okinawa and Japan were made using LORAN, part to hit the target and part so the bomber could make it back to base with the fuel they could carry.
WHY WAS THE CG PICKED FOR THE LORAN OPERATION?
I searched for an answer of exactly how the CG became deeply involved in LORAN. I wasn’t able to find a definite answer. The CG was formed from the civilian USLSS and the Revenue Cutter Service in 1915. Three years later the U.S. joined the battle for Europe. Under American law the CG was transferred from the Treasury Dept to the US Navy. There they manned their own cutters and ran captured passenger liners as troop transports and crewed civilian yachts taken over for wartime use. There were around 6000 Guardsmen. Those manning surf stations didn’t usually go to sea. At the changeover the civilian keepers, who handled the surf boats became Warrant Boatswains with an L indicating that they were only to serve at shore stations.
When the war ended, Congress tried to combine the Navy and CG. Inland states didn’t understand why we needed two Navies. The surf stations fell into disuse with less shoreline wrecks. The enactment of Prohibition revived the CG and gave them much money and new cutters. It also resulted in crypto and radio coming into use in the chase to slow the bootlegging trade down.
With the repeal of prohibition in 1931 and the depression, the CG entered into another slump. Many surf stations were closed with only a few still manned. When WW2 arrived in 1941 Amagansett station near Montauk stumbled into the German spy landing from a submarine. This resulted in upping the stations’ personnel. By this time the CG was back under the US Navy. The navigation project at M.I.T. had a Coast Guard Officer appointed as liaison by the Navy. The CG with the excess surf stations probably had plenty of people, who weren’t assigned to a ship. When the civilians at MIT requested the use of deactivated CG stations it would have been natural for crews already maintaining them to be used for security, which was a very high priority item.
Somehow this carried over to the new recruiting and training of electronics people. I joined the CG Reserve in October of 1942 and soon found myself in first class at the CG “Radio Engineering and Maintenance School” in Groton, Ct. From there I was transferred to the MIT “Navigation” school in Cambridge, Mass. When I learned to install and maintain Loran transmitters. It was called navigation because even the word LORAN coined by Cmdr Harding was secret until the war was over. The Coast Guard from the beginning built and maintained all U.S. stations worldwide. The Navy and later the Army air Corps handled the equipment aboard ship and aircraft.
WW2 found the expanded CG manning troop ships and their cutters and a worldwide system of LORAN stations. It seemed to be a nitch the small service fell into.