Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class David Micallef
June 6, 1944, will always be remembered as D–Day. Allied forces invaded the beaches of Normandy in an operation codenamed Overlord. It was the largest air, land and sea operation undertaken in U.S. history. The landing included more than 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes and more than 150,000 servicemen fighting for the Allied forces.
Operation Neptune was the amphibious assault phase of the invasion and the Coast Guard played a vital role by supplying a fleet of 83-foot coastal patrol crafts—60 of them—in support of the operation.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized the Navy was stretched and in need of support from another resource, which led him to employ the assistance of the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard’s involvement was integral to the success of Operation Neptune. Although the conditions for storming the beaches of Western Europe were not ideal, the Coast Guard and Allied forces battled through the elements. The mission was ultimately successful in large part of Rescue Flotilla One, better known as ResFlo One.
ResFlo One was given the nickname “Matchbox Fleet” because the coastal patrol boats were built from wood and were outfitted with two Sterling-Viking gasoline engines. An incendiary grenade or explosive device could’ve sent the boat into an inferno at any moment. The Coast Guardsmen who manned the boats were expertly trained months in advance off the east coast of the United States.
Before making the trip to Normandy the coastal patrol boats were sent to New York Harbor and stripped of extra equipment to become rescue boats. To make communication easier during the time of war, the boats were also stripped of their previous call signs and renamed CG 1 to CG 60. All these improvements led to better communication with the Allied forces and expedited the rescue of men in distress.
After being stripped, then equipped with approximately 13 crewmembers per vessel, ResFlo One took on the extremely dangerous job of rescuing men from the Bay of Seine all while under heavy enemy fire. Fifteen Coast Guardsmen lost their lives on D–Day and the Coast Guard lost more ships than any other day in history.
Four Coast Guard-manned landing crafts sank on D-Day after being littered with gunfire and striking underwater mines. The Coast Guard and Allied forces attacked with a plethora of assets when the tides were ideal and overwhelmed their targets. Once ashore, the servicemen fought valiantly, taking on German forces along the French coast and covering five beaches codenamed Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah and Sword.
The Coast Guard crews are credited with saving 400 men that day and approximately another 1,500 before the coastal patrol crafts were decommissioned in December 1944.
At the conclusion of D-Day, the Coast Guard was tasked with setting up temporary harbors and securing the French port of Cherbourg. Coast Guard Cmdr. Quentin R. Walsh, who retired as a captain, was charged with these responsibilities and was subsequently awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism in combat during WWII.
Coast Guardsmen risked their lives to save the lives of other servicemen in true Coast Guard fashion on the beaches of Western Europe. The “Matchbox Fleet,” along with Allied forces, played a vital role in sparking the liberation of France from Nazi control, blazing the trail to their place in history.