When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States was suddenly plunged into a war for which it was poorly prepared. Before the month was over, 11 merchant marine ships were attacked off the Pacific coast including one, the Montebello, which was sunk off the coast of Cambria.
On the Atlantic coast, German submarine activity was painfully evident and then, on June 13, 1942, a German submarine successfully landed four saboteurs near Amagansett on Long Island. The four were intercepted by a Coast Guard patrolman, John C. Cullen, who accepted a $260 bribe from them and then immediately reported the incident to his station. The next morning, four boxes of explosives, detonators, and timing devices were discovered buried at the site. The men had disappeared but they were later apprehended by the FBI.
Four day later, on June 17, four more German agents were landed from a U-boat at Ponte Vedra Beach, 15 miles south of Jacksonville, Florida. This group was reported by fisherman and boxes of bombs and incendiary devices were found on the beach. Once again, the men escaped, but were later caught by the FBI. Six of the eight men were executed and the other two went to prison.
By now evidence of the vulnerability of the U.S. coast was manifest and the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol was formally established on July 25, 1942. Its purpose was succinctly stated in a Coast Guard publication entitled The United States Coast Guard Beach Patrol as follows:
“Primarily a security force, it was designed to protect American shores against sabotage, enemy submarines and enemy landings and ‘fifth column’ activities along the coast. Actually, it has three basic functions: To detect and observe enemy vessels operating in coastal waters and to transmit information thus obtained to the appropriate Navy and Army commands as a basis for naval action against the enemy; to report attempts of landing by the enemy and to assist in preventing such activity; and to prevent communication between persons on shore and the enemy at sea.”
In addition, the beach patrol was responsible for rescuing survivors from our ships and those of friendly nations, and policing restricted areas of the coast. These men assisted in countless rescues involving both planes and ships along our coasts, and questioned or apprehended thousands of suspicious individuals.Because of the urgency of the situation, the beach patrol was activated with amazing rapidity. By the end of 1942, hundreds of new stations had been established and, by the peak of operations, 24,000 officers and men were patrolling 3700 miles of beach on both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. As early as August 1942, the first dog patrol was instituted and ultimately some 2000 dogs and 3000 horses were added to the force.
In California, the beach patrol materialized virtually overnight. On August 16, 1942, 62 men were dispatched to Morro Bay to begin patrols and two days later there were 250 men engaged. Ultimately, there were 2000 men patrolling the California coast. By Christmas 1942, the first horse patrols were instituted in California and within two weeks there were mounted patrols up and down the coast. Dogs were also used in California, but were considered inferior to horses because there were so many people on the beaches that the dogs soon became accustomed to people and ceased paying attention to strangers.
As the war began to turn in our favor the danger of an assault on the continental United States receded, and the reductions in beach patrol personnel began around the beginning of 1944. On July 15 the patrols were disbanded, freeing thousands of men for overseas duties. The success of the operation can only be measured by what did not happen. During its lifetime there were no major saboteur landings and the military did not have to oppose the enemy on home shores.