In 1941, the Coast Guard had about 25,000 men in Treasury. In May 1941, with war looming on the horizon, President Roosevelt began transferring Coast Guard units to the Navy, beginning with ocean going cutters. With Japan exhibiting belligerence, in August the 14th District, headquartered in Honolulu, went under the Navy. The entire Coast Guard came under the Navy in November. They brought with them seven 327s, four 240s, 18 165s, 33 125s, and several miscellaneous patrol boats and buoy tenders. Once again the Coast Guard became “The hard nucleus around which the Navy forms in times of war”.
Coast Guard military missions tended to parallel their traditional peace time ones. Coast Guard coxswains, skilled at handling small boats in surf conditions, drove thousands landing craft in every assault in both the Pacific and Europe. Coast Guard personnel manned more than 350 Navy ships, including 76 LSTs, 75 patrol frigates (PFs), 30 Edsall-class DEs, 28 LCI(L)s, 22 APs, 18 AOGs, 15 AKs, 9 APAs, 8 Canadian-built corvettes (PGs), 7 SC 497-class sub chasers, 7 IXs, 5 AKAs, 4 PCs, and 8 assorted other ships. In addition, they manned more than 300 ships for the Army, including 188 freight and supply ships, 51 large tugs, 22 tankers, 21 freighters and 6 repair ships. The Coast Guard also protected the nation’s ports from sabotage.
One peacetime mission led to a secret war mission. Accurate navigation was critical to any military operation. Existing navigation systems were too slow to keep up with operations, especially air operations. British scientists were evaluating faster electronic navigation systems. The U.S. assigned the Coast Guard to assist. CAPT Lawrence Harding was in charge. In 1942, Bell Laboratories and Massachusetts Institute of Technology set up experimental stations at three retired Coast Guard stations in New England. The goal was an accurate long-range aid to navigation, LORAN. The accuracy of the system was 2 miles over a 600-mile range. At the time, this was miraculous. Once the system was perfected, it spread quickly. The first stations were in Greenland and Nova Scotia. Sites quickly followed in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Hebrides, and throughout the Pacific. Stations were built in the Aleutian Islands, Hawaii, and the Phoenix Islands. As soon as island chains were wrested from the Japanese, Coastguardsmen went in to establish new stations. On Peleliu, fighting was still going on as they raised their tower. Coast Guard buoy tenders transported the equipment to the prospective site and assisted in constructing the stations.
Wartime missions were in addition to traditional peacetime missions. Local missions demanded attention throughout the war. The Bering Sea Patrol continued, as did ocean weather station duty. Manpower was growing thin.
The Coast Guard Reserve had been formed in 1939 from civilian yachtsmen who helped in search and rescue. By 1941, the Reserve had about 7,500 men and about 2,500 boats, none of them suitable for open ocean work. Since there was no provision for calling the Reservists to active duty, legislation was passed to form a new Reserve. In February 1941, a new Coast Guard Reserve was established along lines similar to the Navy and Army reserves. These Reserves could be, and most often were, called to active duty, mostly to man the Navy and Army transports. The former Reserve was renamed the Auxiliary. They remained Stateside and performed search and rescue, patrol, and other duties to free active duty personnel and Reservists for armed duties. Within six months, the Auxiliary had grown to over 11,500 members with 9,500 boats.
WWII offered a major opportunity for women. With 16 million men going off to fight, all services had shore side billets unfilled. The Coast Guard had used women in WWI in these billets. In 1918, twin 19-year-old sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker were the first of many women in the Coast Guard uniform. They could only be yeomen and were mustered out when the war ended. On 23 November 1942, President Roosevelt signed a law creating the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. Navy lieutenant Dorothy Stratton volunteered to accept the rank of lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard and organize the Reserve. In keeping with the Navy’s WAVES and Army’s WAC, she suggested a nickname based on the Coast Guard motto of Semper Paratus, Always Ready, SPARs. The first SPARs were WAVES who volunteered to transfer over and help in recruiting and organizing. Within 18 months, 7,000 women volunteered. At first, SPARs could only be yeoman. Most served in the headquarters offices. Commandant ADM Russell Waesche was an early convert to the idea of women in service. A female professional photographer convinced the service that she could take a picture as well as a man. A female police officer handled a revolver as well as any male recruit. By the end of the war, SPARs were in 43 rates. One duty the SPARs proved ideal for were operators of the newly developed, top-secret LORAN stations. One problem that was universal to all the services was the inability of women to give orders to men. This was an issue when SPAR officers were stationed at units with male enlisted men. The Coast Guard got around the issue with a convoluted regulation that basically stated a woman could give an order to a man as long as her commanding officer was a man. The Coast Guard was the only service to give women this right. In 1944, the SPARs began to accept black recruits. YN3 Olivia Hooker was the first black recruit. In 1944 SPARs were allowed to be stationed overseas. By 1944, there were 12,000 SPARs. As with WWI, the end of the war saw the end of the SPARs. But, society and women had changed. Rosie the Riveter would never be happy in the kitchen again. On 21 April 1943, YN2 Robert Smith and YN2 Donna Miller became the first Coast Guard couple. In September 2005, they were still married and still going strong.
By 1945, over 241,000 men and women wore the Coast Guard uniform. When the Service returned to its peacetime role in 1946, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal stated that, the Coast Guard “earned the highest respect and deepest appreciation of the Navy and the Marine Corps. Its performance of duty has been without exception in keeping with the highest traditions of the naval service.” Coastguardsmen earned a Congressional Medal of Honor, Legions of Merit, Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Navy and Marine Medals, other awards.