Written By Lisa Novak, Coast Guard Public Affairs.
Use horses to patrol the beach? The Coast Guard didn’t say “neigh.”
Beach patrols were normally done on foot, going back as early as 1871, when the Life-Saving Service, a predecessor of the modern Coast Guard, used foot patrols to watch the coastlines for ships in distress. The service used horses to haul boats from storage sheds to the launching point to rescue crews from ships run aground.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the wartime beach patrol was put into action and the seagoing service saddled up in 1942, when horses were authorized for use to patrol U.S. beaches. Using the horses allowed the patrols to cover far more territory faster and more easily than men on foot.
During World War II, there was great concern about enemy vessels nearing U.S. shores, allowing adversarial forces to invade the nation. The beach patrols gained increased importance as security forces with three basic functions: to look for and report on any suspicious vessels operating in the area; to report and prevent attempts of landings by the enemy; and to prevent communication between persons on shore and the enemy at sea.
“While it was not their mission to repel an invasion from the sea, the Coast Guard beach patrols performed a vital function insofar as the morale of the America people was concerned,” said Chris Havern, a Coast Guard historian. “The beach patrols provided a presence that re-assured the American homefront that they were being protected by a vigilant armed force.”
The horses came from the U.S. Army and the Army Remount Service provided all the riding gear required while the Coast Guard provided the riders’ uniforms. The Coast Guard put out the word it was looking for men who could ride and applicants answering the call to duty ran the gamut of experienced equestrians including polo players, cowboys, jockeys, rodeo riders, stunt men, horse trainers, Army Reserve cavalrymen and more.
Training for the mounted patrols took place at Elkins Park Training Station, Penn., and at Hilton Head, S.C., where dog training schools already existed. The mounted units soon became the largest segment of the entire beach patrol, with about 3,000 horses assigned to the Coast Guard one year after authorization to use the animals. Using horses also allowed patrolmen to more easily carry radios, rifles and sidearms when astride. Being on horseback further provided an advantage if a patrol had to run down a suspect or block an escape.
Mounted patrol teams required at least two riders and in some cases dogs worked alongside the horses. The use of these animals, with their sensitivities to their environment, added to the patrol’s ability to detect persons or situations that might not be immediately observed by the patrolmen. At Oregon Inlet, N.C., a German shepherd named Nora found an unconscious Coast Guardsman in an isolated part of the beach. The 18-year-old servicemember had fainted while on patrol and would have succumbed to hypothermia during the night if Nora hadn’t found him. A few months earlier, the service had purchased Nora for 50 cents from a local family.
Not all beaches were suitable for mounted patrols; New England beaches were deemed inhospitable in the winter months and some beach areas around the country had insufficient water and food for the horses. Areas where the horses worked well included the mid-Atlantic beaches, where the vantage point from atop a horse was useful as it permitted a good view across large and crowded areas. The horse patrols also worked well on the Texas and Oregon coasts.
The mounted patrols worked exceedingly well on the beaches in Florida and New York, discovering two Nazi saboteur teams put ashore by German U-boats in 1942.
By 1944, the threat of enemy landings on U.S. shorelines began to wane and the mounted beach patrol started to wrap up its two-year run. The horses were sold at public auction in various coastal areas and with broad price ranges. The highest price received for any of the horses was at a sale in Tillamook, Ore., where 49 mounts brought an average of $117 each. The dogs were often kept around and used for sentry duty by the Coast Guard.
The work of beach patrols – either on foot, in vehicles or on horseback – could be hard but they were a strong group of men, highly motivated to do their part for the war effort. A declassified report about the beach patrol from 1945 provides a glimpse into the morale of these men:
“Despite the many difficulties encountered and overcome, the morale of the men was universally high…Where horses and dogs were used, consideration of the animals was often more important than the comfort of the men. Upon them, as much as upon the welfare of the handlers, depended the sustained vigilance of the patrols…The methodical tramp tramp of weary feet plodding their beats back and forth, amid fair weather and foul, stood as a constant reminder that the military duties on the home front are often as essential to victory as the more exciting activities to the far-flung battle line.”
The Coast Guard never again used mounted patrols, but this unusual part of the service’s history illustrates its unending flexibility and adaptability and is a shining example of how the Coast Guard continuously lives up to its motto of Semper Paratus: Always Ready.