This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian
Capt. Quentin Walsh experienced one of the most colorful careers in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Walsh grew up across the Thames River from the Coast Guard Academy in New London. Aggressive by nature, Walsh established himself as a leader while attending the Academy. His tenacity would serve him well as a Coast Guard officer in wartime and peace.
After graduation he experienced the rigors of Prohibition enforcement during the height of the Rum War. Beginning in May 1933, he served on the former Navy “four-stacker” destroyer Herndon, which the Coast Guard used for offshore patrols between the Gulf of Maine and Cape Hatteras.
In September 1934, Walsh transferred to Coast Guard Cutter Yamacraw, based in Savannah, Georgia. As boarding officer, he played an important role in the capture of the notorious rumrunner Pronto in January 1936.
In 1937, Walsh was assigned as a Coast Guard inspector in charge of enforcing whaling treaty regulations on the whale factory ship Ulysses. By April 1938, the Ulysses had steamed 30,000 miles, including the waters of Antarctica and the Indian Ocean and at one point, the crew spent 132 straight days without seeing land. During his tour as an inspector, the Ulysses crew had killed 3,665 whales. Walsh’s firsthand knowledge of whaling practices heavily influenced the formulation of U.S. whaling policy against commercial whaling.
In October 1939, Walsh transferred to the 327-foot cutter Campbell and served as navigator and gunnery officer while the cutter convoyed merchantmen across the North Atlantic as part of the American Neutrality Patrols. During Walsh’s assignment, Campbell also served on the Lisbon station to protect U.S. citizens in Portugal, threatened at the time by the spread of war in Europe.
In November 1941, just before the entry of the United States into World War II, Walsh received yet another assignment as navigator. This time he served on board the famous Coast Guard-manned troop transport Joseph T. Dickman, ferrying British troops from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Bombay, India. The Dickman also supported amphibious training with U.S. Marines on the North Carolina coast and landed troops at Cuba, Puerto Rico and Bermuda.
Next, Walsh received orders to the staff of Commander U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, located in London. As a member of the Naval Forces staff, Walsh gained full knowledge of Phase Neptune, the amphibious operation associated with Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of Europe. This landing would prove the largest amphibious operation in world history and Walsh had to formulate plans to restore operations in liberated French ports to expedite resupply of allied armies by ship.
In addition to planning post D-Day port operations, Walsh received orders to form a unit to carry out his plans. Walsh’s extensive naval background and leadership ability served him well as he formed Navy Task Unit 127.2.8 out of 50 Navy Sea Bees, men from the Navy’s Construction Battalion units. Sea Bee personnel were the best possible choice for Walsh’s mission, because they came equipped with combat training in addition to their expertise in construction, engineering and heavy machinery operation. Walsh’s task unit would serve with VII Corps of General Omar Bradley’s First Army.
The D-Day invasion took place on Tuesday, June 6, 1944. Walsh and his men landed on Saturday, at Utah Beach and advanced westward toward the port of Cherbourg. Walsh’s mission was to secure the harbor and prepare the port facilities to receive shipments of troops and supplies as soon possible. When Walsh’s unit entered the city on Monday, June 26, as part of the U.S. Army’s 79th Infantry Division, he came under fire from machine gun nests still defending German positions and his unit uncovered stubborn pockets of enemy resistance.
By Tuesday, June 27, Walsh’s men had fought their way through to Cherbourg’s harbor. During this assault, Walsh moved his men quickly to occupy strategic parts of the port and take control the harbor. During the assault, the men in his unit experienced a 25 percent casualty rate. By the end of the day, Walsh’s unit had advanced to the city’s old naval arsenal, where he accepted the surrender of 400 German troops.
After capturing Cherbourg’s port facilities, Walsh learned that the Germans held American paratroopers in the city’s old citadel at Fort du Homet. In the highlight of the Cherbourg operation, Walsh and one of his officers put themselves in harm’s way to save the lives of the Americans. The two officers entered the fort under a flag of truce and met with the commanding officer of the German garrison. By greatly exaggerating the numeric strength of his small force of Sea Bees, Walsh convinced the commanding officer to surrender the stronghold. With the surrender of Fort du Homet, Walsh and his men disarmed another 350 German troops and liberated over 50 American prisoners.
With Cherbourg secured, Walsh began preparing the port for operations. He established a naval operations center, surveyed the harbor and collected vital intelligence from German prisoners, French partisans and slave laborers who worked around the port. With this information, Walsh mapped underwater obstructions, navigable channels and minefields in the harbor and its approaches. He sent this information to allied minesweepers using shallow-draft wooden sailing vessels.
Within a few short days of entering Cherbourg, Walsh’s 50 men had taken 750 German troops, liberated over 50 American prisoners, captured Cherbourg’s port and helped clear the harbor of enemy mines and obstructions. By Walsh’s third day in Cherbourg, the Navy decommissioned his unit and designated him as Cherbourg’s assistant port director. His unit had not only secured Cherbourg and saved American lives, it sped thousands of troops and millions of tons of ammunition, equipment and war material to the front lines.
For his achievements and selfless devotion to duty, Walsh received the Navy Cross, the Navy’s second highest award for valor in combat.
Walsh’s duties did not conclude with the successful capture and operation of Cherbourg’s port.
After a month of shipping operations, the Navy assigned Walsh to lead a naval reconnaissance party of 400 men to examine the French ports of Brittany, including the port of Brest. As part of VIII Corps of General George Patton’s Third Army, Walsh’s men completed this mission by the end of August 1944. Next, Walsh’s unit joined forces with the First Canadian Army to open the Port of Le Havre. Once again, his men came under enemy fire as soon as they entered the city, but they completed the mission within two weeks.
After Le Havre, Walsh contracted a severe case of viral pneumonia. He was hospitalized in London then he returned to the U.S. During the next year, he helped oversee the permanent transfer of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation from the Commerce Department into the Coast Guard. Meantime, Walsh’s health problems persisted and, in 1946, the service placed him on the retired list due to physical disability.
With the onset of the Korean War, he returned to active duty in 1951. He served as liaison officer between the Coast Guard and Treasury Department and later served as aide to the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury overseeing Coast Guard affairs. Walsh finally retired as a captain in 1960.
Walsh passed away in May of 2000. His career had spanned some of the most eventful years in Coast Guard history, including Prohibition, World War II and the post-war modernization of the service. Walsh was a member of the long blue line and played an important role in the service’s missions of law enforcement, fisheries management, combat operations, port security, and organizational change.