Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki
An imposing convoy of warships cut through the waters of the Lingayan Gulf northwest of the Philippines, the ships forming an orderly parade of slow-moving silhouettes. Six hulking transport ships led the charge, followed closely by cargo ships, landing craft and smaller amphibious assault vessels.
It was January 8, 1945, and the Allied forces had been deeply ensconced in the South West Pacific theatre of World War II for more than three years.
The convoy made a beeline for Luzon, the largest of the Philippine islands and an invaluable target that, once captured, would deny Japan passage through the South China Sea and grant the Allies access to the port of Manila Bay.
When the warships of Blue Beach Attack Group were only 35 miles from Luzon’s shores, three Japanese aircraft materialized near the rear of the convoy, sweeping suddenly into an attack.
“Planes! They’re coming from the stern!” cried a chorus of voices aboard the USS Callaway, one of the attack transport ships leading the convoy.
Gunners aboard the Callaway had but mere seconds to react. Coast Guard Seaman 1st Class Rollin A. Fritch was one of the gunners who immediately leaped into action and peppered the incoming kamikaze aircraft with a hail of 20mm antiaircraft gunfire. Fritch and his fellow gunners brought down two of the planes, but the third evaded the barrage and plunged down toward the bridge, unswerving in its deadly course.
Even as the kamikaze plane came hurtling toward him, Fritch remained at his post, forfeiting all chance of escape as he continued to fire his weapon. He fought bravely until the very moment the aircraft crashed into the starboard side of the bridge in a burst of flames that rattled the ship to its very keel.
Fritch, along with 28 other members of the Callaway crew, died in the fiery explosion.
The news of his death deeply affected even the youngest members of his large family back home.
“I was only five years old when he was killed,” said Fritch’s niece, Donna Fuller, now 77 years old. “But I remember that my whole family was devastated. Uncle Rollin was such a sweet, kind person.”
Born in Blue Rapids, Kansas, on May 9, 1920, Rollin Fritch was the youngest in a family of eight children. His parents, Frank and Mary Fritch, owned over 80 acres of farmland and relied on their children to help tend the chickens and grow corn, wheat and soybeans, among other crops.
“Times were rough for them,” said Fuller. “It was a hard way to live.”
The family relocated to Pawnee City, Nebraska, and after high school, Fritch struck out on his own and moved to Sioux City, Iowa. He was working there at the Cudahy Packing Company plant when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard on March 17, 1942.
“I remember he said he enlisted just to do his part,” Fuller recalled. “When he visited us on leave and we saw him in uniform, we were in awe.”
After completing basic training, Fitch served on the Coast Guard Cutter Galatea, which escorted convoys along the eastern seaboard and conducted antisubmarine patrols.
He then joined the crew of the USS Callaway in September 1943, and took part in five other island invasions throughout the South West Pacific before the 1945 Lingayan Gulf assault.
Donna Fuller, who has avidly gathered and chronicled her family’s history since 1978, is not alone in admiring her uncle’s heroism and valor.
Decades later, Fritch’s ultimate sacrifice received a more lasting tribute.
In November 2014, the Coast Guard announced the names of the 10 newest 154-foot Fast Response Cutters (FRC), one of which would be homeported in Cape May, New Jersey, and officially commissioned on November 19, 2016.
That ship’s name would be Coast Guard Cutter Rollin Fritch.
“It was a complete shock when we found out,” said Fuller, the cutter’s official sponsor. “To have Uncle Rollin chosen among so many heroes is such an honor.”
“I think it’s fitting that the Coast Guard chose to honor enlisted heroes in such a way,” said Rear Adm. Meredith Austin, the commander of the Coast Guard’s 5th District in Portsmouth, Virginia. “The enlisted force is what makes up the backbone of the Coast Guard after all.”
Notable not only for the historical significance of its namesake, cutter Rollin Fritch will be the first FRC to call the 5th District home, an important milestone for the district.
“Acquiring an FRC for the district will give us so much more flexibility,” Austin said. “With this newer, more capable asset, we will be able to help mariners farther from shore.”
The missions of the Sentinel-class cutters like the Rollin Fritch include conducting offshore patrols, performing search and rescue, interdicting drugs and migrants and protecting ports and waterways, among others. Equipped with state of the art communications and computer technology, the FRC’s will gradually replace the Coast Guard’s aging Island-class 110-foot patrol boats.
Crewmembers aboard cutter Rollin A. Fritch intend to carry out those missions in keeping with the bravery and fortitude of the cutter’s namesake.
“We decided that the cutter’s motto should be ‘Until Properly Relieved,’” said Lt. Jason McCarthey, the cutter’s commanding officer. “Rollin Fritch’s devotion to duty reminds us how to conduct ourselves aboard this ship. He manned his gun until the very end.”
“We are absolutely honored to bring Rollin Fritch’s name and story to the area,” said Lt. j.g. Kelly Grills, the cutter’s executive officer. “We plan on setting up a namesake area on the mess deck so that every time someone passes by, it will remind them what they’re here to do and why they joined the service.”
Rollin Fritch’s courage and self-sacrifice serve as a timeless reminder to all Coast Guardsmen of what it means to be truly devoted to duty, while the christening of the cutter in his name forever salutes his valiant spirit.
“We’re the lucky ones to receive and witness that honor for Uncle Rollin,” Fuller said, her voice warm and wistful. “I think somehow, he knows.”