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
Atlantic Area Historian
“I was a passenger naval officer aboard the ship at the time of the attack and was in a good position to observe the courage displayed by the pharmacist’s mate Goldman. His back was badly burned and he refused to even sit down until every one of the other casualties had been treated. . . . In my opinion such courage was far beyond the call of duty.”
— Lt. j.g. Collum J. deGruy, U.S. Navy Reserve
During World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard played an important role on the high seas. The service used over half of its personnel to man 802 U.S. Coast Guard, 351 U.S. Navy and 288 U.S. Army vessels that supported land, sea and air forces in all combat theaters. Coast Guard troop ships, attack transports, cargo vessels, fuel ships and auxiliary vessels provided for Allied amphibious operations, fighting fleets and land forces throughout the world. These ships ensured a steady stream of troops, equipment and supplies to Allied offensives against enemy forces.
Robert Goldman was one of countless Coast Guardsmen who served in this armada of military vessels. He was born in New York City and raised in Connecticut, received a degree from the University of Connecticut, and taught at the National Farm School in Pennsylvania. He was never a Boy Scout, but his family described him as one due to his strict adherence to rules and order. In October 1942, he enlisted in the Coast Guard and chose to become a pharmacist’s mate with duties similar to those of a medic or corpsman. Over the next year, he received medical training at Columbia University’s Pharmacy School, got married and served as a third class pharmacist’s mate in the Coast Guard’s New York District. In June 1944, the 24-year-old Coast Guardsman left behind his bride of less than a year and travelled cross-country to the service’s West Coast processing center at Alameda, California. Within a month, he shipped out on a voyage that would lead to the killing fields of the Western Pacific.
In July 1944, Goldman reported for duty aboard the Coast Guard-manned Landing Ship, Tank-66. At 328 feet in length, the LST was a product of British and American engineering genius, and the Allies’ desperate need for amphibious ships in the European and Pacific theaters. The largest of the Allies’ purpose-built landing ships, the LST carried 2,100 tons of troops, tanks, trucks, supplies and ammunition. Along with 110 Coast Guard officers and enlisted men, Goldman would now call LST-66 his home.
When Goldman arrived aboard LST-66, the tank was busy landing troops and supplies for the Army’s campaign in western New Guinea. That autumn, the Allies launched one of the most strategically important amphibious operations of the war—a campaign to re-take the Philippines from the Japanese. In so doing, Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur would fulfill a pledge he had made in 1942, before the surrender of the islands, to return and liberate them. More importantly, Allied control would cut off the Japanese homeland from vital raw materials, such as the oil reserves located in the Dutch East Indies and Malaya, and far-flung units of the Japanese Army holding out as far south as Borneo.
Japanese military leaders knew all too well the strategic importance of the Philippines. Its loss would initiate the final chapter of a retreat to the home islands that had begun in mid-1942 with the Allied “island-hopping” campaign. To hold onto the Philippines, the Japanese military resorted to desperate measures. These included sending the last major units of the Imperial Japanese navy on a deadly mission to destroy the Allied invasion forces and a new aviation tactic termed “Kamikaze,” or “Divine Wind.” Japanese kamikaze pilots would fly suicide missions by crash-diving their fighters and fighter-bombers into Allied ships.
American military leaders decided on Leyte Island as the target of their first landings in the Philippines. One of the largest amphibious operations of the war, the Leyte invasion included nearly 430 amphibious vessels supported by aircraft carriers and capital ships of the U.S. Navy’s 3rd and 7th fleets. On Friday, Oct. 20, 1944, Goldman witnessed this massive operation from the deck of the 66 while the crews helped land the invasion’s nearly 200,000 troops. Enemy resistance met Allied forces on land, in the air, and at sea. Entrenched Japanese troops fought U.S. Army units in the jungle while kamikazes crashed into Allied ships and Japanese fleets attacked the Allied armada from three directions. In the ensuing naval battle, considered the largest in history, Allied warships repulsed the Japanese naval forces leaving most of the enemy warships damaged or destroyed.
On Sunday, Nov. 12, LST-66 returned to the shores of Leyte Island. It would be a day of days for Robert Goldman. At 8:30 a.m., the 66 ran ashore on the grey sandy beaches near the town of Dulag, opened its protective bow doors and dropped the landing ramp. The shoreline had been cleared of enemy defenses, so the LST’s doors would remain open for the day to deposit cargo and embark exhausted American troops from the invasion’s first wave. Members of the LST’s crew even had a chance to observe the anniversary of Armistice Day a day late at the growing Allied military cemetery located not far from the beach. Little did these shipmates know that several of their number would soon lie in that hallowed ground.
By late afternoon, the 66 embarked men of the 75th Joint Assault Signal Company. Prior to the initial October landings, this joint Army-Navy reconnaissance unit had been inserted on the Leyte coast to identify Japanese defenses and communicate their location back to the invasion’s planners. After weeks of living in the jungle on C-rations, the recon men were happy to board a friendly vessel equipped with bunks and hot chow. The weary troops made their way to the relative safety of the LST’s stern, out of range of enemy snipers. A lieutenant with the unit even brought on board a cockatoo perched on his shoulder, which drew a crowd of curious 66 crewmembers. By now advanced to a second class pharmacist’s mate, Goldman struck up a conversation with the lieutenant and admired the majestic bird.
Throughout the 12th, Japanese “Zero” fighters had made suicide attacks against the landing ships, so the Army Air Corps sent up P-38 fighters to protect the vessels. Fast and deadly, the fighter’s manufacturer named the P-38 “Lightning,” but the Japanese called it “two planes with one pilot” because of its unique twin-fuselage and center cockpit design. At about 5:00 p.m., a Zero zoomed toward the 66 from behind the mountains on Leyte Island with two P-38s hot on its tail. The Lightnings hit the Zero with machine gun fire, suddenly broke off their pursuit, and rocketed skyward. Goldman’s friend and fellow pharmacist’s mate, Peter Casanova, witnessed the dogfight from the LST’s forward deck, recounting, “Over the high area forward I saw two P-38 fighters zooming straight up as if to avoid our ship from being gunned down by us. At that very instance [sic], I saw and heard this roaring Japanese kamikaze plane with the meatball markings almost 15 feet directly overhead that is forever imprinted in my brain.”
What happened next was a gruesome shock to everyone. The wounded Zero flew straight for the Army and Coast Guard men gathered on the starboard side of the LST’s stern. In milliseconds, Goldman witnessed the enemy fighter impacted the LST’s deck, careen across the ship’s aft quarterdeck, explode, and obliterate men and machines before crashing into the water. The Zero had spread death and destruction across the LST’s stern leaving a swath of carnage and wreckage in its wake. The lieutenant and one of his men were killed instantly with another seven Army men severely wounded. The crash took a greater toll on Goldman’s shipmates, with four killed and seven wounded. All that remained of the parrot were white feathers sprinkled over the twisted metal and mangled bodies strewn about the quarterdeck.
Miraculously, the crashing fighter spared Goldman’s life. But even though he survived, Goldman was still a victim. When the Zero scoured the LST’s aft deck, it sprayed aviation fuel over everything including Goldman. His back on fire, he tried rolling on deck to smother the flames, but the deck was coated with aviation fuel and only added to the problem. To make matters worse, Goldman’s right leg had received shrapnel from the crashing fighter, and he suffered severe shock from the sudden crash and resulting carnage. No doubt the shock resulted from the amazement, fear, and grief of seeing his friends and shipmates mowed down in an instant.
The instinctive response to such an experience would be to run, hide or escape from the scene. But Goldman did what he was trained to do despite his wounds and trauma. When the Zero careened across the deck, it had flown straight into the aft 40mm and 20mm gun mounts, crushing equipment and men. The 40mm gun tub smoldered with exposed ammunition cooking to critical temperatures while the gunner writhed in agony from his legs pinned and crushed by the gun’s mangled splinter shield. Disregarding the hot ammo, his wounds and burning back, Goldman jumped into the tub and administered morphine to ease the man’s pain and suffering.
Casanova later remembered Goldman’s treatment of the gunner, writing “I have never seen nor will I ever see how instantly men can go into action and do the correct things, right now,” said Casanova as he remember Goldman’s treatment of the gunner.
When the 40mm gunner asked about his legs, Goldman told him they would be okay. Reassured, the man responded, “As long as I can get home to Mom.”
The splinter shield was later removed and the wounded gunner evacuated, but he expired that evening and had to be buried at sea.
Goldman focused his efforts on separating the dead and dying from the wounded and treating them quickly with the medical supplies in his first aid bag. In combat situations such as these, good training can overcome fear, shock and trauma, but Goldman’s stubborn devotion to duty pushed him beyond normal limits. His shipmates implored him to seek medical attention, but he refused stating, “Others are hurt worse than I am.”
Goldman allowed a shipmate to put out the flames on his back and cut away the charred skin and clothing adhered to his burns, but he continued treating the wounded and dying until all had received care. Only after the casualties had been moved below for treatment did he allow his own wounds to be examined. At that point, his shipmates realized he had sustained shrapnel wounds to his leg in addition to his burns and charred back. The U.S. Navy medical doctor attached to LST-66, Lt. j.g. Paul Irvine, wrote in his after-action report:
“It is my opinion that by his actions, namely by jumping into the burning gun tub, giving treatment to the trapped seaman and assisting in his removal; by administering plasma and morphine to wounded men topside; and by the caring for wounded in the ship’s wardroom in the face of painful burns he had sustained the moment of the plane’s crash, pharmacists mate Goldman rendered service beyond the call of duty, permitting care of himself only after all the wounded had been treated.”
LST-66’s dead were tagged for identification and sent ashore for burial at Leyte’s military cemetery. Meanwhile, Goldman was evacuated with the wounded to another LST serving as a makeshift hospital ship. The lack of medical staff on board the LST required him to treat his own wounds. Over the next several weeks, his body healed, but the effects of the trauma lingered on. He was shipped back to the west coast, rode a special train for war wounded to the east coast, and convalesced at the naval hospital located near Norfolk, Virginia. While recovering, he received a diagnosis of “psychoneurosis,” “war neurosis,” or simple “combat fatigue;” emotional shock termed post-traumatic stress syndrome (or PTSD) by modern psychiatric professionals.
For his heroic deeds, Goldman received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals. His Bronze Star citation reads:
“He persistently refused care for his own wounds until all others had been treated and additional medical assistance arrived. His conduct throughout distinguished him among those performing duties of the same character.”
Goldman also received the Navy Unit Commendation as a member of battle-tested LST-66, one of the most decorated LSTs in the Leyte campaign. His trauma eased over time, but he would never return to the front. The naval hospital doctors believed it best for him to spend the rest of his service time in the states. Meanwhile, MacArthur secured Leyte Island on Dec. 25. It was a fitting Christmas gift and MacArthur’s forces would pursue the enemy back to Manila. The recapture of the Philippines marked the beginning of the end for the Japanese military, a seemingly invincible force at the beginning of the war.
Goldman was an ordinary man who performed extraordinary feats despite his own wounds and suffering. For the rest of his life, he would carry with him the scars, both inside and out, from that fateful day in November 1944. He was one of countless Coast Guard men and women who have gone in harm’s way to serve others. His efforts testify to the service’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.