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 David Rosen
Coast Guard Pacific Area Historian
The Coast Guard recently released the names of the newest Fast Response Cutters to be commissioned. Each FRC is named after a Coast Guard hero. One such Coast Guardsman is Maurice Jester.
“He is an action type, a good ship keeper, stern, humane and just, a fine man. He should be a chief boatswain one of these days.” – Lt. Cmdr. Earl Rose, letter to Coast Guard Headquarters, Oct. 29, 1931
The quote above describes Coast Guard hero Maurice David Jester. Born in 1889, Jester came from a town whose history was tied to the sea. Chincoteague is set in the Eastern shore of Virginia. In its early days, residents earned their living from fishing or salvaging ships that came ashore in storms. Later, the local area hosted a lighthouse and a lifesaving station. After he finished school, Jester went into fishing and got married at age 20 in 1909. But it was difficult to support a family through fishing, so he chose to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Over the course of his early career, Jester would become a seasoned cutterman. He enlisted as a surfman in 1917 and his first duty station was Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. For the next 20 years he served on coastal patrol boats and cutters based in seaports from Norfolk, Virginia, to Boston. In the 1920s and early 1930s, he had commanded patrol boats and cutters interdicting illegal liquor smugglers in the Rum War of Prohibition. In 1935, he was transferred to the west coast and served aboard cutters in Oregon and California. All the while, he advanced in the boatswain rating from junior petty officer to chief. After more than two decades of enlisted service and he transferred back to the east coast in 1939, he received an officer’s commission as a lieutenant. In January 1942, a month after receiving his commission, 52-year-old Jester took command of the cutter Icarus, a 165-foot “B”-Class cutter.
With the U.S. entry into World War II in 1941, Icarus engaged in anti-submarine patrols and served as an escort for the “Bucket Brigade,” the east coast’s wartime convoy route. In the morning of Friday, May 8, Lt. Jester oversaw Icarus’s departure from its Staten Island destined for Key West, Florida. Saturday found Icarus steaming south on a zigzag course at 14 knots. Just south of North Carolina’s Cape Lookout and about 25 miles offshore, Icarus’s sonar operator picked up a “mushy” contact 2,000 yards off the cutter’s port bow in about 120 feet of water. The officer-on-deck called Jester to the bridge.
Ten minutes after the sonarman heard the underwater contact, an explosion rocked the cutter about 200 yards off its port side. The explosion appeared to be a torpedo, sending Icarus’s crew to battle stations. Jester ordered the cutter to steam toward the sonar contact. After calculating the contact’s course, he ordered Icarus to drop five depth charges in a diamond pattern with one charge in the center. Two more charges were dropped in a “V” pattern at a point leading the contact’s underwater course. As roiling water from the explosions subsided, large bubbles were observed on the surface, so Jester ordered a single charge dropped on the spot where the air bubbles had surfaced. Six minutes later, he ordered a second charge dropped in the same place.
The last depth charge blasted the U-boat to the surface where Icarus’s gun crews raked it with machine guns and their 3-inch cannon. Within four minutes of surfacing, the mortally wounded U-boat began to slip back into the sea. Meanwhile, 35 German survivors were struggling on the surface to avoid the cutter’s path and deadly depth charges. Taking no chances, Jester ordered one last depth charge dropped over the U-boat, which brought a large air bubble to the surface. Other underwater explosions were attributed to scuttling charges set by the Germans. Finally, no further noises were heard from the sub as its flooded shell settled on the sea floor.
After dropping the last depth charge, Jester ordered Icarus away from the scene of the battle. Up to that time, no U.S. warship had captured enemy combatants and Jester radioed his command for further instructions before taking action. After receiving orders to rescue the Germans and steam for the Charleston Navy Yard, Jester directed Icarus to return to the submariners. Expecting to be machine-gunned in the water, some of the Germans yelled in English, “Help!” Mercy!” and “Don’t shoot us!” Icarus gathered the submariners from the water and, with the exception of the wounded survivors, placed the prisoners under armed guard in the cutter’s forward crew compartment.
In all the battle lasted about an hour. During that time the U-boat only got off one torpedo, which detonated harmlessly when it struck the shallow seafloor. Because the cutter had no sonar range finder, Jester had to use his seafaring experience to develop depth charge plots based on the sonarman’s ranges and bearings. As for the crew, Jester later reported: “The performance of the entire crew . . . deserves the highest praise. All stations were manned promptly, and without confusion. Their conduct throughout was manifested with enthusiasm, alertness, and devotion to duty.” Icarus had become the first Coast Guard cutter to sink a U-boat and only the second U.S. warship of World War II to destroy one.
Before steaming for Charleston, Jester sent his final message, “Contacted submarine Destroyed same. Lat 34°12 ½” Long 76° 35″. Have 33 of her crew members on board. Proceeding Charleston with survivors.” During the trip to Charleston, he learned that his deadly opponent was U-352, carrying a complement of 48 men. In all, Icarus rescued 33 Germans–the first enemy combatants captured by U.S. forces in World War II. The next morning, before Icarus arrived at the Navy Yard, the prisoners thanked Jester for their treatment aboard Icarus. When they debarked, the Germans became the first foreign POWs to step foot on American soil since the War of 1812.
Jester went on to greater glory. Not long after the battle, the Navy awarded him the Navy Cross Medal. He was the first Coast
Guardsman to receive the Navy Cross and one of only six service members to received it during the war. Within months of the battle, he received promotion from lieutenant to lieutenant commander. After his 1944 retirement, Jester was advanced in rank to full commander and he and his wife returned home to Chincoteague. In 1957, he died of heart disease and was laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Maurice David Jester had served a distinguished career that spanned the First World War, Prohibition and the Second World War. Under his command, Icarus had made her name as the second American warship to sink a U-boat during the war and the first to capture enemy combatants. Jester was one of the service’s first heroes of World War II and, during his career, he advanced from surfman to commander. Soon, the Coast Guard will name one of its Fast Response Cutters in his honor.