Scott T. Price, Chief Historian United States Coast Guard
After 21 days of being slammed around by rough cold sea swells 20 to 50 feet high, and wild winds hitting gale force at times, within an ocean grid the size of a postage stamp, you can stand any kind of duty.
Coast Guard Ocean Station veteran
As the Coast Guard Ocean Station veteran above noted, his duty could be monotonous at one moment and terrifying the next, as the vessels rode out storms that made the saltiest sailors green. Established under President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, the Ocean Station program, proved to be a vital Korean War mission and was perhaps the most direct contribution made by the Coast Guard to that United Nations’ war effort.
Enclosed by a patrol area shaped like a square with sides 210 miles long, Ocean Stations represented a postage stamp in square miles compared the vast expanse of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In the Pacific prior to the outbreak of the Korean Conflict, Coast Guard cutters were stationed at two Ocean Stations, including Nan (N) and Oboe (O). When the conflict began in Korea, the service added three more stations in the North Pacific, including Queen (Q), Sugar (S), Uncle (U) and Victor (V). The new stations provided complete weather data and greater search and rescue coverage for the trans-Pacific merchant and military traffic brought on by the war.
Cutters assigned to Ocean Stations hosted teams of meteorologists from the U.S. Weather Bureau. These men carried out weather observations, assisted by specialists among the Coast Guard crew. The cutters also served as high-seas aids to navigation and checkpoints for military and commercial maritime traffic, and communication “relay” stations for aircraft on transoceanic flights. In addition to their search and rescue duties, they provided needed medical services to merchant ship crews.
During the conflict, 95 percent of war material bound for Korea went by ship, but nearly half of the personnel went by air, making the Ocean Station vessels a vital link in the United Nations’ military logistics effort. Cutters were assigned to Ocean Station duty to augment their search and rescue capabilities in case aircraft had to make a water landing. The Coast Guard also established a chain of Pacific air search and rescue detachments, including bases in the Philippines, Wake Island, Midway Island and Hawaii. These search and rescue aviation units supplemented the cutters serving Ocean Station duty.
With the addition of new Ocean Stations, the Coast Guard sought more vessels to augment the already extended cutter fleet. Fortunately, a ready source existed within the mothball fleets of the U.S. Navy. The Navy turned over a number of destroyer escorts (DEs), which the Coast Guard re-commissioned as cutters. These old war-horses had served as convoy escorts in World War II, 33 of which had been manned by Coast Guard crews. The DEs were re-armed with depth charge racks and numerous anti-aircraft guns, and retrofitted with a large shelter on the stern for weather balloon storage. The first ex-DEs to join the fleet were CGC Koiner and CGC Falgout. Once commissioned, the new cutters underwent shakedown training under the supervision of the Navy and then sailed for their new homeports.
The Koiner’s operations provide a good example of Ocean Station duty. After its shakedown cruise, the cutter arrived in Seattle, where it joined a hodge-podge fleet of ex-Navy seaplane tenders and 255-foot Coast Guard cutters, including the Bering Strait, Klamath, Winona, and Wachusett. Koiner next deployed for Ocean Station Nan in the North Pacific. There, the cutter steamed for three weeks in endless circles within the Ocean Station square before being relieved by the cutter Lowe, another converted DE.
While on Ocean Station, Koiner’s crew quickly established a routine. The cutters’ radar and radio were manned around the clock. The crew checked water temperatures with a bathythermograph every four hours down to a depth of 450 feet. The men also assisted U.S. Weather Bureau weather observers from the San Francisco office who typically accompanied each patrol. Twice daily the observers and crew launched six-foot diameter helium filled balloons that measured air temperature, pressure, and humidity to an altitude of 10 miles. They launched another smaller balloon to measure wind speed and direction.
The Ocean Station cutters also served as a floating aids to navigation. They contacted passing aircraft and ships by radio and provided radar and navigation fixes. Such contact with anyone from the outside world, even if only briefly, broke up the monotony for Ocean Station crews. Then there were the daily drills such as fire, collision, and boat drills. For recreation, the crew had movies, pistol matches, skeet shooting, volleyball games, and fishing. Though this was usually enough to keep from going stir crazy, the crew invariably counted the days until the end of the patrol and their next port call.
After Koiner returned to Seattle, the crew of the Coast Guard cutter received welcome liberty. Next, the cutter set sail for Ocean Station Victor, midway between Japan and the Aleutian Islands, by way of Midway Island. While at Midway, the cutter stood search and rescue standby duty, then set sail for Victor for another three-week tour of duty. When relieved at Victor, Koiner sailed on to Yokosuka, Japan, for a 12-day layover, which included liberty for all hands. Afterward, the cutter steamed once again out to the North Pacific to Ocean Station Sugar. Three weeks later, Koiner’s relief arrived and it returned to Seattle. And so it went, month-by-month, year-by-year.
During the Korean War, Ocean Station cutters assisted several merchant ships and aircraft in distress in the North Pacific. In 1950, Station Nan was the busiest of all the Ocean Stations, with cutters providing nearly 360 radar fixes per patrol. CGC Forster assisted the largest number of vessels while on patrol. On August 16, 1952, Forster searched for and located the Japanese Motor Vessel Katori Maru and aided the disabled and burning ship. Later, Forster assisted five more merchant and fishing vessels. During the war, the Pacific Ocean Station cutters assisted over 20 merchant and Navy vessels and one transoceanic airliner.
Unsung but always ready, the Ocean Station cutters insured the timely and safe arrival of United Nations’ troops and supplies throughout the Korean Conflict. At the start of the war, Ocean Station cutters averaged over 700 hours on station and steamed an average of 4,000 miles per patrol. These numbers increased considerably during the Korean Conflict when the patrols were lengthened and expanded. Twenty-four cutters served on the stations that fell within the perimeters of the Korean War and thus, they and their crews earned the Korean Service Medal. The Coast Guard’s Ocean Station program in the Korean Conflict is yet another forgotten chapter of the long blue line.