Profile - The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary in New Guinea
In January of 1945 a small article appeared in the pages of a local newspaper in Far Rockaway, New York, which read, in part:
At our last Monday night Flotilla meeting at Hotel Commodore, we had the pleasure of having as our guests, A.T.S. [Army Transportation Service] First Officer and Mrs. Ed Dennis. . . . . We were regaled by Ed with stories of his thrilling experiences in the Southwest Pacific. . . . Ed ran supplies up and down the coast of , Admiralty Islands, and evacuated wounded men from Finschafen on a 112 footer. He saw plenty of action and praised the accomplishments of the A.T.S. who did valiant work with their limited crews. He attributes his expert knowledge of ships and sailing to his early training at [Coast Guard Auxiliary] Flotilla 1101.
During World War II, some 50,000 Coast Guard Auxiliarists conducted numerous security patrols in American waters: checking vessels' identification papers, sealing radios on merchant ships, monitoring blackout enforcement, managing inlet traffic and anchorage areas, guarding bridges and factories, clearing floating debris, rendering aid in boat fires and explosions and plane crashes, conducting small boat search and rescue, escorting naval and merchant ships, and more. Early in the war, Coast Guard Auxiliarist Edwin F. Dennis had taken part in off the From late 1943 through 1944, former Edwin F. Dennis, served in the Small Ships Branch, Water Division, Transportation Corps, U.S. Army, in Gen. Douglas MacArthur's campaign. Five other members of his Queens Auxiliary flotilla also joined the Army Transportation Corps.
At the time Dennis enlisted in the Army Transportation Corps (ATC) he was married with a small child. But he wanted to join the overseas war effort and as he describes it, "If you could handle a small boat and you didn't mind going into a combat zone in a virtually unarmed vessel, you were signed on." Many who joined were over or under enlistment age or otherwise unfit for regular duty.
Shortly after reporting to the Brooklyn Army recruiting station, Dennis was shipped to San Francisco, where along with some 50 other Auxiliarists, he was put through a battery of tests. Like all former Auxiliarists, Dennis was made an officer, but because he did not know celestial aviation, he became a deck engineer. He arrived in shortly thereafter. The exact number of Auxiliarists who signed on with the ATC is unknown.
The Small Ships Branch was formed by yachtsmen Bruce and Sheridan Fahnestock of Long Island, New York. With their mother Mary, some friends, and several scientists, the Fahnestock brothers had conducted famous exploring expeditions in 1934 and 1940, sponsored by the of Natural History and other institutions. During the 1940 expedition, they had gathered hydrographic data for the U.S. Navy.
From their experience sailing among the islands, the Fahnestocks concluded that a fleet of small craft would be needed to fight in the Pacific. In December 1941, they began work with the " X" group in Washington, D. C. This group of logistics, communications, and engineering specialists worked with the Fahnestocks and their shipmates to devise a plan to relieve the However, it soon became clear to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall that the Japanese must be stopped from taking Maj. Arthur R. Wilson met with Sheridan Fahnestock in early January 1942 and asked him and his brother to return to the Pacific as Army officers to put together a small ships service. Thus, the Fahnestocks, several of their fellow explorers, and other officers arrived in in the spring of 1942. Under the terms of a Reverse Lend-Lease agreement, they acquired a motley assortment of vessels: fishing trawlers, island traders, pearl luggers, coconut plantation boats, coastal schooners, and tugboats.
In March 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Gen. Douglas MacArthur to leave the , MacArthur determined that its defense would best be made in By July, Japanese forces had occupied the northern shore of the great island, notably at Buna, Gona, and other points. MacArthur would spend the next two years retaking New Guinea from the Japanese.
The soldiers and sailors who fought in faced the most daunting environment in the world. The monsoon rains, heat, and humidity caused pneumonia and bronchitis. Malaria, dengue fever, scrub typhus, and dysentery were rampant. Leeches infested the creeks and sharks the coastal waters.
For much of this campaign, the Navy, not enamored of MacArthur, and concerned about ". . . . submerged but uncharted reefs along the coast,” provided little only limited support to his operations. Its large warships would have little room to maneuver and faced great risk of grounding. As a result, MacArthur's forces for the campaign landings at Pongani that opened the Buna-Gona Campaign were supplied by the small craft fleet hammered together by the Fahnestock group, with crews recruited from among their friends and relatives, in and locally. Materiel was off-loaded at night onto canoes and rowboats and pushed through the breakers by men standing naked in the surf.
Through 1942 and 1943, the small ship service was "the lifeline of the Allied armies advance in It carried metal matting for airstrips, high octane gasoline, trucks, jeeps, bulldozers, spare parts, guns, ammunition, mail, boots, helmets, medical supplies, as well as food and reinforcements to the front, and returned with tired, sick, wounded, and dead men.
By early 1943, MacArthur held Buna. During the spring, however, the Army's campaign to control the northwestern coast and push on to the stalemated, in good part due to shipping shortages. A dearth of deck crews forced the service to engage in an aggressive recruitment campaign in the So in October 1943, the Army Transportation Corps issued a nation-wide call for crews wide from Coast Guard Auxiliary units. The request read in part:
The War Department has urgent need for engine and deck officers, and other ship personnel up to the grade of Master for operation of vessels ranging from 33' harbor launches to 170' freight and passenger vessels. These are not combat vessels, but are used within and without the and some in theaters of operation, not necessarily combat zones. . . .No marine licenses are necessary, and applicants need not meet the rigid physical qualifications of the armed services. The primary requisite is to show sufficient practical boat handling experience.
An estimated 700 hastily former Auxiliarists, as well as some active duty Coastguardsmen lent to the Army, arrived in in November. By 1945, there were 4,699 civilian personnel employed under civilian contracts with the Army of whom 1,372 were Americans.
Dennis first served on as engineer in Jane Moorhead, a 72-foot ketch built in 1882, probably the oldest vessel in active service. Although seaworthy, it had only two .50 caliber machine guns and no refrigeration, electricity, or toilet. The men slept in the captain's cabin and foc'sle or on the deck. Serving with Dennis were two other former Auxiliarists, Al Meyers from Red Bank, New ,
In December of 1943, Jane Moorhead delivered hundreds of barrels of gasoline east to the Navy's PT-boat base at As Dennis told it, they arrived safely, but "Almost four days of pushing the damp old bucket through rough weather, lack of sleep, and erratic cold lousy meals had taken their toll on our nerves and bodies."
One morning, at 0400, the air alert sirens began to whine. ". . . . the leading Zero flattened out at about 200 feet and came in so close we could almost see the red circles on its wing, as its incendiaries cut a bright path in the sky." The attack ended in about fifteen minutes, with no damage to the ship or her crew. The ship pulled up to the PT dock and at 0800 a Navy crew unloaded its precious, volatile cargo. The crew got underway quickly, hoping that they would have it easy going back to , not to mention getting back to base in time to get the New Year's beer ration.
In June of 1944, Dennis transferred to an armed medical ship attached to the 13th New Guinea FS 9A [Freight Supply 9A], in which he served out the remainder of the war. Later in life, Dennis became the diesel editor for the magazines Motor Boating and Sailing and Diesel Progress. He is now retired in
Eventually, the Australian side of the story of the small ship operations that supported the New Guinea Campaign was told in Forgotten Fleet: A History of the Part Played by the Australian Men Who Served in the U.S. Army Small Ships Section in New Guinea, 1942--1945 by Bill Lunney and Frank Finch (Medowie, NSW: Forfleet Publications,1995). But the full story of the Small Ships Branch has yet to be told.
At present, however, the Historical Branch of the Coast Guard Auxiliary is collecting materials, including the Dennis and Fahnestock family papers. So perhaps in the near future the full story of the Small Ships Branch in the South West Pacific will be told.
--C. Kay Larson
Dept. of Public Affairs and Marketing
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary