Ceremony honors Coast Guard's World War II role

April 26, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

When he joined the Coast Guard in 1942, Ronald Reese figured that any beaches he saw would be nearby, like Ocean City.

What he got was Normandy.

Mr. Reese, a carpenter's mate who grew up in Walbrook, didn't expect the Coast Guard to give him a tour of the world. But that's what happened.

Here are the Allied invasions he witnessed during World War II: North Africa. Sicily. Salerno. Anzio.

And D-Day in France. Utah Beach, to be exact.

All from the deck of a landing craft. As a crew member, his job was to patch up any damage from enemy guns so that troops and supplies would get ashore.

Why was the Coast Guard so far from home? To bail out the Navy, says Mr. Reese. His unit, and others like it, served as water taxis during amphibious assaults.

The Coast Guard was called on to ferry U.S. troops safely onto enemy shores, he says, because "those knotheads in the Navy couldn't get the hang of getting those little boats from the water onto the beach without tipping them over."

Mr. Reese, now 71, reminisced yesterday during a ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard yard at Curtis Bay, honoring proud and graying civilian workers and Coast Guard veterans of World War II.

Absent were two honorees, the cutters Mendota and Pontchartrain, the largest vessels ever built at the yard. Both vessels, launched 50 years ago, had been decommissioned after years of service.

The Pontchartrain made headlines in 1956 when it rescued passengers from an airliner forced down in the Pacific more than 1,000 miles from San Francisco.

Yesterday, under a scorching sun, the Coast Guard, the little guy of the U.S. armed forces, commemorated the shipbuilders of the Curtis Bay yard, who have given U.S. small-vessel sailors the tools to do an important but often overlooked job.

Among the honorees were Bernard "Bunky" Staub, 70, of Baltimore, who worked on wartime vessels as a coppersmith, and Mary Jericek, 85, of Curtis Bay, who served as an electrician's helper.

Civilians and seamen stood shoulder to shoulder as officials read a message from President Clinton.

Hollywood has glorified every branch of the armed forces except the Coast Guard, said Capt. Ron Marafioti, commanding officer of the yard.

"Some John Wayne movies had landing craft in them, but nobody made a point of mentioning it was the 'Coasties' who were beaching them," he said.

The service, which has its own academy at New London, Conn., was established by Congress in 1915, but its forerunner, the Revenue Cutter Service, an anti-smuggling force, dates to 1790.

The Coast Guard operates under the Transportation Department except in wartime, when the service functions as part of the Navy.

Today, the Coast Guard operates patrol craft and helicopters, rescues mariners in distress, inspects commercial vessels for safety, fights oil spills and other forms of pollution, intercepts drug smugglers and maintains aids to navigation such as lights and buoys.

Veterans remember more volatile times.

"People call us 'The Hooligan Navy.' They don't realize the Coast Guard took part in many invasions," said George Ellers, 73, of Catonsville.

Mr. Ellers was a seaman aboard the Spencer, a Coast Guard combat cutter that accompanied convoys of merchant vessels across the Atlantic.

Though the Navy handled most escort duty, the cutters also served.

The Spencer even was instrumental in the sinking of two German submarines, he said.

"We nearly got blown up ourselves," said Mr. Ellers, who watched several torpedoes pass by the Spencer's bow.

Charles Roland, 69, of Sykesville was a seaman aboard a ship that was involved in three assault landings in Italy and North Africa. He stiffened with pride as he recalled those days.

"I don't know if this country would have survived if we hadn't done the things we did," he said.

Many Coast Guard vessels monitored waters closer to home. Charles Rummel spent the war patrolling the New England coast.

"The Navy called us 'shallow-water sailors,' " said Mr. Rummel, 66, of Baltimore. Yet more than 1,000 Coast Guardsmen lost their lives during World War II.

Vernon Pierce of Silver Spring spent part of the war patrolling North Carolina's Outer Banks on horseback, watching for German submarines.

"People called us 'The Silent Service' because we did a lot but weren't recognized for it," said Mr. Pierce, 69.

At Curtis Bay yesterday, Coast Guard officials unveiled a stone memorial to the men who served on 75 vessels during World War II.

Mr. Reese, the veteran of Normandy, was not wounded during his five invasions. But he attended the ceremonies in a wheelchair; his legs were amputated several years ago because of vascular disease.

"We don't blow our own horn; we just do the job," said Mr. Reese of the Coast Guard. "But it's nice to get the recognition for it, even 50 years later."

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