The Retired Officer
August 2001
Alan W. Dowd 

Wedged between the triumph of World War II and the tumult of Vietnam, the Korean War has been aptly called the “Forgotten War.” In much the same way, the Coast Guard could be called the war’s forgotten branch. Trapped in the shadows of the Navy’s exploits at Inchon, the Marines’ sacrifice on the Chosin, the Army’s defense of Pusan and the Air Force’s leap into the Jet Age, the Coast Guard’s contribution to the Korean War has been overlooked or treated as an afterthought by most histories of the war.

The Pentagon’s Korean War commemoration period, which began June 25, 2000, and runs through July 27, 2003, offers an opportunity to bring this under-appreciated hero out of the shadows.

Forging a Navy

Like an old friend during the holidays, the Coast Guard arrived in Korea early and stayed late, undertaking some of the war’s most critical missions and fathering one of the war’s greatest innovations.

In September 1946, just after the end of World War II, the U.S. Army called upon the Coast Guard to take the lead role in training and deploying South Korea’s own coastal defense force. For the next four years, active-duty personnel and retired Coastguardsmen alike recruited and trained thousands of South Koreans for service on the high seas. “When hostilities broke out between North and South Korea,” recalls Walter Capron, a Coast Guard veteran and historian, “this little service became the nucleus of the Korean navy.”[1]

The Coast Guard’s pre-war work has paid long-term dividends. Blossoming into a 60,000-man force (including 25,000 marines) during the last half-century, the Korean navy is more than able to defend its waters from North Korea’s routine and reckless incursions. In addition to a stout anti-submarine force, the South Korean navy operates across a wide spectrum of naval warfare, deploying destroyers, frigates, minesweepers, submarines, missile-attack craft and some 52 amphibious landing craft.[2] 

The modern South Korean navy stands as a living tribute to that first detachment of Coastguardsmen, who were evacuated when North Korean troops smashed across the border in June 1950. But the Coasties returned before the year was out to construct and man a key navigation facility in Pusan.

Fifty years later, the Coast Guard remains an active partner in South Korea’s defense. Coast Guard Port Security Units, or PSUs, from the States participate in the annual joint military exercises on and around the peninsula known as “Foal Eagle.” During the exercises, these PSUs conduct coastal-warfare missions and are often detached to carrier battle groups. In Foal Eagle 97, for example, the Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton was deployed in the Sea of Japan as part of the USS Independence battle group.[3]

The Coast Guard Takes on Stalin  

However, the situation in South Korea and the waters surrounding it would be much different today were it not for America’s willingness to come to Korea’s aid in its most desperate hour.

All told, some 35,000 Coastguardsmen would participate in the rescue operation known as the Korean War. At home, they had the twin duties of securing the ports and determining the loyalty of merchant-ship companies, whose vessels carried the precious cargo that turned back South Korea’s invaders.

Neither task should be dismissed as insignificant.  As Navy historian and Coast Guard veteran Robert Johnson observes, the potential for disaster at U.S. seaports was fresh in the minds of American military planners in 1950. Not only had a port explosion claimed 500 lives in Texas City, Tex., on April 16, 1947, but by 1950 Moscow had detonated its own atomic warhead. “With the Cold War intensifying,” Johnson explains, “it seemed quite possible that Russian nuclear devices might be brought into American harbors surreptitiously, for detonation at some subsequent time.”[4] The Coast Guard made sure that didn’t happen, but port security would come at a high price to the Coast Guard.

When it came to investigating the loyalty of merchant mariners, the Coast Guard’s wartime task was thankless. The Guard reviewed some 500,000 merchant-shipping captains during the war and denied clearance to 3,700 of them. Perhaps predictably, the Coast Guard’s actions drew widespread criticism from the public. Picketing at Coast Guard facilities was not uncommon during the Korean War. Johnson notes that the Guard’s efforts “to ferret out subversives in the merchant marine brought the service the greatest unpopularity it had known since Prohibition.”[5]

But that was only a third of the Coast Guard’s wartime mission. The Coast Guard also constructed navigation outposts throughout the Pacific. Coast Guard facilities on Wake, Midway and the Adak islands augmented the facilities at Pusan and provided critical information to allied ships and warplanes across thousands of square miles of land and sea. Some of the bases were little more than converted trailers, which the Coast Guard crammed with electronics, communications gear and internal power generators.[6] At the height of the war, the Coast Guard manned eight of these long-range-aid-to-navigation bases on the islands and reefs sprinkled across the Pacific.

But predictably, the Coast Guard’s highest-profile wartime mission was search and rescue. Within a month of the North Korean invasion, the Coast Guard deployed its first two cutters in the Pacific Ocean. In all, 22 cutters would serve in the Pacific during the war, and the Pentagon has declared 24 cutters eligible for the Korean War Service Medal.[7] By relaying information to troop transporters and assisting in search and rescue, these converted destroyers provided critical support to the sea and air traffic that transited the ocean.

The cutters also filled in the gaps between Coast Guard search-and-rescue bases, or SARs, which dotted the war zone. A typical SAR included a command post with communications facilities, an air-rescue unit and at least one surface craft.[8] From the Hawaiian islands to Guam to Sangley Point in the Philippines, these bases formed a safety net for the thousands of allied troops dispatched by the United Nations to defend Korea.

However, the Coast Guard’s part in the fight against communism wasn’t confined to the Pacific. According to Johnson, in 1952, “The State Department wished to enhance the ability of its Voice of America programs to reach listeners in Balkan and Soviet-bloc nations.”[9] So, at the height of the Korean War, the Coast Guard loaded a small fleet of ships with sophisticated radio-relay equipment and sent them into the eastern Mediterranean, where they pierced the Iron Curtain with anti-communist propaganda.

Led by the aptly-named Courier, the Coast Guard would beam a message of freedom and hope into Soviet-occupied Europe for the next 12 years, until powerful land-based facilities could be constructed in allied countries. 

The Orphan Finds a Father

But perhaps the Coast Guard’s greatest contribution to the Korean War and indeed the Cold War was made almost a decade before North Korea’s invasion, when a visionary Coast Guard lieutenant named Frank Erickson wrote his commandant a memo about the importance of helicopters in war.

The helicopter was still an experimental aircraft during World War II. The Navy saw no use for the wobbly flying machine, and the Army planned to consign it to reconnaissance detail. “The Navy had from the beginning shown little enthusiasm for the applications of rotary-wing aircraft,”[10] according to Coast Guard historian Dr. Robert Browning. “The Navy based its limited interest in rotary-wing aircraft on the thesis that a helicopter could never be built large enough to carry a sufficient load to be of any value.”[11] So the Navy ordered its junior partner to test and refine the helicopter.

Erickson set out not only to refine the helicopter, but to prove his Navy counterparts wrong. As a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard, Erickson adopted the orphan aircraft as his own. He believed the Navy’s castoff could revolutionize warfare, envisioning the helicopter as a submarine-hunting scout, a flying ambulance and a cargo transporter.

Erickson’s passion for the helicopter grew from firsthand experience. Stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, he saw the tragedy of World War II explode with his own eyes. But for Erickson, the attack itself was only half of the tragedy.

Erickson watched hundreds of sailors die not in an instant with the initial wave of bombs and torpedoes, but slowly and agonizingly because there was no way to rescue them from the burning ship decks, the half-collapsed piers or the oil-covered waters.[12] The attack convinced Erickson that America’s military needed something more than boats and airplanes to rescue its fallen. The ghosts of Pearl Harbor would haunt him and fuel his drive to develop the helicopter.

If Erickson’s passion for the helicopter was an outgrowth of firsthand experience, so was his faith in the experimental aircraft. Igor Sikorsky, who was one of the helicopter’s chief innovators, lobbied Erickson early in the helicopter’s evolution and impressed the forward-looking Coastguardsman. On June 26, 1942, Coast Guard Cmdr. William Kossler invited Erickson to a demonstration of the helicopter at the Coast Guard Station in Brooklyn, N.Y. Sikorsky showed a film that highlighted the chopper’s capabilities and then performed his own demonstration flight in a VS-300. The performance removed any doubts Erickson had about the helicopter’s absolute military necessity.[13]

Just over a year later, on October 16, 1943, Erickson took delivery of his first test chopper, a Sikorsky HNS-1. The Governor Cobb, a vintage coastal steamer, would double as the new bird’s launch pad and proving ground.[14]

While the other branches didn’t yet share Erickson’s zeal, they began to recognize the helicopter’s potential in the months that followed. By May 1944, Erickson had fitted the HNS-1 with a motorized hoist and pulled a human guinea pig off the ground, proving that helicopters could conduct rescue missions without landing. The guinea pig was none other than Mr. Sikorsky.[15]

Later that same year, on October 3, 1944, Erickson used his hoist-equipped helicopter to pull four men from life rafts during tests off the New Jersey coast. After being plucked from the water, each man was gently carried to the deck of the Governor Cobb. Memories of that hopeless day at Pearl no doubt flashed through Erickson’s mind. The whole operation took less than 10 minutes, and it proved that the helicopter could do what airplanes and boats couldn’t.

Coast Guard to the Rescue

However, if there were any lingering doubts about the helicopter outside the Coast Guard, they were put to rest a few months earlier.

On January 3, 1944, a pair of explosions tore through the destroyer USS Turner, which was anchored in the channel separating New Jersey and New York. The Turner and its 200-man crew had just returned from escorting a convoy across the Atlantic from Gibraltar. The explosions, which struck just after six in the morning, would ultimately sink the warship and claim at least 38 sailors. However, the death toll would have been far higher were it not for Erickson and his experimental helicopter, which just happened to be based in nearby Brooklyn.

The cause of the explosions remains a topic of heated debate. Some historians blame defective ammunition; others contend that a German submarine slipped into the coastal waterway and torpedoed the unsuspecting U.S. warship. But that debate is a subject for another essay. The long-term importance of the Turner tragedy is found not in its causes, but its consequences. The explosions which rocked the Turner that January morning catapulted the Coast Guard’s unwanted aircraft from a military afterthought into a necessity.

With a sleet storm closing the region’s airfields and making roads impassable, Navy officials turned to Erickson and his helicopter to save the day and deliver blood plasma to Sandy Hook Hospital, where the wounded were being delivered by the dozens. “Erickson delivered the plasma in 14 minutes,” according to Browning.[16] The mission would have taken hours by ambulance.[17]

The episode was more than just an illustration of how the helicopter could be used as a flying ambulance—it was a resounding vindication of the Coast Guard and a humbling lesson for the Navy. As historian Barrett Beard recalls, in an episode rich in irony, “Erickson had rushed lifesaving aid to the crew of the U.S. Navy, the very organization that had found little use for the helicopter.”[18]

The Workhorse

World War II would end before Coast Guard Lt. Frank Erickson’s vision became a reality. But just five years later, the helicopter came of age as the workhorse of the Korean War and the darling of every branch.

As fate would have it, Lt. Erickson trained more than 100 of the military’s very first helicopter pilots, including Navy pilots.[19] Within a month of the war’s outbreak, they were hovering and whirring above the Korean peninsula. In July, Air Force helicopter pilots extracted and evacuated wounded troops with a helicopter. Marine Corps pilots followed suit in August, and as aviation historian Jay Spenser observes, by January 1951 Army choppers “were routinely removing wounded from combat zones to Mobile Army Surgical Hospital units.”[20]

“More than any other factor,” Spenser argues, “the helicopter reduced the death rate from battlefield injuries in Korea to the lowest point in the history of warfare.”[21] By the end of the war, 20,000 wounded had been rescued by the Navy’s castoff. Another 1,200 men had been retrieved from behind enemy lines.[22]

Transporting troops, scouting for artillery strikes, rescuing the wounded and saving thousands of lives, the helicopter had emerged from obscurity to become an indispensable part of the U.S. military—just as Lt. Erickson had predicted in the middle of World War II. Arguably, none of this would have been possible without the foresight and sacrifice of the Coast Guard. In fact, for its special role in developing the machine that revolutionized the way America fought, President Truman honored the Coast Guard at the height of the Korean War with an award for aviation innovation in 1951.[23]

It may not have grabbed the headlines in Korea or captured the imagination of historians, but like the Korean War itself, the Coast Guard played a pivotal role in America’s Cold War victory.


A Deadly Rescue

Search and rescue was not only the Coast Guard’s highest-profile mission during the war—it was the Guard’s highest-risk mission.

The dangerous nature of the Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue role was brought into graphic relief on January 18, 1953, when a Coast Guard Martin PBM-5A Mariner flying boat crashed into the China Sea. Claiming five Coastguardsmen, the crash would be the Coast Guard’s single greatest sacrifice of the war.

Based at Sangley Point in the Philippines, the Coasties were dispatched to save the crew of a Navy Lockheed P2V reconnaissance plane, which had been knocked from the sky by Chinese coastal fire. Fog and nightfall blanketed the crash site. The conditions were so bad that Sangley Point officials gave Coast Guard Lt. John Vukic a green light to abort the mission.

But he didn’t. Instead, he landed in twelve-foot seas under a darkening sky, risking his own plane and crew to save his Navy counterparts. Vukic and his men fished 11 survivors from the wreckage of the P2V. But tragically, Vukic’s port engine failed during takeoff, jolting the plane sideways and slamming it back into the cold waters of the South China Sea. Seven of the rescued Navy fliers survived the second crash, but most of Vukic’s crew was lost. Vukic himself was badly injured, sustaining a head wound in addition to the bruises that covered his body.

But the Coast Guard’s sacrifice and Vukic’s personal loss that day were not in vain. As a Philippine-based Navy newspaper would later conclude, “There would have been no survivors had not Lt. Vukic taken the calculated landing risk.”[24]

[1] Capt. Walter Capron, The U.S. Coast Guard (New York: 1965), p.177.

[2] Library of Congress Website, http://www.loc.gov/,  “South Korea’s Navy and Marine Corps,” Section I.

[3] LCDR Jeffrey Robertson and OMCS Neil Holmdahl, “Foal Eagle 97 Tests Joint Readiness,” U.S. Coast Guard Magazine, April 8, 1998.

[4] Robert Erwin Johnson, Guardians of the Sea (Annapolis: 1987), p.281.

[5] Johnson, p.282.

[6] Capron, p.179.

[7] According to the U.S. Coast Guard, Coastguardsmen who served on the Bering Strait, Chautauqua, Durant, Escanaba, Falgout, Finch, Forster, Gresham, Ironwood, Iroquois, Klamath, Koiner, Kukui, Lowe, Minnetonka, Newel, Planetree, Pontchartrain, Ramsden, Richey, Taney, Wachusett, Winnebago, or Winona are eligible for the medal. See The U.S. Coast Guard in the Korean War, June 2000.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Johnson, p.285.

[10] Robert Browning, U.S. Coast Guard Website, http://www.uscg,mil/, “The eyes and ears of the convoy: Development of the helicopter as an anti-submarine weapon,” 2000.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Beard, p. 2.

[13] Barrett T. Beard, Wonderful Flying Machines (Annapolis: 1996), pp. 16-17.

[14] See Johnson, p.210; Jay Spenser, Whirlybirds (1998), p.395.

[15] Arthur Pearcy, A History of U.S. Coast Guard Aviation (Annapolis: 1989), p.60.

[16] See Browning.

[17] Pearcy, p.59.

[18] Barrett T. Beard, Wonderful Flying Machines (Annapolis: 1996), p. 50.

[19] Pearcy, p.88.

[20] Spenser, p.388.

[21] Spenser, p.390.

[22] Spenser, p.390; Beard, p.126.

[23] See Beard, p.126.

[24] See The Canacao Clipper, January 23, 1953.