Guest post: A Guardian’s path through the “Great Crusade”

>Story by PA3 George Degener, Ninth District Public Affairs. Photos by PA3 Degener and courtesy former Coast Guard Chief Machinist Mate Jack Read.

The tragic events of December 7th, 1941 brought about a surge of patriotism throughout the Unites States. Young men working in low-paying, depression-era jobs volunteered in droves to serve their country and earn a better wage in order to support themselves and their families.

One such individual was Jack Read, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native who enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard two weeks after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

(Left: At his home in Pennsylvania, former Chief Machinist Mate Jack Read takes a moment to show off military decorations he earned during his service with the U.S. Coast Guard in World War II.)

Read’s career in the Coast Guard spanned six years and included such duties as being part of a boarding team conducting inspections of foreign-flagged freighters in New York Harbor, Motor Machinist Mate School (from which Read emerged a 2nd Class Petty Officer), the mechanical shop at Life-Saving Station Sandy Hook, N.J., and as Chief Engineer aboard an 83-foot cutter that played a role in the D-Day Invasion of Normandy in 1944.

I was fortunate to spend the day with 87-year-old Mr. Read and heard his thoughts regarding his time in the Coast Guard and his service during wartime.

I remember a couple of weeks after Pearl Harbor, me and three buddies went down to Battery Row in Manhattan where all the recruiting stations were. The first one we went to was the Marine Corps, where they gave us an eye test. My right eye has always been nearsighted and the sergeant told me that they required 20-20 vision. One of my friends signed up for the Marines.

I always said I would never sign up for the Army because I didn’t want to sleep in the mud.

The Coast Guard was next and I used to go fishing off Rockaway and never got seasick; I liked the water and I could swim fairly well. I remember seeing a recruiting poster [Left] of an 83-footer and a Japanese plane flying over and I remember saying to myself, “that looks pretty good” so I went in and signed up.

Read went through his basic training at Ellis Island, N.Y., and was assigned to a boarding party based out of Staten Island before attending Motor Machinist Mate School. After school, he was assigned a job in the Machine Shop at Life-Saving Station Sandy Hook, N.J.

We would head out with the Pilot Boats and board the foreign freighters out near Ambrose Light before they would head into New York Harbor. I got tired of being a 2nd Class Seaman and really liked mechanical things, so I volunteered for school and came out of there as a 2nd Class Motor Machinist Mate. Life at Sandy Hook was simple; we would maintain the engines on the motor lifeboats.

In early 1943, Read saw a solicitation looking for men to become crewmembers aboard new 83-foot cutters.

I wanted to get out on the water so I volunteered for the 83’s and got sent up to Buffalo, N.Y. to actually build the engines for them a the Sterling Engine Plant. Working on the production lines was good training; it was nice to know how the engine was built right from the “plates up” before having to work on it out in the real world.

I was assigned to CG-83464 in July of ’43 and we ended up based in Charlestown, S.C., patrolling the Southeast Coast of the U.S. looking for submarines off of the Carolinas. I made Chief Petty Officer there because the Chief we had failed the physical fitness exam. I was very fortunate that I had such good people working under me. In some cases they knew way more than I did. Your subordinates can either make or break you.

In March of 1944, the crew of 12, led by an ensign, received orders to New York and ultimately Poole, England, to begin preparations for the Allied Invasion of Europe.

We headed up to New York, and we didn’t really know what we were going to do or where. They loaded the cutter onto a Liberty Ship for the 17 day trip across the pond. We ended up at Poole, which was the only Coast Guard Base in Europe. It was about 60 cutters and 800 personnel. We staged up there and got to head out into the town on port/starboard liberty. British beer was cheap and we got to enjoy the nearby town of Bristol.

(Left: Jack Read, center kneeling, and the crew of CG-83464 in 1944.)

Our crew was like a family. We used to chip in five dollars a month each so our cook would buy extra food so we would eat really well. It was a wonderful life. The worst job for engineers was cleaning bilges with tri-sodium phosphate. We didn’t use any gloves or nonsense like they use today.

CG-83464 was designated as CG-43 and assigned to the 1st Rescue Flotilla for the Invasion of Normandy, and then assumed escort duties for the supply convoys crossing the English Channel.

We were called CG-43 and of the 60 cutters, the first 30 were assigned to the troop transports being sent to the American beaches (Omaha, Utah) and the rest were sent to the British and Canadian ones (Sword, Juno and Gold). We drew the Queen Emma, a British ship heading for Juno Beach, and followed her in. There was a hell of a storm going on around us and we were getting tossed around like crazy. The transport ships couldn’t seem to decide how fast to go so they kept speeding up, then slowing down. It got so bad we had to chain our bunks up on a 45 degree angle and sleep in the “V”.

(Right: The crew of a Coast Guard 83-foot cutter relaxes in Poole, England prior to the invasion of Normandy during World War II.)

After the initial invasion we ran convoy duties across the channel, escorting ships carrying everything from tanks to senior officers over to France.

One night we were in a convoy and running darkened ship, of course. Because the wake of an 83 looked like a German U-Boat we had to be on the lookout for the other convoy escorts shooting at us. I poked my head up out of the engine room for some air and off the starboard bow I saw what looked like a “fire hose of tracers” coming around toward us. I ran up to the flying bridge and shouted up to the skipper. He fired the flare into the air that would signal that we were an allied ship and luckily the shooting stopped before it got to us. Maybe it was a little bit lucky I had stuck my head out for some air. We found out later that one of the other convoys had been attacked by a U-Boat that night.

(Left: The crew of CG-83464 during escort duty in the English Channel in 1944.)

When the British took the town of Le Havre, France, someone came up with the idea for the “little Coast Guard Boats” to be the ones who would look for mines in the entrance channel. We were small and wooden-hulled, so we wouldn’t set off the pressure or magnetic mines. Our draft was shallow enough that we wouldn’t hit the moored mines. Our sonar guys would listen for the moored ones and we could see the floating mines, so we would drop markers for the mine sweepers to come through and clean everything out.

In January of 1945, Read and the crew of 83464 returned to the United States. They suffered zero casualties during their operations in Europe. Read served at the Coast Guard Base in Cape May, N.J., in the Mechanical Division upon his return and until his enlistment ended in mid-1947.

After his honorable discharge he worked in the sales and transportation industries until he retired in 1987 and settled on a farm in Southwestern New Jersey, where he served on the local Board of Education for 7 years. Read, who now resides in Pennsylvania, has eight children and 35 grandchildren. He is an active member of the Coast Guard Combat Veterans Association.

To see more of Jack Read’s personal pictures, visit the Ninth District’s flickr site.

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