Friday, March 8, 2013

Brooklyn Boat saved more than 400 lives on D-Day

While planning the D-Day landings in Normandy, the U.S. Coast Guard was tasked with providing search and rescue craft for the operation.  The Commander of the U.S. Fleet, Admiral Ernest King ordered the Coast Guard to deploy 60 83-foot cutters to the United Kingdom to be used during Operation Neptune/Overlord (Neptune was the code name for the maritime operation during the landings).

These 83-foot cutters were built by the Wheeler Shipyard here in Brooklyn. The Wheeler Shipbuilding Corporation was founded around 1900 by Howard E. Wheeler at the foot of Cropsey Avenue by Coney Island Creek as a shipyard for pleasure yachts and fabrication. A second shipyard was subsequently opened on the East River at Whitestone.

Wheeler was contracted by the U.S. Government in World War One to build wood-hulled sub chasers to patrol U.S. coastal waters and to serve as convoy escorts against the German submarine threat.  The government contract enabled expansion of the shipyard, and the years after World War One saw the Wheeler Shipyard constructing steel hulled merchant and government vessels alongside wooden yachts. The business prospered, and at one point Wheeler Shipyards sported a marching band and a Park Avenue showroom.

The Wheeler Shipyard was well-known for building exceptional hand-crafted wooden boats, and its most well-known customer was Ernest Hemingway, who bought a 38-foot yacht in 1934 for $7,500 that he christened the Pilar. This was both the name of the heroine in For Whom the Bells Toll and the nickname for his wife at that time, Pauline.

At the outbreak of World War Two, the Unite States Navy purchased land adjacent to the Wheeler Shipyard as an adjunct facility to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and this facility eventually melded with the Wheeler Shipyard. In 1942, Wheeler started building the wooden 83-foot cutters for use as minesweepers. Orders followed for steel-hulled small coastal freighters for the U.S. Army and yard tug orders for both the Army and the Navy. It should be noted that Hemingway added himself and his Wheeler to the forces patrolling the U.S. Coasts after 1941.

In all 230 83-foot cutters were built, twelve for the U.S. Navy and the remainder for the Coast Guard. The first 145 cutters were fitted with an Everdur bronze wheelhouse, but subsequent cutters were fitted with a plywood wheelhouse due to the scarcity of metal. The 83-footers were typically armed with 20mm/80 cannon on the quarterdeck, four depth charge tracks off the stern and a 'Mousetrap' anti-submarine rocket system. The displacement was 76 tons and the maximum draft was 5 feet 4 inches. The 83-footers could make 18 ½ knots at full power, although the cruising speed was around 12 knots.

The 60 83-footers that were earmarked for the Normandy invasion were given new hull numbers from 1 to 60 before being transported on freighters to England. They were formed into a “Rescue Flotilla One” based at Poole and nicknamed the “Matchbox Fleet” due to the potential explosive hazard of a wooden hull and gasoline engines. The cutters were split between the invasion beaches, with 30 serving off the American invasion sectors and the other 30 off the British and Canadian sectors. The cutters of Rescue Flotilla One saved more than 400 men from the frigid waters of the English Channel during D-Day alone, often operating under enemy fire from the German-held shore. Before being decommissioned in December, 1944, the 83-footers had saved 1,483 servicemen.

After the war, the Wheeler Shipyard returned to building yachts and small steel- and wooden hulled commercial vessels, although the Brooklyn facilities were shut down in 1948. Wheeler remained in business until 1965, and it completed more than 3,500 hulls before the company was dissolved.

An advertisement for the Wheeler "Playmate" series of yachts built between 1920 and 1939

"Crew of CG-16 pointing to the tally board of 126 rescued soldiers." Photo courtesy of Terry Hannigan (

The USCG-1, formerly the 83300, escorted the first waves of landing craft into the Omaha assault area on D-Day morning.  Her crew pulled 28 survivors from a sunken landing craft out of the English Channel right off the beaches before 0700, 6 June 1944 (