It sounds like an implausible plot to a movie: An odd, ragtag group of American citizens in civilian boats, fighting off U-Boats along the Atlantic coast in World War II.
And yet, it’s 100 percent true. They were called the “Corsair Fleet,” and they played a key role in American coastal defense in the early days of American involvement in the war.
“In early 1942 the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were facing a crisis: They had a massive coastline to protect from U-Boats, and nowhere near enough craft to do it,” War History Online reports.
“Every day they were losing ships to German fire, and weren’t able to produce patrol vessels fast enough to ensure safety at sea. They were searching for a solution, but little did they realize that it was right in front of them.”
Enter Alfred Stanford, Commodore of the Cruising Club of America. In 1941, Stanford offered the support of the yachtsmen, ships and crews in his organization to fight the Germans. Being of the old school, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King wasn’t too jazzed on the idea, but nevertheless, the yachtsmen persisted.
“After numerous letters and newspaper articles called for the use of these yachts and their crews, Admiral King finally gave in, and put the volunteers under the command of the Coast Guard, because of their experience with the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a force made up those too old, too young, or unfit to fight,” according to War History Online. Thus began the Coastal Picket Force, or the Corsairs.
As Wavetrain notes, the kind of men who signed up were “amateur sailors and yachtsmen, ex-rumrunners, and other ne’er-do-wells.” Not exactly a disciplined fighting force, but it did the job. Boats would patrol squares of 15 nautical miles about 150 miles off the Atlantic seaboard, looking for U-Boats.
Especially effective were wooden sailing ships, which were difficult to detect by sonar. This allowed them to get especially close to the U-Boats, more accurately reporting their positions.
The ships also assisted with rescues — including in late 1942, when the tanker R.M. Parker Jr. was torpedoed off the coast of Louisiana. Corsair Fleet ships were able to rescue all survivors.
By 1943, the threat from German subs had diminished significantly and the role of the Corsair Fleet was de-emphasized, although it was kept together until the end of the war. Nevertheless, this group of sailors — which ranged from New England scions to hooligans looking for adventure — did their job and did it well. Their service isn’t as well known as the men who fought in Europe and in the Pacific, but our hats are off to them.
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