July 16, 2024

Though it was only open for less than 20 years, a U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Biloxi played a pivotal yet often overlooked role in saving lives and defending the Mississippi Coast during World War II.

Founded officially in 1915, the Coast Guard initially struggled to find its national service role. However, it eventually assumed the responsibilities of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, the Steamboat Inspection Service and the Lighthouse Service.

Ultimately, the Coast Guard’s primary mission became enforcing the highly unpopular Prohibition Act. In 1925, over 125 personnel under the command of Captain S.P. Edmonds were stationed on Biloxi’s Back Bay on Base 15. They operated a small fleet consisting of several small picket boats and a larger 165-foot Cutter to assist in Prohibition-related activities.

The 1930s & Prohibition in Mississippi

While this marked the Coast Guard’s first official presence in Biloxi, it proved short-lived, as the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 led to Base 15’s relocation to Pascagoula. However, that same year, Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany set the stage for World War II.

Despite the escalating tensions in Europe, the U.S. remained relatively aloof, and Biloxi continued to flourish as a seafood and industrial hub in Mississippi. With the increasing commerce and boating traffic, the Coast Guard was once again asked to establish a presence in Biloxi to assist stranded boaters and those in need.

In September 1933, Biloxi City Commissioners announced that President Franklin Roosevelt had authorized $290,000 for the construction of Coast Guard Air Station Biloxi at Point Cadet Park. The project involved clearing a small plot of land, constructing a seawall, and erecting a large steel-framed hangar, along with several offices, a barracks, a mess hall and other amenities. Construction was overseen by B. Knost and Company of Pass Christian after a short bidding process.

CGAS Biloxi, along with its radar station, was officially established on December 5, 1934, with Lieutenant W. S. Anderson as its first commanding officer. The station’s responsibilities encompassed aerial surveillance, emergency medical evaluation, law enforcement missions and supporting Biloxi’s extensive shrimping fleet with crucial weather and safety notifications.

The base was initially equipped with Grumman JF-2 Ducks and RD-4 Dolphins, both of which were propeller planes capable of ocean landings for assisting stranded boaters and providing essential medical aid. Over the years, new aircraft, a new runway, a parachute hangar and additional survival equipment and storage were added.

Throughout the 1930s, air crews from CGAS Biloxi assisted dozens of stranded boaters and several sailors in need of emergency medical services on the open ocean.

Saving lives during World War II

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. In response, the U.S. declared war on Japan, followed by declarations of war from Germany and Italy a few days later.

German submarines, known as U-Boats, began targeting American shipping along the Eastern Seaboard, exploiting the lack of safety measures adopted by the U.S., such as nightly blackouts on the coasts and convoy escorts. This period became known as “The Happy Times” for the U-Boat commanders.

While the East Coast gradually adopted essential wartime measures, the Gulf Coast lagged behind. In response, the Germans initiated Operation Drumbeat, unleashing their submarines on American shipping in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the next year, German subs sank 58 Allied ships in the region and damaged another 19.

The Coast Guard station in Biloxi assumed a new role in anti-submarine patrols and medical evacuations. To bolster this mission, the station received several new planes and equipped existing ones with depth charges and other weaponry.

On May 14, 1942, the oil tanker tanker SS David McKelvey was torpedoed by a U-Boat just off the coast. Six crewmen of a Hall flying boat V-170 from CGAS Biloxi found 25 survivors from the ship and directed another ship to their rescue while keeping an eye out for the U-Boat. Two days later, the same air crew assisted in rescuing 28 survivors from the oil tanker SS William C. McTarnahan, which had been torpedoed.

The most significant event occurred on July 30, 1942, when the SS Robert E. Lee was torpedoed by U-166 just after exiting the Mississippi River. Although the escorting Navy craft, USS PC 566, attempted to attack the submerged submarine by dropping five depth charges, the U-Boat seemingly escaped. Air crews from CGAS Biloxi aided the Navy craft, with support from Army and Navy planes, in rescuing over 300 survivors from the oily water.

On August 1, 1942, an aircraft from an air-station in Houma dropped depth charges on a surfaced German sub, believed to be U-166. Having witnessed oil leaking from the sea, the air crew received credit for sinking the German submarine.

Amazingly, the wrecks of U-166 and the Robert E. Lee were discovered in 2001 in relatively good shape. Historians noted that the submarine rested in the same area where the Navy patrol boat had attacked it the day prior, far from where the plane reported the sinking.

Unbeknownst to the Navy captain and his crew aboard the small craft, who were later reprimanded for their supposed failure, they had actually landed a depth charge on the deck of U-166, ultimately destroying the sub. The submarine that the Houma air crew attacked had submerged and escaped with minor damage.

It wasn’t until December 2014 that the now-deceased Navy commander of PC 566, LCDR Herbert G. Claudius, was retroactively awarded by the US Navy for destroying U-166, which is now the only German sub resting at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Later events

As the tide of the war turned against the Axis powers, and German submarines retreated from the Gulf, CGAS Biloxi’s mission shifted back to rescue operations. In early 1945 alone, the station conducted over 300 flight hours, covering 12,000 square miles, to rescue plane crash survivors, boaters in distress and facilitate medical evacuations.

In December 1945, a few short months after the end of WWII, a PBY-5A Catalina from CGAS Biloxi crashed while en route to Fort Worth, resulting in the tragic loss of its entire crew of seven, many of whom had contributed significantly to the war effort.

The last major event in CGAS Biloxi’s short history was its assistance to the coast during the hurricane of 1947.

The station ultimately closed down later that year due to the impracticality of accommodating modern, larger, and more powerful planes and jets in Biloxi’s Back Bay. A PBY-5A Catalina and its crew continued operations from Keesler AFB for the next decade, but this detachment was transferred in 1966.

This marked the conclusion of the short yet crucial and important mission of Coast Guard Air Station Biloxi, though several Coast Guard detachments still play a vital role in Coastal Mississippi.

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