Veterans Day 2015: The Beach Master
Posted by PA2 Grant DeVuyst, Friday, November 13, 2015
It’s June 19, 1942, sometime in the afternoon, and the Coast Guard Academy class of 1943 is graduating. Read that again, it’s not a typo.
There is, however, a typo on each and every new ensign’s commission. On young Robert “Rip” Emerson’s certificate there is a red line through each instance of the word Treasury, and scrawled just above each strike is the word Navy.
As is the case during times of war, the Coast Guard is now part of the Department of the Navy. Furthermore, the pressing need for officers in the field shortened the cadets’ training from four years to three.
There’s a world war going on and just months ago the United States suffered a devastating blow at Pearl Harbor.
Emerson’s commission came with an appointment to the USS Leonard Wood, originally a passenger and cargo ship that was repurposed more than a few times before ending up as a combat landing ship. He met the ship in Chesapeake Bay for a few months of training – a few months to become an expert beach master.
Emerson’s first of many tests as a beach master came in the United States’ first combat engagement on the Atlantic front. For the uninitiated, the beach master’s role is to direct incoming landing craft onto shore during an assault. It’s a job that can only be accomplished by getting there first.
On Nov. 8, 1942, without an ounce of combat experience, young Emerson left the relative safety of the USS Leonard Wood (relative for the lurking Nazi submarines) as the tip of the spear for Gen. George S.
Patton’s Western Task Force landing in Fedala, Morocco, near Casablanca. In the wake of a failed coup of local Axis French forces, Allied leaders chose not to bombard the beach. This lead to a surprising amount of resistance on the beach.
“It wasn’t a smooth operation,” said Emerson’s son Joe Emerson of his father’s first taste of war. “In fact, it was kind of an invasion where there were a lot of mishaps.”
The general inexperience of the invading force and inclement weather was fortunately balanced by the unwillingness of the Vichy French to fight for the Axis.
As Emerson organized the landings of troops and supplies for three days of battle, the nearby Leonard Wood fended off assaults from aircraft and submarines alike. The crew worked to rescue survivors from other support vessels as they sank from torpedo attacks.
An agreement was eventually reached with the enemy, but Emerson’s job wasn’t done. Learning fluency in the German language around the dinner table as a child was paying dividends.
“General Patton put out a call for any American officers that could speak German to accompany him to the surrender site to negotiate the surrender with the German commanding officer,” said Joe. “I remember him telling me that General Patton was not an easy person to get along with, he was kind of a cantankerous commanding officer.”
Before heading back to the States for repairs and resupply, Emerson and his crewmembers took a prize of war to send to their alma mater.
“I sincerely hope that this cannon may prove useful both as a trophy and in promoting a more thorough knowledge of ordnance equipment in the course of at the Academy,” Emerson wrote in a letter to the Coast Guard Academy’s superintendent from the Norfolk Navy Yard after returning from Africa.
After repairs in Norfolk and drills in Chesapeake Bay, Emerson and the Leonard Wood crew headed back into the fray. This time their destination was the Mediterranean Sea.
The Leonard Wood was once again tasked with facilitating an assault for Patton, his famed conquest of Sicily to be specific. Emerson and his shipmates trained with their Army comrades to practice landings in Allied-occupied Algeria in preparation for their second major engagement with Axis forces.
The approach and invasion of the Italian island was no less harrowing than the African campaign. Little is detailed of Emerson’s experience at Sicily, but the Leonard Wood’s commanding officer (and eventual commandant of the Coast Guard), Capt. Merlin O’Neill, recounted the clash to a journalist for the Saturday Evening Post.
“Good boys to have on any ship,” O’Neill remarked of his crew in the June 1944 issue of the national magazine. “I know, watching them go in off Sicily while we ducked seventeen near bomb misses. Another coat of paint, we’d have been hit sure.”
With another successful operation under their belt, the men of the Leonard Wood once again returned to the United States, this time with 766 German prisoners of war. Emerson once again put his ability to speak German to use, noting that the older officers, not so affected by the Nazi indoctrination, made for interesting conversation.
Few images are more synonymous with the Coast Guard’s involvement in World War II than the atoll landings of the Pacific front. Most famously, Coast Guard legend Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro bravely earned the Medal of Honor while sacrificing his life to save Marines just off the coast of Guadalcanal. The Navy now needed the Leonard Wood and its crew to conduct beach landings in the myriad islands and archipelagos of the Pacific Ocean, and they would need to rely heavily on their combat hardened instincts to survive the task.
After stopovers in San Francisco and Honolulu, Emerson found his first test in the Pacific at “D” Day at Makin Island. During an early morning assault, Emerson and his compatriots landed 1,788 officers and men of the Army’s 165th Combat Team onto Red Beach, along with their gear. Throughout the day Emerson oversaw beach operations as the landing craft coxswains evacuated the injured and returned to the beach with supplies.
It was one of six combat landings the Leonard Wood crew would perform in the Pacific theater during the war, though Emerson was not present for all of those (as you’ll soon learn, he had other things to do).
After Makin Island, they returned to Honolulu for a short break that included a visit from Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who became the Chief of Naval Operations only two years later. This would not be the only time Nimitz crossed Emerson’s path.
The Leonard Wood was next needed at Kwajalein Atoll, where the ship served as the fleet guide of the Attack Force Reserve Group until the islands were under Allied control. The vessel was then appointed flagship of the Transport Division Task Unit 51.13.2 and ordered to Eniwetok Atoll. On the beaches of Eniwetok, Emerson showed his true nature.
“He was the kind of guy that didn’t show much fear or hesitation about going into battle,” said Joe. “That’s why he would typically take the first wave of Marines in and stay on the beach until the invasion came to a conclusion.”
The assault on Eniwetok went on for days, and Emerson’s role was pivotal in America’s victory there; a victory that provided the Navy with a forward base for future operations. A temporary citation, hand-signed by Nimitz (and later by Secretary of the Navy James Forestal), handily tells the tale:
“For gallantry and intrepidity in action during the assault on Eniwetok Atoll, Marshall Islands, 17-22 February 1944. As Boat Group Commander, he led his landing boat group, under fire, in three separate attacks upon islands of Eniwetok Atoll. The cool and skilful direction of the landing boats in his charge, his initiative and efficiency in traffic control and boat salvage while under fire, and his unceasing devotion to duty throughout the operation contributed materially to the successful participation of his ship in the assault. His conduct throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions on the naval service.”
The citation was for the Silver Star Medal, the third-highest military decoration for valor awarded to members of the armed forces. Following the award, Emerson continued to serve as a beachmaster in multiple engagements across the Pacific, but his days in a boat were numbered.
“Before the invasion of Saipan he was summoned to Admiral Nimitz’s flagship, where he was told by Admiral Nimitz that he wasn’t going to allow my dad to participate in the landing, because my dad had survived these other invasions,” said Joe. “Admiral Nimitz couldn’t hardly believe that he had survived this long.”
Emerson reportedly protested the idea of leaving his crew to carry on without him, but Nimitz had a proposition.
“The admiral told him he could do anything he wanted to from that point on in the military,” Joe added. “My dad told him he wanted to be a fighter pilot.”
To be continued…
Special thanks to Joe Emerson and Capt. Tom Gemmell (Coast Guard, ret.) for keeping detailed accounts of their fathers’ Coast Guard service.