Ken Beaton: First German POWs — before Pearl Harbor

Being a sea going tug, most of the Raritan is below the waterline. Notice the beginning of the ice breaker bow. Kenneth Beaton's father served on both cutters.

Being a sea going tug, most of the Raritan is below the waterline. Notice the beginning of the ice breaker bow. Kenneth Beaton's father served on both cutters.

Most Americans know about the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The next day, Congress declared war on Japan. What was happening before Dec. 7? Which of the five service branches was the first to capture German prisoners in World War II? “Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper didn’t know the answer, feeling better? The answer is in the fifth paragraph.

Firemen enter a burning building as everyone is leaving it. When a storm hits, ships return to safe harbors while U.S. Coast Guard cutters are heading out to sea.

“Coasties have to go out, but they don’t have to return.”

Since 1915, USCG cutters patrolled the waters around Greenland and eastern Canada, the ice patrol. Remember the RMS Titanic sinking on April 15, 1912?

Since 1814, Greenland was part of the Danish colonial empire. Germany occupied Denmark on April 9, 1940, without any Danish resistance. Greenland was important for two reasons. First, weather systems flowed from west to east. Weather stations in Greenland were vital to predicting the weather in Europe. Second, Greenland had the world’s only cryolite mines in Ivittnnt, Greenland. Cryolite was strategic in the electrolysis of aluminum ore by the Hall-Heroult process. Aluminum was critical to reducing the weight of military aircraft.

The Danish minister to Washington negotiated an American consulate in Nuuk, Greenland. The USCG Cutter Comanche transported the first American Consul to Ivittuut, Greenland in May 1940. By April 9, 1941, the Havana Conference’s expansive doctrine had been adopted. A radio and aerological station were established on Akia Island with air bases at Narsarsuaq and Kipisako, Greenland. Thousands of aircraft refueled at Narsarsuaq flying to England.

Answer: The USCG cutter Northland intercepted the Norwegian ship, Busko, on Sept. 12, 1941. (Norway was occupied by Germany). The Busko was supplying a German radio station in southern Greenland transmitting weather reports to Germany. A Northland boarding party captured the Busko’s crew. Germans at the weather station were captured by the Northland’s boarding party and interred in Boston. The first German POWs were captured almost three months before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.

My dad enlisted in the USCG on Sept. 24, 1936. On Oct. 11, 1939, he was assigned to the USCG Cutter, Raritan. The Raritan was a new 110-foot sea tug with an icebreaking bow. She was capable of breaking sea ice up to 4 feet thick. In May 1941, I was a month-and-a-half old Coast Guard brat when the Raritan sailed from Boston to join the Greenland patrol.

At the waterline, the bow of an ice breaker has a 45-degree angle to the keel. The bow rides up on the ice. The weighted bow of the Raritan breaks up to 4 feet of ice. The ship reverses a few feet and rides up on new ice to be broken. Ice breakers don’t ram into ice.

At some time during the Raritan’s 16-month tour, the sea tug lost its rudder breaking ice. A replacement rudder was flown to Greenland as soon as possible. There weren’t any dry docks in Greenland, time to get creative.

The captain sealed off and flooded the bow, causing the twin propellers to come out of the water. A cutter with a crane delivered the replacement rudder and carefully lowered it in place to be secured by several members of the crew. Next, the water in the bow was pumped out and the Raritan was ready to break more ice. Dad told me the rudder story. At some time during the 16 months, he was promoted from engineman first class to chief.

The Greenland patrol supplied both air bases with aviation fuel and all their necessary supplies from 1941 to 1945 despite North Atlantic storms with waves up to 60 feet. During storms, there were no cooked meals. If you weren’t seasick, you ate sandwiches until the storm passed. During storms, it was important to chip ice forming on the ship. If ice wasn’t chipped away, the ship would become top heavy and capsize. Because of hypothermia, a person dies after five minutes in North Atlantic waters.

For your information, on Nov. 1, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8929, making the USCG part of the U.S. Navy, formerly under the Treasury Department. On Jan. 1, 1946, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9666, returning the USCG to the Treasury Department. “Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty.”

Never forget the 2,403 Americans killed on Dec. 7, 1941: 2008 U.S. Navy, 109 U.S. Marine Corps, 218 U.S. Army and 68 civilians. Now you know the bigger picture: German prisoners of war captured almost three months before a sneak attack.


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