Coast Guard and the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

by Dr. Robert M. Browning, Jr.

On the quiet Sunday morning of 7 December 1941, an initial attack force of 183 Japanese naval aircraft attacked ninety-four ships of the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor. This strategic surprise attack on America's largest Pacific naval base truly became a day of infamy. Today it is clearly the most recognizable of all American battles or events. Historians have well documented the Navy's role in the attack, but have all but forgotten that Coast Guard vessels also participated. The Coast Guard, while only a small force at Pearl Harbor, actively took part in the battle.

President Roosevelt began transferring portions of the Coast Guard piecemeal to the Navy several months before the attack. In May and June various vessels were transferred, the 14th Coast Guard District went under naval control in August, and the whole service that November. All six of the Coast Guard's 327-foot cutters were transferred to the Navy at least a month before the rest of the service due to their value as escort ships. Stationed in Honolulu were the 327-foot cutter Taney, the 190-foot buoy tender Kukui, two 125-foot patrol craft, Reliance and Tiger, two 78-foot patrol boats and several smaller craft. At the time of the attack, Taney lay at pier six in Honolulu Harbor, Reliance and the unarmed Kukui both lay at pier four and Tiger was on patrol along the western shore of Oahu. All were performing the normal duties for a peacetime Sunday.

At 6:45 am while on regular patrol, Tiger, intercepted a dispatch from the Navy destroyer Ward that claimed the destruction of an enemy submarine. Thirty-five minutes later, Tiger detected an underwater object on her rudimentary sonar apparatus near Barber's Point. Believing that this might also be a submarine, Tiger maneuvered to get a better position and stopped both engines to reduce sonar interference. Hearing motor noises, Tiger continued trailing the sound toward the harbor entrance. The small cutter tracked the object toward the left side of the channel but abandoned the search when it ran into shoal water.

Tiger continued her patrol toward the Pearl Harbor entrance, passing the open harbor anti-submarine net before 8 o'clock. At around 8 am, to the surprise of the men on board, the "buck and a quarter" cutter, came under fire. The fire came from an undetermined source and fell within 100 yards. The Tiger’s commanding officer, Chief Warrant Officer William J. Mazzoni called the crew to general quarters and observed Japanese planes heading southwest away from Pearl Harbor. The crew manned the anti-aircraft guns, but Mazzoni ordered no return fire because of the extreme range of the aircraft. Tiger immediately headed for her designated wartime station off the entrance to Honolulu Harbor. For the remainder of the day the patrol vessel remained at the entrance and observed the air attack.

When the Japanese planes began their attack, the 327-foot cutter Taney lay moored at pier six in Honolulu Harbor six miles away from the naval anchorage. After the first Japanese craft appeared over the island, Taneys crew went to general quarters and made preparations to get underway. Taney had worked out of Honolulu since her commissioning in 1936. While observing the attack over Pearl Harbor, Taney received no orders to move and did not participate in the initial attacks by the Japanese. Just after 9:00 the second wave of Japanese planes began their final approach towards the harbor. Taney fired on some scattering formations enemy aircraft with her 3-inch guns and 50 caliber machine guns. The extreme range of the planes limited the effect of the fire and the guns were secured after twenty minutes.

Other Coast Guard vessels also participated. The 78-foot patrol boat designated CG-8, lay moored to pier 4 in Honolulu Harbor when the Japanese struck. Within minutes the crew of six, led by BM1 Boyd C. Maddox, was at general quarters and getting the ship underway. At approximately 9:00, CG-8 moved to Sand Island to pick up the depot keeper while bombs exploded nearby. The buoy tender Kukui, also at pier four, remained there because she had no armament to fight the Japanese. CG-8 proceeded back across the channel to Kewalo Basin and was strafed by Japanese aircraft while en route. At the basin CG-8 prohibited the small private vessels and sampans from leaving until Naval Intelligence could clear the owners.

 After the two waves of Japanese planes withdrew from Pearl Harbor, Coast Guard small craft secured the port areas, blacked out all navigational aids and stationed guards along the waterfront. TIGER maintained a patrol off the harbor entrance during the night. In the darkness overly anxious Army units along the shore fired on the cutter.

The buoy tender Walnut also unexpectedly became involved in one of the far actions of the attack. The Japanese sent a force of destroyers to Midway Island to neutralize any American naval forces there. That night, about 1,000 miles northwest of Hawaii, these destroyers shelled Midway Island. At 9:30 pm the unarmed buoy tender, Walnut stationed there for ATON duty, observed gun flashes from the northwest. Shells began landing within 100 feet of the ship, but Walnut remained anchored during the 30-minute attack. Unharmed, the tender later steamed to Hawaii and received guns and depth charges to safely perform ATON duty during the war.

The role of the Coast Guard during the battle, while not crucial to the outcome is worth repeating. The service would provide invaluable assistance during the war, participating in every theatre and all major amphibious campaigns, providing crucial convoy protection, and ensuring port security and the safe handling of munitions. The Coast Guard was the smallest armed branch but a major component of the war effort.