By Petty Officer 2nd Class David R. Marin
After WWII came to American soil, the Port of Baltimore was selected as one of the ports to build emergency cargo ships, or Liberty ships as they later became known. On Feb. 25, 1942, by order of the Secretary of the Navy, the Coast Guard was assigned the responsibility of protecting ports, vessels and waterfront facilities.
With the selection of the port of Baltimore, the Coast Guard was sent on a course to establish a training center located on the grounds of Fort McHenry. As the training station grew, the facility left little room for the morale and personal lives of those assigned as students, instructors and support personnel.
As the Coast Guard’s role during the war increased, so too did the need for servicemembers and volunteers. Nearly 250,000 men joined the Coast Guard during the war effort. With such a rapid expansion of personnel came a need for proper training.
“On May 15, 1942, the War Department leased nearly eight and a half acres of Fort McHenry for the Coast Guard to use as a fire control and port security training facility,” said Ranger Scott Sheads, a historian at Fort McHenry.
“The first class of 50 policemen and firemen, recruited from all over the country, will begin a five or six-week course, to be followed by similar courses for the port security section of the Coast Guard’s fire-prevention and fire-fighting schools,” said the Baltimore Sun newspaper. “On completion of the training period, the members of the class will be assigned along the coast line, some for duty at ports and others for training newly enlisted personnel.”
“It seems to me that overall, in studying the historical material at the fort, the two main missions of the Coast Guard were port security and shipboard firefighting,” said Ranger Vince Vaise, chief of interpretation at Fort McHenry National Park. “Port security was emphasized early in the war because we were just getting into the war building the ships and because Pearl Harbor was recently attacked.”
The port security training encompassed sabotage, war gases, first aid, Judo and firearms.
“Later, the emphasis shifts to shipboard firefighting,” added Vaise. “The legacy in that came late in the war when the kamikaze attacks were at their height, [the U.S.] really did have shipboard firefighting figured out.”
By June of 1943, the training station grew to include temporary wooden barracks on the east grounds, a fire demonstration building, an open demonstration oil tank, a 40-foot fire tower and a gas chamber.
“They also had the Gaspar De Portola, an old Liberty ship, which was used for fire training on how to fight fires on board Navy ships,” added Sheads.
An unseaworthy Liberty ship, the Gaspar De Portola was obtained by Adm. Russell R. Waeshe, commandant of the Coast Guard at the time. The vessel was used to conduct several tests on shipboard fires.
The Firefighting School included lessons on chemistry of fire, fire streams and friction losses, nomenclature, fire pumps, respiratory protection, flammable liquids and gases, fire safety and 12 hours of outdoor fire training.
By the spring of 1943, the training station developed a course in Elementary Damage Control consisting in studies of fire fighting, stability buoyancy-organization and shallow water diving and welding.
Aside from training, life for those stationed at Fort McHenry was routine.
“A typical day started with reveille, breakfast call and then we’d jump on the trucks, which took us to the piers where we stood guard duty,” said August Lachner, who was stationed at Fort McHenry. “Men not on guard duty manned fireboats, cleaned buildings or were mess cooks. “
To escape the routine of day-to-day operations, USO entertainers would often visit the fort, and servicemembers found other ways, on and off post, to entertain themselves.
“In the weekends we’d have entertainment in the cafeteria, which is now the Naval Reserve Center,” said Mozzo. “I belonged to a dance band and played the clarinet on Saturday and Sunday nights. It was a lively base 24/7.”
“When you study the era of the U.S. Coast Guard at Fort McHenry, it’s like the old saying, ‘you have your saints and you have your sinners,’ and actually, like most normal people, a little bit of both,” added Vaise. “They said it was really training intensive and certainly the workload was really heavy with regulating all the buoys and the ships and support of port security. So I’m going to guess that when they had a little bit of free time, there was a lot of steam to blow off. That manifested itself in a lot of different ways.”
“You have some colorful tales of guys getting drunk,” said Vaise. “Perhaps most colorful was a guy who not only was drunk and had a bottle smashed over his head, but was actually thrown in the brig, which he managed to escape but was found wondering and asking how one gets off the fort grounds.”
In all he Coast Guard trained more than 28,000 service members and volunteers on security and fire control, and in August of 1945 with the end of WWII, the Coast Guard vacated the park.
Today, walking the grounds of Fort McHenry and talking to the park rangers, visitors can see exhibits and hear about the Coast rich history in protecting the nation, much as the service continues to do today.