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MacArthur's Navy

A colorful, if motley, assortment of vessels: fishing trawlers, ferries, island traders, pearl luggers, coconut plantation boats, coastal schooners and tugboats, among others ... crewed by about 1,300 yachtsmen and Coast Guard Auxiliarists.

by Kay Larson, Coast Guard Auxiliary

Photo provided by Ed Dennis, Coast Guard Auxiliary (ret.)

During World War II, some 50,000 Coast Guard Auxiliary members conducted security patrols; checking vessel certification papers; monitoring blackout enforcement, inlet traffic and anchorage areas; guarding bridges and factories; clearing floating debris; rendering aid at boat fires, explosions and plane crashes; conducting small boat search and rescue; escorting naval and merchant ships, and more. And some of them even worked for the Army.

From late 1943 through 1944, former auxiliarist Edwin Dennis served under a civilian contract in the Small Ships Branch, Water Division, Transportation Corps, U.S. Army in Gen. Douglas MacArthur's New Guinea campaign. Five other members of his Queens, N.Y., auxiliary flotilla also joined the Army Transportation Corps.

The Small Ships Branch was formed by wealthy yachtsmen A. Bruce and J. Sheridan Fahnestock of Long Island, N.Y., who were family friends of President Franklin Roosevelt. They, their mother, friends and scientists had conducted two famed South Seas exploring expeditions in 1934 and 1940 aboard 65-foot and 137-foot schooners sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions. During the 1940 expedition, they gathered hydrographic data for the U.S. Hydrographic Office and the British Admiralty.

From their experience sailing among the islands, the Fahnestocks concluded that a fleet of small craft would be needed for operations in the Pacific. In December 1941, they began work with "Mission X" in Washington, D.C. Logistics, communications and engineering specialists, along with the Fahnestock group, initially worked to devise a plan to relieve the Philippines. However, it soon became clear to Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall that the first priority was to stop the Japanese from taking Australia. Maj. Arthur R. Wilson met with Sheridan Fahnestock in early January 1942 and asked if he and his brother could return to the Pacific as Army officers to put together a small ships service. 

Thus, the Fahnestocks, members of their exploring group, and other officers arrived in Australia in the spring of 1942. Under the terms of a reverse lend-lease agreement, they acquired a colorful, if motley, assortment of vessels: fishing trawlers, ferries, island traders, pearl luggers, coconut plantation boats, coastal schooners and tugboats, among others. The Army recruited about 1,300 Coast Guard auxiliarists and yachtsmen to crew them.

Many who joined the Small Ships Branch were either over or under the enlistment age or were otherwise unfit for regular duty. 

When Dennis tried to enlist in the Navy and Coast Guard, he was rejected because of color blindness. So he went to the Small Ships Branch. He was married with two children, but he wanted to join the overseas war effort, and, as he describes it, "if you could handle a small boat and you didn't mind going into a combat zone in a virtually unarmed vessel, you were signed on." 

Shortly after reporting to the Brooklyn Army recruiting station, Dennis was shipped to San Francisco, where, along with some 50 other auxiliarists, he was put through a battery of tests. Because he wasn't trained in celestial navigation, he was made an engineer. He arrived in Sydney, Australia, in early November 1943. By that time, things were looking grim for the Army in New Guinea.

In March 1942, Roosevelt had ordered MacArthur to depart the Philippines. After arriving in Australia, MacArthur determined that New Guinea would be its defensive line. In July, Japanese forces occupied the New Guinea north shore at Buna and other points; MacArthur would spend the next two years evicting them. The Navy's bluewater fleet had virtually abandoned MacArthur, citing submerged but uncharted reefs along the coast and the fact that its warships would have little or no room to maneuver without grounding. 

"There were no ships available from the Navy," Dennis explains, "and there were no sailors to man the vessels they did not have. So MacArthur was left to secure the coast of Papua and recapture Buna, New Guinea, as best he could with whatever water transportation he could scrounge. Thus, the fleet of small ships was born and quickly dubbed 'MacArthur's Navy.'"

As a result, MacArthur's forces and supplies for the initial Buna campaign landings at Pongani were shuttled by the small craft fleet cobbled together by the Fahnestock group. MacArthur eventually succeeded in taking Buna, but not without considerable help from the Small Ship Service.

Through 1942 and 1943, the Small Ships Service was the lifeline of the Allied armies in New Guinea. They carried METAl matting for airstrips; high-octane gasoline; trucks, jeeps and bulldozers; spare parts; guns and ammunition; mail; boots and helmets; medical supplies and dehydrated, canned and powdered food; and tired, sick, wounded and dead men.

The soldiers and sailors who fought in New Guinea faced one of the most daunting environments in the world. The monsoon rains, heat and humidity caused pneumonia and bronchitis; malaria, dengue fever, scrub typhus, jungle rot, and dysentery were rampant; leeches infested the creeks, and sharks and crocodiles inhabited the coastal waters. For those in the Small Ships Service, the ships themselves offered, in some cases, additional challenges.

The first ship Dennis served on as engineer was the Jane Moorhead, a 72-foot ketch &emdash; built in 1885, it may have been the oldest vessel in active U.S. service. Although seaworthy, it had only two .50 caliber machine guns and no refrigeration, electricity or toilet facilities. The men slept in the captain's cabin and foc'sle or on the deck. 

The Jane's first big mission came during the assault on Pongani, a battle that resulted in 9,000 American and Australian casualties half again as many as at Guadalcanal. The Jane carried soldiers and ammunition from Wanigela to Pongani. The Jane arrived during the landing, and the troops and supplies were offloaded onto double-hulled native dugouts pushed through the breakers by men standing naked in the surf. A few hours later, the Jane turned around and headed back to Wanigela for another load.

Though the Jane came out of the Pongani landings unscathed, it was bombed and strafed several times at Lae and Dreger Harbor and at Cape Gloucester, New Britain while Dennis was aboard. When it sailed between islands, it was attacked by lone Japanese "Zeros," aircraft equipped with pontoons. 

In June 1944, Dennis transferred to the Atabrine Express, an armed medical evacuation ship attached to the 13th Medical Corps at Finschafen, New Guinea. He later began a civilian career in editing publications and is now retired in Florida.

But he still remembers and says he is very proud of having been a part of MacArthur's Navy: "the unknown few who answered our country's call in its hour of need, and helped in a small way to turn the tide of battle until massive help could be sent from America."