Back when I was a kid, unknowingly lucky enough to be regularly wandering around a fabulous small-town library like the Oregon Public Library, one of the youth history books that I read about World War II (and there was an industry of such publishing in the 1950s and 60s) was focused on the exploits of the Coast Guard, and their now largely-forgotten contribution as Nazi U-boats sank an astonishing amount of shipping within sight of our coasts. So I was struck to see this New York Times article/obituary call one of those stories to light.
John Cullen, Coast Guardsman Who Detected Spies, Dies at 90
By RICHARD GOLDSTEIN
Published: September 2, 2011
In the spring of 1942, Seaman John Cullen was assigned to one of the Coast Guard’s less glamorous tasks in an America newly at war.
Seaman Cullen was a “sand pounder,” the term for Coast Guardsmen who patrolled beaches looking for signs of lurking German submarines or perhaps someone or something suspicious on the sand.
“Once in a while you might run into somebody, but very rare,” Mr. Cullen, who died on Monday, told a Coast Guard oral history interviewer in 2006, recalling his patrols on the eastern Long Island shore near his station at Amagansett.
On Friday the 13th of June ’42, Seaman Cullen was on patrol about a half-hour past midnight when it was “so foggy that I couldn’t see my shoes.”
He spotted a figure in the mist and the outlines of three others behind him. “Who are you?” he called out, shining his flashlight at the group, his Coast Guard insignia visible.
The man closest to him said that he and his companions were fishermen who had run aground. He spoke English well enough, but one of the others, dragging a bag, shouted something in German.
Seaman Cullen was “armed” only with a flare gun for sending signals when he came across what he figured were surely German spies. Moments later, he fled from the men and ran back to his station to sound an alarm. He led fellow Coast Guardsmen to the spot where he had encountered the four. They were long gone, but the Coast Guard dug up explosives they had buried.
Thus began a hunt for saboteurs who had been sent to the United States on U-boats by the German military spy service in a plot to blow up rail facilities and war-industry plants.
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