Biloxi, Mississippi December 1934 - March 1947 By Lieutenant Colonel Ted Allan Morris, United States Air Force (Retired)
Two recent publications, History of Coast Guard Aviation, by Arthur Pearcy, 1989, and U.S. Coast Guard Aviation 1916-1996, Turner Publishing Co, 1997, have only five one line references to the Coast Guard Air Station, Biloxi, Mississippi. The Air Station at Biloxi was in commission from December 1934 through March 1947, and the Coast Guard maintained a presence in Biloxi with a one-plane detachment at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, from 1947 until 1966. As a former Coast Guard Aviation Machinist Mate briefly stationed at Biloxi following service at sea as a Quartermaster in WWII, I believe there are more than five lines of information worthy of remembrance of the first Coast Guard Air Station located on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.
I have attempted to compile some interesting information on operations and the men who served at Biloxi. Unfortunately I may have waited too long to start. So many of my shipmates have passed on, and searching for both printed and verbal personal memories has been a difficult task. I have also found that the Coast Guard, during those years, could not afford a very effective Public Information Division, so researching newspapers and other publications has been disappointing. People did not have the inexpensive cameras and film processing we do today, so photos are also almost impossible to find. Of course, that may also be due to the fact that personnel involved in a rescue mission were always more involved in performing the mission than attempting to record it!
As far as getting memories like this one down on paper, many people have told me, "I just can't write it down." I used to say the same thing, until I started thinking of an answer back in 1978 to my grown son's question, "So, what did you do in the Coast Guard and the Air Force back in the dark ages?" It seemed at the time that I'd never be able to "write it down," but I received encouragement from many people. While many of you reading this may think you can't "write it down" either, you can - I have put together more than twenty articles about my experiences and those of my shipmates. They don't sell in the popular press, but they do result in renewing friendships from those olden days, and making new friends as well.
Write down what you know, and write what you've heard! I have kicked myself many times for not recording the stories I heard from my father, who served on Coast Guard destroyers as well as "six bitters" during the Prohibition Wars, and on 165 and 240 foot cutters during his 24-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard.My point here is, you need to do it now. There is no second chance - and time is marching on for many of us! Now, on with the history of Biloxi Coast Guard Air Station.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE U.S. COAST GUARD In the year 1790 the Revolutionary War for Independence had recently ended and our young country was nearly one hundred million dollars in debt. A sea going law enforcement agency was needed to curtail smuggling and ensure that the newly implemented tariffs and customs taxes would be collected to aid in paying off this debt and to provide money to operate the government.
To this end Alexander Hamilton, the new Secretary of the Treasury, established both the Treasury Department and the Revenue Marine, a sea-going force of 10 vessels. By 1796 Hamilton had placed our new nation on firm financial footing and had paid off the Revolutionary War debt.
In 1885, the Revenue Marine became the Revenue Cutter Service. In 1915, the Treasury Department combined its Life Saving Service, founded in 1847, with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the United States Coast Guard.Over the succeeding years the Coast Guard acquired the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, the Steamboat Inspection Service and the Lighthouse Service, along with all the responsibilities of those agencies. Since 1790, the Coast Guard has participated in all our country's wars, fighting alongside the other Armed Forces.
THE PROHIBITION WAR
THE USCG AT BILOXI, MISSISSIPPI, 1925-1933 The Coast Guard also fought one very unpopular war in which the other Armed Forces did not participate. In 1917, Republican Andrew J. Volstead, Congressman from Minnesota, introduced a bill that carried his name "The Volstead Act". It was passed by Congress, vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, but passed over his veto. Ratified by the states, the Volstead Act became the law of the land on 17 January 1920 as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Prohibition was in effect!
The Coast Guard was then charged with stopping the "illicit import," that is to say, smuggling, of liquor along the nation's sea coasts;. New operating bases, new boats and ships were built to fight what was to become known as "The Prohibition War."
One such operating base was Base 15 at Biloxi, Mississippi, located on Biloxi Back Bay on land known as the Naval Reserve. Commissioned in 1925 with Captain S.P. Edmonds in command, it eventually had over 125 personnel, twelve 75-foot patrol boats, six 38-foot high-speed picket boats, the 125-foot patrol boat, WOODBURY, and the larger 165-foot cutter, TRITON.
Prohibition proved to be very unpopular, difficult to enforce, and very costly in terms of tax revenue lost. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, and prohibition was repealed.
With the end of the "war on booze," Base 15 at Biloxi, then under the command of LT F. P. Vellerick, was decommissioned on 2 June 1933. Vessels and personnel were transferred to the operating base at Pasacagoula, Mississippi, which then became Base 15. Many of the vessels used in the Prohibition War were placed in storage, and Coast Guard manning was reduced.
COAST GUARD AVIATIONAMPHIBIOUS REQUIREMENTS IN THE GULF OF MEXICO At first, it appeared that the Coast Guard, relieved of its Prohibition War responsibilities, would leave Biloxi, ending its presence there after more than eight years. However, another prime Coast Guard responsibility, "the saving of lives at sea," although it had never really been set aside during Prohibition, once again took on more importance. To the ever-increasing shipping traffic in the Gulf of Mexico, air travel over water was becoming more common. Coast Guard Aviation was also growing as newer aircraft provided increased capabilities to the service. However, the Gulf of Mexico at that time had no facilities along its shores from which Coast Guard Aviation could operate.
To provide more effective life saving using aircraft along the south coast, Coast Guard officials began a search for locations to place Air Stations. Each would be equipped with a radio station and three or four amphibians or seaplanes, several of which would be classified as Air Ambulances. These aircraft, capable of not only conducting aerial searches over the vast Gulf waters, were also able to land at sea, pick up ill or injured patients, and return them to needed medical care. One well-situated site was Biloxi, Mississippi.
The Coast Guard team of LCDR C. G. von Paulsen, W. R. Kenley and M. P. Ulte conferred with Biloxi City Commissioners to find waterfront property suitable for an air station. The City fathers made the six acre Point Cadet Park available. It was ideally suited for an amphibian base, located on Biloxi's eastern edge with direct access to Biloxi Bay.
On 21 September 1933, Mississippi Senator Pat Harrison and City Commissioner John Swanzy announced that President F. D. Roosevelt had signed the bill authorizing $290,000 for construction of the Coast Guard Air Station, Biloxi, Mississippi. Initially, $100,000 of Public Works Administration funds were made available to begin clearing the land, dredging of Biloxi Bay, building a concrete seawall and constructing a seaplane ramp. Also included was the construction of the 120 X 100 foot steel-framed, asbestos-sided hangar, with offices and maintenance shops along each side. In addition, there were the aircraft parking and operating areas to be built, as well as the radio station. Bids were opened and the winner, B. Knost and Company of Pass Christian, MS, began construction in November 1933. The remaining $190,000 was spent in later years for a barracks, mess hall, garage and crash boat dock. Until the barracks and mess hall were completed in 1938, personnel had to find housing and messing in Biloxi.
Biloxi Air Station, 1938. In 1938, the Coast Guard Air Station had about 18 acres. Shown here is the 12,000 square foot hangar with offices and shops, the paved aircraft parking area, and the seaplane ramp. The small building at center is the radio station. Two wings of the E-shaped barracks and mess hall are at the left. The highway bridge across Biloxi Bay to Ocean Springs is visible above the hangar. Photo by Tony Ragusim.
COMMISSIONING OF THE AIR STATION.
THE FIRST AIRCRAFT ARRIVE On 5 December 1934, the air station and Coast Guard Radio Station "NOX" were placed in commission, with LT W. S. Anderson as commanding officer. Lieutenant Anderson, Coast Guard Aviator #10, graduated in the First Coast Guard Aviation Class from Pensacola Naval Air Station, Florida, in 1916.
A big ceremony was planned, including a fly-over by three large Navy patrol planes from Pensacola, ribbon cutting, and the arrival of the first two Coast Guard Grumman JF-2 amphibian aircraft. It was all to be covered by Fox Movietone news, but the event was cancelled due to very bad weather.
Everything, that is, except the arrival of the Coast Guard amphibians. The first, JF-2 #163, was flown by LT CDR von Paulsen with Aviation Chief Machinist Mate Eddie English as crew member, and the second, JF-2 #164, flown by LT E. E. Fahey with ACMM P. D. Hinder as crew member. The Air Station was in operation!
Scene from Biloxi Air Station, 1935. The first three of many aircraft to be based at Biloxi Air Station sit at the ready while a visitor and his children look over everything. The two Grumman JF-2s (#163 and #164) are on the parking apron, while the Douglas RD-4 (#132) is at the ready position at the seaplane ramp. At the need to launch, the aircraft would taxi down the ramp into Biloxi Bay, retract the wheels, and make a take off from the water. On returning, it would land on the bay, extend the wheels, taxi up the ramp, be washed down with fresh water to remove the corrosive salt water, and be made ready for the next mission. Photo by Tony Ragusim. The Grumman JF-2 was a single-engine biplane with 39-foot fabric-covered wings on an all metal single-hull float. The engine was a Wright Cyclone R-1820 radial engine, and the cost of each aircraft was $45,000. It had positions for a pilot, Aviation Radioman and a flight mechanic, who sat in the hull float beneath the radioman. There was also room to place several survivors in the float. The JF-2, called a "Duck", had a range of 795 miles at 155 miles per hour. In October 1936, all Coast Guard aircraft were renumbered, the numbers replaced with "V" and 3 digits. JF-2 #163 became V-137 and #164 became
Coast Guard Aircraft RD-4 #132, named for the star Ailoth, makes ready for a mercy mission to assist someone in distress at sea. After the aircraft enters the water, the whells will be retracted to beneath the wing, and a water take-off sends it on the way. In this photo the water is perfect for operations. When the water is glassy smooth, a vacuum drag is created making a very long take-off run necessary. On landing, the pilot wold find it hard to determine just where the surface is. In these cases, a crash boat would run ahead of the aircraft, chopping up the water surface. On occasions, a strong wind from the west combined with a low tide would casue a very low ater table. This condition made it necessary to slowly taxi a long distance to find water deep enough to make a take-off. A landing would not be attempted. Under low water conditions, operation would sometimes shift to Biloxi Municipal airport. Photo by Tony Ragusim. V-138. V-137 served at Biloxi until 1938, when it was transferred to the new Air Station in San Diego, California.
On 23 February 1935, LT W. S. Anderson, Commanding Officer, and his aircrew landed the third aircraft, a Douglas amphibian RD-4, in Biloxi Bay. Fresh from the Douglas factory in Santa Monica, California, RD-4 #132 was a twin-engine, high wing monoplane with Pratt and Whitney R-1340-10 engines. The 60-foot wing was constructed of waterproof plywood while the all-metal fuselage was constructed of aluminum. Its fuselage was really a boat-like hull with positions for two pilots, an aviation radioman and a flight mechanic, plus room for several survivors in wire "stokes" stretchers. The RD-4 "Dolphin" #132 was also given the name "ALIOTH." Many of the early, larger Coast Guard aircraft were individually named for heavenly stars. The RD-4 had a range of 660 miles at 110 miles per hour, and cost $45,000 each. In 1936, #132 became V-127.
In 1936, Biloxi welcomed the arrival of a General Aviation "Flying Life Boat" PJ-2 #251 (V-116) seaplane. This large aircraft, named for the star Antares, had been a PJ-1 with engines and propellers pushing to the rear. In 1933, #251 was overhauled and the Pratt and Whitney R-1690 engines were turned around to face forward so the propellers pulled rather than pushed through the air. The PJ-2 was twin-engined, with a high mounted 74-foot plywood covered wing, and an aluminum boat-like hull. It had a retractable set of wheels and could taxi about on land and move up and down the seaplane ramp. However, the gear were not stressed for take off or landing on land, and so it was a seaplane, rather than an amphibian. Its range was 1000 miles at 110 miles per hour, and there were positions for two pilots, an Aviation Radioman, and two flight mechanic aircrew members. There were also provisions for three litters. The initial cost of the PJ-2 was $45,000.
A Grumman JF-2 "Duck" in USCG pre-war markings.
The Douglas RD-4 amphibian #132 "Ailoth" returns from a medical mercy mission during the summer of 1935. It passes over the hangar at Biloxi Air Station as it prepares to land in the Biloxi Bay Seadrome operating area. Ground crew members wait at the top of the seaplane ramp, while several civilan friends and relatives of the patient on the aircraft sit along the seawall. The Ailoth will land in the water, lower its landing gear, and taxi up the ramp. Ground crew members will secure the aircraft and assist in rmoving the patient for transfer to medical care in Biloxi. This photo was taken from the station crash boat, standing by in the bay. Photo by USCG
The General Aviation Company PJ-2 Seaplane, FLB-51. Referred to as a "Flying Lifeboat" (FLB), this seaplane carried the name of the star "Antares" A very rugged aircraft used only by the Coast Guard, it performed many offshore open sea landings on medical mercy missions. This aircraft began as a PJ-1 with Pratt and Whitney R-1340 engines and pusher propellers. It was modified in 1933 with Pratt and Whitney R-1690 engines and tractor propellers to become the only PJ-2. The original number FLB-51 was changed to V-116 in 1936. The 74-foot wing was constructed of plywood while the fuselage was aluminum. Note the stiffeners along the bottom of the hull. The built-in beaching gear was for ground handling only, and not stressed for take-off or landings. The blue fuselage and silver wing color scheme was later changed to overall aluminum color. Photo by USCG.
In 1936, Coast Guard aircrew members from CG Air Station Biloxi lower a patient in a stokes wire litter from the General Aviation Company PJ-2 FLB-51 to an awaiting medical team and ambulance for transport to the hospital. The patient was picked up from a merchant ship in the Gulf of Mexico after an open sea landing by the Coast Guard crew and aircraft. Photo by Tony Ragusim.FLB-51 and four sister ships (FLB-52 through FLB-55) began their coast guard careers in 1932 as PJ-1s. FLB-51 was the only PJ-1 to be modfied to the tractor propeller PJ-2 version. This modification gave FLB-51 a 1,000 nautical mile range, and a top speed of 135 MPH. FLB-51 was retired in 1941. Also in 1936, a third JF-2 #173 (V-147) reported for duty at Biloxi, and remained until 1938, when it was transferred to the new Port Angeles Air Station in Washington State. A rather odd-looking replacement aircraft replaced it - a French designed Hydravions Schreck seaplane, built by Viking Flying Boat Company in the USA. Designated the 00-1 flying boat, this was a biplane with fabric covered wings, a 39-foot wing span, and a single Wright R-760 engine. The bottom wing was mounted atop the boat-type metal hull, which had two large open cockpits. The forward cockpit was for the pilots, and rear cockpit for survivors.
FLB-51 before her conversion. Photo by USCG The 00-1 had a 400-mile range at 90 miles per hour. While ungainly in appearance, it was an excellent seaplane. A special beaching gear dolly was needed for movement about on land. Because of the open cockpits, it was referred to as the "Flying Bathtub."
An odd look at an odd looking aircraft. The French designed Hydravions-Schreck seaplane built in the U.S. by the Viking Flying Boat Company. This biplane had a 39-foot wing span, with 250 square feet of lifting surface. A singe R-760 seven cylinder radial engine with a seven-foot fixed wooden prop gave it a 100 MPH, 390 mile range. Given the designation OO-1, the Coast Guard purchased five of these four place aircraft. With two open cockpits, they were referred to as the "Flying Bath Tub". Despite it's odd look, open cockpits and wet water operations, it was an excellent aircraft, and one of the cheapest purchase by the Coast Guard, costing 7,000 each. All photos by USCG. With one exception, the OO-1s were based at Southern air stations:V-152 (pictured below) at St. Petersburg, Florida from October 1936 through March 1939 when it crashed with no fatalities.V-153 was at CGAS Miami, Florida from October 1936 through November 1940.V-154 at CGAS Biloxi, Mississippi, November 1936 through March 1941.V-155 (the aircraft pictured above) at CGAS Cape May, New Jersey, December 1936 through November 1939.V-156 was at CGAS Charleston, South Carolina, December 1936 through November 1939.
STORM WARNINGS FOR THE SHRIMPERS Aerial surveillance, looking for lost or disabled vessels, reporting wrecks and obstructions to navigation, emergency medical or mercy evacuation missions, and law enforcement missions were all part of Biloxi Air Station's responsibilities. Much of the commerce on the Gulf coast was then involved in commercial fishing, especially shrimping, and there was a large shrimp-boat fleet and packing houses located in Biloxi. Coast Guard flying operations from Biloxi provided important safety notification and assistance to this industry.
In cases of bad weather and severe storms, or when the need arose to contact fishermen for emergencies at home, flights would be made to inform the "shrimpers," since radios were not in wide spread use among the fishermen. Radios of that era were expensive, required the operator to use Morse Code, and needed lots of specialized maintenance. So messages were delivered directly by Biloxi's aircraft, flying low and slow to accurately drop a floating yellow wooden message block with a long yellow cloth streamer attached. The streamer made the hollowed out block easily retrievable from the water - and the hand written message inside the block would be passed on to the addressee or to the fishing fleet. I participated in several of these flights in the late mid-1940s, and they weren't all milk runs.
While dropping storm warnings in 1946, our JRF-5 #84791 amphibian's left engine suffered major damage when the internal crank shaft split in two, causing sudden engine stoppage. The pilot, LT G. E. McGovern, just managed to maintain control and make a forced landing from our 50-foot altitude into very turbulent waters. Our aircraft suffered severe damage and had to be towed some 60 miles back to Biloxi Air Station after the storm passed.
SOME EARLY RESCUE MISSIONS In 1937, LT CDR R.L. Raney, Coast Guard Aviator #39, became the new commanding officer and an additional 12 acres were added to the original six at the Air Station.
In July 1937, with pilot LT CDR Raney, aviation machinist mate C.E. Bay, and aviation radioman F.W. Logue, PJ-2 V-116 "ANTARES" launched from Biloxi on a medical mercy mission. The oil tanker S.S. W. J. HUMPHREY, 200 miles southwest of Biloxi, had a seriously injured seaman aboard who needed evacuation.
Taking off in late morning, the ANTARES located the tanker and made a successful water landing, transferring the patient, A. Toth, on board. However, rising winds and a rough sea prevented a take off. Pilot Raney attempted to taxi over 50 miles to the shelter of Timbalier Bay to the west of Grand Isle, Louisiana. The wind and sea conditions prevented this attempt, so Commander Raney headed for the shelter of the Southwest Pass, at the entrance to the Mississippi River. The 165-foot Coast Guard Cutter NIKE rendezvoused to escort the ANTARES, and after several hours, the aircraft arrived with no damage, but nearly out of aviation gas. RD-4 V-127 piloted by LT J. R. Henthorn, launched from Biloxi, and arrived at Southwest Pass to transfer enough fuel to the ANTARES for the return flight. Both aircraft then made successful takeoffs and landed safely at Biloxi Air Station about 8:00 that evening. Seaman Toth was transferred by ambulance to Biloxi Hospital, where he recovered. The full efforts of two rescue aircraft and aircrews, along with the assistance of the cutter NIKE made this a very successful mission.