There were many veterans of the June 1944 Normandy Invasion. Also many who landed at Iwo Jima in February 1945. But how many can claim to have participated in both battles? Not to mention Operation Dragoon in southern France and the “Typhoon of Steel” at Okinawa? If he can, there is a good chance he was a member of the United States Coast Guard, which celebrates its 217th birthday this Saturday.
One such veteran was Marvin Perrett, a Coast Guard landing craft coxswain assigned to the USS Bayfield (APA-33). He joined up in 1943 when he turned 18 and was sent to Camp Lejune to train on a classic drop-front Higgins Boat landing craft (LCVP). Shortly thereafter he found himself on a rough sea voyage to Britain. At that time the Coast Guard had been seconded to the Navy and operated jointly as a Navy asset. The Coastguardsmen wore Navy uniforms, the only difference being a small shield on the sleeve. This became the object of sport for the sailors — during liberty at Glasgow they spread a rumor among the young ladies that the shield signified that these men had a social disease. “After a few bar room fights we straightened that mess out,” Marvin said.
He first saw action April 28, 1944, during Exercise Tiger in Lyme Bay off the southern coast of England. It was a warm-up for the Normandy invasion and was supposed to have tight security, but nine German E-Boats snuck into the training area and attacked. The E-Boats hit fast and furious then withdrew, pursued by much slower American rocket-armed boats, one of which was manned by gunners mate Yogi Berra. Over six hundred Americans were killed by enemy fire, and later several hundred more died from friendly fire in the live ammunition exercise. Ultimately there were more casualties in Exercise Tiger than there would be on Utah Beach on June 6.
The morning of D-Day found Marvin twelve miles off the French shore in Higgins Boat PA-33-21 (a boat bearing the number is now at the D-Day Museum in Marvin’s home town of New Orleans), carrying 36 soldiers from the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. The Bayfield was the flagship of the invasion forces at Utah Beach, and there were about 100 other CG-manned vessels at Normandy. PA-33-21 and over two dozen other boats from the Bayfield circled for four hours waiting for the order to go in. When it finally came they wasted no time.
“We’re line abreast charging in,” Marvin related. “Maybe like a city block from the beach I‘d see out ahead of me the machine gun bullets hitting the water and cascading ten feet high, and this is in front of me. It’s in my line of path. It’s in my line of vision and anybody in their right mind you figure, ‘Man, lets hold up here a minute fellows and let the guy run out of ammunition,’ or hope he’ll train the gun at another angle or whatever, but you can’t do that. …As we’re going in like this you can’t stop or fault or linger, for to do so you’d cause grid-lock all the way behind you back out towards sea. …Everybody in the boat is frightened to death, I’m sure, and I’m talking about the Marines and the Army and the whole nine yards, and us to boot. So you figure, ‘Well I can’t stop. I’ve got to go and I can’t slow down,’ and to do so you would have to live with the fact that all these guys are going to consider you a coward and you wouldn’t want to live with that. So we were compelled for whatever higher action was done to just go through and drive into a hail of bullets.”
Miraculously, Marvin got his charges to shore through the gunfire without incident. “Of course probably what happened, maybe the guy did in fact train the gun to another direction or maybe he ran out of bullets at that time and he had to reload. … All I can say is they were very poor shots because it wasn’t like they didn’t get a chance to take me out.” He made several more trips to the beach that day, and each time emerged unscathed.
In August 1944 Marvin took part in Operation Dragoon, the amphibious invasion of southern France. “I was a salty sailor by then,” he noted. German resistance was lighter than expected and the invasion was a great success. Then came Iwo Jima. “What we didn’t anticipate was the warm reception we would receive hitting Iwo Jima as opposed to Normandy,” Marvin said. “In my case the landing at Iwo Jima was much more treacherous shall we say then what I experienced at Utah Beach.”
A battle diary by Coast Guard Gunner’s Mate First Class Robert Mullins captures the chaos of the battle at the shoreline. The tide was high and the beach sloped down hard, so once the landing craft made it to shore the coxswain and his fellow crew had to battle the surging surf to keep the boat steady while the thirty Marines they carried charged out. “The third to last Marine leaving the boat fell carrying an awkward 30-caliber machinegun piece,” Marvin said. “He fell right in front of my lowered ramp and of course with the waves hitting me quite heavily astern, they were cascading over the stern sheet and depositing the water into the belly of the boat.” The waves were pushing the boat violently towards the young Marine struggling for footing in the volcanic sand, leaving Marvin only one option to prevent him being crushed. He threw the engines into reverse with the ramp still down. The crew tried to raise the ramp but water that had already washed into the boat overwhelmed the pumps. “That’s how I lost my boat,” he said. But he had saved a life.
Marvin and his crew found themselves unexpectedly on the Iwo Jima beachhead. “We stepped ashore, big as you please, the four of us, and we had two or three Springfield rifles ready to do battle except we left the boat in such haste that we didn’t have any ammunition,” he said. “The only thing we really had to show for ourselves was a ditty bag that we had made with medical supplies, so I figured, ‘Well hang onto that. We may need that before it’s over.’”
Marvin tried to report to the Beach Master amidst the turmoil of battle as Japanese fire raked the sand. “I was scrambling around for dear life on that beach,” he said. He found a member of the beach party and asked him where the Master was.
“I don’t know man,” he replied, “I don’t know. They’ve all been wiped out.”
“I could see the poor kid was out of his head,” Marvin said. “So I turned to my three guys and I said, ‘Well, we tried.’” Marvin and his men eventually made it back to the Bayfield, hitching a ride on another landing craft. Once there he was told to report to the skipper, Captain W.R. Richards, on the flying bridge. He went reluctantly, expecting to be punished.
“So it was just the Captain and myself, man to man,” Marvin said. “He’s leaning on the rail watching the war in progress. So I walk up to him and I respectfully reported that I lost my boat and he said, “Well okay son, I’m now aware of that,” and I’m expressing concern that I had lost this vital piece of equipment because I figured he was going to probably tell me I’m going to spend some time in the brig to think it over… I thought I was going to get busted. But in any event, to my surprise, he turned and said, “Well okay son, don’t worry about. We’re going to probably loose some more of these boats before it’s over.”
“Aye aye Sir.”
“All I want you to do now is just go down and get some rest. Your crew is alright?”
“Oh yes, we came out without a scratch.”
“Well okay, that’s fine. All I want you to do is go down, lay below, get some rest and be prepared to relieve other crews as necessary.”
“Aye aye Sir.”
“That was it,” Marvin said. “And that was Iwo Jima.”
Marvin survived that battle, as well as Okinawa. He made it back to the U.S. after VJ Day, sailing into port at San Francisco. “We go through the Golden Gate and, man, the guys are standing with tears running down their face,” he said. “I’m choking up just thinking about it; a momentous occasion.” Until recently, Marvin traveled the country making public appearances primarily to young student audiences, helping them understand what it meant to serve during that conflict, as well as in our current war. He told them, “If freedom is worthwhile living for it’s got to be worthwhile dying for.” Marvin passed away May 6 in his home in Metairie, Louisiana. He was 81.
Marvin Perrett’s full story other accounts of Coast Guardsmen and women in war and peace can be found at the web site of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office . Happy birthday to all the Coasties who have served, and are serving, securing our ports, conducting maritime-interception operations and coastal-security patrols, taking down smugglers and drug runners, and saving lives on a daily basis.
— James S. Robbins is the Director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University, Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.