Cajun Coast Guard kept watch on Gulf
By Jim Bradshaw
Stories abound about German submarines sunk off the Louisiana coast during World War II. One of the most enduring is that the debris from one of them included the wrapper from a loaf of Evangeline Maid bread.
The wrapper, the story says, was there because several days earlier the submarine had pulled boldly into a Cameron Parish bayou and its officers had gone ashore to do some grocery shopping at a little country store.
It's almost certainly not a true story, although I know a towboat captain who worked the inland waterways in those days and who remembers tales of subs surfacing alongside shrimp boats to steal their fuel and groceries. A bread wrapper could have ended up in a German submarine that way.
There was more submarine activity in the Gulf than you might expect. The subs were after oil tankers carrying fuel from refineries at Houston, Port Arthur, and Lake Charles.
Those refineries were vital to the U.S. war effort, and some military authorities feared that the Germans might try to sneak men inland and try to blow them up.
That's why the Cajun Coast Guard was formed in 1942.
The War Department, some say at the explicit urging of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who had hunted in the south Louisiana marshes, commissioned oilman and sportsman William (Win) Hawkins to recruit men to guard our coast.
The outfit was officially named the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol Unit and its members were trappers and their kin who knew the coast and adjacent marshes better than anybody.
This was no regular military outfit. For one thing, practically all physical requirements were waived because men with swamp savvy were at such a premium.
The unit included 100 men. Some of them were in their teens; some were in their 60s. They worked 12-hour shifts and were paid $21 a month -- probably more cash money than many of them had ever seen outside of trapping season.
They rode their own horses and wore their own clothes as they patrolled more than 30 miles of coastline from Southwest Pass at Vermilion Bay to Grand Chenier, watching for subs and for saboteurs or sympathizers who might try to help them. They also manned 50-foot-high towers placed at strategic points along the Gulf shore.
But, if their primary duty was to keep German subs away, their most valuable service may actually have been to 35 American pilots they pulled from the marshes.
The pilots trained at the air base at Lake Charles and sometimes got into trouble with their planes or their navigation. More than one lost pilot crashed into the marsh.
Typical was the case of a pilot whose B-25 bomber came down about 150 yards from the Cameron Parish beach. He made it ashore but then wandered in the mosquito-infested marsh for two days.
When the men from the Cajun Coast Guard found him, he had buried himself in the mud in a futile attempt to get away from the mosquitoes. His face and arms were bloated and his eyes were swollen shut by mosquito bites.
The poor pilot was already half delirious, so you can imagine his confusion when a scruffy band of French-speaking Cajuns pulled him from the muck and loaded him into an early version of the big-wheeled swamp buggy that looked all the world like something from outer space.
Had he not been delirious, he might have imitated another pilot who was rescued by the ragtag band.
That one staggered over to the noisy, ugly swamp buggy, planted a heartfelt smooch on one of its big, mud-clotted tires, and murmured to it, "I love you like I love my own mother."
You can reach Jim Bradshaw by e-mail at email@example.com or by regular mail at P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.