They all knew how to ride: fox hunters from Philadelphia’s Main Line, farm boys from the Midwest, and cowboys from Texas.
They also were members of the United States Coast Guard, and they were dispatched to the wild dunes of the Delaware coast in 1942 to fill a gaping hole in America’s defenses.
On March 10, 1942, the Norwegian merchant ship Hvoslef was torpedoed and sunk off the southern Delaware coast. Thirteen hours later, a lifeboat with 14 survivors from the Hvoslef slid onto the deserted beach at Fenwick Island.
The Norwegian sailors received a friendly reception; but if they could land safely and undetected, it would be possible for not-so-friendly German agents to land there easily.
Three days after the Hvoslef sailors landed at Fenwick Island, the FBI, state and local police forces in Delaware and Maryland made coordinated raids at nearly two dozen locations across the Delmarva Peninsula.
The agents confiscated over 400 rounds of ammunition, numerous rifles, ammunition belts, shotguns, short-wave radios, cameras, paraphernalia for developing photographs, a swastika flag and several Nazi armbands.
The raids did little to calm the fears that enemy agents could easily enter the country by slipping ashore on one of Delaware’s dark beaches.
Three months later, German submarines landed two small groups of enemy saboteurs on beaches near Jacksonville, Florida and at Amagansett, New York. All eight Nazi agents were quickly arrested; but the fact that they had been able to reach shore unchallenged demonstrated the vulnerability of the American coast.
J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, announced, “The spy, the saboteur, the subverter must be met and conquered.”
The Coast Guard began routine surveillance of the nation’s beaches with foot patrols and dogs; but along the Delaware coast, the soft sand made foot patrols difficult. The Coast Guardsmen needed to travel quickly over the dunes, and they needed to be elevated to effectively search for possible infiltrators on the beach.
The Coast Guard decided to send in the cavalry.
In 1942, the Coast Guard recruited experienced riders to serve in the Coast Guard Mounted Patrol. Based in stables near Rehoboth and at Bethany Beach, the Mounties patrolled the Delaware coast from Cape Henlopen to Fenwick Island.
The mounted patrols, who were not only able to see better on horseback, but also to cover more of the beach, rode at night or when bad weather during the day reduced visibility.
In February 1943, the Delaware Coast News commented, “The Mounties got plenty of that recently, when snow, sleet and rain swept the coast. Their patrols were on duty almost around the clock, in four-hour shifts. They were supplemented by foot patrols and by guards with dogs trained to scent out trouble.”
During the rest of the wartime summers, when Rehoboth was crowded with vacationers and soldiers on leave, it was a common sight to see the mounted patrols parading down Rehoboth Avenue from their stables near the canal to the beach.
In the winter, Mounties, dressed in their standard dark pea-jackets, blue riding breeches and brown field boots, threw a blanket on the horses for protection against the icy sea winds before beginning their patrol of the coastal sands.
During World War II, dimout regulations and air-raid drills were constant reminders that the Delaware coast was on the frontlines, but coastal residents felt safer because the Coast Guard had sent in the cavalry.
Dennis Noble, “The WWII Beach Patrol,” Coast Guard Reservist, July 1997.
Delaware Coast News, Feb. 12, 1943.
Malcolm Willoughby, The U. S. Coast Guard in World War II, Manchester, NH, 1980, pp. 46-48.