Yesterday was Memorial Day…the time we set aside to honor the 1.3 million men and women who have died while in military service for our country. Because most of those losses were during combat operations, it can also be a time when we remember those who served on the front lines and came home. SDPB’s Jim Kent recently visited with a 92-year old U.S. Coast Guard veteran who took part in 4 major beach invasions during World War Two and who still fits into his uniform.
When 353 Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941…Gordon Lease was just 17 and living in California.
“The day after Pearl Harbor we tried to enlist in the Navy,” recalls Gordon. “And there were 400 guys ahead of us. And this Navy chief said ‘We’ll never get to you guys today. Why don’t you try the Coast Guard?’
“Really?” I ask
“So we did,” laughs Gordon.
Gordon thought he’d be spending his time as part of search and rescue operations along the west coast. That’s because like most Americans…then and now…Gordon wasn’t aware that the Navy is authorized to appropriate the Coast Guard into its service during time of war.
“As soon as the Navy found out we were good in small boats,” Gordon explains. “And they needed amphibious sailors…why that’s where we went.”
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor concern over possible attacks on the U.S. mainland saw Gordon and other Coast Guard personnel on patrol duty along the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines. The he was transferred to the amphibious force.
“February of ’43 I traveled to the East coast for training,” recalls Gordon. “...went aboard landing ship tanks.”
Landing Ship Tanks – or LSTs – were navy vessels designed to carry vehicles, cargo and troops to a beachhead as part of an invasion.
“Where did you train on the East coast?” I ask.
“Well, Curtis Bay, Maryland was the Coast Guard training station,” explains Gordon. “That was headquarters. But we traveled in ships to learn how to run them. It wasn’t any one place. Once you qualified on the ship then they assigned you to a crew and commissioned your own ship…and that’s what we did.”
Trained to pilot the 36-foot landing craft that actually delivered troops to the beach, Gordon was among the youngest coxswains in the Coast Guard at that time. In July of 1943 Gordon and his LST crew traveled to North Africa –where Allied forces were still fighting the German army.
Shortly afterwards, Gordon saw his first combat action at the invasion of Sicily.
”Sicily started on July 10th and we didn’t get there til on about the 28th,” Gordon remembers. “But…the Germans still had aircraft in the area and they still had artillery, but it didn’t bother us much…it was the tail-end.”
But Sicily was nothing, says Gordon, compared to the invasion of Salerno.
“We didn’t have air superiority,” explains Gordon. “And the Germans did. So…every time you went into that beachhead you got bombed and strafed and...It was just a tough one.”
“How’d you handle that?” I ask.
“Just keep your head down,” he laughs.
The invasion of Salerno, Italy began on September 3, 1943, lasted for 14 days and resulted in 9,000 Allied casualties. Frightening figures, to be sure. But Gordon and others who took part in the conflict developed an almost pragmatic attitude in order to survive the ordeal.
“Well…it doesn’t do you any good to be scared,” Gordon observes. “I’m serious about that. If you want to do your job forget getting hurt…or forget being scared…or forget about that aircraft…forget about the guy shooting at you. Just do your job.”
Gordon and the crew of LST-381 were also at the invasion of Anzio in January 1944 and the D-Day landings at Normandy in June of that year. Gordon still considers Salerno the worst of the four beachhead assaults he took part in, but says his most memorable action was at Normandy.
“We took aboard 265 Airborne…eighty-second and a-hundred-and-first Airborne troops,” recalls Gordon. “And…I was operating a landing craft. And someone kept count. I brought a-hundred-and-ten people off the beach at Normandy back to our ship to evacuate them to England for treatment.”
It was for those 10 trips to the beach and back in one evening – and the lives he helped save – that Gordon Lease was awarded the Coast Guard Commendation Medal. He also received the French Order of the Legion of Honor along with other Allied participants in the Normandy invasion.
When World War Two was over, Gordon enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves as a Staff Sergeant and remained in uniform until 1951. And speaking of uniforms, the 92-year old still fits into his original Coast Guard blues.
If there’s one thing Gordon would like folks to be aware of regarding the Coast Guard it’s the extent of their duty. From manning lighthouses, to patrolling the Mississippi or the Pacific, to taking part in rescue operations or even beach landings around the world the Guard has lived up to its “Always Ready” motto.
And though he wishes he hadn’t had to do it, Gordon Lease was proud to wear the Coast Guard uniform in World War Two. He’s still proud to wear it.