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Coast Guard “Sand Pounders” kept wartime Oregon secure

They never did see any action against the Japanese spies and commando teams they expected. But the fact that they were on the job may have had something to do with the fact that none ever tried to come ashore.

A mounted beach patrol unit awaits inspection, somewhere along the Northwest coast. (Image: US Coast Guard)

During the summer of 1942, the sleepy and obscure West Coast state of Oregon suddenly realized that if Imperial Japan should make any military moves against the continental states, it would be in the very front line.

In that summer, the enemy was actually off the Oregon coast — sinking merchant ships, shelling Fort Stevens and dropping bombs on the hills near Brookings in an attempt to start a forest fire.

Oregonians could be excused for wondering what might have happened if the submarine that caused all that havoc had, instead of heaving to and lobbing shells, simply slipped quietly into some obscure little inlet and sent a few dozen Japanese soldiers ashore. What could stop them?

It was a fair question, and one that had the military authorities in Salem and Washington, D.C., very worried. They were especially concerned after an incident on the shore of Long Island, New York, just a few days before the shelling of Fort Stevens, in which an unarmed Coast Guardsman stumbled across a landing party of Nazi saboteurs disembarking from a submarine. These turned out to be the first of several landing parties sent here in a campaign by Berlin to salt the Eastern Seaboard’s industry with German spies.

A Beach Patrol member stands, M50 submachine gun at the ready, with his dog; the location of this beach is unknown, but it's clearly in protected waters. (Image: US Coast Guard)

The answer to this new threat came a month later, when the U.S. Coast Guard launched the Coast Guard Beach Patrol — which quickly became known as the “Sand Pounders.”

The Sand Pounders patrol was staffed with recruits drawn largely from the Midwest and from east of the Cascades — horse country. That’s because, as anyone who’s ever strolled an empty Oregon beach knows, walking isn’t the optimal way to cover distance on the beach. That’s especially the case if you want to bring with you one of the giant 35-pound “portable” radio transmitters that were then the state of the art. So right from the start, the Sand Pounders were envisioned as a mounted service wherever geography would permit it.

They had to wait for horses to be supplied by the Army, but by late 1942 the animals had started to arrive. Trained patrol dogs were already being added to the patrols, and so by the end of the year, the Sand Pounders had grown into the form they’d take throughout the early war years: Pairs of Coast Guard guys, both packing .38 revolvers and Reising M50 submachine guns, usually mounted, one with a backpack radio transmitter — doggedly making their way along the beach in the teeth of every kind of weather the Oregon Coast can supply, eyes peeled for any sign of Japanese marauders.

The Coast Guard also built a series of watchtowers, similar to the one behind the Yaquina Bay lighthouse in Newport, from which Coasties watched the river entrances 24 hours a day.

The Sand Pounders had trouble at first getting the authority they needed to do their job — authority to order people off certain beaches and to prosecute those who defied their orders. The commanding general of the Western Defense Command refused outright to grant them authority to do more than just report stuff. Finally, in late summer of 1943, the governors of Oregon and Washington issued a proclamation giving them full law-enforcement authority.

A Coast Guard beach patrol lookout stands outside his post, somewhere on the Northwest coast. (Image: US Coast Guard)

The life of a Sand Pounder was not easy, and although it wasn’t combat, it could be dangerous at times. There was always the danger of being swept out to sea if one got too close to it while rounding one of the capes or outcroppings; Coasties on Sand Pounder duty frequently got soaked up to the bridle in spray from the waves. And the horses added an unpredictable element as well. One unfortunate fellow was patrolling along the coast near the Southern Pacific railroad track when the engine, passing by, fired up its boiler burner, startling the horse — which threw the rider (35-pound radio and all) and galloped off into the night.

The Sand Pounders shared the fate of the Aircraft Warning Service volunteers and the Tillamook-based blimp squadron: by the time their program was up and running, the Japanese menace to the Pacific Coast — other than balloon bombs — was entirely gone. So the Sand Pounders of Oregon didn’t get much action — other than the frequent drills they participated in, practicing repelling amphibious invasion. And in early 1944, as it became obvious that Japanese invasion was no longer a threat, the beach patrols started being cut drastically back. Patrolmen young enough for combat duty were sent off to help the Navy deliver the D-Day invasion force; surplus horses were auctioned off at the Tillamook County Fairgrounds.

And, of course, with the end of the war came an end of the Beach Patrol entirely.

Coast Guard blacksmith Joe Opalka shoes one of the Sand Pounders’ horses, while one of the Beach Patrol dogs looks on. (Image: US Coast Guard)

So, were the Sand Pounders a success? It depends on how you measure it. Although they never had the opportunity to catch an invasion or infiltration force, had one been dispatched to Oregon’s shores, there’s every reason to think they would have. Their effect on morale alone may have made them worth having around; their presence on the beaches was a real comfort for the nervous residents of Oregon coastal communities during the dark, fearful year that followed the Fort Stevens and Brookings attacks.

But it’s also possible that the Sand Pounders had won their fight before they even suited up. When that unarmed, untrained Coastie stumbled across the Nazi saboteurs on Long Island, in the incident that caused the Beach Patrol to be organized, the message got back to the Axis Powers, loud and clear, that the American home front was not going to be an easy target. The prompt arming and organizing of the beach patrols would have been a topic of intense interest to Axis spies in the U.S., and would have been observed and reported back to Berlin and Tokyo. The fact that the patrols were mounted and equipped with battlefield radios meant that all that would be needed to ruin a months-long operation would be a glimpse. Who knows what diabolical plans were never hatched by wartime enemies because they knew the beaches were so thoroughly monitored?

The Sand Pounders had a boring time of it during their lonely beach duty. None of them ever saw a single enemy combatant. But they were never meant to be a combat force. The fact that they never saw any action doesn’t mean they were a failure; in fact, if anything, it’s a certification of their complete success.

(Sources: Bishop, Eleanor. Prints in the Sand. Missoula, MT: Pictoral Histories, 1989; Noble, Dennis. The Beach Patrol and Corsair Fleet. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office, 1992)