James ‘Jim’ Joseph Meyer was my first introduction to a member of the US Coast Guard. It’s hard to find Coast Guard members in the Midwest! I’ve since interviewed two others who served during WWII. I salute all of our branches and thank each vet for his/her service!
Upon graduating from Central Catholic High School in 1943, Jim Meyer of Fort Wayne enlisted in the US Coast Guard.
He spent 16 weeks in basic training at Brooklyn, NY. Meyer already knew how swim, but the Coast Guard had a special challenge. “We had to swim in water with oil in it to simulate a possible accident at sea,” he said.
At Providence, RI, Meyer learned to shoot rifles, 38-caliber pistols, and 20-mm gun. “We learned how to take apart our gun and reassemble it while blindfolded,” he said.
Meyer was transferred to Portland, ME, where he had lighthouse duty. “We reported ships coming in or going out and planes in the area,” he said.
In late 1943 Meyer boarded a ship, the USS Manhattan. In 1941 the Manhattan had been leased by the US Navy and commissioned as the troopship USS Wakefield. The Wakefield was assigned a Coast Guard crew and became the largest vessel ever operated by the Coast Guard.
Note: During times of war, the Coast Guard transfers from the Department of Homeland Security to the US Navy.
In 1942, the Wakefield caught fire. It was rebuilt as a troop ship with a crew of 600 including 20 Marines as guards. “Every morning we had general quarters. That meant every seaman manned his guns,” said Meyer. “My duties were with the 20-mm gun. We also washed the decks and painted the ship every time it was in port.”
Seaman 1st class Meyer suffered seasickness on his first trip, but thankfully it never recurred on his 43 other trips across both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Meyer’s first ocean crossing was in 1944 to Liverpool, England. “We hauled 5000-6000 mostly injured Americans troops and German POWs to the US on each trip,” he said.
According to Meyer. German POWs had cleaning duties on the ship. Meyer thought he detected a certain attitude among them. “The German POWs acted as though our ship would not make it to the US because German forces would destroy us,” he said.
There was a possibility of danger from German subs in the Atlantic. “We zig-zagged during our route so they would not find us,” he said. “We also posted lookouts on the top of the ship to look for torpedoes.”
Despite their status as enemy forces, German POWs were treated civilly. “When a German soldier died at sea aboard our ship, he was given the same funeral ceremony as if an American seaman had died,” said Meyer.
The Wakefield sailed to LeHavre, Marseilles, Pearl Harbor, Panama Canal, Guam and Naples, Italy, China and Japan. Meyer traded for two Japanese rifles which he took home as souvenirs.
Meyer recalled one time encountering particularly rough weather while at sea. “We were hit by a 50-foot typhoon,” he said. “We lost three guns and life rafts. We were scared because the typhoon raised our ship out of the water several times.”
The storm slowed the ship by two knots, which caused the Wakefield to arrive late in Boston. German forces spread propaganda that the ship had been sunk. Damage to the ship necessitated it be in dry dock for repairs for 30 days. (Listen to Meyer tell about the storm in a live video here.)
Among the 215,000 passengers carried on the Wakefield was at least one Coast Guard member whose name was well-known.
Jack Dempsey had already attained fame as a boxer when he joined the Coast Guard during World War II. In 1944 he was assigned to the transport USS Wakefield. Dempsey remained in the Coast Guard and later joined the Coast Guard Reserve.
Meyer and other Allied soldiers around the world thrilled to hear the announcement of VE Day (Victory in Europe) on May 8, 1945. That marked the formal acceptance by the Allies of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces. “I was tickled at the thought of going home,” said Meyer. The battle with Japan, marking the official end to the war, concluded on September 2, 1945, when a formal surrender ceremony was held in Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri.
However, like many soldiers, Meyer had to await his turn to return to US soil. He had one last momentous event yet to experience before going home.
On December 26, 1945, Meyer became a member of the Domain of the Golden Dragon. “It is an unofficial award given to crew members of ships which cross the International Date Line,” he said.
In February 1946 Meyer arrived at San Diego and by April 1946 he had earned enough points to be discharged. He married Barbara Gase from Decatur in 1948 and they became parents to two sons. Meyer later worked at Porter Tire Company in Decatur and as a diesel mechanic for Kroger for 37 years. Meyer has participated with Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana.
He thinks about his time in World War II often via photos, his uniform and other souvenirs from the war. “Somebody had to fight,” he said. “I liked being in the Coast Guard. It gave me the chance to go to a lot of places I’d never hoped to see and meet people from around the world. It was a good experience.”