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My Coast Guard
Commentary | June 21, 2024

Jack Hamlin — Boatswain, rescue swimmer, and savior of D-Day

By Lt. Cmdr. Dennis E. Branson, U.S. Coast Guard retired & Todd Wilkinson, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary

The Long Blue Line blog series has been publishing Coast Guard history essays for over 15 years. To access hundreds of these service stories, visit the Coast Guard Historian’s Office’s Long Blue Line online archives, located here: THE LONG BLUE LINE (    

We had no idea what was going to happen. We could hear all the guns going off and could see the landing barges going in. We could see so many of them being hit or hitting mines that were laid underneath the water ... 

— D-Day Coast Guard veteran Jack Hamlin, 2019  

Jack R. Hamlin was born over 102 years ago in the “Ozarks” of Springfield, Missouri. The son of a lawyer, Jack had one sister and grew up in the Depression-era Midwest. After graduating from Springfield High School, he was recruited to play baseball at Drury College in Springfield. In 1939, he was recruited to play ball for the New York Yankees farm club in Joplin, Missouri, by the famed Yankees scout Tom Greenway. Although Jack was a great utility player at 2nd and 3rd base, he said he always had trouble “hitting the curveball.” 

In 1941, Jack was pursing his dream to become a professional baseball player. However, when the Japanese Empire attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7th, 1941, Jack knew he had to serve, so baseball would have to wait. Jack first tried to enlist in the Naval Air Corps but was rejected due to an enlarged heart from suffering rheumatic fever as a child. Still committed to serving to his country, Jack talked to the Coast Guard recruiter and as they say, “the rest was history.” Jack had no idea how much history! On February 2, 1942, he raised his right hand and enlisted in the Coast Guard, shipping out that day to attend boot camp at Training Center Algiers in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

Jack’s first assignment was a short one at Coast Guard Station Boston where he was quickly selected for Boatswain’s Mate training at Manhattan Beach Training Center in New York. After completing small boat and BM training, his orders sent him to Newport, Rhode Island. Jack was initially put in charge of two small boats assigned to patrol Narragansett Harbor in support of Newport Naval Air Station. Jack’s first Search and Rescue (SAR) experience came rescuing naval aviators forced to parachute. After three months of smallboat SAR duty, Jack joined the crew of the 83-foot cutter CG-83408.

An 83-foot cutter patrols off the landing beaches searching for military personnel lost in the water. (U.S. Coast Guard) Three 83-foot Coast Guard rescue cutters rafted at Poole, England, shortly before the D-Day invasion. (U.S. Coast Guard)


In the spring of 1944, CG-83408 was ordered to Naval Base Staten Island in New York Harbor to prepare for a major operation – one that came to be known as “Operation Neptune.” It was the designation for the naval operation supporting the largest invasion in military history codenamed Operation Overlord. 

CG-83408 was assigned to a special unit of 60 cutters named “Rescue Flotilla One.” During the planning for the D-Day invasion, President Franklin Roosevelt had recognized the need for a water rescue capability for soldiers lost in the water and the Coast Guard’s 83-foot patrol boats were chosen for this task. Rescue Flotilla One was nicknamed the “Matchbox Fleet” due to the cutters’ wood construction and gasoline engines. With its transfer to Flotilla One, CG-83408 was redesignated CG-23 and promptly nicknamed “Skidoo 23” by the crew. 

Jack and the cutter crews were not trained for water rescue, but he and his shipmates had a mission handed down from the President himself. The plan was to tether swimmers to the ship with a flotation device and pull wounded and drowning soldiers to safety—no special rescue equipment, just dungarees and jackets. 

On the transit from their homeport of Poole, England, to meet the massive invasion force, a memorable experience unfolded. Jack noticed the number “50” painted on the bow of a Landing Ship Tank (LST). He remembered how his family had written that a friend from his high school football team named Ralph Carter was serving on board LST 50. As CG-23 came alongside LST-50 in dark evening hours in the English Channel, Jack called out to the crew asking if they had a Ralph Carter aboard. The reply came back that Carter was their skipper. In the middle of the English Channel, during the largest invasion in history, Jack had a short chat with his high school football teammate! 

Jack Hamlin at the helm of CG-23, nicknamed “Skidoo 23,” just before D-Day deployment. (Courtesy of Jack Hamlin)


As the flotilla approached the Normandy coast the unforgettable sounds of dueling German 88mm artillery and Allied naval guns became deafening. In a 2019 interview with local TV reporter Braden Beck(KY3 TV), Jack recounted, 

There were two of us on my cutter designated to be what we called rescue swimmers. We had a life jacket on us, and attached to our lifeguard was a line and the line was held by our larger boys aboard. It was hard for us to decide who to pick up. We didn’t really know until we got to them if they were dead, how they were wounded, we did see some of them with half their face shot off or missing an arm or leg. It was quite a shock having to see that. I had never seen a dead person in my life. 

In the early stages of the invasion, CG-23 made history by shooting down an attacking German aircraft. An observer witnessed the cutter’s gunner shoot half a dozen 20mm rounds into the aircraft as was making a low-level attack on the cutter and surrounding watercraft. One D-Day memory has haunted Jack to this day. In an interview with local TV reporter Braden Beck of KY3, Jack recalled, “I can remember one soldier that I couldn’t get. He was drifting away and yelling. That hurts me.” Hamlin said sadly “That is the only memory that I don’t like.” 

During Operation Neptune, Rescue Flotilla One rescued 194 Allied personnel off Omaha Beach, 157 off Utah Beach, and 133 off Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches. In total, Coast Guard crews saved a total of 484 individuals on D-Day. Over the entire operation, Flotilla One saved a remarkable total of 1,438 individuals, including a British nurse, who was blown off an LST. 

Following Normandy, the Coast Guard continued to serve search and rescue and other vital coastal support missions. Jack had just concluded duty on Christmas Eve and was preparing to enjoy the holiday when, around 6:00 p.m., a mayday call came in for all vessels to respond to a sinking troop transport. The SS Leopoldville was a Belgian passenger liner converted to transport soldiers from England to the fighting the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forst. On Christmas Eve 1944, the Leopoldville was transporting over 2,000 soldiers of the 66th Infantry Division from Southampton, England, to Cherbourg, France. She was torpedoed by the German submarine U-486. The torpedo struck the ship’s starboard side, causing it to list and take on water trapping many below decks. Due to communication failures and language barriers and lifeboat deployment over 800 American soldiers lost their lives. The tragedy highlighted the dangers faced by troops during wartime sea crossings. Despite these challenges, CG-23 and other rescue cutters performed heroically against the weather and the odds. Jack estimated his boat saved around 50 lives that day. 

Near the war’s end, Jack was recommended for advancement to Chief Boatswain, however, he chose to leave the service in 1946 and return to the Springfield. He spent some time at Cumberland University, where he played football, but he returned to Springfield and enrolled at the University of Missouri Law School. From his father and grandfather and other family members, Jack came from a long line of attorneys. He graduated from law school, but never passed the Missouri Bar, so he decided to go into the insurance industry. He started his own agency in 1952 and operated it independently for 40 years. 

Jack’s love of America’s “pastime” of baseball was a constant in his life. After playing a season for a farm club in Nebraska, Jack went on to sign with the Springfield Generals - a semi pro team that ended up going to the 1947 national championship. During this time, Jack played with the likes of iconic players Whitey Herzog and Jerry Lumpe. He met his wife after a ball game one evening in Springfield. He and “Sis,” (as he affectionately called her) were married for 60 years. Jack has three children, six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. 

Jack Hamlin receives the French Legion of Honor medal at a 2014 ceremony in Normandy. (Courtesy of Jack Hamlin)


Although Jack’s military service ended with the war, he went on to dedicate much of his life to community and public service. In 1951, he was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives. From his love of baseball he served on the Springfield Park Board, chaired the local Chamber of Commerce athletic committee and eventually the National Softball Tournament Committee. In 1971, he was appointed the Deputy Collector of Revenue at the Missouri Department of Revenue and appointed to the Springfield Planning Commission in 1973 and 1977. 

Like most of the those who served in World War II, Jack never spoke of what he did during the war for 50 years. Around 1994 that changed when Jack was selected as one of only 75 American military members invited to have dinner with the Queen of England in commemoration of D-Day’s 50th anniversary. This would be one of seven trips to Normandy, where he was welcomed as one the “liberators” by the French people. Jack and other veterans from the Springfield area began to tell their story to schools to help the younger generations understand the war and what the men had experienced. 

In 2014, Jack was recognized by France with the French Legion of Honor medal. He was also able to meet one of the German soldiers who fought in D-Day. “He was a gunner shooting at me out in the water, shooting at the troops. And I was trying to save people,” Hamlin told Beck, of TV station KY3. “We were enemies then - we are the best of friends now.” 

In 2016, during a tour of the Battle of Carentan, he was able to tell the Coast Guard D-Day story to an audience of nearly 400 service members from Europe and affiliated D-Day historical units that participated in the 72nd anniversary. He even had the opportunity to meet four original members of the 506th airborne division, which today is more commonly known as the “Band of Brothers” and he was adopted into the division as an honorary member. As a newly designated U.S. paratrooper, Jack knew he had to jump out an airplane to prove his metal, so on his 95th birthday he completed a 10,000-foot practice jump near Mt. Vernon, Missouri. Unfortunately, the jump failed to go as planned. The skin on his hand was ripped early in the jump and he landed the wrong way resulting in broken vertebrae and months of rehabilitation. 

That same year, Jack was retroactively promoted to Chief Boatswain’s Mate by then Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard (MCPOG) Steven Cantrell. The MCPOG traveled to Springfield to pin Jack’s Chief Anchors 70 years after he had been recommended for promotion. The ceremony was attended by another World War II Coast Guard veteran, Dorothy Sauter, who served as a SPAR at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. 

As we commemorate the 80th anniversary, Jack is still swinging at life and all its curveballs. Just weeks ago, he fell and broke his collarbone, but as usual he is ahead of recovery. Although Jack Hamlin did not visit Normandy for the 80th anniversary ceremonies he did make “hometown history.” The City of Springfield honored Jack and his close friend, Army Paratrooper Ralph Manley in a D-Day celebration naming June 6th as Jack Hamlin and Ralph Manley Day. 

We stand at the rail and pay honors to a hero, servant, and shipmate BMC Jack R. Hamlin! Semper Paratus.

Jack Hamlin relaxing at his home in Springfield, Missouri, in 2018. ( Jack Hamlin during a memorial ceremony at Normandy during one of the many D-Day commemorations he has attended. ( MKC Richard Jensen of CGC Cheyenne presents Jack Hamlin with a flag that was flown from Cheyenne, Gasconade, and Sangamon. The flag passing ceremony was part of a Coast Guard commemoration honoring Hamlin for his D-Day service with Rescue Flotilla One during the Normandy landings 80 years ago. (Todd J. Wilkinson, AUXPA1)