By Samantha L. Quigley

Thoughts of D-Day don’t always conjure images of the U.S. Coast Guard, but the service was there and saved the lives of nearly 1,500 men and one woman during its service across the pond.

Shortly before D-Day, it was suggested the invasion needed a rescue flotilla, but resources were already stretched thin. At the time, the Coast Guard had 60 cutters on anti-submarine duty along the East Coast of the United States. The 83-foot cutters, powered by two gasoline engines, were built of wood, earning them the nickname, the “Matchbox Fleet.”

The Matchbox Fleet was quickly renamed Rescue Flotilla One and loaded aboard freighters en route to England.

Jack Hamlin was among the 840 men who crewed these vessels. He said, though they really didn’t know what awaited them, their instructions were clear.

“Be nothing, but just be a lifeguard,” he said. “We were not there to destroy anybody, to kill anybody. We were there just to do rescue operations and that’s what we did.

“We went in with the landing barges,” he said while standing in a pasture in Carentan, Normandy, France, in the midst of festivities marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day. “We stayed out of their way, but we went with them in case. … We’d get as many as we could out of the water … and take all we could back to the hospital ships.”

Then they’d do it all over again, but Hamlin’s cutter only made two trips with injured aboard.

“The people—the French people—have been wonderful to us. It just thrills me do death!” World War II veteran Jack Hamlin said. “I’ve never seen so many women [ask], ‘May I kiss you?’ ” | Photo credit USO photo by Samantha L. Quigley

“It took us so long getting them out of the water,” he said. “If they were injured, you had to be very careful and you had to have time to take them back to the hospital ships that were 10 miles out from shore. In the rough weather, we couldn’t travel much over 10-15 knots with the injured aboard.”

Just because his cutter never got closer than two miles to Omaha Beach doesn’t mean Hamlin was exempt from the D-Day experience. He saw things “you wouldn’t forget.”

“In my cutter, I didn’t have it that hard. But some of the others did. We had one cutter—I think it was cutter No. 19—saved about 170 that day. That’s quite a job, 170 of them,” he said, with the chill of remembrance momentarily glazing his eyes.

What he helped do that day—pulling wounded from a roiling English Channel—cemented his place in history. Hamlin may view his D-Day participation as just part of his job, but every time he returns to Normandy to mark that historic milestone, he’s reminded that, for some, what he did equated to far more than a day at the office.

For the people of Normandy, especially, but France in general, the Allied troops gave them their futures. And the locals freely express their gratitude when they encounter a veteran.

“The people—the French people—have been wonderful to us. It just thrills me do death!” he said. “I’ve never seen so many women [ask], ‘May I kiss you?’ I lost my wife two years ago. If she was here I’d say, ‘Listen, I can get all the women I want!’”

Hamlin was humbled to receive the French Legion of Honor—the highest honor the French government can bestow upon an Allied troop—on June 5, 2014. But even that didn’t quite measure up to a memory that was as vivid on the 70th anniversary as it was the day it happened.

“Twenty years ago, I came back … [and] I was invited to have dinner with the queen of England. And I did,” he said. “Only 75 Americans from D-Day were invited to have dinner with the queen.

“What I really liked—the queen was wonderful—but the mother queen came around to see all of us. I mean, we didn’t go see her. She came to see us and shake our hands. It was pouring down rain … but she came around to see all of us.

“Wasn’t that something?”

–Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of On Patrol.