America's 'Forgotten Fleet'

USS Rockford was one of the 75 former Navy frigates manned and commanded by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. Photo: National Archives


“I never drank coffee in the service, I never did until I got married,” said Kenneth Meinke, who served in the Coast Guard during World War II.

He is 92 years old and prefers to be called Ken.

“My late wife is from Finland and the Finns drink it all the time. Consequently, I became addicted.”

Meinke lives in Poulsbo and frequents Coffee Oasis, where he orders a 16-ounce black coffee and proudly shares how he knows all of the baristas.

Seventy-four years ago, however, he was an 18-year-old boy from the Midwest who entered the service and began his training in New Orleans.

“I was stationed on a lifeboat station that was so isolated, you could only get there by boat,” Meinke said. “My chief asked if I wanted to go to school and I said, ‘Yes sir, I do.’ So off I went to New York City.”

The school was on Ellis Island.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Meinke was in a movie theater when the film stopped and a man came on the stage.

“All military personnel need to report back to base immediately,” he said.

Meinke described that day as mixed up. “Nobody knew what to do. They stopped the school entirely, cancelled it. I had a date that night, and I never knew what happened to her.”

He was put on a dock to patrol in New Jersey. There were now ships, he didn’t have a weapon, and it was dark and cold.

“One night I was walking by the hospital, and I’ll never forget this. I was walking by myself and a door opened, and a nurse came out and said, ‘Sailor, would you like a cup of cocoa?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am. I would.’ And she went and brought me out a cup of cocoa.”

It was mundane for weeks as Meinke guarded the trainees of Ellis Island and did shore patrol. Some nights, he would work on a small boat with one other guy.

“There was nothing to do during nights,” said Meinke. “We had this big searchlight, and periodically after we scanned the river, we would take it and scan across lovers lane, and you would see cars take off when the light hit them.”

Ken Meinke shares some documents and photographs from his time in the U.S. Coast Guard. Photo: Sara N. Miller

Meinke makes hand gestures and sound effects whenever he tells of the cars quickly dispersing.

In spring 1944, a corsair fleet of boats was being built. Destroyers and frigates were being readied to go to sea. Off-shore patrols were stopping little by little.

“We were put ashore and on the bulletin board I saw that they needed volunteers to go to the West Coast so I signed up and got my orders,” Meinke said.

He went to a country club that he used to hang out at to find a friend of his, a businessman who was sitting with the base commander.

“I went up to him and said, ‘Charlie, I’m leaving. I have my orders,’ ” Meinke recalled. “The commander looked up at me and said, ‘Oh, I can stop that if you want to stay.’ I said, ‘No sir, I volunteered.’ ”

Meinke headed to Alameda, California for training on a frigate, where more than one first-time sailor got seasick. “Not me, though,” Meinke said.

He was assigned to the USS Rockford, named after Rockford, Illinois. Funny enough, his current neighbor’s wife is from Rockford. He explained that he has a Rockford hat as well as the one he brought to coffee, but he only wears it “for special occasions.”

He went through training on the patrol frigates when the commander of the ship asked what else he liked to do.

“I said I liked watching the ship’s cook,” he said. “It is a good job on a ship and I became the ship’s cook.”

There were 75 frigates built that the Navy didn’t want to man at the time and were sent to the Coast Guard. They are known as the “Forgotten Fleet” of the Coast Guard.

We were the guys of the ‘Forgotten Ships,’ ” Meinke said.

The ships were to head to Hawaii and then the South Pacific, but the Rockford bypassed Hawaii and traveled by old steamship lines when they heard, “Beep, beep, beep. Battle stations, battle stations.”

More sound effects and hand gestures as Meinke retold this story.

They were at flank speed when contact had been made with another ship. The Rockford fired hedgehogs and motor shells that, when released, shoot out like a fan, or so Meinke’s gestures describe.

Once fired from the bow, the ship turns either left or right. When making the turn, the ship has a tendency to dig in a little.

“My battle station was on the port. I saw a wave coming, and all I could see was water,” Meinke said. “There was no place to go. We came out of the turn and all I remember was a wall of water.”

The blinker message from USS Rockford to USS Grant regarding the sinking of an enemy submarine. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

But Meinke didn’t go overboard. Instead, he somehow was able to straddle a stanchion with his legs off the side of the ship.

“That’s what saved my life,” he said. “Being young, you come out of it and sort of laugh. You’re indestructible when you’re young.”

The Rockford made it to Cairns, Australia. The main thing Meinke remembers is, “It had one pub.”

There were Australian soldiers back from Africa in the pub when Meinke and his crew went ashore.

“Did you bring your can with you?” they asked.

“No,” Meinke replied, puzzled.

“They couldn’t use glasses because they broke and there was no way to replace them,” Meinke said. “So, you had to bring a soup can. One Aussie had an extra and said, ‘Here you go.’ They filled the can up, rusted or not, they put there the beer right in there.”

After Australia and New Guinea, the Rockford was sent to Hawaii. But, because there were more ships in front of the Rockford that needed more attention than it did, it was assigned to a convoy of six ships heading stateside. One of which was the USS Grant, a former German liner that the U.S. confiscated and claimed during the first World War.

“We were escorting the convoy toward port when the Ardent [another ship in the convoy] was hit,” Meinke said.

“Beep, beep, beep. ‘Battle stations, battle stations.’ We realized this was the real thing.”

Meinke was on a K gun. There were eight K guns, four on each side, of the Rockford, and a depth charge rack on the stern.

As the Ardent made contact on one side of the attacking submarine, the Rockford stayed with the convoy to protect the Grant.

“We had injured soldiers returning to the States,” Meinke said. “When they were well enough away, we requested permission to return and assist attack on the sub.”

The Ardent made two failed attempts to hit the sub with mortars and hedgehogs, a type of anti-submarine bomb. The Rockford moved in and fired a hedgehog and dropped depth charges.

“We heard two explosions. Our hedgehog made contact,” Meinke said.

When debris started coming up, the Rockford laid off and made its way back to the convoy, leaving the Ardent to collect the remnants.

When they pulled into San Francisco, news of what they had done had traveled.

“We didn’t know it at the time, but when we sunk that sub, we were getting even for the Liberty ship that was attacked when traveling between San Francisco and Hawaii,” Meinke said.

A Japanese submarine had torpedoed a Liberty ship. When passengers abandoned the sinking ship and took to life boats, the sub came to the surface and started running through the lifeboats and machine gunning survivors.

“We went to the commissary to get some fresh veggies and a Navy man came out and said, ‘You give these men what they want,’ ” Meinke recalled.

Meinke served for two more years before his time was up in August 1946.

“Five years came the big day and I got a ticket back to Chicago. It had been five years, and I think that’s where this story should end,” Meinke said, as he sipped his now-chilled coffee in Coffee Oasis — a long way from the USS Rockford, but not long from the memories.