When Ernest Hemingway took delivery of his 38-foot sportfishing boat, Pilar, in 1934, its builder, the Wheeler Yacht Co., was at the height of its fame. Wheeler’s winged-W logo could be seen on the world’s top fishing grounds.A decade later, Wheelers would be darting through the deadly waters off Normandy, plucking Allied soldiers and pilots from the cruel sea during the largest military invasion in history.
As World War II picked up intensity, the nation’s major shipyards were producing an impressive fleet of big carriers, heavy cruisers and destroyers. Meanwhile, recreational-boat builders were turning out “a billion dollars worth of little stuff,” vessels under 200 feet for transport, convoy duty, anti-submarine patrol and a host of other vital tasks.
Headquartered at the foot of Cropsey Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., Wheeler contributed 230 83-foot cutters, the pride of the Coast Guard’s “Matchbox Fleet” — so named because these wooden boats, with nearly 2,000 gallons of gasoline, “could go up like a matchbox” if struck by enemy fire.
The transition was relatively easy; the round-bilged 83-footer wasn’t so different from a sportfishing boat. Its narrow, single-planked hull (with just a 16-foot beam) and straight keel, ending in a skeg that protected the running gear and rudder, were all familiar. Power came from twin Sterling Viking II TCG 8 gas engines manufactured in Buffalo, N.Y. Each inline 8-cylinder power plant produced 600 hp, giving the cutter a 12-knot cruise.
Sailors aboard the cutters had a love-hate relationship with their vessels. In rough water, a check valve in the head tended to emit a jet of cold salt water instead of keeping it out. But they all agreed that the Wheelers could “stay out and take it.” And that’s what they did during Operation Neptune/Overlord: The 60-boat fleet, known as Rescue Flotilla One, saved 400-plus men on D-Day alone and more than 1,400 by the time the unit was decommissioned in December 1944.
“If you were in those chilly waters,” writes one historian, “you were darn glad to see one of those little 83-footers skirting around. … Those little puppies worked their butts off.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.