Rollin Fritch—Silver Star hero of Attack Transport Callaway

From the Long Blue Line, by PAC Corinne L. Zilnicki, U. S. Coast Guard

[Editor’s note: This essay about FRC namesake Rollin Fritch is a reprint of a story first published in September 2016.]

An imposing convoy of warships cut through the waters of the Lingayen Gulf northwest of the Philippines, the ships forming an orderly parade of slow-moving silhouettes. Six hulking transport ships led the charge, followed closely by cargo ships, landing craft and smaller amphibious assault vessels.

Photo: The USS Callaway (APA-35) at anchor in the Lingayen Gulf.

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

The USS Callaway (APA-35) at anchor in the Lingayen Gulf, 1942. The Callaway was a Coast Guard-manned attack transport that performed many missions during World War II.

It was Jan. 8, 1945, and the Allied forces had been deeply ensconced in the Southwest Pacific theatre of World War II for more than three years.

The convoy made a beeline for Luzon, the largest of the Philippine islands and an invaluable target that would deny Japan passage through the South China Sea. Once captured, Luzon would also grant the Allies access to the capital city of Manila and sheltered anchorage of Manila Bay.

Photo: U.S.S. Callaway in camouflage paint.

Credit: U.S. Navy

Callaway in camouflage paint scheme during World War II.

When the warships of Blue Beach Attack Group were only 35 miles from Luzon’s shores, three Japanese aircraft materialized near the rear of the convoy, sweeping suddenly into an attack.

“Planes! They’re coming from the stern!” cried a chorus of voices aboard the USS Callaway, one of the attack transport ships leading the convoy.

Photo: Japanese plane makes a suicide attack off the Philippines, January 5, 1945.

Credit: National Archives

Japanese kamikaze aircraft under heavy fire in the Philippines as they attack U.S. ships in early January 1945.

Gunners aboard the Callaway had but seconds to react. Coast Guard Seaman First Class Rollin A. Fritch was one of the gunners who immediately leaped into action and peppered the incoming kamikaze aircraft with a hail of 20mm anti-aircraft gunfire. Fritch and his fellow gunners brought down two of the planes, but the third evaded the barrage and plunged down toward the bridge, unswerving in its deadly course.

Even as the kamikaze plane came hurtling toward him, Fritch remained at his post, forfeiting all chance of escape as he continued to fire his weapon. He fought bravely until the very moment the aircraft crashed into the starboard side of the bridge in a burst of flames that rattled the ship to its very keel.

Photograph of a damaged kamikaze in the final seconds before impact on a U.S. ship.

Credit: U.S. Navy

Photograph of a damaged kamikaze in the final seconds before impact on a U.S. ship.

Fritch, along with 28 other members of the Callaway crew, died in the fiery explosion.

Drawing of chaplain Thomas Dunleavy administering last rites to two dying Callaway crewmembers. Printed above the image are the words

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Coast Guard combat artist Norman Thomas drew this illustration of Navy chaplain Thomas Dunleavy administering last rites to two dying Callaway crewmembers.

Photo: Portrait of Rollin Fritch in dress blues.
A portrait of Silver Star Medal recipient Seaman First Class Rollin Fritch, one of the heroic Coast Guardsmen to die on board the Callaway during the kamikaze attack on January 8, 1945.

The news of his death deeply affected even the youngest members of his large family back home.

“I was only 5 years old when he was killed,” said Donna Fuller, Fritch’s niece, now 77 years old. “But I remember that my whole family was devastated. Uncle Rollin was such a sweet, kind person.”

Born in Blue Rapids, Kansas, on May 9, 1920, Fritch was the youngest in a family of eight children. His parents, Frank and Mary Fritch, owned over 80 acres of farmland and relied on their children to help tend the chickens and grow corn, wheat, and soybeans.

Photo: Young Rollin Fritch poses with his dogs.

Credit: Donna Fuller

Coast Guard Seaman 1st Class Rollin A. Fritch poses with his dogs on his parents' farm in Blue Rapids, Kansas, 1930.

Photo: Rollin Fritch in dress whites. Handwritten on the photo “Uncle Rollin”.
Seaman First Class Fritch in dress whites while on leave in 1943.

“Times were rough for them,” said Fuller. “It was a hard way to live.”

The family relocated to Pawnee City, Nebraska, and, after high school, Fritch struck out on his own. He moved to Sioux City, Iowa, and was working there at the Cudahy Packing Company plant when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard on March 17, 1942.

“I remember he said he enlisted just to do his part,” Fuller recalled. “When he visited us on leave and we saw him in uniform, we were in awe.”

After completing basic training, Fitch served on the Coast Guard Cutter Galatea, whose missions consisted of escorting convoys along the Eastern Seaboard and conducting

In September 1943, he joined the crew of the USS Callaway and took part in five island invasions in the Southwest Pacific before the Lingayen Gulf assault in January 1945.

Donna Fuller, who avidly gathered and chronicled her family’s history since the late 1970s, was not alone in admiring her uncle’s heroism and valor.

Fritch was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart Medal and the Silver Star Medal, the third-highest decoration a service member can receive. Decades later, Fritch’s ultimate sacrifice received a more lasting tribute.

In November 2014, the Coast Guard announced the names of the 10 newest 154-foot Sentinel-Class cutters, also known as Fast Response Cutters. One of them would be homeported in Cape May, New Jersey, and officially commissioned on Nov. 19, 2016.

That ship’s name would be Coast Guard Cutter Rollin Fritch.

Photo: Rear starboard photo of Fast Response Cutter Rollin Fritch in port.

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Fast Response Cutter Rollin Fritch underway in 2016. The crew’s primary missions include search and rescue; law enforcement; and ports, waterways, and coastal security.

“It was a complete shock when we found out,” said Fuller, who accepted the role of the cutter’s official sponsor. “To have Uncle Rollin chosen among so many heroes is such an honor.”

“I think it’s fitting that the Coast Guard chose to honor enlisted heroes in such a way,” said Rear Adm. Meredith Austin, commander of Coast Guard District Five in Portsmouth, Virginia. “The enlisted force is what makes up the backbone of the Coast Guard, after all.”

Notable not only for the historical significance of its namesake, Cutter Rollin Fritch will also be the first FRC to call the 5th District home—an important milestone for the district.

“Acquiring an FRC for the district will give us so much more flexibility,” Austin said. “With this newer, more capable asset, we will be able to help mariners farther from shore.”

The missions of the Sentinel-class cutters include conducting offshore patrols, performing search and rescue, interdicting drugs and migrants, and protecting ports and waterways. Equipped with state-of-the-market communications and computer technology, FRCs were designed to replace the Coast Guard’s old Island-Class 110-foot patrol boats.

The original plank-owning crew members aboard Cutter Rollin Fritch plan to carry out those missions in keeping with the bravery and fortitude of the cutter’s namesake.

“We decided that the cutter’s motto should be ‘Until Properly Relieved,’” said Lt. Jason McCarthey, Cutter Rollin Fritch’s first commanding officer. “Rollin Fritch’s devotion to duty reminds us how to conduct ourselves aboard this ship. He manned his gun until the very end.”

“We are absolutely honored to bring Rollin Fritch’s name and story to the area,” added Lt. J.G. Kelly Grills, executive officer of the cutter. “We plan on setting up a namesake area on the mess deck so that every time someone passes by it will remind them what they’re here to do and why they joined the service.”

Rollin Fritch’s courage and self-sacrifice remind all Coast Guardsmen what it means to be truly devoted to duty, while the christening of the cutter in his name forever salutes his valiant spirit.

“We’re the lucky ones, to receive and witness that honor for Uncle Rollin,” Fuller said, her voice warm and wistful. “I think somehow, he knows.”

National Coast Guard Museum insider tip:
National Coast Guard Museum visitors will be able to learn more about the Coast Guard’s involvement in World War II in the Defenders of our Nation wing on Deck 3.