History of the United States Coast Guard: Wikis


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The history of the United States Coast Guard goes back to the Revenue Cutter Service, which was founded on August 4, 1790 as part of the Department of the Treasury. The Revenue Cutter Service and the United States Life-Saving Service were merged to become the Coast Guard per 14 U.S.C. § 1 which states: "The Coast Guard as established January 28, 1915, shall be a military service and a branch of the armed forces of the United States at all times." In 1939, the United States Lighthouse Service was merged into the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard itself was moved to the Department of Transportation in 1967, and on February 25, 2003 it became part of the Department of Homeland Security. However, under 14 U.S.C. § 3 as amended by section 211 of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2006, upon the declaration of war and when Congress so directs in the declaration, or when the President directs, the Coast Guard operates as a service in the Department of the Navy.


Early history

The Coast Guard's predecessor service, the Revenue Cutter Service, was founded on August 4, 1790, when the Tariff Act permitted construction of ten cutters and recruitment of 100 revenue officers. From 1790, when the Continental Navy was disbanded, to 1798, when the United States Navy was created, the Revenue Cutter Service provided the only armed American presence on the sea. Revenue Marine cutters were involved in the Quasi-War with France from 1798 to 1799, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War.

Another predecessor service, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, was organized by statute in 1911. The predecessor to the Lighthouse Service was the United States Lighthouse Board established in 1852.

In 1794, the Revenue Cutter Service was given the mission of preventing trading in slaves from Africa to the United States. Between 1794 and 1865, the Service captured approximately 500 slave ships. In 1808, the Service was responsible for enforcing President Thomas Jefferson's embargo closing U.S. ports to European trade.

The Coast Guard's role in environmental protection dates back more than 185 years to the 1822 Timber Act that tasked the Revenue Cutter Service with protecting government timber from poachers.

During the American Civil War, the Revenue Service cutter Harriet Lane fired the first shots of the war at sea at the steamer Nashville during the siege of Fort Sumter. A Confederate Revenue Marine was formed by crewmen who left the Revenue Cutter Service. Upon the order of President Lincoln to the Secretary of the Treasury on June 14, 1863, Federal cutters were assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

In the 1880s through the 1890s, the Revenue Cutter Service was instrumental in the development of Alaska. Captain "Hell Roaring" Michael A. Healy, master of the USRC Bear, greatly assisted a program that brought reindeer to Alaska to provide a steady food source. Healy had the reputation as a rough sailing master and was court-martialed several times, but was restored to rank again and again. In the winter of 1897-1898, the reindeer and lieutenants in the Revenue Cutter Service participated in the Overland Expedition to help starving trapped whalers. During the Snake River gold rush of 1900, the Revenue Cutter Service returned destitute miners to Seattle from Alaska.

The Coast Guard took its unofficial motto, "You have to go out, but you don't have to come back," from the 1899 regulations of the United States Life Saving Service, which stated:

"In attempting a rescue the keeper will select either the boat, breeches buoy, or life car, as in his judgment is best suited to effectively cope with the existing conditions. If the device first selected fails after such trial as satisfies him that no further attempt with it is feasible, he will resort to one of the others, and if that fails, then to the remaining one, and he will not desist from his efforts until by actual trial the impossibility of effecting a rescue is demonstrated. The statement of the keeper that he did not try to use the boat because the sea or surf was too heavy will not be accepted unless attempts to launch it were actually made and failed [underlining added], or unless the conformation of the coast—as bluffs, precipitous banks, etc.—is such as to unquestionably preclude the use of a boat."

These regulations were repeated in the 1934 Coast Guard regulations.

Birth of the modern Coast Guard

In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-saving Service were merged to form the Coast Guard. The Lighthouse Service was merged into the Coast Guard in 1939. On February 28, 1942, the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard [1].

In 1920 the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce held hearings on merging the recently created Coast Guard into the United States Navy.[1]

World War I

The Coast Guard involvement in World War I began several months before a declaration of war with Germany when the Federal Government Interdepartmental Board on Coastal Communications made the recommendation that the Coast Guard improve it's telephone system connecting Lifeboat Stations and lighthouses. The Board recommended that the system be brought to a high state of readiness and include all Army Coast Artillery batteries and other government facilities.[2] On 22 March 1917, the Commandant of the Coast Guard issued Confidential Order No. 2, "Mobilization of the U.S. Coast Guard When Required to Operate as a Part of the Navy", an operations plan that would combine the Coast Guard with the Navy and direct each cutter to report an assigned Naval District office when the plan was executed. Shore station commanders were directed to continue wreck and rescue work and report to their preassigned Naval District office.[3]

On 6 April 1917 the United States declared war on Germany and the same day the Coast Guard was transferred to the control of the Navy. On that day the Coast Guard was a small force with only 5200 officers and men authorized but only 3960 of the authorized billets were filled. It had 23 active crusing cutters and 21 harbor cutters. There were 272 lifesaving station along the coastline of the United States.[4]

The 1920s and prohibition

In the 1920s, the Coast Guard was given several former U.S. Navy four-stack destroyers to help enforce Prohibition. The effort was not entirely successful, due to the slowness of the destroyers. However, the mission provided many Coast Guard officers and petty officers with operational experience which proved invaluable in World War II. The Navy's epithet of "Hooligan Navy" dates from this era, due to the Coast Guard's flexibility in enlisting men discharged from other services to rapidly expand; it has endured due to the high proportion of prior-other-service enlisteds, and become a term of pride within the service.

1927 Mississippi River flood

During the disastrous 1927 Mississippi River flood, the Coast Guard rescued a total of 43,853 persons who they “removed from perilous positions to places of safety". Additionally, they saved 11,313 head of livestock and furnished transportation for 72 persons in need of hospitalization. In all 674 Coast Guardsmen and 128 Coast Guard vessels and boats served in the relief operations. The immense scope of the operations actually eclipsed the number of persons that the Coast Guard rescued during the Hurricane Katrina operations.[5]

The 1930s

Increasing regulation of merchant shipping

In June 1932, the Steamboat Inspection Service was merged with the Bureau of Navigation, itself created in 1884 to oversee the regulation of merchant seamen, on June 30, 1932.

In 1934, the passenger vessel SS Morro Castle suffered a serious fire off the coast of New Jersey, which ultimately claimed the lives of 124 passenger and crew. The casualty prompted new fire protection standards for vessels and paved the way for the Act of May 27, 1936, which reorganized and changed the name of the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection Service to the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation.

Marine inspection and navigation duties under the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation were temporarily transferred to the Coast Guard by executive order on February 28, 1942. This transfer of duties fit well with the Coast Guard's port safety and security missions, and was made permanent in 1946. [6]

Carl von Paulsen rescue

Lieutenant Commander Carl von Paulsen set the seaplane Arcturus in a heavy sea in January 1933 off Cape Canaveral and rescued a boy adrift in a skiff. The aircraft sustained so much damage during the open water landing that it could not take off. Ultimately, Arcturus washed onto the beach and all including the boy were saved. Commander Paulsen was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for this rescue.[7]

The 1940s

World War II

Before the American entry into World War II, cutters of the Coast Guard patrolled the North Atlantic. In January 1940 President Roosevelt directed the establishment of the Atlantic Weather Observation Service using Coast Guard cutters and U.S. Weather Bureau observers.[8]

After the invasion of Denmark by Germany in April, 1940, President Roosevelt ordered the International Ice Patrol to continue as a legal pretext to patrol Greenland, whose cryolite mines were vital to refining aluminum and whose geographic location allowed accurate weather forecasts to be made for Europe. The Greenland patrol was maintained by the Coast Guard for the duration of the war.

The USCGC Modoc (WPG-46), was peripherally involved in the chase and sinking of the German battleship Bismarck.

Shortly after Germany declared war on the United States, German submarines began Operation Drumbeat ("Paukenschlag"), sinking ships off the American coast. Many Coast Guard cutters were involved in rescue operations following German attacks on American shipping. The USCGC Icarus, a 165-foot (50 m) cutter that previously had been a rumrunner chaser during Prohibition, sank U-352 on May 9, 1942, off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, and took 33 prisoners, the first Germans taken in combat by any U.S. force.

The USCGC Thetis sank U-157 on June 10, 1942. During the war, Coast Guard units sank 12 German and two Japanese submarines and captured two German surface vessels.

Coast Guardsmen also patrolled the shores of the United States during the war. On June 13, 1942, Seaman Second Class John Cullen, patrolling the beach in Amagansett New York, discovered the first landing of German saboteurs in Operation Pastorius. Cullen was the first American who actually came in contact with the enemy on the shores of the United States during the war and his report led to the capture of the German sabotage team. For this, Cullen received the Legion of Merit. [2].

In addition to antisubmarine operations, the Coast Guard worked closely with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Many of the coxswains of American landing craft, such as the Higgins boat (LCVP), used in amphibious invasions were Coast Guardsmen who had received amphibious training with the cooperation of the U.S. Marine Corps. Coast Guard cutters and ships partially manned by Coast Guardsmen were used in the North African invasion of November 1942 (Operation Torch) and the invasion of Sicily in 1943 (Operation Husky).

On September 9, 1942 the USCGC Muskget (WAG-48) was sunk with a loss of 121 crewmembers while on North Atlantic weather patrol by U-755.

In November 1942, legislation was passed creating the Coast Guard Women's Reserve, also known as the SPARS. Led by Captain Dorothy C. Stratton, around 11,000 women served in various stateside positions, freeing men for overseas duty.

USCGC Escanaba crewmembers on deck early in World War II

On February 3, 1943 the torpedoing of the transport Dorchester off the coast of Greenland saw cutters Comanche and Escanaba respond. The frigid water gave the survivors only minutes to live in the cold North Atlantic. With this in mind, the crew of Escanaba used a new rescue technique when pulling survivors from the water. This "retriever" technique used swimmers clad in wet suits to swim to victims in the water and secure a line to them so they could be hauled onto the ship. Escanaba saved 133 men (one died later) and Comanche saved 97.[9] Escanaba herself was lost to a torpedo or mine a few months later, along with 103 of her 105-man crew.[10]

During the Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944, a 60-cutter flotilla of wooden 83-foot (25 m) Coast Guard cutters, nicknamed the "Matchbox Fleet", cruised off all five landing beaches as combat search-and-rescue boats, saving 400 Allied airmen and sailors. Division O-1, including the Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase, landed the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division on Omaha Beach. Off Utah Beach, the Coast Guard manned the command ship USS Bayfield. Several Coast Guard-manned landing craft were lost during D-Day to enemy fire and heavy seas. In addition, a cutter was beached during the storms off the Normandy coast which destroyed the U.S.-operated artificial harbor.

A number of the 60 cutters based in Poole as part of Rescue Flotilla One.

The USCGC Taney, a notable World War II era High Endurance Cutter, is the only warship still afloat today that was present for the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, although she was actually stationed in nearby Honolulu.

On August 27, 1944, the all Coast Guard-manned USS LST-327 was torpedoed by U-92 -but not sunk while crossing the English Channel. 22 Coast Guardsmen were killed.

On September 12, 1944, the Liberty ship George Ade was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Cape Hatteras, N.C. CGC Jackson and CGC Bedloe, heading to assist the survivors of the Ade, were caught in the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 the day after, sinking both cutters and killing 48 Coast Guardsmen. A U.S. Navy seaplane rescued the survivors. (PA2 Judy Silverstein, "Adrift: A CGC Jackson survivor recounts his harrowing survival at sea", Coast Guard Magazine 2/2006, pp. 28–31. pdf html)

On January 29, 1945, the USS Serpens (AK-97), a Coast Guard manned Liberty ship, exploded off Guadalcanal, Solomons Islands, while loading depth charges. 193 Coast Guardsmen, 56 Army stevedores, and one U.S. Public Health Service officer were killed in the explosion. This was the biggest single disaster to befall the Coast Guard during WW2. USS Serpens home page

As was common during this period, many of Hollywood's able-bodied screen stars became enlistees and left their film careers on hiatus in order to support the national defense. Specifically, actors Gig Young, Cesar Romero, and Richard Cromwell all served admirably in various capacities in the USCG in the Pacific for several years.

Douglas Munro

Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro (1919–1942), the only Coast Guardsman to receive the Medal of Honor, earned the decoration during World War II as a small boat coxswain during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. A Navy destroyer escort, USS Douglas A. Munro (DE-422), was named in his honor in 1944. The cutter USCGC Munro (WHEC-724) was commissioned in 1971, and is still on active service.

Bermuda Sky Queen rescue

On October 14, 1947, the American-owned flying boat Bermuda Sky Queen, carrying sixty-nine passengers was flying from Foynes, Ireland to Gander, Newfoundland. Gale force winds had slowed her progress and she was running low on fuel. Too far from Newfoundland and unable to make it back to Ireland, the captain, Charles Martin, twenty-six-year-old ex-Navy pilot, decided to fly toward the cutter Bibb which was on Ocean Station Charlie in the North Atlantic. The plane’s captain decided to ditch and have his passengers and crew picked up by Bibb. In 30-foot (10 m) seas, the transfer was both difficult and dangerous. Initially the Bibb’s captain, Capt. Paul B. Cronk, tried to pass a line to the plane which taxied to the lee side of the cutter. A collision with the cutter ended this attempt to save the passengers. With worsening weather, a fifteen man rubber raft and a small boat were deployed from the ship. The raft was guided to the escape door of the aircraft. Passengers jumped into the raft which was then pulled to the boat. After rescuing 47 of the crew, worsening conditions and the approach of darkness forced the rescue’s suspension. By dawn, improved weather allowed the rescue to resume and the remaining passengers and crew were transferred to the Bibb. The rescue made headlines throughout the country and upon their arrival in Boston, Bibb and her crew received a hero’s welcome for having saved all those aboard the ditched Bermuda Sky Queen.[11][12]

This event spurred ratification of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) treaty establishing a network of ocean weather stations in 1947. A second conference in 1949 reduced the number of Atlantic stations to ten but provided for three Pacific stations.[13]

Enlisted training center

An enlisted training center was established in Cape May in 1948 and all recruit training functions were consolidated in this facility in 1982, when the West Coast recruit center at Government Island (Alameda), California was closed, the facility repurposed and the island renamed. (See Coast Guard Island).

The 1950s

Korean War

During the Korean War, Coast Guard officers helped arrange the evacuation of the Korean Peninsula during the initial North Korean attack. On August 9, 1950, Congress enacted Public Law 679, known as the Magnuson Act. This act charged the Coast Guard with ensuring the security of the United States' ports and harbors on a permanent basis. In addition, the Coast Guard established a series of weather ships in the north Pacific Ocean and assisted civilian and military aircraft and ships in distress, and established a string of LORAN stations in Japan and Korea that assisted the United Nations forces.

Pendleton rescue

Bow section of the Pendleton, February 19, 1952

On February 18, 1952, during a severe "nor’easter" off the New England coast, the T2 tankers SS Fort Mercer and SS Pendleton broke in half. Pendleton was unable to make any distress call; she was discovered on the unusual shore radar with which the Chatham, Massachusetts, Lifeboat Station was equipped during the search for Fort Mercer.[14] BM1 Bernard C. Webber, coxswain of motor lifeboat CG-36500 from Station Chatham and his crew, consisting of Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey, and Ervin Maske, rescued the crew of Pendleton, which had broken in half. Webber maneuvered the 36-footer under Pendleton's stern with expert skill as the tanker's crew, trapped in the stern section, abandoned the remains of their ship on a Jacob's ladder. One by one, the men jumped into the water and then were pulled into the lifeboat. Webber and his crew saved 33 of the 34 Pendleton crewmen. Webber, Fitzgerald, Livesey, and Maske were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for their heroic actions.

In all, U .S. Coast Guard vessels, aircraft, and lifeboat stations, working under severe winter conditions, rescued 62 persons from the foundering ships or from the water; only five lives were lost among the crews of Fort Mercer and Pendleton. Five Coast Guardsmen earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal, four earned the Silver Lifesaving Medal, and 15 earned the Coast Guard Commendation Medal.[9]

The rescue of men from the bow of Fort Mercer was nearly as spectacular as the Pendleton rescue, but is often overshadowed by the Pendleton rescue. Eight officers and crew were trapped on the bow of Fort Mercer and four were rescued using rafts and a Monomoy surfboat. By contrast, all aboard the bow of the Pendleton perished.

The 1960s

Transfer to the Department of Transportation

On April 1, 1967 the Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the newly formed Department of Transportation under the authority of PL 89-670 which was signed into law on October 15, 1966.

The Racing Stripe

In 1967, the Coast Guard adopted the red and blue "racing stripe" as part of the regular insignia for cutters, boats, and aircraft. It was recommended by the industrial design firm of Raymond Loewy/William Snaith, Inc. (who redesigned the exterior and interior of Air Force One during the Kennedy administration) to give Coast Guard units and vessels a distinctive appearance, as well as clearer recognition from a distance.[15] This "racing stripe" was in turn adopted (in modified forms) by several other coast guards, in particular the Canadian Coast Guard.

Vietnam War

The Coast Guard was active in the Vietnam War beginning 27 May 1965 with the formation of Coast Guard Squadron One consisting of Divisions 11, 12, and 13. Squadron One assisted in Operation Market Time by interdicting resupply by sea of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. Seventeen 'Point Class' 82 foot WPB cutters were transferred to coastal waters off Vietnam with their Coast Guard crews under the operational control of the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet. Coast Guard Squadron Three was activated in March 1967 and consisted initially of five High Endurance Cutters (WHEC) tasked to the Navy for used in coastal interdiction and naval gunfire support for shore operations in South Vietnam.

Several Coast Guard aviators served with the U.S. Air Force 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron and 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron in Southeast Asia from 1968 to 1972. They were involved in combat search and rescue operations in both Vietnam and Laos.

The Coast Guard provided Explosive Loading Detachments (ELD) to the U.S. Army 1st Logistics Command in several locations in Vietnam. The ELD's were responsible for the supervision of Army stevedores in the unloading of explosives and ammunition from U.S. Merchant Marine ships. The ELD's were also responsible for assisting the Army in Port Security operations at each port and eventually were made a part of a Port Security and Waterways Detail (PS&WD) reporting to the Commanding General, United States Army, Vietnam (USARV). They earned the Army Meritorious Unit Commendation for their efforts.

In December 1965 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara requested Coast Guard assistance in constructing a chain of LORAN-C stations for use by naval vessels and combat aircraft for operations in Southeast Asia. Construction started almost immediately at five locations in Thailand and Vietnam and were operational after 8 August 1966.

On 22 April 1966, the Coast Guard Cutter Planetree (WLB307) arrived in Cam Rahn Bay to commence Aids to Navigation (ATON) operations in the coastal waters of South Vietnam. They were responsible for the marking of freshly cut channels and harbors with buoys and daymarks so that merchant and naval ships could safely navigate the waters. This direct support mission ended on 17 May 1971 with the departure of the last buoy tender, Cutter Blackhaw (WLB390). The buoy tender crews were tasked with training South Vietnamese crews in the ATON effort prior to the Blackhaw's departure as a part of the 'Vietnamization' policy of the Nixon Administration. After May 1971 ATON was serviced on a 'as needed' basis by the Cutter Basswood (WLB388) homeported in Guam.

In August 1970 The Coast Guard finished turning over to the South Vietnamese Navy the patrol boats (WPB's) of Squadron One. The training of South Vietnamese crews had started in February 1969 and continued through to the end of operations for Squadron One. High Endurance Cutters Yakutat (WHEC380) and Bering Strait (WHEC382) were turned over to the South Vietnamese Navy on 1 January 1971. Eventually three other WHEC's were turned over to the South Vietnamese Navy.The Coast Guard's involvement in the Vietnam War ended at 1246 on 29 April 1975 when LORAN Station Con Son went off the air for good. Its signal was necessary for the safe evacuation of Siagon by U.S. Embassy personnel in the final days before the fall of the South Vietnamese government and it was kept on the air as long as possible. On 3 October 1975 the Coast Guard disestablished the remaining LORAN-C stations in Thailand.[16] Seven Coast Guardsmen were killed during the war in combat and search and rescue operations.[17]

The 1970s

The "New Guard"

In the mid-70s the Coast Guard adopted the blue uniforms seen today, replacing Navy-style uniforms worn prior to the Vietnam War[3]. Known jocularly as "Bender's Blues," they were implemented as part of the postwar transition to an all-volunteer force. It is noteworthy that the enlisted's and officer's uniforms differed only in rank insignia and cap devices, reflecting the value the service placed on its enlisted members (although it caused saluting confusion among members of other services). The stylish new women's uniform was created by Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, upon the request of Capt. Eleanor L'Ecuyer. [4]

Women were integrated into the Coast Guard during the 1970s, beginning with the end of the separate Women's Reserve (SPARS) in 1973, the modification of 378's for mixed-gender crews beginning in 1977, and the opening of all ratings to women in 1978.[5] These stages of integration preceded the DOD military by roughly a year or so, as separate legislation restricted their deployment of women.

Altogether, the shift from Treasury to the DOT in 1967, the uniform change, the end of Ocean Station service, growth of the shore-side establishment by newly added missions, the steady if belated retirement of venerable but aging WWII cutters, and gender integration marked the oft-lamented end of the "Old Guard" ("wooden ships and men of steel").

The Ancient Order of the Pterodactyl was founded in 1977 in order to preserve the history of Coast Guard aviation, as the service's last amphibious seaplane, the Grumman Albatross or "Goat," was nearing retirement, as was also the service's last enlisted pilot, John P. Greathouse.[6][7]

End of ocean stations, beginning of the 200-mile limit

One major mission of the service, maintaining Ocean Stations, came to an end as improvements in oceanic aviation (turbojet airliners and improved radionavigation) obviated the need. However, the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976 brought an increase in offshore fisheries patrols, to which the newer WHECs (the 378s) were redeployed, as the aging boiler-powered WWII-vintage wooden-deckers were gradually retired.

The Kudirka incident

On November 23, 1970, Simonas "Simas" Kudirka, a Soviet seaman of Lithuanian nationality, leapt from the 400-foot (120 m) mother ship Sovetskaya Litva, anchored in American waters (near Aquinnah, Massachusetts on Martha's Vineyard Island), aboard the USCGC Vigilant, sailing from New Bedford. The Soviets accused Kudirka of theft of 3,000 rubles from the ship's safe. Ten hours passed; communications difficulties contributed to the delay, as the ship was unfortunately in a "blind spot" of Boston Radio's (Marshfield) receivers, resulting in an awkward resort to using the public marine operator.

After attempts to get the U.S. State Department to provide guidance failed, Rear Admiral William B. Ellis, commander of the First Coast Guard District, ordered Commander Ralph E. Eustis to permit a KGB detachment to board the Vigilant to return Kudirka to the Soviet ship. This led to a change in asylum policy by the U.S. Coast Guard. Admiral Ellis and his chief of staff were given administrative punishment under Article 15 of the UCMJ. Commander Eustis was given a non-punitive letter of reprimand and assigned to shore duty.

Kudirka was tried for treason by the Soviet Union and given a ten-year sentence in the Gulag. Subsequent investigations revealed that Kudirka could claim American citizenship through his mother and was allowed to come to the United States in 1974.

The incident, known for several years as the Coast Guard's "Day of Shame," was portrayed in a 1978 television movie, The Defection of Simas Kudirka (IMDB), with Alan Arkin playing Kudirka and Donald Pleasence playing the captain of the Soviet ship.

The 1980s

The Blackthorn Tragedy

On January 28, 1980, the 180-ft buoy tender USCGC Blackthorn (WLB-391) collided with the 605-foot oil tanker S.S. Capricorn and capsized when the Capricorn's anchor entangled the cutter. 23 Coast Guardsmen were drowned. Coming close behind the loss of 11 men in the collision/sinking of the OCS training ship USCGC Cuyahoga[8] (built in 1927 as a Prohibition patrol boat[9]), the impact of this disaster upon morale in the close-knit service was magnified.[18]

Prinsendam rescue

On October 4, 1980, the Coast Guard and Canadian Coast Guard were involved in the rescue of the passengers and crew of the Dutch cruise vessel MS Prinsendam in the Gulf of Alaska.

A fire broke out on the Prinsendam off Ketchikan, Alaska on 4 October 1980. The Prinsendam was 130 miles from the nearest airstrip. The cruise ship’s captain ordered the ship abandoned and the passengers, many elderly, left the ship in the lifeboats. Coast Guard and Canadian helicopters and the cutters Boutwell, Mellon, and Woodrush responded in concert with other vessels in the area. The passenger vessel later capsized and sank. The rescue is particularly important because of the distance traveled by the rescuers, the coordination of independent organizations and the fact that all 520 passengers and crew were rescued without loss of life or serious injury.[19]

The Mariel boatlift

In April, 1980, the government of Cuba began to allow any person who wanted to leave Cuba to assemble in Mariel Harbor and take their own transport. The U.S. Coast Guard, working out of Seventh District Headquarters in Miami, Florida, rescued boats in difficulty, inspected vessels for adequate safety equipment, and processed refugees. This task was made even more difficult by a hurricane which swamped many vessels in mid-ocean and by the lack of cooperation by Cuban Border Guard officials. By May, 600 reservists had been called up, the U.S. Navy provided assistance between Cuba and Key West, and the Auxiliary was heavily involved. 125,000 refugees were processed between April and May 1980. (See Mariel boatlift.)

The end of the lightships

The number of lightships steadily decreased during the 20th century, some replaced by "Texas Tower" type structures (e.g., Chesapeake, Buzzards Bay, both now automated) [10] [11], and others by buoys. However, the Columbia River and Nantucket Shoals Lightships were not replaced by large navigational buoys (LNBs) until 1979 and 1983, respectively, due to the difficulty of anchoring buoys securely at their heavy-weather locations. [12] [13].

The technology of all aids to navigation evolved dramatically during this era, reducing manning and maintenance requirements. The Coast Guard also managed the worldwide VLF OMEGA Navigation System and operated two of its stations from the early 1970s until its termination in 1997 (having been superseded, though not truly obsoleted, by GPS).

The KAL 007 shootdown

On Sept 1, 1983, Soviets interceptors shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 carrying 269 passengers and crew, including a sitting U.S. congressman, Larry McDonald. A joint U.S.- South Korean- Japanese Search and Rescue/Search and Salvage operation began in 225 sq. miles of international waters north of Moneron Island and West of Sakhalin. Among the 11 U.S. Navy ships and assorted vessels from Japan and Korea, the sole Coast Guard vessel, the USCGC Munro[14] operated. The Munro rescued four airmen from a U.S. Seahawk helicopter which had fallen into the sea.

Libyan Attack on LORAN Station Lampedusa

On April 15, 1986, Libya fired two Scuds at the U.S. Coast Guard navigation station on the Italian island, in retaliation for the American bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi. However, the missiles passed over the island, landing in the sea, and caused no damage. As a result of the attack, the Coast Guard station was commissioned as a NATO base, including security hardening and an armory, as well as an Italian security detail stationed nearby.

At the time of the missile attack, the LORAN station was under the command of Lt. Ernest DelBueno, who panicked and attempted to evacuate his American crew by calling in a U.S. Navy transport helicopter from Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Four (HC-4), abandoning the Italians on his base, and in the community on the other end of the island. To their credit, the Italians, under the leadership of the base's civilian administrator, Marco Bartolo, reflected great honor as they kept their posts; however, the incident damaged relations with the local Italians; a rift that remained for more than two years.

The 1990s

Operation Buckshot, The Great Flood of '93

During April and again in June 1993, Coast Guard Forces, St. Louis was activated for flooding on the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois River basins. The '500 year' flooding closed over 1250 miles of river to navigation and claimed 47 lives. Historic levels of rainfall in the river tributaries caused many levee breaks along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers displacing thousands of people from their homes and businesses. The commander of CGF, St. Louis set in to motion a preconcieved operations plan to deal with the many requests for assistance from state and local governments for law enforcement assistance, help with sandbagging, water rescues, evacuation of flood victims, and aerial survelance of levee conditions. The unprecidented duration of the flood also caused Coast Guard personnel to assume some humanitarian services not normally a part of flood operations. Food, water and sandbags were transported to work sites to assist sandbagging efforts by local governments. Red Cross and Salvation Army relief workers were given transportation assistance. Many homeless animals displaced by the flood waters were rescued and turned over to local animal shelters. Utility repair crews were assisted with transportation of personnel and repair parts. Disaster Response Units (DRU) were formed from active duty and reserve units throughout the Second Coast Guard District and consisted of eight members equipped with three 16 foot flood punts powered by 25 HP outboard motors. The DRU's accounted for 1517 boat sorties and 3342 hours of underway operations. Coast Guard helicopters from CG Air Stations in Traverse City and Detroit, MI; Chicago, IL; Elizabeth City, NC; and Mobile, AL provided search and rescue, logistical support and aerial survey intelligence. The Coast Guard Auxiliary provided three fixed wing aircraft. There were 473 aircraft sorties with 570 hours of aircraft operations. CG Forces St. Louis stood down from the alert phase of operations on August 27. A total of 380 Active Duty, 352 Reserve, 179 Auxiliary, and 5 Coast Guard Civilians were involved in the operation.[20]

1994 Cuban Boat Rescues

USCGC Tamaroa (WMEC-166), best known for her rescues during the "Perfect Storm" of 1991.

In 1994, about 38,000 Cubans attempted to sail from Cuba to Florida, many on homemade rafts. The Coast Guard and Navy performed intensive search and rescue efforts to rescue rafters at sea. Sixteen 110 foot (34 m) cutters—half the complement of the Coast Guard—were involved in this operation, as well as buoy tenders not normally assigned to high seas duty. Due to a change in Presidential policy, rescued Cubans were sent to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The 2000s

For details on the Coast Guard's response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, see Missions of the United States Coast Guard above.

In 2002, the Coast Guard sent several 110-foot (34 m) cutters to the Persian Gulf to enforce the U.N. embargo on goods to and from Iraq. Port Security Units and Naval Coastal Warfare units also accompanied the U.S. military buildup.

Transfer to the Department of Homeland Security

The Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security on 1 March 2003 under the Homeland Security Act (Public Law No. 107-296).

In September 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rejected the proposal to transfer all military responsibilities of the Coast Guard to the Navy and assigning the Coast Guard purely homeland security responsibilities.

On April 24, 2004, Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan B. Bruckenthal, 24, from the USS Firebolt (PC-10), became the first Coast Guardsman to die in combat since the Vietnam War. He was killed in a suicide boat attack on a Basra oil terminal off the coast of Iraq. With his death, all branches of the military had seen at least one death in that war.

After Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the Coast Guard dispatched a number of helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, small boats, and Auxiliary aircraft as well as 25 cutters to the Gulf Coast, rescuing 2,000 people in two days, and around 33,500 people in all. The crews also assessed storm damage to offshore oil platforms and refineries. More than 2,400 personnel from all districts conducted search, rescue, response, waterway reconstitution and environmental impact assessment operations. In total, the Coast Guard air and boat rescued more than 33,500 people and assisted with the joint-agency evacuation of an additional 9,400 patients and medical personnel from hospitals in the Gulf coast region.

In May 2006, at the Change of Command ceremony when Admiral Thad Allen took over as Commandant, President George W. Bush awarded the entire Coast Guard, including the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Presidential Unit Citation for its efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

On October 29, 2009 Coast Guard HC-130 aircraft No. 1705 with seven crewmembers, based at McClellan Air Park in Sacramento, collided with a United States Marine Corps (USMC) AH-1 Cobra helicopter with two crewmembers 15 miles east of San Clemente Island. Both aircraft crashed into the ocean and all nine crewmembers in both aircraft are believed to have perished.[21] The C-130 was searching for a missing boater while the USMC aircraft was heading towards a military training area in company with another Cobra and two CH-53 Sea Stallions from Miramar Naval Air Station.[22]


The Integrated Deepwater System Program is designed to meet future threats to the U.S. from the sea. Although the program involves obtaining new ships and aircraft, Deepwater also involves upgraded information technology for command, control, communications and computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR).

A key part of the Deepwater system is the Maritime Security Cutter, Large (WMSL), which is designed to replace the 378-foot (115 m) high-endurance cutters currently on duty. This ship will have a length of 421 feet (128 m), be powered by a gas turbine engine with two auxiliary diesel engines, and be capable of 12,000 nautical mile (22,000 km) voyages lasting up to 60 days. The keel laying of the USCGC Bertholf (WMSL-750), the first ship in this class, took place in September 2004. The ship was delivered in 2008. The second keel, USCGC Waesche (WMSL-751), was laid in 2005.

Another key vessel is the Maritime Security Cutter, Medium (WMSM), which will be 341 ft (104 m) long, displace 2,921 long tons (2,968 metric tons), and be capable of 45-day patrols of up to 9,000 nautical miles (17,000 km). Both the WMSL and the WMSM cutters will be able to carry two helicopters or four VTOL Unmanned Air Vehicles (VUAVs), or a combination of these.

Coast Guard Museums


  1. ^ Transfer of the Coast Guard to the Navy By United States. Congress. House. Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, 1920
  2. ^ Larzelere, Alex R., "The Coast Guard in World War I: An Untold Story", p. xvi, Naval Institute Press, 2003, ISBN 1-55750-476-8
  3. ^ Larzelere, Alex R., "The Coast Guard in World War I: An Untold Story", p. 8, Naval Institute Press, 2003, ISBN 1-55750-476-8
  4. ^ Larzelere, Alex R., "The Coast Guard in World War I: An Untold Story", p. 16, Naval Institute Press, 2003, ISBN 1-55750-476-8
  5. ^ “Top Ten Coast Guard Rescues.”, op. cit.
  6. ^ Statement of Admiral Thad w. Allen on the Challenges facing the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Program, Delivered before the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. August 2, 2007. https://www.piersystem.com/go/doc/786/166737/ Work of the United States government (public domain)
  7. ^ “Top Ten Coast Guard Rescues.”, op. cit.
  8. ^ Ocean Weather Ships 1940-1980, Capt. R. P. Dinsmore, USCG (Ret.) http://www.uscg.mil/History/webcutters/rpdinsmore_oceanstations.html
  9. ^ a b Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Coast Guard. “Top Ten Coast Guard Rescues.” July 31, 2007, http://www.piersystem.com/go/doc/786/166402/
  10. ^ "The Sinking of the USCGC Escanaba". Dr. Robert M. Browning, Jr.. http://www.uscg.mil/history/articles/Escanaba.asp. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  11. ^ Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Coast Guard. "Top Ten Coast Guard Rescues". http://www.piersystem.com/go/doc/786/166402/, accessed 2007-08-02
  12. ^ Newsreel footage of 1947 Bermuda Sky Queen incident at British Pathe (requires Adobe Flash). Retrieved 2009-10-12
  13. ^ Disnmore, Ocean Weather Ships 1940-1980, op. cit.
  14. ^ "The Pendleton Rescue" by Captain W. Russell Webster, USCG, December 2001 Naval Institute Proceedings (Vol 127, pp. 66-69) http://www.uscg.mil/history/Pendleton_Webster.html
  15. ^ Traditions of the U.S. Coast Guard
  16. ^ The Coast Guard at War: Vietnam, 1965-1975, Alex Larzelere, Naval Institute Press, 1997, ISBN 1-55750-529-2
  17. ^ http://www.uscg.mil/history/faqs/VietnamKIA.asp
  18. ^ Coast Guard Reserve Magazine, March 2000. "The 20th Anniversary of the CGC Blackthorn Tragedy" http://www.uscg.mil/RESERVE/magazine/mag2000/mar2000/blackthorn.htm
  19. ^ Public “Top Ten Coast Guard Rescues.”, op. cit
  20. ^ After Action Report for Operation Buckshot, Commander, Coast Guard Forces St. Louis, 2nd Coast Guard District, 15 August 1993
  21. ^ Schmidt, Steve, "Military Aircraft In Collision Off Coast", San Diego Union-Tribune, October 30, 2009, p. 1.
  22. ^ Steele, Jeanette, "Search For Crash Answers", San Diego Union-Tribune, October 31, 2009, p. 1.

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