History of the Coast Guard in Mississippi
Ever since man has gone down to the sea in ships, great risks have been run to rescue those in danger. To improve the possibility of success, responsibility had to be delineated and means appropriated. In 1831 the Secretary of the Treasury directed the revenue cutter Gallatin to cruise the coast in search of persons in distress. This was the first time a government agency was tasked specifically to search for those who might be in danger. In 1837 Congress authorized the President "to cause ... public vessels ... to cruise upon the coast, in the severe portion of the season ... to afford such aid to distressed navigators as their circumstance and necessities may require; and such public vessels shall go to sea prepared fully to render such assistance." This addressed rescue on the high seas. Yet, during the age of wood and sail, most disasters occurred close into shore.
An innovative solution was needed; techniques and equipment had to be developed in order to save those stranded so close to their new homeland. Beginning in 1848, a federal lifesaving service began to take shape. At first, the government provided a garage-like structure outfitted with rescue equipment. The coasts of New Jersey and Long Island had experienced the greatest numbers of wrecks with the result that these beaches were the sites for the new stations. The construction and equipping was a joint project carried out by a Revenue Marine officer, the boards of underwriters, and local citizens associated with salvage work. There was a fully-equipped iron boat on a wagon, a mortar apparatus for propelling a rescue line, powder and shot, a small covered "life car" for hauling in survivors, a stove, and fuel. The keys to the station were entrusted to a community leader, usually a wreckmaster, and he organized his volunteer crew.
Following the war, in 1871, the Life-Saving Service was "reborn" under the leadership of Sumner L. Kimball, ably assisted by Revenue Marine Captain John Faunce (who had commanded Harriet Lane at Charleston in 1861). New stations were built; new equipment was developed; the scope of the Service was expanded beyond New Jersey and Long Island and personnel were federalized.
In 1847, Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury Department, announced, “I intend to put a Cast Iron Light House at Biloxi … and this will prove the utility which they may be of”. The Biloxi Lighthouse thus became the first cast iron tower in the South. The utility of the tower was certainly proven when in 1998, Hurricane Georges toppled the masonry tower at Round Island, and the Biloxi Lighthouse became the last standing of the more than ten lighthouses originally built to mark the Mississippi coastline. The Biloxi Lighthouse was one of three Mississippi Sound Lighthouses authorized in 1847 by legislation sponsored by Mississippi Representative Jefferson Davis. Metal plates, cast by Murray and Hazlehurst Vulcan Works in Baltimore, were bolted together to form a metal wrapper around a brick liner. The tower was completed in the spring of 1848 and Marcellus J. Howard was assigned as the first keeper. Part of his job was to service the lamps and nine small reflectors that comprised the lighting apparatus. Later, the light would be upgraded to fourteen, 21.5-inch reflectors.
Although the first keeper was a man, the Biloxi Lighthouse would later earn the distinction of having been kept by female keepers for more years than any other lighthouse in the United States. Mary Reynolds was the first female keeper, serving from 1854 to 1866. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, a local group of “Home Guards” ordered the light extinguished and seized the keys to the tower. After the death of her relatives, Keeper Reynolds was guardian for several orphaned children, who lived with her at the lighthouse. Concerned that her salary would be interrupted during the war, Mary wrote to the Governor of Mississippi, reporting on her faithfulness in tending the light and on the theft of oil from the lighthouse. Her stipend likely continued during the conflict, as she is listed as the official keeper until 1866.
Following the war, Perry Younghans was appointed keeper of the Biloxi Lighthouse, which was now equipped with a fifth-order Fresnel lens. Younghans died during his first year of service, and his wife Maria assumed responsibility for the light. She served at the light for over fifty years. Maria was described as a “plucky woman”, who kept the light burning even in adverse conditions. During one storm, a large pelican broke a glass pane in the lantern room. Maria quickly effectuated a temporary repair, allowing the light to send out its welcoming beam to any sailor who might be caught in the storm.
During the latter portion of Maria’s tenure, her daughter Miranda served as assistant keeper. When Maria retired in 1919, Miranda was promoted to keeper. Miranda remained at the light for another 10 years, during which time the light was electrified.
Although the light is today a good distance from the water’s edge, this hasn’t always been the case. In the 1850s, the tower stood on the edge of a sand bank, just twenty-nine feet from the shoreline. A concrete seawall was constructed to protect the bank from erosion. During a storm in 1860, part of the wall collapsed, allowing the surging sea to undermine the foundation on one side of the tower. The resulting void caused the tower to lean two feet from vertical. A plain brick tower might have collapsed under such conditions, but Pleasonton’s iron sheath, kept the tower intact. After the Civil War, earth was removed from beneath the lighthouse on the side opposite the lean, and the tower gradually returned to its former vertical position. So is that where those modern engineers got the idea for stabilizing the Leaning Tower of Pisa?
Like several other iron towers, the Biloxi Lighthouse received a coat of black coal tar shortly after the Civil War to protect it from rust. This color change led to the persistent myth that the tower was painted black to mourn the death of Abraham Lincoln. The tower was repainted white in 1869 to make it stand out from the dark backdrop of trees near the lighthouse.
The look of the Biloxi Light Station has changed over time. In 1906, the station’s cisterns were removed after a link to the municipal waterworks was installed, and Hurricane Camille destroyed the keeper’s dwelling in 1969. Now, the stout iron tower, owned by the city of Biloxi, stands alone in the median of Highway 90.
The Coast Guard also fought one very unpopular war in which the other Armed Forces did not participate. In 1917, Republican Andrew J. Volstead, Congressman from Minnesota, introduced a bill that carried his name "The Volstead Act". It was passed by Congress, vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, but passed over his veto. Ratified by the states, the Volstead Act became the law of the land on 17 January 1920 as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Prohibition was in effect!
The Coast Guard was then charged with stopping the "illicit import," that is to say, smuggling, of liquor along the nation's sea coasts;. New operating bases, new boats and ships were built to fight what was to become known as "The Prohibition War."
One such operating base was Base 15 at Biloxi, Mississippi, located on Biloxi Back Bay on land known as the Naval Reserve. Commissioned in 1925 with Captain S.P. Edmonds in command, it eventually had over 125 personnel, twelve 75-foot patrol boats, six 38-foot high-speed picket boats, the 125-foot patrol boat, WOODBURY, and the larger 165-foot cutter, TRITON.
Prohibition proved to be very unpopular, difficult to enforce, and very costly in terms of tax revenue lost. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, and prohibition was repealed.
With the end of the "war on booze," Base 15 at Biloxi, then under the command of LT F. P. Vellerick, was decommissioned on 2 June 1933. Vessels and personnel were transferred to the operating base at Pascagoula, Mississippi, which then became Base 15. Many of the vessels used in the Prohibition War were placed in storage, and Coast Guard manning was reduced.
At first, it appeared that the Coast Guard, relieved of its Prohibition War responsibilities, would leave Biloxi, ending its presence there after more than eight years. However, another prime Coast Guard responsibility, "the saving of lives at sea," although it had never really been set aside during Prohibition, once again took on more importance. To the ever-increasing shipping traffic in the Gulf of Mexico, air travel over water was becoming more common. Coast Guard Aviation was also growing as newer aircraft provided increased capabilities to the service. However, the Gulf of Mexico at that time had no facilities along its shores from which Coast Guard Aviation could operate.
To provide more effective life saving using aircraft along the south coast, Coast Guard officials began a search for locations to place Air Stations. Each would be equipped with a radio station and three or four amphibians or seaplanes, several of which would be classified as Air Ambulances. These aircraft, capable of not only conducting aerial searches over the vast Gulf waters, were also able to land at sea, pick up ill or injured patients, and return them to needed medical care. One well-situated site was Biloxi, Mississippi.
The Coast Guard team of LCDR C. G. von Paulsen, W. R. Kenley and M. P. Ulte conferred with Biloxi City Commissioners to find waterfront property suitable for an air station. The City fathers made the six acre Point Cadet Park available. It was ideally suited for an amphibian base, located on Biloxi's eastern edge with direct access to Biloxi Bay.
On 21 September 1933, Mississippi Senator Pat Harrison and City Commissioner John Swanzy announced that President F. D. Roosevelt had signed the bill authorizing $290,000 for construction of the Coast Guard Air Station, Biloxi, Mississippi. Initially, $100,000 of Public Works Administration funds were made available to begin clearing the land, dredging of Biloxi Bay, building a concrete seawall and constructing a seaplane ramp. Also included was the construction of the 120 X 100 foot steel-framed, asbestos-sided hangar, with offices and maintenance shops along each side. In addition, there were the aircraft parking and operating areas to be built, as well as the radio station. Bids were opened and the winner, B. Knost and Company of Pass Christian, MS, began construction in November 1933. The remaining $190,000 was spent in later years for a barracks, mess hall, garage and crash boat dock. Until the barracks and mess hall were completed in 1938, personnel had to find housing and messing in Biloxi.
From its beginning in 1934 until the outbreak of World War II, the personnel manning for Biloxi Air Station, with three to five aircraft assigned, was about 10 officers and 35 enlisted. Eight of the officers were aviators, each having additional duties such as communications, maintenance, supply, administration, etc. Twelve of the enlisted men were yeomen cooks, storekeepers, motor machinist mates, electricians, boatswain mates and seamen. The station was usually manned with one or two of each. In addition, eight radiomen were normally assigned to the radio station "NOX" which operated around the clock. The remaining enlisted men were in direct support of the aircraft - aviation machinist mates, aviation radiomen, aviation metal-smiths, aviation carpenters mates, and enlisted pilots. As usual with the Coast Guard, nearly anyone could perform someone else's job. Everyone was expected to do everything, including being a security policeman or fire fighter should it be needed.
When World War II exploded on the scene, operations were stepped up, and the aircraft compliment rose to more than 25 of at least five different types. The additional requirements swelled the manning to about 35 officers and 250 enlisted men by mid-1943. New jobs included aerographers for weather forecasting, aviation electricians, and avionics and electronics technicians for the advanced aircraft systems and radar, as well as aviation ordnance men, parachute riggers, pharmacist mates, mail clerks, and dental technicians. In 1943, six officer and 25 enlisted SPARS, the women reserve of the Coast Guard, joined the personnel manning, serving at Biloxi until June 1946. By 1944, with the addition of the five AVR rescue boats, the detachments at Houma, Houston and Lake Charles, personnel manning reached more than 330.
SPARs assigned to Biloxi during this period included Lieutenants (Junior Grade) G. Columbo and E. Green, supply officers; C. Clegg, public information; and H. M. Adams, pay and disbursing. Enlisted personnel included Radioman L. Meuer, Switch Board Operator, D. Kraft, Yeomen A. M. Wilkerson, L. Ramsey, E. Gearing, M. Haggerty and E. Brown, Storekeepers M. Bales, S. Hall, V. Quan, C. Boggs, Pharmacist mate B. Bryant, Link Trainer Operator, F. Krug. There were also parachute riggers, cooks, mail clerks and others.
During 1943, 1944 and 1945 Biloxi Air Station also provided manning for two twin engine JRB-4 and three single engine SNJ-5 aircraft operating at the Civil Aviation Administration, Advanced Instrument and Standardization Center in Houston, Texas. Aviators and pilots attended the Center for extensive training in instrument, night and all-weather flying operations. There were about 18 aviation personnel assigned to this operation. In September 1945, this operation was terminated and the aircraft were returned to Biloxi. As these were land planes, they were maintained and operated at Keesler Army Air Base until transferred to other Coast Guard air stations.
Wartime building was needed to accommodate the Air Station's added responsibilities. Construction included a sickbay and dental clinic, barracks, mess hall, storage igloos for depth bombs and other explosives, administrative and operation control buildings, supply warehouses, additional aircraft parking places and taxi ways, and a second seaplane ramp.
Official records show that during fiscal years 1943 and 1944, these and the other Coast Guardsmen at Biloxi Air Station made over 7000 flights, flew more than 18,500 hours, traveled 1,715,000 miles searching more than 13,603,000 square miles.
At the end of World War II in 1945, personnel manning was reduced almost overnight to about 15 officers and 85 enlisted personnel. Commander R.L. Mellen, CG Aviator #68, was commanding officer. Even though the war was over, many of the new responsibilities remained, and Commander Mellen had to carefully manage balance personnel to the expanded job list. Once again, the Coast Guard found itself back to "everybody doing everything." By mid-1946, manning stabilized at about 12 officers, eight of whom were aviators, each with additional jobs, and about 50 enlisted men. The station operated eighteen aircraft, including five PBY-5A (46502, 48447, 48323, 46618, and 48265), three J4F-1 and 2 (V-198, V-202, and 37765), two JRF-5 (84791 and 04356), and one SNJ-5 (90675). There were also one 30-foot station crash boat and a 30-foot fire boat.
In 1966, after 41 years, the Coast Guard ceased operations at Keesler Air Force Base, and the Coast Guard departed Biloxi. That area of the Gulf of Mexico is still patrolled by Cutters and Life Boats operating from Pascagoula and Gulfport, MS, and aircraft from Air Stations in Mobile, AL, and Belle Chasse, LA. The site of the original Coast Guard Air Station, Biloxi, is now occupied by a museum of the seafood industry, a nearly forgotten business on a waterfront now wall-to-wall with gambling casinos.
This section is in progress pending more information. What is known is the two 82 foot Patrol Boats were station in the Gulf area. Point Estero was station specifically in Gulfport, MS in the 60's and co-located with the Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) in Gulfport small craft harbor. The original location of these two units was the Northeast corner of the harbor where the US Customs Office stands. The Point Estero shortly moved to the current location of CG Station Gulfport when that was established and then replaced by the USCGC Razorbill.
ANT Team Gulfport was established in early 60's and was co-located with USCGC Estero in Gulfport small craft Harbor. After Station was erected in 1986, ANT moved from there small office in the harbor to share potion of Stations new building.
Station Gulfport's currently located in Gulfport small craft harbor. Construction on the facilities began 24 May 1985. Shortly after completion the two 82 foot cutters in the area and the ANT moved their facilities to Station's piers creating a large Coast Guard presence in the Gulfport area.Back to Top