THE COAST GUARD AT WAR

Coast Guard military history

By

Robert Scheina


In 1790 a predecessor of the U.S. Coast Guard was established by the First Congress of the United States.  This newly formed maritime force did not have an official name.  Rather, it was referred to simply as "the cutters" or "the system of cutters."  This small force was to enforce national laws, in particular, those dealing with tariffs.  At the time, these cutters were the only maritime force available to the new government under the Constitution.  After all, the Continental Navy had been disbanded in 1785.  Thus, between 1790 and 1798, there was no United States Navy and the cutters were the only warships protecting the coast, trade, and maritime interests of the new republic.

Coast Guard military history(Left: Revenue Cutter Massachusetts)

The officers of the early cutters were appointed largely from among those who had served in the disbanded Continental Navy. The first commission to command one of the new cutters was issued by President George Washington to Captain Hopley Yeaton of New Hampshire. The Act of 4 August 1790, creating the Service, provided that the commander of a cutter should have the subsistence of a captain in the Army. In addition the ship’s other officers should have the subsistence of an Army lieutenant and each enlisted man should have the same ration as a soldier. These measures were based, of course, on those of the Army because the U.S. Navy had not yet been established.

Cutters soon became involved in military affairs.  In 1793 the cutter Diligence drove a pirate ashore in the Chesapeake Bay.  In 1794 the cutter Virginia arrested Unicorn which was being fitted-out as a privateer by supporters of the French republic. On more than one occasion a cutter intervened to enforce American neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars.

Between 1797 and 1799 laws were passed which formalized the military role of the cutters. The act of 1 July 1797 authorized the President to employ the cutters to defend the seacoasts and to repel any hostility to the vessels and commerce of the United States. The law also made provisions for assigning Marines to cutters. The Act of 2 February 1799 stated that:

the President of the United States shall be, and is hereby authorized to place on the naval establishment, and employ accordingly, all or any of the vessels, which, as revenue cutters have been increased in force and employed in the defense of the seacoasts...and thereupon, the officers and crews of such vessels, may be allowed, at the discretion of the President of the United States, the pay, subsistence, advantages and compensations, proportionably to the rates of such vessels, and shall be governed by the rules and discipline which are, or which shall be, established for the Navy of the United States.

The act of 2 March 1799, provided that the cutters "shall, whenever the President of the United States shall so direct, cooperate with the Navy of the United States, during which time they shall be under the direction of the Secretary of the Navy…"

Coast Guard military history
Quasi-War with France

During the Quasi-War with France (1797-1801), eight cutters (one sloop, five schooners, and two brigs) operated along the southern coast and among the islands of the West Indies.  The two brigs and two of the schooners each carried 14 guns, and 70 men.  The sloop and the other schooners each had 10 guns and 34 men.  Eighteen of the twenty-two prizes captured by the United States between 1798 and 1799 were taken by cutters unaided.  Revenue cutters also assisted in capturing two others.  The cutter Pickering (left) made two cruises to the West Indies and captured 10 prizes, one of which carried 44 guns and was manned by some 200 sailors, more than three times its strength.  Although the cutters did not participate in the Barbary Wars (1801-1815), a number of cutter officers transferred to the Navy and fought in the Mediterranean.

Coast Guard military history
War of 1812

With the War of 1812, augmenting the Navy with shallow-draft craft became a one of the services primary wartime missions. 

(Right: the cutter Vigilant fought and captured the British privateer Dart off Block Island on 4 October 1813.)

During the war’s opening phases Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin requested from Congress, "small, fast sailing vessels," because there were, "but six vessels belonging to the Navy, under the size of frigates; and that number is inadequate..."  Since then, cutters have extensive service in littoral or "brown water" combat operations.

The cutters distinguished themselves during the War of 1812.  It was a cutter that captured the first British vessel.  One of the most hotly contested engagements in the war was between the cutter Surveyor and the British frigate Narcissus.  Although Surveyor was eventually captured, the British commander considered his opponents to have shown so much bravery that he returned to Captain Travis his sword accompanied by a letter in which he said,

Your gallant and desperate attempt to defend your vessel against more than double your number excited such admiration on the part of your opponents as I have seldom witnessed, and induced me to return you the sword you had so ably used in testimony of mine...I am at loss which to admire most, the previous arrangement on board the Surveyor or the determined manner in which her deck was disputed inch-by-inch.

Coast Guard military history The defense of the cutter Eagle against the attack of the British brig Dispatch and an accompanying sloop, is one of the most dramatic incidents of the war (left).  With the cutter run ashore on Long Island, its guns were dragged onto a high bluff.  From there Eagle’s crew fought the British ships from 9 o’clock in the morning until late in the afternoon.  When they had exhausted their large shot, they tore up the ship’s logbook to use as wads and fired back the enemy’s shot which had lodged against the hill. During the engagement the cutter’s flag was shot away three times and was replaced each time by volunteers from the crew.

Piracy, which prevailed during the first quarter of the nineteenth century in the Gulf of Mexico, owed its suppression chiefly to the revenue cutters.  The officers of the Service waged a relentless war upon the pirates.  They pursued the pirates to their rendezvous and hideouts and attacked and dispersed them wherever found.  On 31 August 1819, the cutters Louisiana and Alabama were boldly attacked off the southern coast of Florida by the pirate ship Bravo commanded by Jean La Farge, a lieutenant of the notorious Jean La Fitte.  The action was of short duration and was terminated by the cutters’ boats boarding the enemy and carrying his decks in a hand-to-hand struggle.

Soon it became too hazardous for the pirates to continue to base themselves along the coast or in the numerous bayous of Louisiana. They, therefore, established themselves on Bretons Island.  The cutters Alabama and Louisiana discovered their new hideout, drove the pirates off, and destroyed everything on the island which could afford shelter or make it habitable.  The destruction of this hideout practically ended pirate bases on U.S. territory.  Nevertheless, piratical craft operating from bases in Mexico, Central and South America, and Cuba, still made frequent visits to American waters resulting in a number of engagements with revenue cutters.

Seminole Wars

During the Seminole Wars (1836-1842) eight revenue cutters supported Army and Navy operations.  Duties performed by these vessels included attacks on war parties, breaking up rendezvous points, picking up survivors of Seminole raids, carrying dispatches, transporting troops, blocking rivers to the passage of Seminole forces, and the dispatch of landing parties and artillery for the defense of settlements.  These duties were performed along the entire coast of Florida.

Mexican War

The two principal naval operations carried out during the War with Mexico (1846-48) were blockading the enemy’s coasts and amphibious landings.  The U.S. Navy was critically short of the shallow-draft vessels needed for the landings.  Five cutters were engaged in amphibious operations and performed important services during a number of landings, particularly those at Alvarado and Tabasco.  Cutters also served on blockade duty.

Military operations were not limited to declared wars.  In 1855, Second Lieutenant James E. Harrison of the cutter Jefferson Davis accompanied Company C, 4th U.S. Infantry during an expedition against hostile Indians in the Washington territory.  On 3 December, while in camp, Indians assaulted the company, killing its commanding officer.  Lieutenant Harrison took command, rallied the men, and beat off the attackers.

Coast Guard military history Ten years after the War with Mexico a naval force was sent to Paraguay in 1858 to settle a dispute with that nation.  The cutter Harriet Lane (left) was ordered to join the squadron.  Since the cutter was the only shallow-draft steamer among the 18 ship force, the Harriet Lane was the most active warship in the squadron.  Commodore Shubrick, in his report to the Secretary of the Navy, made special mention of Harriet Lane’s value to the squadron and the skill and zeal shown by her commander, Captain John Faunce.

Civil War

The sympathies of the cutter force were divided between the North and the South during the American Civil War (1861-65). In a famous dispatch to General John A. Dix, the Treasury Secretary declared that, "If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot." Transmitted on the evening of 15 January 1861, this order was to ensure Federal control of the cutter Robert McLelland, then in the port of New Orleans. Despite this message, many cutter men, including those on Robert McLelland, chose to join the Confederacy. It was at this time that the Service received its first official name, the Revenue Cutter Service.

Coast Guard military historyThe principal wartime duties of Union cutters were patrolling for commerce raiders and providing fire support for troops ashore.  Meanwhile, Confederate cutters were principally used as commerce raiders. Cutters were also involved in notable individual actions.  The first naval shot of the Civil War (right) was fired by the cutter Harriet Lane when it challenged the steamer Nashville with a shot across its bow. The steamer was attempting to enter Charleston harbor without displaying the U.S. flag.  The Harriet Lane also took part in the capture of Hatteras Inlet.  Following this action, the cutter was transferred to the Navy.  The cutter Miami carried President Abraham Lincoln and his party to Fort Monroe in May 1862, preparatory to the Peninsular Campaign.  Reliance’s commanding officer was killed as the cutter engaged Confederate forces on the Great Wicomico River in 1864.  On 21 April 1865 cutters were ordered to search all outbound ships for the assassins of President Lincoln.

Spanish-American War

Coast Guard military history The Revenue Cutter Service also rendered conspicuous service during the Spanish-American War (1898).  Eight cutters, carrying 43 guns, were in Admiral Sampson’s fleet and on the Havana blockade. 

(Left: cutter Manning fires on Spanish positions off Cabaņas, Cuba on 12 May 1898.)

The McCulloch, with a complement of 10 officers and 95 men and carrying six guns, was at the Battle of Manila Bay and was later employed by Admiral Dewey as his dispatch boat. 

In the action off Cardenas on 11 May 1898, the cutter Hudson, Lieutenant Frank H. Newcomb commanding, sustained the fight against Spanish gunboats and shore batteries side by side with the torpedo boat U.S.S. Winslow. Coast Guard military history When half of Winslow’s crew had been killed and its commander wounded, Hudson rescued the torpedo boat from certain destruction (right).  In recognition of this act of heroism, Congress authorized a gold medal for Lieutenant Newcomb, a silver medal for each of the officers, and a bronze medal for the enlisted members of the crew.

Also during the Spanish-American War, the Navy assigned the task of coast watching to the U.S. Life-Saving Service. As a result, approximately two-thirds of the Navy’s coastal observation stations were Life-Saving Stations. Although the Spanish fleet never approached the U.S. coast, this Coast Guard predecessor service dutifully maintained its vigilance throughout the war.

On 28 January 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service were combined to form the United States Coast Guard. The law combining these two services stated that the Coast Guard was an armed service at all times and made provisions for its transfer to the U.S. Navy when needed. While this had been the practice since 1798, when the Navy was created, this relationship was finally defined in law.

World War I

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 saw cutters become responsible for enforcing U.S. neutrality laws. With the declaration of war against Germany on 6 April 1917, a coded dispatch was transmitted from Washington to every cutter and shore station of the Coast Guard. Officers and enlisted men, vessels and units, were transferred to the operational control of the Navy Department. The Navy was augmented by 223 commissioned officers, approximately 4,500 enlisted men, 47 vessels of all types, and 279 stations scattered along the entire United States coastline.

Coast Guard military historyOn the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, a tremendous blast ripped through the sleepy town of Halifax, Nova Scotia (left).  The explosion destroyed 3,000 dwellings, killed more than 1,600 people and injured 9,000.  Many of the dead were children.  That morning the French freighter Mont Blanc, carrying 5,000 tons of TNT, collided with the Norwegian steamship Imo in Halifax's outer harbor.  Unfortunately, after the collision, a fire started, and the crewmen tried to put it out rather than scuttle the ship.  When the fire reached the TNT, an explosion - equal to a small nuclear blast occurred.  The Mont Blanc virtually disappeared, and the shock waves threw the Imo ashore.  The Mont Blanc disaster ranks as one of the worst maritime tragedies of all times.  This particular ship sailed from New York on its way to Europe, one of hundreds that loaded explosive cargoes in New York for the war in Europe.  It was this disaster that stirred American leaders to empower the Coast Guard to ensure that this never happened in the United States.

The Coast Guard and its predecessor agency, the Revenue Cutter Service, have long been tied to the movement and anchorage of vessels in U.S. territorial waters. The RCS was first tasked with this job during 1888 in New York.  By 1915, when the Coast Guard was created, the service was directed by the Rivers and Harbors Act "to establish anchorage grounds for vessels in all harbors, rivers, bays and other navigable waters of the United States . . . ."  During World War I, the Coast Guard continued to enforce rules and regulations that governed the anchorage and movements of vessels in American harbors.  The Espionage Act, passed in June 1917, gave the Coast Guard further power to protect merchant shipping from sabotage.  This act included the safeguarding of waterfront property, supervision of vessel movements, establishment of anchorages and restricted areas, and the right to control and remove people aboard ships.

The tremendous increase in munitions shipments, particularly in New York, required an increase in personnel to oversee this activity. The term "captain of the port" was first used in New York and this officer was charged with supervising the safe loading of explosives. During the war a similar post was established in other U.S. ports.

Coast Guard military historyDuring World War I, CAPT Godfrey L. Carden, commander of the Coast Guard's New York Division (right), was named COTP in that harbor. The majority of the nation's munitions shipments abroad left through New York. For a period of 1 1/2 years, more than 1,600 vessels, carrying more than 345-million tons of explosives, sailed from this port. In 1918, Carden's division was the largest single command in the Coast Guard. It was made up of over 1,400 officers and men, four Corps of Engineers tugs and five harbor cutters.

In August and September 1917, six Coast Guard cutters, Ossipee, Seneca, Yamacraw, Algonquin, Manning, and Tampa left the United States to join U.S. naval forces in European waters. They constituted Squadron 2 of Division 6 of the patrol forces of the Atlantic Fleet and were based at Gibraltar. Throughout the war they escorted hundreds of vessels between Gibraltar and the British Isles, as well as escort and patrol duty in the Mediterranean. The other large cutters performed similar duties in home waters, off Bermuda, in the Azores, in the Caribbean, and off the coast of Nova Scotia. They operated either under the orders of the commandants of the various naval districts or under the direct orders of the Chief of Naval Operations.

A large number of Coast Guard officers held important commands during World War I. Twenty-four commanded naval warships in the war zone, five commanded warships attached to the American Patrol detachment in the Caribbean Sea, twenty-three commanded warships attached to naval districts, and five Coast Guard officers commanded large training camps. Six were assigned to aviation duty, two of which commanded important air stations including one in France. Shortly after the Armistice, four Coast Guard officers were assigned to command large naval transports engaged in bringing the troops home from France. Officers not assigned to command served in practically every phase of naval activity, on transports, cruisers, cutters, patrol vessels, in naval districts, as inspectors, and at training camps. Of the 223 commissioned officers of the Coast Guard, seven met their deaths as a result of enemy action.

The cutter Tampa distinguished itself during the war. Under the command of Captain Charles Satterlee, she sailed from New York on 16 September 1917 for service in European waters. Tampa proceeded to Gibraltar via the Azores Islands and was assigned to a division of escorts convoying between Gibraltar and England. On 5 September 1918, Rear Admiral Niblack, commanding the U.S. naval forces based at Gibraltar addressed a special letter of commendation to Captain Satterlee. He called attention to the fact that Tampa, since her arrival, had escorted 18 convoys between Gibraltar and the United Kingdom, was never disabled, and was ready whenever called upon. Admiral Albert Niblack stated,

This excellent record is an evidence of a high state of efficiency and excellent ship’s spirit and an organization capable of keeping the vessel in service with a minimum of shore assistance. The squadron commander takes great pleasure in congratulating the commanding officer, officers, and crew on the record which they have made.

Coast Guard military history On the evening of 26 September 1918, the Tampa, having completed its duty as ocean escort for a convoy from Gibraltar to the United Kingdom, proceeded toward the port of Milford Haven, Wales.  At 8:45 p.m. a loud explosion was heard by the convoy.  Tampa failed to arrive at its destination and U.S. destroyers and British patrol craft made a search of the area.  Nothing but a small amount of wreckage identified as belonging to the Tampa and two unidentified bodies in naval uniforms were found.  It is believed that Tampa was sunk by UB-91 which reported sinking an American warship fitting Tampa’s description (left).  One hundred-fifteen, 111 of whom were Coast Guard personnel, perished.  With the possible exception of the collier Cyclops, whose fate and date of loss have never been ascertained, this was the largest loss of life incurred by any U.S. naval unit during the war.  An additional 81 Coast Guardsmen lost their lives in World War I due to accident or illness.  In the end 8,835 men had served in the Coast Guard during World War I.

Vice Admiral C.H. Dare of the British Navy, the commanding officer at Milford Haven, in a telegram to Admiral Sims, expressed the universal sympathy felt at Milford Haven by all ranks and rates in the loss of Tampa,

Myself and staff enjoyed the personal friendship of her commanding officer, Captain Charles Satterlee and had great admiration for his intense enthusiasm and high ideals of duty...

The British Admiralty addressed the following remarks to Admiral Sims:

Their Lordships desire me to express their deep regret at the loss of the U.S.S. Tampa. Her record since she has been employed in European waters as an ocean escort to convoys has been remarkable. She has acted in the capacity of ocean escort to no less than 18 convoys from Gibraltar comprising 350 vessels, with a loss of only two ships through enemy action. The commanders of the convoys have recognized the ability with which the Tampa carried out the duties of ocean escort. Appreciation of the good work done by the U.S.S. Tampa may be some consolation to those bereft and their Lordships would be glad if this could be conveyed to those concerned.

Coast Guard military historyWorld War II

Following the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, the Coast Guard again carried out extensive patrols to enforce the neutrality proclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 5 September 1939. Port security began on 20 June 1940 when President Roosevelt invoked the Espionage Act of 1917, which governed the anchorage and movement of all ships in U.S. waters, and protected American ships, harbors and waters. Shortly afterwards, the Dangerous Cargo Act gave the Coast Guard jurisdiction over ships carrying high explosives and dangerous cargoes. In March 1941, the Coast Guard seized 28 Italian, two German and 35 Danish merchant ships. A few days later, 10 modern Coast Guard cutters were transferred on Lend-Lease to Great Britain.

Coast Guard military history On 9 April 1941 Greenland was incorporated into a hemispheric defense system. The Coast Guard was the primary military service responsible for these cold-weather operations, which continued throughout the war. On 12 September, the cutter Northland (right) took into "protective custody" the Norwegian trawler Buskoe and captured three German radiomen ashore.  The ice-going cutter Northland had been built for service in Alaskan waters.  During the spring of 1941 the cutter had been brought around to the East Coast for duty in Greenland waters. Buskoe was the United States’ first captured vessel of World War II.

Individual cutters and units were assigned to the Navy beginning in the spring of 1941.  On 1 November 1941 the remainder of the Coast Guard was ordered to operate as part of the Navy.  Among the most important Coast Guard undertakings were cold weather operations in Greenland, anti-submarine warfare escort, amphibious landings, search and rescue, beach patrol, port security, and LORAN duty.

Coast Guard-manned warships sank at least 11 enemy submarines. 

Coast Guard military history(Right: Coast Guardsmen aboard the frigate USS Moberly celebrate their sinking of U-853.)

Most of these U-boats were destroyed in 1942 when the issue of who would win the Battle of the Atlantic was still very much in doubt.  Coast Guard personnel manned amphibious ships and craft from the largest troop transports to the smallest attack craft.  These landed Army and Marine forces in every important invasion in North Africa, Italy, France and the Pacific.  Also, due to their experience in handling surfboats, Coast Guardsmen also helped train members of the other military services in the use of amphibious craft.   

Coast Guard military history Coast Guard coastal picket vessels patrolled along the 50-fathom curve, where enemy submarines concentrated early in the war.  On shore armed Coast Guardsmen patrolled beaches and docks, on foot, on horseback, in vehicles, with and without dogs, as a major part of the nation’s anti-sabotage effort.  Once this threat abated, the Coast Guard manned 351 naval ships and craft and 288 Army vessels in addition to 802 cutters (those over 65 feet in length).

(Above, left: the battered Coast Guard-manned landing craft USS LCI(L)-85 goes down after first beaching on the Normandy coast, 6 June 1944.)

Coast Guard cutters, boats and aircraft rescued more than 1,500 survivors of torpedo attacks in areas adjacent to the United States. Cutters on escort duty saved another 1,000, and over 1,500 more were rescued during the Normandy operation by 60 83-foot patrol craft specifically assigned to that duty.

(Right, below: Coast Guardsmen rescue the survivors of the torpedoed troopship Henry Mallory.)Coast Guard military history

Two hundred and thirty one thousand men and 10,000 women served in the Coast Guard during World War II.  Of these, 1,918 died, a third losing their life in action.  The Service sustained its first casualties on 8 December 1941 when the Leonard Wood was bombed by Japanese aircraft at Singapore.  

One Coast Guardsman died as a prisoner of war, having been captured at Corregidor.  Almost 2,000 Coast Guardsmen were decorated, one receiving the Medal of Honor, six the Navy Cross, and one the Distinguished Service Cross. The Coast Guard returned to the Treasury Department on 1 January 1946.

Korean Conflict

During the Korean War (1950-53), the Coast Guard performed a variety of tasks. After the start of the conflict, the Coast Guard established air detachments throughout the Pacific. These detachments, located at Sangley Point in the Philippines, Guam, Wake, Midway, Adak, and Barbers Point in the Hawaiian Islands conducted search and rescue to safeguard the tens of thousands of United Nations troops that were being airlifted across the Pacific.  The service recommissioned a number of mothballed Navy destroyer escorts to augment the fleet (left).

  Coast Guard military historyIn January 1953 a PBM flying from Sangley landed in 12-foot seas in an attempt to rescue a Navy P2V crew.  The Coast Guard amphibian crashed on takeoff when an engine failed.  Five Coast Guard and four Navy men lost their lives.  Additional weather station sites were established in the Pacific to help guard the flow of troops and supplies to Korea.  Twelve destroyer escorts were transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard to help carry out this duty.  Also, a team of about 50 Coast Guardsmen were stationed in Korea, helping establish the Korean Coast Guard, which has since evolved into that country’s Navy (right).  The Coast Guard also provided communications and meteorological services plus assured port security and proper ammunition handling.

War in Vietnam

Coast Guard military historyThe Coast Guard was asked to participate in the Vietnam War by the Army, Navy, and Air Force and performed a variety of duties. At the outset of the military buildup in the mid-1960s, the Navy lacked shallow water craft needed for inshore operations.  To help fill this need, the Coast Guard sent 26 82-foot cutters to Vietnam.  These formed Squadron One. (Left: Squadron One cutters depart Manila Bay on their way to Vietnamese waters.)

The squadron, split into three divisions, was stationed at Danang in the north (Division 12), Cat La in the center (Division 13), and An Thai in the south (Division 11).  The cutters spent some 70 percent of their time underway.  They inspected junks for contraband, intercepted and destroyed North Vietnamese and Viet Cong craft, and provided fire support for friendly forces.

Coast Guard military historyWhile the 82-foot cutters helped patrol inshore, larger cutters helped form a deepwater barrier against infiltration. For this task, the Coast Guard established Squadron Three.  It consisted of five high endurance cutters on ten-month deployments from their U.S. home ports.  Thirty high endurance cutters served on this duty between 1967 and 1971 (right, the Mendota conducts a naval gunfire support mission.)

Coast Guard military history in Vietnam, explosive loading detachmentThe U.S. Army had the difficult task of setting up harbor security and getting cargo safely unloaded and moved into the country. Since almost all munitions entered South Vietnam by ship, the Army asked the assistance of the Coast Guard. The men of the Coast Guard Port Security and Waterways Detail traveled throughout Vietnam inspecting ports and harbors for security against enemy attack and safe storage of hazardous materials. Coast Guard Explosives Loading Detachments were established at major ports to supervise the off-loading of ships (left).

Coast Guard military historyThe Coast Guard set up and operated a LORAN C (long range navigation) system in Southeast Asia in order to assist the U. S. Air Force warplanes with precision navigation.  It was a difficult task finding transmitting sites, bringing in equipment, and building the system.  The Coast Guard LORAN Construction Detachment began work in January 1966 and on 8 August 1966 the navigation network was on the air. LORAN stations were established in Lampang, Sattahip, and Udorn, Thailand and Con Son, Vietnam (right).  A fifth station was later added in Tan My, Vietnam.

The rapid development of deepwater ports in Vietnam brought an expanded need of navigational aids for preventing vessel accidents. South Vietnam’s small aids-to navigation force with its one buoy tender could not meet the demand. Coast Guard buoy tenders in the Pacific made periodic trips to Vietnam installing and maintaining buoys. A Coast Guard Aids to Navigation (ATON) Detail was set up in Saigon to coordinate workloads for these visits as well as keeping buoys and range markers lighted. 

Coast Guard military history(Left: Coast Guardsmen fire the mortar on their "piggy-back" weapon, a .50 caliber Browning machine gun mounted above an 81-mm mortar tube.  This unique weapon was designed by Chief [Warrant] Gunner Elmer L. Hicks, USCG, which became standard armament on all Coast Guard cutters assigned to duty in Vietnam.) 

At the height of the military buildup more than 300 merchant ships were engaged in the sealift of materiel to Vietnam. The Coast Guard Merchant Marine Detail resolved merchant seaman problems and ensured that these ships moved in and out with as little delay as possible.

Coast Guard pilots flew combat search and rescue with the Air Force in Southeast Asia, under an inter-service exchange program. Most of the time the pilots were assigned to the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, at Danang.  The flew Sikorsky HH-3F "Jolly Green Giants" (right) in some of the most dangerous operations undertaken during the war. One Coast Guardsman, LT Jack Rittichier, was killed when his helicopter was shot down during an attempt to pull an American from enemy-held territory.

Some 8,000 Coast Guardsmen served in Vietnam. Seven lost their lives and 59 were wounded. Although research is incomplete, it has been verified that through 1970, Coast Guardsmen received the following awards: 12 Silver Stars, 13 Legion of Merit medals, 16 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 114 Bronze Stars, 87 Air Medals, 151 Navy Commendation Medals, 27 Army Commendation Medals, five Coast Guard Commendation Medals, 43 Navy Achievement Medals, 66 Purple Hearts, 53 Vietnamese Navy medals and 15 Presidential Unit Commendations.

Coast Guard military history(Left: Crewmen aboard the cutter Point Welcome; GM2 Mark McKenny in the foreground and ENC Bill Wolf behind the "piggy-back" weapon.) 

On 7 March 1984, in an effort to define the role for the Coast Guard in planning for the national defense, the Secretaries of the Navy and Transportation signed a memorandum of agreement establishing Maritime Defense Zones (MDZs) on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. The Commanders of the Coast Guard Atlantic and Pacific Areas were designated as the commanders of these zones. For the purpose of planning and exercising for the coastal defense of the United States, during peacetime these commanders report respectively to the Navy Atlantic and Pacific Fleet Commanders-in-Chief. Upon declaration of war or when the president so directs, the MDZ commands will be activated for operations and will obtain Navy and Coast Guard active and reserve forces. The Area Commanders retain their normal relationship with the Commandant for all other purposes, including the performance of the civil functions of the Coast Guard.

On 4 August 1986, Commandant Paul Yost issued a policy statement which provides that the MDZ Commands and the Coast Guard have inter-related roles in the coastal defense of the United States. The Coast Guard will remain responsible for the performance of those specialized functions, such as enforcement of laws and treaties, promotion of safety of life and property at sea, aids to navigation, icebreaking and search and rescue, for which it has been responsible within the Department of Transportation.

Desert Storm & Beyond

Coast Guardsmen have also participated in the country's most recent conflicts.  Three were assigned to U.S. forces in Operation Just Cause, the liberation of Panama in 1989.  With the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 1 August 1990, the Coast Guard was again called to perform military duties on a large scale.  On 17 August 1990, at the request of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Transportation and the Commandant of the Coast Guard commit Coast Guard law enforcement boarding teams [LEDETs] to Operation Desert Shield.  A total of 10 four-person teams served in theatre to support the enforcement of UN sanctions by the Maritime Interdiction Forces.  Approximately 60 percent of the 600 boardings carried out by U.S. forces were either led by or supported with the USCG LEDETs.  Additionally, a 7-man liaison staff was designated by the Commandant as Operational Commander for the USCG forces deployed in theatre.  The first boarding of an Iraqi vessel in the theatre of operations conducted by a USCG LEDET occurred on 30 August 1990.Coast Guard military history

(Right: a Coast Guard PSU member in action.)

President George H. W. Bush, on 22 August 1990, authorized the call up of members of the selected reserve to active duty in support of Operation Desert Shield.  Three port security units (PSUs), consisting of 550 Coast Guard reservists are ordered to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Desert Shield.  (This was the first involuntary overseas mobilization of Coast Guard Reserve PSUs in the Coast Guard Reserve's 50-year history).  A total of 950 Coast Guard reservists were called to active duty. 

Other reservist duties included supervising RRF vessel inspection and loading hazardous military cargoes.  On 15 September 1990 the Secretary of Transportation and the commandant committed the first-ever deployment of a Coast Guard Reserve port security unit overseas, Port Security Unit 303.  Prior to the launch of Operation Desert Storm, Coast Guard LEDET personnel on board the USS Nicholas (FFG-11) assisted when the frigate cleared eleven Iraqi oil platforms and took 23 prisoners on18 January 1991.  On April 21,1991, a Tactical Port Security Boat (TPSB) of PSU 301, stationed in Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia, was the first boat in the newly reopened harbor of Mina Ash Shuwaikh in Kuwait City.  Because of certain security concerns, a determination was made to send one of the 22-foot Raider boats belonging to PSU 301 and armed with .50 caliber and M60 machine guns, to lead the procession into the harbor and provide security for the festivities.

Coast Guard military historyOn 11 September 2001, terrorists hijacked four commercial aircraft, crashing two into the World Trade Center in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington, DC (the fourth aircraft crashed around Shanksville, Pennsylvania when passengers on board attempted to regain control from the terrorists).  USCG units from Activities New York were among the first military units to respond in order to provide security and render assistance to those in need.  In response to the terrorist threat and to protect our nation's coastline, ports and waterways, six U.S. Navy Cyclone-class patrol coastal warships were assigned to Operation Noble Eagle on 5 November 2001.  This was the first time that U.S. Navy ships were employed jointly under Coast Guard command. (Above, right: USCGC Tahoma patrols off Manhattan after the attack on the World Trade Center.)

Coast Guard military historyIn the aftermath of the terrorist attacks President George W. Bush proposed the creation of a new Cabinet-level agency, eventually named the Department of Homeland Security.  The Coast Guard was foremost among the agencies slated to become a constituent of the new department.  On 25 November 2002, President Bush signed HR 5005 creating the Department of Homeland Security.  Soon after, Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania, was confirmed as the department's first Secretary.  On 25 February 2003, Transportation Secretary, Norman Mineta transferred leadership of the U.S. Coast Guard to Secretary Ridge, formally recognizing the change in civilian leadership over the Coast Guard and ending the Coast Guard's almost 36 year term as a member of the Department of Transportation (above, left).  

Coast Guard military history(Left: the 110-foot cutter Wrangell escorts the British supply ship Sir Galahad up the Khawr Abd Allah River in Iraq on 28 March 2003.)

As a prominent member of the new department, US Coast Guard units deployed to Southwest Asia in support of the US-led coalition engaged in OpeCoast Guard military historyration Iraqi Freedom early in 2003.  At the height of operations, there were 1,250 Coast Guard personnel deployed, including about 500 reservists.  This included two large cutters, a buoy tender, eight patrol boats, four port security units, law enforcement detachments and support staff to the Central (CENTCOM) and European (EUCOM) Command theaters of operation.

(Right: A 25-foot Port Security boat from PSU 311 pauses near an anchored freighter in the Khawr Abd Allah River above Umm Qasr in May, 2003.)

Coast Guardsmen have fought in every conflict since the Constitution became the law of the land.  They are still "always ready" to defend the homeland and serve as one of the nation's armed services.


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Last Modified 10/11/2012