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WPC's & WMEC's: 1945-2000

A Historic Photo Gallery

The Designations of the Cutter Fleet:

The Revenue Cutter Service designated its cutters and craft based on "classes."  From about 1890 through the formation of the Coast Guard in 1915, the largest cutters were referred to as vessels of the 'First Class."  The smaller coastal cutters and larger tugs were vessels of the "Second Class," and the smaller tugs and cutters were designated as vessels of the "Third Class."  Finally, the small harbor craft were referred to as "Launches."

In 1915, the newly-formed Coast Guard began referring to all of its larger cutters as "Cruising Cutters."  At that time, most of the smaller vessels fell under the classification of "Harbor Cutter" and the smallest craft were known as a "Launches."  This changed in 1920 when the Coast Guard divided the "Cruising Cutter" designation into "Cruising Cutters" for the largest sea-going cutters and "Inshore Patrol Cutters" for those that were primarily coastal vessels.

In 1925, the designation changed once again.  Now the largest cutters were known as "Cruising Cutters, First Class," while the coastal cutters were "Cruising Cutters, Second Class."  With Prohibition enforcement becoming a major mission, the Coast Guard began adding numerous smaller patrol craft and these were grouped together under the classification of "Patrol Boats."  The service also acquired a large number of Navy destroyers to augment the fleet and these were known as, simply, "Coast Guard Destroyers."

In February of 1942, the Coast Guard adopted the Navy's ship classification system whereby a vessel was designated with a two-letter abbreviation (based on the type of ship) and its hull number.  Thus, the large, sea-going cruising cutters of the first class became gunboats, or "PG."  To differentiate them from their Navy counterparts, all Coast Guard cutters were given the prefix "W" at that same time.  (The W was an unused letter on the Navy's designation alphabet and was arbitrarily assigned to designate a "Coast Guard cutter"--it does not stand for any particular word.)  The Coast Guard also began assigning an exclusive hull number to each cutter.

After the end of the war and the Coast Guard's transfer back to the control of the Treasury Department, the Coast Guard continued to use the Navy's system.  The large, sea-going cutters were classified primarily as "WPG," "WDE", and "WAVP" (Coast Guard gunboats; Coast Guard destroyer escorts; and Coast Guard seaplane tenders).  This changed in 1965 when the service adopted its own designation system and these large cutters were then referred to as Coast Guard High Endurance Cutters or "WHEC."  The coastal cutters once known as "Cruising cutters, Second Class" and then "WPC" (Coast Guard patrol craft) under the Navy system were now Coast Guard Medium Endurance Cutters, or "WMEC."  Patrol boats continued to be referred to by their Coast Guard/Navy designation, i.e. "WPB. "

Regardless of their changing designations, the medium endurance cutters have always been vessels capable of handling a multitude of missions in any weather.  They have demonstrated the remarkable ability to answer successfully the nation's call in a variety of crises, many times on the spur of the moment, a testament to their designers, their builders, and their crews.  All have been long-lived as well.  As one historian has noted, these medium endurance cutters are the "workhorses" of the fleet.  

This is not meant to be a complete history of medium endurance cutters nor is every individual medium endurance cutter represented.  Rather, this page is a visual history of the differing types of ships the Coast Guard has designated "medium endurance" and the changes these cutters underwent over the years between World War II and the Millennium.  Note how many different types of vessels have worn the designation "WMEC" in the Coast Guard fleet.  We hope you enjoy this historic photo gallery of these "workhorses." 

Unless otherwise noted, the following are official U.S. Coast Guard photographs.

[Click on the image to see in full-size]
Original photo caption; description (if any):
A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Nike (WPC-112); no caption/number; photographer/date unknown.

Nike was a 165-foot patrol boat that was built during the Prohibition era.  During the war, the cutters received additional armament, including anti-submarine [ASW} weaponry, heavier anti-aircraft batteries, as well as radar, and sonar.  Minor modifications to the hulls were carried out, such as cutting gunwales to permit clearer fields of fire, sealing the port holes, etc.  At the close of the war, however, each cutter had the majority of that added armament removed.  They were powered by two Winton diesels that drove two three-bladed propellers.  They were capable of making a stately top speed of 12.9 knots.

Nike and her sisters escorted coastal convoys during the war and two of her sister cutters sank a U-boat apiece during the fierce Battle of the Atlantic.

Nike remained in commission from 1934 to 1964.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Cherokee (WAT-165; WMEC-165); no caption/number; 12 September 1946; photographer unknown.

The Coast Guard acquired six Navajo Class fleet ocean tugs from the Navy beginning in 1946.  Their initial designation, WAT (Coast Guard, Auxiliary, Tug) explains their black hulls.  These were repainted white in 1958.  Two of this class of tugs were commissioned in the Coast Guard as late as 1980 and five of these versatile vessels stayed in service until the late 1980's and early 1990's. 

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Perseus (WPC-114); no caption/number; 3 July 1947; photographer unknown.

Perseus is shown here after the removal of her war-time armament, including all of her depth charge weaponry.  She retains a 3"/50 on her foc'sle and a 20mm on her after deck house.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Perseus (WPC-114); No caption/number; 12 June 1953; photographer unknown.

Compare with the above photo.  During the Korean War, the cutters' armament was upgraded and once again they sported ASW equipment, including mousetrap launchers forward and depth charge tracks on the stern.  An additional 20 mm was added forward of the bridge as well.  Note her modified after-stack.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Cahoone (WSC-131; WMEC-131); no caption/number; photographer/date unknown.

Cahoone was in service from 1927 through 1968.  Note the crowded deck space of these small medium endurance cutters.  They were powered by two General Motors diesel engines that drove two three-bladed propellers to a top speed of 12.0 knots.  Designed to enforce Prohibition on the high seas, well out from shore where "mother ships" waited to offload their alcoholic cargo to smaller speed boats, they nevertheless proved to be adaptable to all of the Coast Guard's missions during their long careers.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC General Greene (WSC-140; WMEC-140); no caption; Photo No. 1CGD-05296102; 1st Coast Guard Dist., Boston, 13. Mass.; 1962; photographer unknown.

General Greene was the fourth cutter to bear the name of the famous Revolutionary War general.  She was in service from 1927 through 1968 and served in Massachusetts waters during her post-war Coast Guard career. 

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter "CGC Reliance (WPC-615) Sea Trials, 3-20-64."; Photo No. 39; 20 March 1964; photographer unknown.

The design of these new cutters emphasized their search and rescue capabilities which were to be enhanced by utilizing helicopters to extend the reach of the cutters well beyond the horizon.  They were meant to replace the 165-foot cutters of the Prohibition era and were the first major cutter replacement project since the 255-foot high endurance cutters from World War II.  They were constructed by four different yards and entered service between 1964 and 1969.  The five "A" class 210-foot cutters were initially fitted with a CODAG propulsion plant consisting of two Cooper-Bessemer FVBM-12 turbocharged diesels and two Solar Saturn gas turbines while the 11 "B" class 210s were fitted with two turbo-charged ALCO 251B diesels.  Both types were built with dual shafts and controllable pitch propellers and were capable of speeds up to 18 knots.  

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Resolute; no caption/number; photographer/date unknown.

Note the two 81mm mortars and mounts on the forward deckhouse aft of the main battery and the HH-52A in the standard Coast Guard paint scheme for the mid-1960s on the flight deck.

Also note the absence of a stack.  The 210s were designed from the start to operate with helicopters and hence the focus on the cutter was as an aviation platform.  These cutters were designed with exhaust vents built into the transom, thereby increasing the space available for a flight deck but conversely limiting interior space.  This exhaust system proved to be problematic, however, and was removed from each cutter and replaced with a conventional stack during their renovations in the 1980s.  The Coast Guard pioneered combined ship and helicopter operations during World War II and the 210s were the culmination of that experience.  Much still had to be learned, however, and training, as well as dealing with the 210s' propensity to roll, played a large part in the cutters' early combined sea/air operations.  

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter "210-foot USCGC DILIGENCE (WPC-616).  Sea trials.  Port, stern, Gulf of Mexico."; Photo No. 50; 7 August 1965; photographer unknown.

Note the stern exhaust ports, flight deck and safety nets/deck railings.  The latter were lowered during air operations.  The 210s were capable of providing auxiliary power and fuel for the helicopters. 

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Diligence; no caption/number; photographer/date unknown.

Note the rescue basket dangling underneath the HH-52 and the lowered safety nets/deck railings that functioned as a catwalk along the length of, but still below, the flight deck.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Alert; no caption/number; photographer/date unknown.

The 210s' top speed was 18 knots.  Although the cutters have proven to be adaptable to many different types of missions, there have been complaints of their handling in heavy seas and that they have a propensity to roll.  In fact, a beam wind could cause a list and in any rough seas rolls of more than 30° were common. 

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Yocona (WAT-168; WMEC-168); no caption/date; Photo No. 172-68; photo by General Dynamics-Convair Division.

Former crewman Mark Axevedo wrote in that "The photo was actually photographed from a USCG helicopter off of San Diego in 1976 or early 1977.  I was a petty officer (Damage Controlman) on the Yocona and was on board when this photo was taken.  The Yocona deployed 5 environmental buoys for NOAA in the mid-1970s from the Gulf of Alaska south.  The bouys were designed to collect on site weather conditions and relay the information via satellite to the National Weather Service in New Orleans.  The process of anchoring them in several miles of water depth was quite a challenge.  Most were lost or not functional within a year or two of deployment."

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter "The 210-ft. U.S. Coast Guard VIGILANT (WMEC-617), based at New Bedford, Mass., was the third completed in the new series of 210-ft. class medium endurnace [sic] cutters on which construction began in 1963.  Built at Todd Shipyard, Houston, Texas, the VIGILANT was commissioned on October 3, 1964.  Her duties are search and rescue and law enforcement."; Photo No. G-BPA-05-12-69 (02); 12 May 1969; photographer unknown.

Note the lack of a Coast Guard stripe on the Vigilant's motor launch.  The Vigilant gained international notoriety in November, 1970, when a Soviet fisherman, Simas Kudirka, attempted to defect to the U.S. by jumping on board the cutter from his vessel, the Sovietskaya Litva.  The two ships were moored close aboard off Martha's Vineyard for discussions on international fishing issues.  The Vigilant's commanding officer, under orders from First District headquarters, permitted the Soviets to board his cutter and forcibly remove the unfortunate sailor.  The incident spawned a number of books and a movie.  Nevertheless she has had a distinguished career, as have all of her sister 210s.

A photo of the CGC Cuyahoga "USCGC Cuyahoga (WIX-157) Reserve Training Cutter."; no number; 1974; photographer unknown.

The Cuyahoga was originally commissioned in 1927 and throughout her Coast Guard career she served in a variety of capacities and on numerous missions.  She was converted to a training ship for the Reserve Training Center and OCS Academy in Yorktown, VA, in 1959.  She was the last 125-foot cutter still in service and the oldest cutter in commission when she collided with the Argentine M/V Santa Cruz II in 1978 near the mouth of the Potomac River.  The venerable cutter sank in two minutes.  Ten Coast Guardsmen and one Indonesian naval officer on an exchange program with the Coast Guard perished in the accident.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Bear; no caption; Photo No. CGD13 1119820107; 19 November 1982; photographer unknown.

The 270-foot cutters were designed as replacements for the Treasury class cutters and their mission profile emphasized law enforcement, particularly patrolling the newly established 200-mile economic resources zone.  They were also designed as convoy escorts and anti-submarine warfare vessels and although they were not equipped with ASW equipment, space was left for their addition should it ever become necessary.  They were built with an up-to-date main battery and a sophisticated fire control system provided by the US Navy.  Final low-bids for the cutters reached $37.7 million each.

The Bear, commissioned on 4 February 1983, was the first of her class to enter service, although she was two years behind schedule.  Since each 270-foot cutter has taken the name of past cutters of note, the class is sometimes known as the "Famous Class."

Photo of a medium endurance Coast Guard cutter

USCGC Bear; no caption; photo number/photographer ; photographer unknown; probably from same series as the above photo; date is the same as well.

The 270s were designed with a large flight deck and hanger for surface/air operations.  They were capable of conducting a two-week patrol in an area "not more than 400 miles distant" with an embarked helicopter.  With this many mission requirements built in, they were, as one commentator noted, a "compromise ship."  Increased information management and communications capabilities as well as a reduction in the numbers of crewmen were accomplished utilizing new technologies, including COMDAC, a "Computerized Command, Display and Control system.  Their powerplant consisted of two 3,500 horsepower Alco diesels driving two controllable pitch propellers through twin reduction gears.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Spencer; no caption/number; photographer/date unknown.

The introduction of the 270's was fraught with controversy.  There were problems during the bidding process and debate on the design and mission requirements.  The debate centered on whether or not, as one historian noted, these cutters were "small, [slow] hump-backed hybrids" or conversely "highly capable platforms."  The commandant at the time, Admiral James Gracey, stated that the 270's were "a compromise between a useful cutter and an escort.  And when one compromises, sometimes one compromises too much."  Their relatively slow 19.7 knot top speed, concerns over the ability to launch boats, limited endurance and deck space, poor towing capabilities and finally a "lack of space for adaptation to future mission requirements and over-reliance on 'black-box technology'" were the primary complaints of their vocal detractors.

The Spencer, built by the Robert E. Derecktor Company of Middletown, RI, was commissioned on 28 June 1986.  She is the third cutter to bear this name.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Harriet Lane; no caption/number; photographer/date unknown.

The Harriet Lane (WMEC-903) was the third cutter to bear this name.  The first, one of the most famous cutters of the mid-nineteenth century, had an amazing career as a cutter, a goodwill vessel, a Navy warship, and a Confederate blockade runner!  Her medium endurance descendant was commissioned 20 September 1984 at the Washington Navy Yard, the first warship to be commissioned in the nation's capital in over 100 years.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Ute (WMEC-76); No caption/photo number; 2 June 1986; photo by Stan Ferreira.

Ute, along with sister Lipan (WMEC-85), was commissioned in the Coast Guard in 1980 (compare with the Coast Guard commissioning date of sister ship Cherokee above) and both were stationed in Key West.  They were brought in to the Coast Guard fleet, along with Escape (see below), due to the delay in the delivery of the Famous class cutters and were assigned to the Seventh District.

They were decommissioned in 1988.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Escape (WMEC-6); no caption/number; photographer/date unknown.

The Escape, a veteran of World War II, entered Coast Guard service in 1980 and served for fifteen years before being decommissioned 29 June 1995.  She was loaned to the Coast Guard after delays in 270' program put pressure on the already diminished cutter fleet.  The cutters were hard pressed to meet the demands forced on them by increasing drug and migrant interdiction problems in the Seventh District and fisheries enforcement of the 200-mile economic zone.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter "The EVERGREEN (WAGO-295) was built in 1942 at the Marine Iron and Shipbuilding Co., Duluth, Minnesota and was originally designed as a buoy tender.  There are 37 sister ships that are similar to the EVERGREEN but she is the only one having a hull painted white and having the designator of 'WAGO.'  The "W" stands for Coast Guard ship and the 'AGO' stands for Oceanographic Vessel.  The EVERGREEN is used from late winter to mid-summer on oceanographic surveys and ice patrols in the North Atlantic Ocean and Labrador Sea.  In 1963 it went as far north as the Kennedy Straits.  The EVERGREEN has a special bow, called an icebreaker bow and can break up to a thickness of four feet of ice.  The rest of the year the EVERGREEN is on a continual round-the-clock standby status to get underway to render aid and assistance wherever and whenever needed.  This is referred to as Search and Rescue Standby.  This ship travels approximately 30,000 miles per year."

USCGC Evergreen (WAGL-295; WAGO-295; WLB-295; WMEC-295) began her service life as a 180-foot buoy tender.  During her career, as seen in this photograph, she also (after modifications made in 1972 which included the addition of bow thrusters, a modified superstructure, and improved electronics) served as an oceanographic cutter.  She changed designations and missions once again in 1982 when she was redesignated as a medium endurance cutter and was tasked with the duties carried out by those cutters, i.e. law enforcement, fisheries conservation management, environmental protection, and search and rescue.  She was decommissioned on 26 June 1990.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter "The Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma guards the Hudson River Sept. 17 as part of port security duties after [the] Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centers in New York."; Photo No. 010917-9409S-508; 17 September 2001; photo by PA2 Tom Sperduto.

Despite all of the hand-wringing when they were first introduced, the 270s have carried out their duties admirably and have proven to be adaptable and versatile cutters.  As one prescient Coast Guard captain wrote in 1983, "in the final analysis, the verdict will be that the Bear cutters are good ships, having missed greatness by a remarkably small margin." 

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Reliance; no caption/number; photographer/date unknown.

The 210s received upgrades and modifications (in a program named "Midlife Maintenance Availability" or MMA) during the 1986 through 1990 time period.  The "A" class cutters had their turbines removed and all 210s had their stern exhaust systems replaced with a traditional stack.  While this modification reduced the size of the flight deck, they were still more than capable of carrying out aerial operations.  Other modifications included enlarging the superstructure area, replacing the main armament, and increasing the fire-fighting capability of the cutters.  The modifications cost approximately $20 million per cutter, well above their original cost of about $3.5 million each.

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter

"The Coast Guard Cutter Confidence (WMEC-619) conducts helicopter operations while underway on patrol."; Photo No. 910705-M-5367S-001; 5 July 1991; photo by PA2 David M. Santos.

The Confidence after her MMA during a search and rescue drill.  Note the new stack, the RHIB small boat, and embarked Aérospatiale HH-65A Dolphin, the replacement for the long-lived Sikorsky HH-52A.


A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter USCGC Thetis; no caption/number; photographer/date unknown.

The Thetis was commissioned 30 June 1989.  The photo provides a good view of her flight deck and hanger.  The 270s also carry out combined air-sea operations, putting the experience developed by the 210s to good use. 

A photo of a Coast Guard medium endurance cutter "The Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley at the Coast Guard Yard.  The Alex Haley was commissioned July 10 [1999] and is homeported in Kodiak, AK."; Photo No. 990806-I-9954H-503; 6 August 1999; photo by PA3 Bridget Hieronymus.

USCGC Alex Haley, formerly USS Edenton (ATS-1), a Navy salvage vessel, was originally commissioned in 1971.  She was transferred to the Coast Guard in November 1997 and underwent a conversion and refit at the Coast Guard Yard before heading for duty in the waters of Alaska.  The modifications included the removal of the forward and aft cranes and the extension of the flight deck aft.  She carries on a long tradition of the Coast Guard accepting "hand-me-down" Navy vessels, particularly tenders, tugs and salvage vessels, and putting them to good use.  Most have fit the Coast Guard mission profiles of the time quite ably.

Last Modified 9/15/2016