Aug 15

White Hulls: Coast Guard Punches Above Its Weight

Thursday, August 15, 2019 12:01 AM


Happy birthday to the United States Coast Guard! The Coast Guard is the sea service that everyone counts on during people’s worst days, and 4 August 2019 marked the service’s 229th birthday. Though the modern Coast Guard is an amalgamation of other federal sea-going agencies, it traces its origins to the Cutter Revenue Service established in 1790.

On 20 January 1915, Congress merged the Revenue Cutter Service with the Life-Saving Service to form the Coast Guard in the “Act to Create the Coast Guard.” The Coast Guard maintained the ocean-going component through the new service’s combined fleet of cutters, but shortly after, the Coast Guard created an aviation component to complement its missions. Coast Guard Aviation was born on 1 April 1916 when 2nd Lt. Charles E. Sugden and 3rd Lt. Elmer F. Stone reported for aviation training.

Elmer Stone climbing into the cockpit of Coast Guard Grumman JF-2 V167
(U.S. Coast Guard)

Prohibition marked a major growth point in the Coast Guard as it worked to expand its fleet to combat liquor smuggling. As a part of the Department of Treasury, the Coast Guard was expected to work with Customs Agents and other federal agencies to enforce the Volstead Act and stop liquor smuggling from foreign countries. Smugglers typically used large cargo ships and converted fishing vessels to supply smaller shore-based speedboats that ran the liquor to shore-based bootleggers. It was especially popular in what became known as Rum Row, which marked the territorial waters limit of three nautical miles offshore. In 1924, the limit was increased to twelve nautical miles, Rum Row followed, and deep draft ships waited for their speedier counterparts on the boundary. The Coast Guard was charged with stopping the smuggling, and all Coast Guard officers were designated Treasury agents, charged with enforcement duties. When the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition, the Coast Guard was a formidable force, but budgets quickly fell and the Coast Guard was forced to divest many of its capabilities by 1934.

In 1939, the U.S. Lighthouse Service was incorporated into the Coast Guard, expanding the service’s mission and capabilities.

By November 1941 with World War II raging around the globe, the Coast Guard was officially transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of the Navy. However, as early as 1939, the Coast Guard and the Navy worked together enforcing the United States’ neutrality. Its other wartime duties included port security and enforcement of the 1940 Dangerous Cargo Act which restricted explosives transport. On 12 September 1941, the USCGC Northland (WPG-49)became the first unit to make contact with the enemy when its crew seized a weather station and fishing trawler relaying information to Nazi U-boasts in Mackenzie Bay, Greenland.

For his actions during the Battle of Guadalcanal, Signal First Class Douglas Munro was awarded the Coast Guard’s sole Medal of Honor
(U.S. Coast Guard)

During the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Coast Guard suffered its first loss when the USCGC Alexander Hamilton (WPG-34) was sunk. When Congress declared war personnel increases quickly followed. The Coast Guard coordinated beach patrols and maintained its life-saving mission at home, stormed the beaches in North Africa and throughout the European theater. In the Pacific Theater, the Coast Guard delivered Marines to shore. At Guadalcanal, Signalman First Class Douglas Munro was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for putting his craft between enemy forces and a group of wounded Marines.

When the Nazis surrendered in Europe, three of the six ships leading the Surrender Group patrol were Coast Guard cutters. These ships served as floating surrender points where German U-boats could officially surrender to the Allies. Until the Japanese surrender in the Pacific, the Coast Guard continued to run transports and small boats in support of island hopping combat operations. With the end of the war, the Coast Guard returned to the Department of Treasury on 1 January 1946.

The Coast Guard then returned to protecting American commerce, but its officers were quickly called up to service in Korea. In 1946, Coast Guard officers oversaw the creation of schools to train the Korean Coast Guard. However, with the transition from coast guard to navy, the officers returned to the United States. The outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula led to some Coast Guard assets transferred to the Navy to take advantage of expertise in port security and operations.

When the country went to war in Vietnam, the Coast Guard again supported the war effort. When a North Vietnamese munitions ship was spotted by an Army helicopter on 16 February 1965, in Vung Ro Bay in South Vietnam, Operation Market Time began. The Coast Guard’s newly established Coast Guard Squadron One under Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet began patrols to combat Viet Cong supply smuggling on 21 July 1965. More Coast Guard cutters formed Coast Guard Squadron Three at Pearl Harbor and were assigned duties throughout the war. After significant combat operations, from December 1971 to May 1973, all Coast Guard personnel returned from Vietnam.

Coast Guard Squadron One was assigned to combat smuggling throughout the Vietnam War
(U.S. Coast Guard)

Apart from war duties, the Coast Guard main focus at home was search and rescue. One of the most significant rescues occurred during the Cold War. On 4 October 1980, the Coast Guard coordinated the rescue of 520 people from the MS Prinsendam in the Gulf of Alaska. Because of an engine fire, the 320 passengers and 200 crew of the Prinsendam abandoned ship. The Coast Guard coordinated the rescue using local government assets and the U.S. Air Force, Canadian Coast Guard, and Royal Canadian Navy as well as the Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue System-tasked tanker. A full day later, all 520 people were rescued.

The Coast Guard left a lasting impression on 11 September 2001 when it coordinated the evacuation of lower Manhattan. As quoted in a USNI News Article and in his oral history, then Commandant ADM James Loy stated, “The direction was being provided by young Coast Guard officers from Staten Island that just happened to be on whatever platform they were standing on, kicking ass and taking names and directing traffic and pulling off this unbelievable debarkation from Manhattan.” Later in the day, the Coast Guard moved inland to Manhattan near the site of the towers. Several Coast Guardsmen worked despite the chaos of the day to honor their founder, Alexander Hamilton, in the Trinity Church graveyard by removing debris and dust from his grave and others.

Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Steven Koll & Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, Vince Patton visit the newly cleaned grave site two weeks after 9/11.
(U.S. Coast Guard)

The Coast Guard was redesignated one final time under the newly created Department of Homeland Security following 9/11. With the start of the Invasion of Iraq and Operation Iraqi Freedom on 20 March 2003 the Coast Guard was called into combat once again. Coast Guard forces supported SEAL deployments and began port security operations. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments were deployed on many of the U.S. ships in the area and contributed to the restoration of commercial traffic. While part of this restoration involved clearing military supplies off of cargo vessels and stopping Iraqi military officers from leaving the country, the Coast Guard also rebuilt the buoy system. Coast Guard deployments to the Middle East and the Navy 5th Fleet Area of Operations continues to this day.

Island-class patrol boat USCGC Wrangell (WPB 1332) sails alongside the Cyclone-class coastal patrol ship USS Whirlwind (PC 11) in the Arabian Gulf on 27 May 2019
(U.S. Army Spc. Vincent Fausnaught)


Rum War at Sea by Malcom F. Willoughby

Go Coast Guard Website

“The Coast Guard’s World War II Crucible” by William H. Thiesen

“The Coast Guard and the Korean War” by Christopher Lagan for Coast Guard Compass

Coast Guard History Program-USCG in Vietnam Chronology

“A Few of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Greatest Air Rescues” by Rhonda Carpenter for Defense Media Network

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