The title “Coast Guard” gives most people the impression that this armed force does not venture beyond fifty miles off the United States coast. However, the fact is that the Coast Guard may be found operating off coasts and on shores all over the world.
Because it is known best for its search and rescue exploits, its military accomplishments are obscured. Let’s begin at the beginning. The Coast Guard was established in 1790 with ten armed cutters to enforce the young country’s national laws, particularly running down smugglers evading the tariffs that were needed to build up the Treasury to pay off Revolutionary War loans and to run the country. The new Coast Guard did not even have an official name. It was merely referred to as “the system of cutters” and other vague titles for decades. It was in January 1915 that is was given its present title, the also murky name “Coast Guard.”
Because the Continental Navy was disbanded in 1785, the cutters were the only maritime force protecting the country. Until the U.S. Navy was reformed in 1798, the cutters battled pirates and other bad elements.
When the United States entered what is called the Quasi War with France (1797-1801), the cutters operated with the Navy. The cutters alone captured eighteen French ships.
Throughout the Coast Guard’s long history whenever Congress came up with a new job that it did not know where to place, it was given to the Coast Guard: search and rescue, lifesaving, icebreaking, marine safety, boating safety, fisheries enforcement, environmental protection, aids to navigation, and of course national defense. It is no surprise, therefore, that the public is confused as just what is the Coast Guard, because it has a Swiss Army Knife of functions.
Here is a partial list of the Coast Guard at War:
--Quasi War with France
--War of 1812
--Seminole Indian War
--World War I
--World War II
--Persian Gulf Operations (1990 to present) providing cutters for interdiction, port security teams, and placing maritime law enforcement detachments aboard U.S. Navy ships.
For details on the Coast Guard in various wars and conflicts there are numerous books available, as well as articles on the Internet.
Paul Scotti, CWO, USCG (Ret.)