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 (1798-1800)
An undeclared war broke out with the new French Revolution government after a number of political differences between the two countries. France began seizing American merchant ships. That brought retaliation by the newly restored U.S. Navy and the Revenue Cutter Service. Eight cutters engaged in sea battles. One of the cutters, Pickering, captured ten French vessels.
War of 1812 (1812-1815)
Nine of the Revenue Cutter Service sixteen cutters battled the British in the War of 1812. The cutter Patriot made the first capture in the war. The cutter Vigilant took the British privateer Dart in a sea battle off Rhode Island. Vigilant boarded Dart, killed its captain and overwhelmed the crew. The British warship Narcissus attacked the cutter Surveyor in the York River in Virginia. The cuttermen were outnumbered 50 to 15 when boarded and hand-to-hand combat ensued. The cuttermen finally surrendered but not after inflicting ten British casualties.
Seminole Indian War (1835-1842)
Settlers in Florida were killing Indians and Indians were killing settlers. Runaway slaves taking refuge among the Indians inflamed the owners of the slaves. The government wanted to move the Indians west. The Indians were not leaving Florida and an extended war resulted that was never fully resolved. Eight cutters supported Army and Navy operations. Their crews fought Indians and picked up survivors of Indian attacks. They took part in combined military amphibious operations. The cutters interdicted Cuban and Bahamian traders smuggling supplies to the Indians.
The Mexican War (1846-1848)
Eleven cutters formed a squadron for the Mexican War. The shallow draft cutters were well suited for amphibious and river assaults. Cutters transported troops and supplies, blockaded Mexican ports, and captured Mexican warships. Cuttermen and Marines went ashore to capture the town of Tabasco.
The Civil War (1861-1865)
Blockade patrols, shore bombardment, engaging Confederate warships and smugglers were all part of a days work for the Revenue Cutters during the Civil War.
Spanish-American War (1898)
Eight cutters went into action in the Spanish-American War. The cutter McCulloch was with Admiral Dewey’s fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay. In the Battle of Cardenas Bay, the cutter Hudson battled Spanish vessels and shore batteries along with the naval torpedo boat Winslow. When the Winslow became disabled and half her crew killed, Hudson, under constant fire from the enemy, moved close to shore to tow Winslow to safety.
World War I (1914-1918)
The United States entered the First World War in 1917. The Revenue Cutter Service, now called the United States Coast Guard since 1915, began operating with the U.S. Navy against the Axis Powers. Six cutters termed Squadron 2 of Division 6 of the Atlantic Fleet based in Gibraltar carried out escort and patrol duties. Coast Guard officers also commanded Navy ships in the war zone. The cutter Tampa was singled out by the Admiral commanding the naval forces in Gibraltar for reliable and exceptional service for having escorted eighteen convoys between Gibraltar and England without being disabled for duty. Unfortunately, three weeks later after dropping off a convoy and sailing for port in Milford Haven, Wales, Tampa was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. The 115 men on the cutter perished.
World War II (1939-1941)
Condensing all that the Coast Guard did in World War II into a single paragraph is like trying to name all the sea life in the oceans in a few sentences. Suffice to say whatever you can imagine, Coast Guardsmen were doing including capturing saboteurs and sinking submarines. Beside its own cutters, Coast Guardsmen manned 351 naval vessels and 288 army vessels. D-Day, the invasion of Normandy is a sample of Coast Guard actions. Coast Guardsmen manned landing craft ferrying soldiers on to the beach. They manned landing craft carrying tanks ashore. The mountains of supplies on the beach were sorted and distributed by Coast Guard beachmasters. In the initial stages Coast Guardsman on shore found themselves in firefights with German troops. When the war ended Coast Guardsmen earned a Medal of Honor, several Navy Crosses, many Silver and Bronze Stars, and countless Purple Hearts.
The Korean War (1950-1953)
Twelve navy destroyers were transferred to the Coast Guard to carry out search and rescue and guard duty for the supplies and troops being brought the Korean War. Coast Guardsmen were in Korea to set up and operate a chain of electronic navigation stations for aircraft sorties against the enemy.
The Vietnam War (1955-1975)
America intensified its efforts against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong in 1965 with a major increase of combat forces. The Navy needed shallow draft vessels to interdict enemy movements by water close to shore. Consequently, twenty-six 82-foot long cutters entered the war. Later, for deepwater interdiction, five ocean-going cutters arrived. The Army, in charge of the ports, needed experts in offloading ammunition ships, in port security from saboteurs, and in setting up navigational aids. Hence, it called for Coast Guard assistance. The Air Force, short of search and rescue helicopter pilots borrowed Coast Guard aviators to fly combat search and rescue in Southeast Asia. The Military Sea Transportation Service responsible for moving 98% of materials to South Vietnam needed to keep this flow of merchant ships moving without interruption. It called upon the Coast Guard to supply a merchant marine detail to handle crew problems that would delay ship movements. It is the Coast Guard that issues merchant seaman licenses.
Southwest Asia Operations (1990 – ongoing)
During and after the Persian Gulf War against Iraq this area has been a trouble spot of fighting, terrorism and unrest. Coast Guard cutters and law enforcement detachments on naval ships board vessels seeking out smugglers, contraband, and terrorists. Port Security Units protect oil terminals and harbors. In 2004, one Coast Guardsman was killed and another wounded when a suicide bomber detonated as they approached a suspicious dhow.
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.)