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The United States Coast Guard celebrates its 230th birthday today. The Coast Guard was created on August 4, 1790, when the first Congress authorized Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton to construct ten vessels, known as “revenue cutters,” to combat smuggling and enforce tariff laws. Hamilton carried out his charge with enthusiasm, which is why he is considered to be “the father of the Coast Guard.” For the next eight years, the Coast Guard was the United States’ only armed maritime force. Congress didn’t establish the Navy until 1798. (The Navy prefers to say “re-establish” as it dates its founding to an October 1775 act passed by the Continental Congress.)
The Coast Guard’s initial role in combating smuggling and enforcing tariff laws was critical to the success of the early American Republic. Back then, tariffs—or customs duties—provided as much as 90 percent of federal revenue. That fact is why the Coast Guard was called the Revenue Marine or the Revenue Cutter Service until 1915. In that year, Congress combined it with the U.S. Life Saving Service and rechristened it the Coast Guard. The service gained additional responsibilities in 1939 when President Roosevelt gave it responsibility for the Lighthouse Service. And in 1946, Congress transferred the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard has a unique status among the country’s military services. During peacetime it is part of the Department of Homeland Security. During wartime, or when the president or Congress so direct, it becomes part of the Department of Defense and is included in the Department of the Navy. Because the Coast Guard is charged with enforcing a range of domestic laws as well as discharging a range of military duties, it is exempt from the Posse Comitatus Act, which bars the other services from law enforcement duties.
The Coast Guard has roughly 42,000 active duty personnel, more than 8,000 reserve personnel, and some 30,000 civilian auxiliary volunteers. The Coast Guard maintains a fleet of 243 cutters, 201 aircraft, and 1,650 boats. In addition to their constant presence along the U.S. coast and in major waterways, Coast Guard personnel have served in all of America’s major conflicts, including Afghanistan and Iraq. On any given day, Coast Guard law enforcement teams board 144 vessels, Coast Guard small boats launch nearly 400 missions, and Coast Guard aircraft fly 164 operations. In a typical year, the Coast Guard will respond to 20,000 search-and-rescue cases and save more than 3,500 lives.
Like all the other services, with the newly created Space Force being the lone exception, the Coast Guard operates its own university. Known today as the Coast Guard Academy, it was founded in 1876 as the Revenue Cutter School of Instruction. Students initially got their training onboard the USRC Dobbin. The Coast Guard Academy’s first land-based campus was established in 1890 in Curtis Bay, Maryland. In 1910, the Coast Guard relocated to Fort Trumbull in New London, Connecticut. The Academy moved to its current location in New London in 1932.
I asked Captain Jay Vann, a Coast Guard officer who will be spending the coming year as a visiting military fellow in CFR’s David Rockefeller Studies Program, to recommend some reading for people looking to learn more about the Coast Guard. Here are his recommendations:
Mitchell Zuckoff, Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II (2013). In November 1942, a B-17 sent on during a search-and-rescue mission for a U.S. cargo plane that crashed in Greenland, itself crashed. All the men on board survived. An amphibious Grumman Duck rescued one of the men but then vanished after flying into a dangerous storm. Captain Vann says that Zuckoff details the heroic subsequent rescue of the eight men left behind and then jumps to present-day Greenland where he joins members of the U.S. Coast Guard and officials with a private company looking for answers about what happened to the rescue flight that never returned home.
Steven J. Craig, All Present and Accounted For: The 1972 Alaska Grounding of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Jarvis and the Heroic Efforts that Save the Ship (2019). Craig tells the true story of the Coast Guard Cutter Jarvis, which ran aground during a severe storm in Alaska and started to take on water. Captain Vann, who in the mid-nineties served aboard a sister ship of Jarvis, says that All Present and Accounted For is an “engaging story of what could have been a horrible tragedy.”
Peter Eident. Bearing Drift (2011). In October 1978, the Coast Guard training cutter Cuyahoga crashed into a freighter near the mouth of the Potomac River. The Cuyahoga sank and eleven Coast Guardsmen died in what was at the time the worst peacetime accident in Coast Guard history. For Eident, the tragedy of the Cuyahoga was personal. He was a twenty-two-year-old graduate of the Coast Guard Academy who was spending his first night aboard the ship when it sank. Captain Vann says that Bearing Drift movingly captures the story of one of the greatest mishaps the Coast Guard has faced in its history.
David Helvarg, Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America's Forgotten Heroes (2010). Rescue Warriors tells the story of the Coast Guard by recounting the many times that “Coasties” risked their lives in service of their country and their fellow citizens. Captain Vann says that Rescue Warriors does a great job of explaining the everyday lives of Coast Guardsmen, who on any given day “respond to 125 distress calls and save many lives.”
Captain Vann also recommended three films to watch:
The Defection of Simas Kudirka (1978). Captain Vann says The Defection of Simas Kudirka “is about one of the most traumatic incidents in modern Coast Guard history, when a Soviet sailor attempted to defect to a Coast Guard cutter.” The film was a mandatory viewing for Captain Vann and his “contemporaries growing up in the Coast Guard afloat operations and law enforcement communities.”
The Guardian (2006). Coast Guard rescue-swimmers are among the most highly trained swimmers in the world, called upon to save lives in horrific conditions, including in hurricanes. Captain Vann says that The Guardian tells the story of a veteran rescue swimmer “coming to terms with the final chapter of his storied career and a young but troubled prospect poised to replace him. This film provides a dramatic yet realistic look at the rigors of becoming a helicopter rescue swimmer, and the deadly challenges they face rescuing those in peril at sea.”
The Finest Hours (2016). Captain Vann says The Finest Hours “tells the true story of one of the Coast Guard’s most heroic rescues. In February 1952, a deadly storm crippled two tankers off the coast of Cape Cod, the Pendleton and Fort Mercer. A boat crew from Station Chatham embarked on a potentially hopeless mission in terrifying weather. Against all odds, the crew saved more than thirty people and successfully navigated their crippled rescue boat back to safety.” Captain Vann added that this film is based on the book The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard's Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman.
You can learn more about the U.S. Coast Guard online through the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office website.
Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.