Happy 232nd Birthday to the U.S. Coast Guard!
from The Water's Edge

Happy 232nd Birthday to the U.S. Coast Guard!

The U.S. Coast Guard marks 232 years of service.
Coast Guard law enforcement personnel conduct a counter-narcotics boarding on a low profile vessel involved in drug smuggling in the eastern Pacific.
Coast Guard law enforcement personnel conduct a counter-narcotics boarding on a low profile vessel involved in drug smuggling in the eastern Pacific. Captain Jeffrey K. Randall

The United States Coast Guard celebrates its 232nd 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 and then 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; in 1946, Congress transferred the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to the Coast Guard; and, finally in 1967, it added the regulation of bridges over navigable waterways to its mission set.

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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 activities.

On June 1, 2022, the Coast Guard became distinctive among the military services in yet another way: It became the first U.S. military branch to be led by a woman when Linda L. Fagan was sworn in as the Coast Guard’s twenty-seventh commandant.

The Coast Guard has roughly 41,000 active duty personnel, 7,000 reserve personnel, and some 26,000 civilian auxiliary volunteers. The Coast Guard maintains a fleet of 259 cutters, 200 aircraft, and 1,602 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 the Army, Navy, and Air Force, 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 Jeff Randall, 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:

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Tom McCarthy (ed.), The Greatest Coast Guard Rescue Stories Ever Told (2017). McCarthy collects some of the most impressive accounts of air and sea rescues from books, magazines, newspapers, and more in an exciting volume. He does a masterful job of providing detailed accounts of a number of Coast Guard rescues that paint an excellent picture of the U.S. Coast Guard in action. The Greatest Coast Guard Rescue Stories Ever Told is a great read about the search and rescue mission for which the Coast Guard is best known.

Truman R. Strobridge and Dennis Noble. Alaska and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, 1867-1915 (1999). Arctic issues are currently at the forefront for the U.S. Coast Guard. Strobridge and Noble provide a fascinating history of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service in the Bering Sea.  They expertly discuss how the Revenue Cutter Service, with wooden ships and sails, executed a number of daring rescues, supported humanitarian needs, and established the United States as an Arctic nation. 

Arthur Pearcy, A History of U.S. Coast Guard Aviation (1989).  Packed with pictures, Pearcy details the evolution of Coast Guard aviation from the early days of Elmer Stone—the Coast Guard’s first aviator—through the late 1980s.  It’s good historical account of how the Coast Guard developed its aviation component and fully capitalized on the benefits aviation could provide to the Coast Guard’s search and rescue, law enforcement and several other missions. 

Toby Muse, Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels–from the Jungles to the Streets (2020). If you like the TV series Narcos, this book is for you. Muse goes into the jungles of Colombia and follows the evolution of a kilo of cocaine from the time it is picked as a coca leaf to when it is interdicted at sea by the Coast Guard. The easy-to-read page-turner is an excellent account of how the Coast Guard conducts at-sea drug enforcement.

Dennis L. Noble, The U.S. Coast Guard’s War on Human Smuggling (2011). Preventing undocumented migrants from entering the United States has been a part of the Coast Guard’s mission since it was created. While most of the public attention remains on the southwest border, Noble tells the story of the challenges and heartbreaking situations the Coast Guard encounters when dealing with human smuggling at sea. For those wanting a better understanding of all the issues surrounding illegal maritime migration and human smuggling, this is an excellent read. 

Finally, Captain Randall recommends three books for a good account of the sinking of the El Faro cargo ship in the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015. It was the worst U.S. maritime disaster in thirty years:

Each of these books provide a slightly different account of the El Faro tragedy. They are all good reads, and the authors provide their own unique insights into the events leading up to this disaster. The Coast Guard’s role in conducting the rescue effort after the El Faro sank and then in the subsequent investigation into the causative factors for this sinking are highlighted in different ways in each. 

Captain Randall also recommended two movies and a TV show:

The Finest Hours (2016). Captain Randall seconded this recommendation from a previous Coast Guard fellow, Captain Jay Vann. The Finest Hours details the daring Coast Guard rescue in 1952 of thirty-two crewmen from the SS Pendleton after it broke in two during a winter storm off the coast of Massachusetts. The heroic efforts were led by Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernard Webber, played by Chris Pine. This movie does an admirable job of telling a story of overwhelming odds without the luxury of modern navigation systems, communications, and operating a 36-foot lifeboat in very challenging conditions.

Dunkirk (2017). Throughout the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of World War II, Coast Guardsmen were often called upon to operate the landing craft that brought American troops ashore. While Dunkirk doesn’t feature the Coast Guard in a major role, it provides history buffs that want a small insight into their part in the war some looks at the Coast Guard in action.

Coast Guard Alaska (2011-2015). For those not able to get enough search-and-rescue fixes, the reality TV series Coast Guard Alaska is a look at the daily lives of Cost Guard personnel performing our search and rescue missions. Largely based in Kodiak, Coast Guard Alaska’s four seasons highlight the men and women who perform these challenging missions on the last frontier.

Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post

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