Ask the average American about the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and most assume it is part of the United States Navy, but that isn’t quite accurate. Under Title 14 of the United States Code (14 U.S.C. § 3) as amended by section 211 of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2006, upon the declaration of war or when and if Congress so directs in the declaration, or by declaration of the President of the United States (POTUS), the Coast Guard operates as a service under the Department of the Navy.
However, from 1967 until 2003, the Coast Guard operated under the Department of Transportation and is now a part of the Department of Homeland Security. To add to the confusion, the original “United States Revenue Cutter Service” – the forerunner of the modern Coast Guard – was founded in 1790 as part of the Department of the Treasury. It was created to enforce tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling.
In fact, when you count the Revenue Cutter Service, the Coast Guard actually predates the Navy – and from 1790 until 1798 with the creation of the Navy Department – that was the nation’s only armed force on the sea. Moreover, while often overlooked and forgotten for its role as the protector of the nation’s shores, the USGC has served in every conflict.
The Evolution of the Cutter Service
Throughout the 19th and even into the early 20th centuries, the service was known either as the Revenue Cutter Service or the Revenue Marine. The former name came about when President George Washington signed the Tariff Act that authorized the construction of 10 “cutters” that were assigned to the coastal regions of the country, and as the country grew so too did the service, which expanded in size and responsibilities.
In addition to the enforcement of tariffs and stopping smuggling, the service also combated piracy, rescued mariners in distress, and ferried government officials. For a short while the cutters even helped transport mail.
In 1794, the cutters took on a new mission – the prevention of trading in slaves from Africa to the United States. Between 1794 and 1865, the service captured approximately 500 slave ships. Vessels from the Revenue Marine also took part in the Quasi-War with France, the War of 1812, anti-piracy operations in the West Indies and patrolled the coasts during the Mexican-American War.
It was during the American Civil War, it was the USRC Harriet Lane that fired the first naval shots of the war when it engaged the steamer Nashville during the siege of Fort Sumter, and after President Abraham Lincoln evoked the “Act of March 2, 1799” the service conducted combat duty with the United States Navy.
It was during the Spanish-American War that the USRC Hudson took part in the Second Battle of Cárdenas and helped tow the disabled USS Winslow out of the range of Spanish artillery. While three sailors on the Winslow earned the Medal of Honor for their actions, those serving in the Reserve Cutter Service were ineligible. However, Congress approved a special medal for them – with First Lieutenant Frank Newcomb, the commanding officer of Hudson, while his officers received it in silver and the enlisted crew in bronze.
Merger and Formation of the Coast Guard
The modern United States Coast Guard was officially established on January 28, 1915 when the Revenue Cutter Service was merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which had been established in 1878. As previously noted, the new branch of the U.S. military was created under the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
When the United States entered the First World War in April 1917, congressional authority transferred control to the Navy – and that almost might have been the end of the newly recreated service. In 1920, a House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce actually held hearings to merge the newly formed USCG with the Navy.
However, because of prohibition, which had been recently enacted, it was determined to keep the USCG under the control of the Treasury. As a result was the Coast Guard operated several former U.S. Navy four-stack destroyers to enforce prohibition. The use of the warships was not only overkill, but was also largely ineffective as the destroyers were simply too slow to enforce a successful blockade against small and fast moving “rum runners.”
Yet, the mission provided Coast Guard officers and petty officers with operational experience that proved invaluable with the outbreak of the Second World War. In November 1941, just weeks before the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt transferred control of the USCG to the Navy.
The Coast Guard had also absorbed the United States Lighthouse Service, the oldest government agency dating back to August 1789, on July 1, 1939.
Modern Wars and the Coast Guard
The USGC not only protected America’s coastlines during World War II, but cutters also patrolled the North Atlantic. Additionally, those cutters worked with the newly established Atlantic Weather Observation Service and the U.S. Weather Bureau to provide weather forecasts for Europe.
It wasn’t just patrols at sea that matter during the war either. In June 1942, Seaman 2nd Class John Cullen discovered a landing of German saboteurs and that resulted in the capture of the German team.
While the primary mission of the Coast Guard during the Second World War was to protect allied shipping, USCG units sunk 12 German and two Japanese submarines and captured two German coastal vessels.
During the Korean War, Coast Guard officers helped arrange the evacuation of South Korean forces following the initial North Korean attacks. Coast Guard units also played a role in indicting resupply by sea of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, while several Coast Guard aviators served with United States Air Force rescue and recovery units.
Members of the Coast Guard served in-theater support in the subsequent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – with Redeployment Assistance and Inspection Detachment (RAID) teams assisting in the proper declaration, classification, labeling and packaging of container shipments as well as the inspection of containers for structural integrity to ensure each one is seaworthy to cut down on potential shipping problems.
The Coast Guard has been one of the first military units to respond following natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, while the service provided support during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
The Coast Guard Today
The USCG continues to be principal Federal agency responsible for maritime safety, security, and environmental stewardship in U.S. ports and waterways. It protects and defends more than 100,000 miles of U.S. coastlines and inland waterways, and safeguards the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
It is the only branch of the U.S. military within the Department of Homeland Security, and remains a first responder and humanitarian service to provide aid to people in distress or impacted by natural and man-made disasters whether at sea or ashore. The Coast Guard is also a member of a member of the Intelligence Community (IC), and is a law enforcement and regulatory agency.
Today more than 56,000 members of the Coast Guard operate a multi-mission, interoperable fleet of 243 cutters, 201 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, and more than 1,600 boats. Operational control of surface and air assets is vested in two Coast Guard geographical Areas including the Pacific and Atlantic, as well as nine Coast Guard Districts, and 37 Sectors located at strategic ports throughout the country.