Coast Guard, U.S

views updated May 23 2018

Coast Guard, U.S. The Coast Guard has existed in various forms since 1790, although its name dates from 1915.

On 4 August 1790, President George Washington signed an act of Congress “to regulate the collection of the duties imposed by law on the tonnage of ships or vessels, and on goods, wares, and merchandise, imported into the United States.” Ten boats, “for securing the collection of the revenue,” were to be built, and forty officers and men would be hired to operate them. In 1799, during the Undeclared Naval War with France, Congress authorized the president to place the Revenue‐Cutter Service (or “Revenue Marine,” as it was often called in its early days) under the U.S. Navy in time of war or other national emergency.

In that capacity revenue cutters gained their first combat experience. In 1799 and 1800, they captured fifteen French vessels. During the War of 1812, the Revenue Marine took several British prizes, though four of its vessels surrendered to British warships. Revenue cutters searched the Caribbean for pirates and slavers throughout the early nineteenth century, and patrolled the coast of Florida during the Seminole War of 1836—the only “Indian War” in which naval forces took part.

In 1843, the Treasury Department set up a Revenue Marine Bureau, headed by Capt. Alexander Fraser. He initiated a series of administrative reforms that made the service function on a military basis. In the Mexican War of 1846–48 the Revenue Marine participated in the blockade of Mexico.

The Coast Guard cutter Harriet Lane took part in the first Union victories of the Civil War: the operations against Forts Clark and Hatteras. The service assisted the Union navy with the blockade of the Southern ports and the protection of northern shipping.

In 1876, Congress authorized the establishment of the Revenue‐Cutter Service School of Instruction on board a training ship. (The school would move in 1918 to New London, Connecticut, becoming the nucleus of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.)

In 1880, the service inaugurated the Bering Sea Patrol. The Coast Guard cutter Bear became a familiar sight in Alaskan waters, rescuing icebound whalers, providing medical services for the Eskimos, and enforcing the international seal protection treaty. Several scientists made oceanographic expeditions to the arctic in revenue cutters.

Thirteen revenue cutters served with the Union navy during the Spanish‐American War. The McCulloch participated in the Battle of Manila Bay, and the Hudson towed a disabled navy torpedo boat out from under enemy fire in the Battle of Cardenas Bay.

In 1914, two years after the Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg, a Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea held in London established the International Ice Patrol, to be carried out by revenue cutters with financial support from the other signing countries.

The following year, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law amalgamating the Revenue Cutter Service and the coastline Life‐Saving Service, a civilian agency of the Treasury Department. The new service was headed by Commandant Ellsworth Price Bertholf. The government accepted his suggestion that “‘Coast Guard’ is the logical name for the old Revenue Cutter Service as well as the new combination.” It was to “constitute a part of the military forces of the United States … under the Treasury Department in time of peace and [to] operate as a part of the Navy, subject to the orders of the Secretary of the Navy, in time of war or when the President shall so direct.”

During World War I, the Coast Guard was responsible for policing the massive shipping traffic that passed through American seaports. Several cutters served as convoy escorts. One, the Tampa, was sunk by a German submarine; two others were destroyed in collisions.

In 1924, Congress appropriated funds for the first Coast Guard aviation stations at Cape May, New Jersey, and Gloucester, Massachusetts. The airplane proved useful for search and rescue operations. Coast Guard cutters and aircraft formed the federal government's front‐line defense during the Prohibition era against liquor smugglers.

In 1939, the Coast Guard expanded again when it absorbed the U.S. Lighthouse Service. On 1 November 1941, with U.S. entry into World War II imminent, President Roosevelt transferred the Coast Guard to the Navy Department.

World War II presented the Coast Guard with the most rigorous set of challenges it had faced yet. Wartime recruiting swelled the service's ranks to 171,000—including 12,000 members of the Women's Reserve (SPARS). More than 51,000 volunteers enrolled in the Coast Guard Reserve. The Beach Patrol waged a tedious war against German espionage and sabateurs, and the Port Security program absorbed 20 percent of the service's personnel.

Coast Guard cutters and patrol boats traded their peacetime white paint for wartime camouflage; armed with depth charges, sonar gear, and substantial optimism, they were renamed convoy escorts and submarine chasers. The Coast Guard manned 351 navy vessels, ranging from troop transports to landing craft, and 288 vessels of the Army Transportation Corps. Primarily as landing craft operators, Coast Guardsmen took part in most of the amphibious campaigns in the Pacific, the Mediterranean and in the D‐Day landing. During the invasion of Normandy, 60 Coast Guard patrol boats pulled some 150 survivors from the English Channel.

One of the Coast Guard's most vexing, if least publicized, wartime assignments was to patrol the waters around Greenland. Lt. Cdr. Edward H. “Iceberg” Smith took command of the Greenland Patrol, a handful of cutters, tugs, and smaller vessels. The Northland made the first American naval capture of the war by seizing a radio‐equipped German trawler in September 1941.

Several converted merchant ships in Coast Guard service added significant footnotes to naval history. The Cobb was the site in June 1944 of the first landing of a helicopter on board a ship, and the Sea Cloud, a yacht converted to a weather ship, became in 1943 the first racially integrated vessel in U.S. naval service.

On 1 March 1942, the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation was transferred from the Department of Commerce to the Coast Guard. That arrangement completed the administrative structure of the Coast Guard as it exists today.

During World War II, twenty‐eight Coast Guard and Coast Guard–manned vessels were sunk. The service's wartime deaths totaled 1,030, including 572 killed in action. Coast Guard cutters and Coast Guard–manned naval vessels sank eleven enemy submarines; a twelfth was sunk by a Coast Guard aircraft. Coast Guardsmen rescued more than 4,000 survivors from sinking of sunken vessels.

In 1945, the Coast Guard resumed its peacetime law enforcement and search and rescue functions. In 1948, Congress gave the service responsibility for operating the chain of LORAN (LOng‐RAnge‐Navigation) electronic aids to navigation. High‐endurance cutters cruised the Ocean Stations—designated spots in the Atlantic and Pacific from which they radioed weather reports, collected scientific data, and assisted foundering ships and aircraft.

During the Red Scare of the 1950s, the Treasury Department ordered the Coast Guard to withhold licenses from merchant sailors suspected of subversive activity. Several labor unions filed protests against the Coast Guard in federal courts and before the United Nations.

Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba confronted the Coast Guard with a major refugee problem, an exasperating one that was to continue for decades. In each Caribbean crisis, Coast Guard cutters have had the duty of intercepting refugees, and in accordance with the current edicts of the State Department, either escorting them to the United States or turning them away.

Coast Guard icebreakers have cruised to both poles, and break paths for shipping in the Great Lakes and other inland bodies of water each winter. In 1957, the cutters Storis, Bramble, and Spar forced their way from Bellot Strait on the west coast of Canada to Baffin Bay on the east coast, demonstrating the feasibility of a mercantile route north of North America.

In 1965 during the Vietnam War, seventeen Coast Guard patrol craft helped inaugurate Operation Market Time, the navy's ongoing effort to sever the supply lines from North Vietnam to Viet Cong guerrillas in the South. More than 50 Coast Guard vessels and 8,000 Coast Guardsmen took part in the “brown‐water” war in Vietnam destroying nearly 2,000 vessels at a cost in American casualties of 7 deaths and 53 wounded.

On 1 April 1967, the Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the newly created Department of Transportation.

In 1996, women comprised about 7 percent of the Coast Guard's 37,000 active duty personnel. New London was the first service academy to accept female applicants, and in 1988, Lt. ( J. G.) Beverly Kelly became the first woman to command a U.S. naval vessel, the patrol boat Cape Newagen.

The Coast Guard has seven peacetime missions: the enforcement of recreational boating safety regulations; search and rescue operations; the maintenance of aids to navigation; the enforcement of Merchant Marine safety regulations; environmental protection; the enforcement of fisheries, customs, and immigration laws; and port safety.

The commandant of the Coast Guard presides over the Eastern and Western Coast Guard Areas, which are subdivided into ten Coast Guard districts. The service is supported by a Coast Guard Reserve and the Coast Guard Auxiliary, which conducts recreational boat inspections, teaches boating courses, and assists in search and rescue missions.

The service's motto is Semper paratus—“Always ready.”
[See also Coast Guard Reserve; Seminole Wars.]


Stephen H. Evans , The United States Coast Guard, 1790–1915: A Definitive History, 1949.
Malcolm F. Willoughby , The U.S. Coast Guard in World War II, 1957.
Irving H. King , George Washington's Coast Guard: Origins of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, 1789–1801, 1978.
Robert L. Scheina , U.S. Coast Guard Cutters and Craft of World War II, 1982.
Robert E. Johnson , Guardians of the Sea: History of the United States Coast Guard, 1915 to the Present, 1987.
Irving H. King , The Coast Guard Under Sail: The United States Revenue Cutter Service, 1789–1865, 1989.
Arthur Pearcy , A History of U.S. Coast Guard Aviation, 1989.
Robert L. Scheina , U.S. Coast Guard Cutters and Craft, 1946–1990, 1990.
Donald L. Canney , U.S. Coast Guard and Revenue Cutters, 1790–1935, 1995.

John A. Tilley

Coast Guard National Response Center

views updated May 17 2018

Coast Guard National Response Center


The Coast Guard National Response Center (CGNRC) is the sole national point of contact for reports of oil spills, as well as information regarding discharges of chemical, radiological, and biological discharges into the environment. As a unit of the Coast Guard, CGNRC is part of the Department of Transportation (DOT), but due to the significance of its function, it often reports directly to the president of the United States. The increased terrorist threat following the attacks of September 11, 2001, have only served to further its importance as part of the homeland security apparatus.

The federal government advises individuals who observe oil spills, or evidence of oil spills, in or around the United States, to report that information to CGNRC. The latter will dispatch on-scene coordinators to collect data, and will serve as a liaison for the U.S. National Response Team (NRT). However, the responsibilities and purview of CGNRC extend far beyond the functions one normally associates with the Coast Guard. Not only is CGNRC the principal point of contact regarding oil spills, the same is true with regard to chemical, radiological (having to do with nuclear radiation), biological, and etiological (involving disease) hazards as well.

Working with other departments and agencies. CGNRC assists a vast array of government departments, agencies, and administrations in myriad ways. For the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for instance, it acts as a contact point on reports of natural disasters and the evacuations associated with them. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) depends on its 24-hour Rail Emergency Hotline, which receives and disseminates information on hazards ranging from railroad accidents to the refusal of railroad employees to undergo drug testing. CGNRC assists the Department of Defense (DoD) by recording transportation incidents or anomalies involving DoD explosives or other sensitive materials, while the Department of the Interior relies on CGNRC to receive reports of incidents involving Trans-Alaskan Pipeline Oil.

In addition to regularly briefing the secretary of Transportation and the chiefs of modal administrations (e.g., the FRA) regarding transportation emergencies, CGNRC also conducts briefings for the White House and the Department of Homeland Security. In the aftermath of the 911 terrorist attacks, the federal government has urged civilians witnessing any suspicious activity around rivers and waterways to report this information to CGNRC. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune in November 2002, "Activities that should be reported include unusual filming, hunting or fishing in unusual areas, lights flashing between boats and the shore, ship crew members recovering or tossing things into the water, and divers entering the water near docks or bridges." Numbers for contacting CGNRC are provided at its Web site, listed below.



Darce, Keith. "Port Still Vulnerable, Its Chief Says." Times-Picayune. (New Orleans, LA) (November 20, 2002): 1.

Kreuzer, Heidi. "Westchester Incident Highlights Oil Spill Concerns." Pollution Engineering 33, no. 1 (January 2001): 910.


Coast Guard National Response Center. <> (January 22, 2003).

U.S. National Response Team. <> (January 22, 2003).


Coast Guard (USCG), United States
Homeland Security, United States Department
National Response Team, United States

Coast Guard Reserve

views updated May 11 2018

Coast Guard Reserve. The Coast Guard Reserve Act of 1939 was a response to the booming hobby of pleasure boating. The law created an organization of civilian boat owners who volunteered to assist the U.S. Coast Guard in such activities as patrolling regattas and promoting marine safety.

On 19 February 1941, Congress passed a law restructuring the Coast Guard Reserve. The existing civilian organization was renamed the Coast Guard Auxiliary. A new Coast Guard Reserve would function as a source of military manpower, like the reserves of the other armed services.

Coast Guard reservists were divided into two categories. “Regular Reservists” were paid for their services and could be assigned to any duty. A “Temporary Reservist,” or “Coast Guard TR,” was an unpaid volunteer who served part time in some designated geographic area.

During World War II, the Coast Guard itself suspended regular enlistments; virtually all of the approximately 115,000 people who joined the service during the war served as reservists. That figure includes 51,000 temporary reservists and 12,000 members of the Women's Reserve, called SPARS.

The Coast Guard Reserve and the Coast Guard Auxiliary became permanent institutions after the war. In 1994, the reserve had a strength of about 12,000 and auxiliary membership stood at about 34,000.
[See also Air Force Reserve; Navy Combat Branches.]


Malcolm F. Willoughby , The U.S. Coast Guard in World War II, 1957.
Robert E. Johnson , Guardians of the Sea: History of the United States Coast Guard, 1915 to the Present, 1987.

John A. Tilley

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United States Coast Guard