A Brief History of the United States Coast Guard

History of the Coast Guard

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) is one of the oldest branches of the nation’s military, tracing its origins back to 1790. During war and peacetime, the USCG has played a critical role in defending this nation and enforcing its maritime laws. Let’s look at how the USCG was born and how it became the elite force it is today.

The Roots of the USCG 

In 1790, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton lobbied Congress to pass the Tariff Act, which allowed for the construction of 10 cutter ships manned by 40 officers.

Referred to as the “Revenue-Marine” this small force patrolled the coast to enforce tariffs, rescue those in distress, and defend merchant ships from pirates.

Congress passed a law in 1860 that officially changed the name of the Revenue-Marine to the Revenue Cutter Service.

Shortly thereafter, President Lincoln ordered the Cutter Service to join the Navy in combat duty as the Civil War began. In fact, it was a Revenue Cutter Service vessel that fired the first shots of the Civil War during the Union’s siege of Fort Sumpter. 

The U.S. Lifesaving Service 

In addition to the Revenue-Marines and Revenue Cutter Service, the lesser-known U.S. Lifesaving Service had also formed in the early days of U.S. history.

Starting in the 1700s, volunteer organizations had popped up along the eastern seaboard with the mission of assisting shipwrecked vessels and marine travelers. These volunteer stations consisted of little more than small boats, basic supplies, and a base of operations.

These stations were staffed by volunteers and funded by the federal government throughout the late 1700s and 1800s. In 1878, the U.S. Lifesaving Service was officially born.

The Creation of the Modern USCG

History of the Coast Guard

In January of 1915, Congress signed an act which would officially combine the Revenue Cutter Service and the Lifesaving Service into the modern-day United States Coast Guard.

With these two well-funded organizations coming together, the USCG started out as a formidable force. Indeed, on the day the act was passed the “new” branch of the Armed Forces boasted 4,000 enlisted men, 300 officers, 45 cutters and 275 lifeboat stations.

The USCG During World War I 

World War I was a confusing time for the newly established USCG. Although the Revenue Cutter Service and the Lifesaving Service were officially combined in 1915, they still acted as if they were two separate entities, with little communication between them.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that the new USCG was under the control of the Navy during wartime.

Coast Guard cutters were taken as needed by the Navy and Coast Guardsmen were ordered onto Navy ships to make up for crew shortages. Coast Guard officers assigned to Navy ships often found themselves serving under less experienced commanders for less pay.

Due to the confusion and power struggles that existed between the Navy and the Coast Guard during World War I, Congress held hearings on folding the Coast Guard into the Navy permanently.

No action was taken on that measure, as most lawmakers believed at the time that a separate Coast Guard was essential to the nation’s security.

The USCG During the 1920s

History of the Coast Guard

It was believed that the Coast Guard could be employed to stop alcohol from flowing into the country during the Prohibition Era.

Unfortunately, the Coast Guard’s efforts were not successful because the ships used were not fast or agile enough to capture the smaller ships used by smugglers. However, the experience enlisted men gained on the high seas during the Prohibition Era would prove to be invaluable in World War II.

It was also during the 1920s that the USCG would conduct the biggest search and rescue mission in its history due to the Mississippi River Flood of ’27. It was thanks to 700 brave Coast Guardsmen manning 130 rescue cutters that 30,000 people and 11,000 head of livestock were saved during disastrous flood.

The USCG During World War II 

Leading up to World War II, USCG cutters had orders to heavily patrol the North Atlantic for enemy ships, including German submarines.

After the Japanese Forces attacked Pearl Harbor, USCG vessels, bases, and enlisted men were immediately called to support the U.S. Navy.

During World War II, the USCG had three main orders:

  1. To identify suspicious vessels in American waters.
  2. To prevent enemies from landing on American shores.
  3. To prevent communications between people on shore and enemy boats at sea.

Although not widely reported in history books, there were times when German saboteurs tried to make it to American shores, only to be stopped by Coast Guardsmen. In fact, it was Seaman 2nd Class John Cullen who first identified and stopped German soldiers on the shores of Amagansett, New York.

Coast Guard cutters were also deployed during World War II to protect and defend American shipping vessels from German submarines. In addition, the Coast Guard, Navy, and Marines worked in tandem to plan and execute several amphibious landings throughout the war.

It’s also notable that for the first-time women were allowed to enlist for military service. More than 10,000 joined the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, led by Captain Dorothy C. Stratton. These women served in a variety of positions on land, freeing men to join the fight overseas.  

The USCG During the Korean War

History of the Coast Guard

Once again, the USCG was called into service when all American diplomats, citizens, and government officials were evacuated from the Korean Peninsula prior to the first North Korean attacks in 1950.

Also in 1950, Congress enacted the Magnuson Act, which gave the USCG orders to secure the ports and borders of the United States on an ongoing basis. In addition, the Coast Guard established a series of weather ships in the north Pacific Ocean and assisted civilian and military aircraft and ships in distress.

The USCG During the Vietnam War 

In 1967 the USCG was moved under the authority of the Department of Transportation. This would be the first time the USCG had not been under the Department of the Treasury since the founding of the country.

Unlike the Korean War where the USCG played a more active role in the United States, the USCG has a strong presence in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

In May of 1965, Coast Guard Squadron One helped execute Operation Market Time where they interfered with and disrupted Viet Cong supply lines at sea. The USCG also developed the M2 Browning Machine Gun, which proved to be a highly effective and important weapon during the war.

Coast Guard Aviators served with the U.S. Air force to conduct search and rescue missions in Vietnam, Laos, and southeaster Asia from 1968 to 1972.

The Coast Guard’s involvement in the Vietnam War ended on April 29, 1975.

The USCG During the 1980s

History of the Coast Guard

Although the USCG was always tasked with stopping illegal drugs from entering the United States, the “War on Drugs” of the 1980s had made this a mandate.

The USCG instituted a “no tolerance” drug policy. USCG Officers received special training in drug seizures. Most of the USCG’s efforts in the 1980s were focused on stopping drugs coming in from the Caribbean, Cuba, Columbia, and Peru.

Apart from fighting the drug warm the USCG was also heavily involved in the now infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill, which dumped some 700,000 barrels of oil into the ocean. The USCG was called to oversee all activities relating to the cleanup effort.

Coast Guard cutters were the first to respond to historic oil spill, quickly establishing a safety zone around the scene of the disaster. A dozen cutters were present to conduct skimming and booming operations around the clock for two weeks straight. The USCG maintained a presence at the site of the spill throughout the remainder of 1989. 

The USCG During the 1990s 

In Operation Desert Shield, the USCG was called upon to enforce UN sanctions in-theater against Iraq. Approximately 60% of the 600 boardings of Iraqi vessels by U.S. Armed Forces were led or supported by USCG personnel. 

During Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein ordered his army to pollute the Persian Gulf by dumping vast oil reserves. A gigantic oil slick spread rapidly, creating an environmental catastrophe, and threatening the water supply for coalition troops.

Coast Guardsmen were dispatched to prepare a response plan and start containment and clean-up operations, while coalition forces pushed the Iraqi army away from the oil fields.

The USCG During the 2000s

History of the Coast Guard

The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq began shortly after the September 11 attacks on the twin towners and the Pentagon. The USCG would see itself playing the most significant role in an overseas conflict since Vietnam.

Coast Guard cutters mainly assisted in force protection and search and seizures of suspected smugglers in Iraqi and international waters. Trainers from the USCG helped rebuild and improve the Iraqi Navy after the fall of Saddam Hussein. USCG officers taught the Iraqi government how to enforce maritime law. Military advisors from the USCG aided Iraqi officials as they implemented international port security requirements, standards, and protocols.

In addition, the Coast Guard sent Redeployment Assistance and Inspection Detachment (RAID) teams to Iraq and Afghanistan. These RAID teams assisted with declaring, labeling, inspecting, and packaging of container shipments to reduce delays of shipments to supplies around the country.

In total, the USCG deployed 1,200 men and women, 11 ships, 4 port-security units, and other specialized teams to carry out a wide range of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf.

As hundreds of members of the USCG were busy in the Middle East, the remaining force was conducting rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina hit the Southern Gulf region of the United States.

The Coast Guard dispatched approximately 50 helicopters, 30 small boats, and 40 cutters to the impacted region. The USCG rescued 3,000 people in 48 hours, and more than 35,000 total. In addition, the Coast Guard assisted with the evacuation of an additional 10,000 patients and medical personnel from hospitals in the Gulf coast region.

In May 2006, President George W. Bush awarded the entire Coast Guard, including the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Presidential Unit Citation for its efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

The USCG Today

Today, the USCG includes:

  • 56,000 enlisted members
  • 243 cutters
  • 1600 boats
  • 210 rotary-wing aircraft
  • 300 helicopters

Oversight of the USCG and administrative duties are carried out at USCG Headquarters located in Washington, DC.

Transitioning from the USCG to a Civilian Career

History of the Coast Guard

Transitioning from the USCG, or any branch of the military, to a civilian career comes with many challenges.

At Empire Resume, we know how to help veterans achieve career success! We specialize in writing resumes for members of the military and are experts at helping servicemembers make the civilian transition.

Additionally, our constantly updated military-to-civilian blog offers the most useful and effective ways to help you with your job search.

Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for both professionals and servicemembers transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and was responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a PhD in Finance.

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