United States Coast Guard – Exploring Its History During the Month of its Birth

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on August 16, 2019. In nauticalknowhow

The United States Coast Guard celebrated its 208th birthday on August 4th, 1998. The U.S. Coast Guard’s origins go back to 1790 when our countries first Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was having difficulty paying off our nations war debt from the American Revolution. Alexander Hamilton proposed that Congress appropriate funds to build ten cutters to patrol the coastline and enforce the tariff regulations. On Aug 4, 1790 congress authorized the funds, the cutters were built, the first being the Massachusetts. They were called cutters due to the cutter sailing rig on these vessels. To this day all Coast Guard vessels 65 feet and larger are called cutters, The newly formed fleet was called the Revenue Cutter Service.

Since the inception of the Coast Guard we have fought in and distinguished ourselves in every war our nation has fought. During the War of 1812 the Revenue Cutter Eagle’s action while fighting Her Majesty’s Ship “Dispatch” caught the attention of the entire world. The Eagle was becalmed on the north shore of Long Island, N.Y. When the Dispatch came within range to open fire, the crew of the Eagle grounded the vessel, removed her canons, transported them up a 150 foot cliff, and returned fire, driving off the British ship. During this war many British Ships were captured by the much smaller and less equipped Coast Guard Cutters.

At the start of the Civil War at Fort Sumpter, the Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane fired the first Naval shot of the Civil War on April 12, 1861 by firing a round across the bow of the Nashville, a southern ship attempting to enter Charleston Harbor. On April 24th, 1898, during the Spanish American War the US Revenue Cutter Hudson rescued the U.S. Navy gunboat Winslow which became disabled under enemy fire in Havana, Cuba. During the First World War, U.S. Coast Guard Cutters had the highest per capita casualty rate while they escorted merchant convoys through the narrow straights of Gibraltar. Between WWI and WWII there was no time to rest for weary, battle tested, Coast Guardsmen. With the passage of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution the prohibition of alcohol was enacted. The smuggling of alcohol became commonplace. Coast Guardsmen and the Rum-runners played a cat and mouse game during this period. During WWII the Coast Guard escorted merchant vessel convoys and operated many of the landing craft which transported the troops ashore. During this war woman made a significant contribution to the war effort. It was during this war that woman first began serving in the Coast Guard. it was during WWII that the SPARS had their origins. This woman’s reserve was called SPARS to represent the initials of the Coast Guard Motto in Latin and English, Semper Paratus- Always Ready. By mid 1944, there were over 8000 SPARS in the Coast Guard. They served as storekeepers, receptionists, mail clerks, telephone and teletype operators, chauffeurs, radio operators, and technicians. This relieved many men to go overseas and directly fight our enemies.

Also in WWII, while in the South Pacific, fighting the Japanese on the island of Guadalcanal, first class signalmen Douglas Munro placed his landing craft between the enemy and a contingent of marines that were pinned down on the beach by enemy fire. Using his landing craft as a shield the marines were safely evacuated. Douglas Munro made the ultimate sacrifice, paying with his life, while effecting this rescue, and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. During the Korean War the USCG was once again operating cutters and landing craft in support of Naval Operations. During the Vietnam War the Coast Guard operated twenty-six 82-foot Coast Guard Cutters executing Operation Market Time. The North Vietnamese only had a 10% chance of smuggling weapons and ammunition along the coasts of Vietnam to their soldiers fighting in the south. Most recently the Coast Guard was directly involved in the Persian Gulf War providing Harbor security and enforcing the embargo of Iraq by boarding merchant vessels and inspecting them for prohibited cargo.

Besides the Coast Guard’s involvement in every war since our nation was formed, we have been involved in multiple other historical events throughout our nation’s history.

On December 17, 1903 Wilbur and Orville Wright made their famous first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. A Coast Guardsman by the name of J. T. Daniel from the nearby CG Station was on hand to take the famous photo we are all familiar with. After the famous flight a gust of wind flipped the plane. Three Coast Guardsmen helped Wilbur and Orville secure it before further damage could result.

On April 14, 1912 the R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg and sunk, taking 1513 lives of the 2224 that were on board. As a result of this disaster the U.S. Coast Guard began patrolling the North Atlantic in 1913 to spot and track these icebergs to prevent further Titanic-like catastrophes. In all the years that the U.S. Coast Guard has conducted this patrol not a single ship has been lost due to the striking of an iceberg.

In May 1919 three Navy/Curtiss flying boats took off from Rockaway, N.Y. attempting to be the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic. Two of the aircraft had engine problems and had to ditch. NC4, piloted by Coast Guardsmen Lt. Elmer Stone, made it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in history. Of course Charles Lindbergh did it solo and non-stop, nine years later, in 1927.

As mentioned earlier, we began as the Revenue Cutter Service to stop smuggling. Back in the days of sail, ships that got too close to shore often went aground and broke up in the surf with loss of life. As a result, the U.S. Lifesaving Service was established in 1847. Often the Revenue Cutter Service and Life Saving Service would find themselves working together to effect a coastal rescue. As a result they were combined to form the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915. The Lighthouse Service was added to the Coast Guard in 1939. Today the Coast Guard is the merger of multiple prior federal agencies.

Today, our three primary missions are search and rescue, law enforcement, and environmental protection. Presently, there are about 35 thousand active duty, 8000 reservist, and 35 thousand Coast Guard Auxiliary members. Of these numbers there are now 3355 woman serving in the Coast Guard. The woman now do everything that the men do. They are Ship Captains, Boat Coxswains, Helicopter Pilots, and Law Enforcement Boarding officers. We could not do our job without them.

On an average day the modern-day U.S. Coast Guard saves 32 lives, assists 308 people, saves 8 million dollars worth of property, responds to 34 oil or hazardous spills, seizes 84 lbs. of marijuana, 148 lbs. of cocaine, services 150 aids to navigation, and interdicts 22 illegal immigrants. For each tax dollar invested in the U.S. Coast Guard twelve dollars are returned in property saved.

Coast Guard Station Fort Pierce located at the Fort Pierce Inlet has 22 active, 15 reserve, and works with over 200 Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteer members. Our area of responsibility stretches from just north of Sebastion Inlet and south to St. Lucie Inlet. Our area also includes all of Lake Okeechobee. Annually we perform 300 search and rescue cases and about 600 law enforcement boardings. We enforce all federal laws and regulations. We work very closely with all federal, state, and county agencies. We are co-located with the USCGC’s Point Martin and Point Barnes, as well as an Aids to Navigation Team. Each of these units is a separate command. Our Group Commander is located in Miami. Assigned to my station are two Coast Guard 41 foot utility boats, a 25 foot Mako, and a 21 foot rigid hull inflatable boat.

My goal as the Commanding Officer of Coast Guard Station Fort Pierce is to help make our waters a safer place for all of us to enjoy. You, who are boat owners, can help me. Nationally we still have close to a thousand fatalities on our nation’s waters. The majority of those who are deceased when we remove them from the water were not wearing their life jackets. Many of the casualties are caused by the influence of alcohol. In the state of Florida it is considered negligent operation to be operating your boat with a blood alcohol content in excess of .08. I strongly encourage all boaters to wear their life jackets and avoid alcohol when operating their boats.

I also encourage the public to complete a Coast Guard Auxiliary or U.S. Power Squadron Boating Safety Course. To help ensure that the public has the proper equipment on their vessels I recommend that they have the Coast Guard Auxiliary complete a courtesy marine examination of their vessels.

On this 208th birthday of the U.S. Coast Guard please join us in our never-ending quest to help make our nation’s waters a safer and healthier place to enjoy.




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