This August 4th marks the 229th birthday of the United States Coast Guard, the country’s oldest, continuous, sea-going service.
Since 1790, the Coast Guard has absorbed other agencies and their missions in meeting the needs of the nation.
Like a cork that will not sink, this branch of the military has expanded in range and mission requirements to meet the challenges of a changing world.
A Hamiltonian History
Promoted by Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, Congress authorized funds for the construction of ten small sailing vessels.
“A few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws,” he wrote in Federalist Paper #12 in November, 1787.
First called the United States Revenue Cutter Service, its mission was to enforce tariff and trade laws.
As the nation grew from east to west, so too did the service. By the 1860s, cutters cruised Alaskan waters, and with the annexation of Hawaii in 1898, they were on patrol in the Pacific.
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson merged the Life-Saving Service with the Revenue Cutter Service to create today’s Coast Guard.
The newly named service not only became the nation’s foremost search and rescue agency in both coastal and high seas operations, it also became an official branch of the military.
Growth of the Coast Guard
It soon began conducting International Ice Patrols; in 1917 it came under the Navy’s direction during World War I, expanding the Guard’s area of responsibility deeper into both oceans, as well as the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas; and in 1937 the service assumed the responsibility of domestic icebreaking missions.
When World War II began in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the Lighthouse Service from the Commerce Department to the Coast Guard. When America entered the war, the service again came under Navy direction, and over 250,000 men and women served.
One who did not return was Signalman First Class Douglas Munro, the first and only coastie to receive the Medal of Honor.
At war’s end, the Coast Guard returned to its moorings within the Department of Treasury. In 1946 Congress transferred the Commerce of Department’s Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to the Coast Guard, thereby placing merchant marine licensing and merchant vessel safety under its purview.
During the 1960s, the Navy passed its icebreaking mission to the Coast Guard, making it the only federal agency to provide domestic and polar ice breaking services.
Adding to their responsibilities, President Lyndon Johnson transferred it to the then new Department of Transportation, as Congress tasked the service with regulating and administering bridges spanning navigable waterways.
Also, in 1967 the Coast Guard adopted the red racing stripe that appears on its vessels.
Meeting Current Challenges
In the latter part of the last century, international, environmental, economic and political developments created new missions in the form of major oil spills, waterborne illegal immigrants, and the billion dollar industry of smuggling narcotics and human trafficking.
After 9/11, the Coast Guard established Maritime Security Response Teams, and in 2003 the service was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security.
Today the Coast Guard is a multi-mission, maritime force offering a unique blend of military, law enforcement, humanitarian, regulatory, and diplomatic capabilities to meet its broad roles of maritime safety, maritime security, and maritime stewardship.
As such, it protects and defends more than 100,000 miles of coastline and inland waterways. The Coast Guard also safeguards an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which encompasses 4.5 million square miles stretching from north of the Arctic Circle to south of the equator, from Puerto Rico to Guam, which covers nine time zones.
The over 56,000 members of the Coast Guard – the smallest of the five services – operate a multi-mission, interoperable fleet of 243 Cutters, 201 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, and over 1,600 boats on a global basis.
Despite its workload, the United States Coast Guard’s personnel and families remained on duty without pay during the last federal government shutdown in early 2019.
A Gift for Today
Former coastie and Representative Howard Coble of North Carolina had a birthday present in mind in 2014 when he said in one of his last interviews:
I wish Americans would more openly embrace the Coast Guard. Oftentimes I would go to a Veterans Day program and the four marching hymns naturally would play. Conspicuously absent? You guessed it, Semper Paratus.
The representative also knew the fifth branch of military service does not receive the Congressional funding it needs to sufficiently meet its demanding mission requirements.
As he pointed out, “The Coast Guard has long been known as the armed service that gets more done for less.”
The 18th century’s Alexander Hamilton would agree with the 21st century’s Howard Coble that the USCG requires more funding to continue to be “useful sentinels of the laws.”
On its 229th birthday, your Coast Guard remains Semper Paratus – Always Ready.
For a concise history of the Coast Guard, click here.