Getting to Know the Coast Guard on Their 230th Birthday
contributed by Liz Zaczek, senior staff writer
On August 4, 2020, the US Coast Guard celebrates turning 230 years young! The US’s “Guardians” have a unique job in the military of both a role in law enforcement and a role in war. As of 2018, there were nearly 42,000 active duty members of the Coast Guard, 7000 Reservists and 30,000 members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
While many are familiar with famous or infamous members of other branches of our country’s military past and present, legendary battles and plenty of museum worthy factoids our United States Coast Guard feels underrepresented in the popular history. Here’s some interesting anecdotes in honor of the USCG’s founding.
Famous Coast Guardians
The Bridges Family (Lloyd, Beau and Jeff) one of Hollywood’s favorite acting families is also a Coast Guard family. In 2011, they were each honored with a Lone Sailor Award which, according to The United States Navy Memorial, is presented “to Sea Service Veterans who have distinguished themselves, drawing upon their Sea Service experience to become successful, in their subsequent careers and lives, while exemplifying the core values of Honor, Courage and Commitment.”
Facts You Didn’t Learn in School
- Alexander Hamilton is the father of the Coast Guard. In Federalist No. 12, Hamilton posited that a “few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws.” Their purpose would be to enforce maritime laws and to collect tariffs. In 1790, the United States was flat broke, and Hamilton, now Secretary of the Treasury, pushed hard for the creation of his fleet to help get the coffers filled. The result was the Revenue-Marine, later renamed the Revenue Cutter Service, and they eventually merged with the United States Life-Saving Service (which helped shipwrecked sailors) to form the Coast Guard.
- The Coast Guard ran “pre statehood” Alaska. As part of an effort to lay telegraph cable from the United States to Russia, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, working under the direction of the Revenue Cutter Service, made first contact with Russia’s Alaskan coast. Later, the Revenue Cutter Service brought U.S. officials to and from the new Alaskan territory. During the 1870s, the service had the duty of enforcing hunting and fishing laws in the territory (seals, especially, were valuable for their pelts and hunted to the point of near-extinction). They were also given responsibility for rescuing ships in the Bering Sea and along the Arctic coast. The massive role of the Coast Guard’s predecessor meant that it essentially was the government. It even maintained “court cruises,” whereby judicial officials sailed in to try criminal cases. It also provided care and comfort in the forms of food, medicine and supplies to villagers in the Arctic.
- The Coast Guard Aviation Association is a fraternal organization of Coast Guard aviators. Its membership includes Guardians and members of other military branches (of the United States and other countries) who have flown Coast Guard aircraft. Until 2007, it was known as the Ancient Order of the Pterodactyl.
- On Sep. 12, 1941, nearly three months before the Pearl Harbor attack, the crew of Coast Guard cutter Northland conducted the first U.S. raid of WWII. The cutter was operating under a defensive treaty with Greenland and moved to investigate a tip that a suspicious landing party was operating in a nearby fjord. They investigated and found the SS Buskoe. While interrogating the ship master, they found signs that the ship was acting as a relay for Nazi radio stations. The Coast Guardsmen went after the landing party and raided an onshore radio station, capturing three Norwegians and German communications equipment, code words, and military instructions. Members of the ship and radio station crew were arrested.
- The Coast Guard “interrupted” German saboteurs landing on American soil. In June, 1942, a German U-boat surfaced off the coast of New York and dropped off a team of four saboteurs that made their way to the coast. Their goal was to cripple U.S. aluminum production and hydroelectric power production through a terror campaign, weakening the U.S. and hopefully coercing the U.S. population to vote against the war. The endeavor was quickly foiled thanks to the Coast Guard beach patrol. Coast Guard Seaman 2nd Class John Cullen came upon the group changing into disguises in the sand dunes on the beach, and offered them shelter and food at the Coast Guard station. They refused, and Cullen quickly became suspicious of the group. He played along like he believed their story of illegal fishing, but then immediately contacted the FBI. The FBI arrived after the saboteurs had left the beach, but they were able to recover the German’s buried supplies and launched an investigation that rounded up all four men before a single attack. It also allowed them to learn of a similar landing in Florida which resulted in four more arrests with no damage done.
There are plenty of interesting tales and important people throughout history about all our service branches that didn’t make it into our traditional school books. These are just a sampling of one branch, the Coast Guard, as our way of saying
“Here’s to the last 230 years and to the next 230!”