Coast Guard Day is annually celebrated on August 4. The Coast Guard is the oldest continuous maritime service of the United States. Founded by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton as the Revenue Marine on August 4, 1790, it is one of six Armed Services and one of eight uniformed services in the United States. The other Armed Services are the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and most recently the United States Space Force which became the smallest armed service in 2019. The two uniformed but not armed services are the United States Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In 1970 Congress authorized the building of ten Revenue Service cutters. The original mission would be enforcement of the first tariff laws enacted by the U.S. Congress. The Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service. Enforcement of maritime law in both domestic and international waters is but one of those missions. The Maritime Response mission is perhaps the most well-known. More commonly known as Search and Rescue, this mission area has been the subject of numerous books, movies, and news stories. The Coast Guard is our Nation’s first responder to marine casualties and disastrous events. Other mission areas include Maritime Prevention, Marine Transportation System Management, Maritime Security Operations, as well as military Defense Operations. The Coast Guard has been involved in every major U.S. war
since 1790 from the Quasi-War with France to today’s Global War on Terrorism.
Originally part of the Department of Treasury, the service slowly grew in size and scope. In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service and the United States Life-Saving Service were merged, becoming the United States Coast Guard. In 1939, the United States Lighthouse Service was also merged into the Coast Guard. The service became part of the newly created Department of Transportation in 1967. Then when the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2006, the service was moved again to that department. While the other five military services are part of the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard isn’t. However, upon declaration of war and when Congress or the President directs, the Coast Guard can operate as a service under the Department of the Navy.
The history of the Coast Guard includes many noteworthy events. Too many to include in this short article. However, here are a few worth mentioning. From 1790 when the Continental Navy was disbanded, until 1798 when the U.S. Navy was created, the Revenue Marine Service was the Nation’s only naval force. They were involved in combating piracy, rescuing mariners in distress, and even carrying the mail. Between 1794 and 1865, they were part of the effort to prevent slave trading from Africa to the United States and captured around 500 slave ships during that period. It was the Cutter Harriet Lane that fired the first naval shots during the Civil War around Fort Sumter. They brought reindeer to Alaska to provide a steady food source for native Eskimos. The Coast Guard Cutter Taney was also one of the first vessels to return fire when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
Signalman First Class Douglas Munro is the only Coast Guard member to receive the Medal of Honor. During World War II, he served as a small boat coxswain during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. He was recognized for extraordinary heroism for leading the extrication of a force of Marines whose position had been overrun by Japanese forces. He died of a gunshot wound while using his boat to shield landing craft filled with Marines being pulled off the beach.
In 1915, when the service became the United States Coast Guard, they had approximately 255 officers, 3900 warrant officers and enlisted personnel. There were 25 cruising cutters, 20 harbor cutters, and 280 lifeboat stations. As of 2018, they had 40,992 personnel on active duty, 7,000 reservists, 8,577 full-time civilian employees, and 31,000 auxiliary members for a total work force of 87,569. They also had 243 coastal and ocean-going patrol ships, tenders, tugs, icebreakers and 1,650 smaller boats. They also had an aviation division of 201 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. In that year, the Coast Guard was identified as the 12th largest naval force in the world by itself.
There are many sites on the internet to learn about the Coast Guard, including the ones I used for this article to include history.uscg.mil, Wikipedia.org, and enti.app/blog. Locally, we have the Coast Guard’s largest West Coast Training Center at Training Center Petaluma. Many of their personnel, active duty and retired live in our local communities throughout Sonoma County. If you’re lucky enough to know one or more of them, please thank them for their service to our nation.
Full disclosure: The author served on active duty with the Coast Guard from 1969 until retirement in 1997, including ten years at Training Center Petaluma. Enlisted as a Seaman Recruit, they retired as a Lieutenant Commander. They also served an additional 14 years from 2003 until 2017 as a civilian employee of the Training Center as a Master Technical Trainer and Instructional Designer of Coast Guard training courses.