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The history of the United States Coast Guard goes back to the Revenue Cutter Service, which was founded on 4 August 1790 as part of the Department of the Treasury. The Revenue Cutter Service and the United States Life-Saving Service were merged to become the Coast Guard per 14 U.S.C. § 1 which states: "The Coast Guard as established January 28, 1915, shall be a military service and a branch of the armed forces of the United States at all times." In 1939, the United States Lighthouse Service was merged into the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard itself was moved to the Department of Transportation in 1967, and on 25 February 2003 it became part of the Department of Homeland Security. However, under 14 U.S.C. § 3 as amended by section 211 of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2006, upon the declaration of war and when Congress so directs in the declaration, or when the President directs, the Coast Guard operates as a service in the Department of the Navy.
The Coast Guard's predecessor service, the Revenue Cutter Service, was founded 4 August 1790, when the Tariff Act permitted construction of ten cutters and recruitment of 100 revenue officers. From 1790, when the Continental Navy was disbanded, to 1798, when the United States Navy was created, the Revenue Cutter Service provided the only armed American presence on the sea. Revenue Marine cutters were involved in the Quasi-War with France from 1798 to 1799, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War.
In 1794, the Revenue Cutter Service was given the mission of preventing trading in slaves from Africa to the United States. Between 1794 and 1865, the Service captured approximately 500 slave ships. In 1808, the Service was responsible for enforcing President Thomas Jefferson's embargo closing U.S. ports to European trade.
The Coast Guard's role in environmental protection dates back more than 185 years to the 1822 Timber Act that tasked the Revenue Cutter Service with protecting government timber from poachers.
During the American Civil War, the Revenue Service cutter Harriet Lane fired the first shots of the war at sea at the steamer Nashville during the siege of Fort Sumter. A Confederate Revenue Marine was formed by crewmen who left the Revenue Cutter Service. Upon the order of President Lincoln to the Secretary of the Treasury on 14 June 1863, Federal cutters were assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
In the 1880s through the 1890s, the Revenue Cutter Service was instrumental in the development of Alaska. Captain "Hell Roaring" Michael A. Healy, captain of the USRC Bear, greatly assisted a program that brought reindeer to Alaska to provide a steady food source. Healy had the reputation as a rough sailing master and was court-martialed several times, but was restored to rank again and again. In the winter of 1897–1898, the reindeer and lieutenants in the Revenue Cutter Service participated in the Overland Relief Expedition to help starving trapped whalers. During the Snake River gold rush of 1900, the Revenue Cutter Service returned destitute miners to Seattle from Alaska.
The Coast Guard took its unofficial motto, "You have to go out, but you don't have to come back," from the 1899 regulations of the United States Life Saving Service, which stated:
These regulations were repeated in the 1934 Coast Guard regulations.
The School of Instruction of the Revenue Cutter Service was established in 1876, near New Bedford, Massachusetts. It used the USRC Dobbin for its training exercises. It moved to Curtis Bay, Maryland in 1900 and then again in 1910 to Fort Trumbull, near New London, Connecticut. The school provided a two-year premise to ship supplemented by some class work and tutoring in technical subjects. In 1903, the third year of instruction was added. The school was oriented to line officers, as engineers were hired directly from civilian life. In 1906, an engineering program for cadets began. Nevertheless the school remained small, with 5 to 10 cadets per class. In 1914 the School became the Revenue Cutter Academy and with the merger of the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life Saving Service in 1915, it became the United States Coast Guard Academy. In February 1929, Congress appropriated $1,750,000 for construction of buildings to be used for the academy. The city of New London purchased the land on the Thames River and donated it to the government for use as a Coast Guard facility. Construction began in 1931 and the first cadets began occupying the new facilities in 1932.
In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-saving Service were merged to form the Coast Guard. The Lighthouse Service was merged into the Coast Guard in 1939. On 28 February 1942, the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard.
In 1920 the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce held hearings on merging the recently created Coast Guard into the United States Navy.
The Coast Guard's preparations for the coming war actually started before the Declaration of War on 6 April 1917. In late 1916, the Interdepartmental Board on Coast Communications recommended that telephone communications be improved and brought to a high state of readiness all along the U.S. coastline to include lighthouses and lifesaving stations as well as other government coastal facilities. Sensing a need for aviation, the Coast Guard sent Third Lieutenant Elmer Stone to Naval Flight Training on 21 March 1916. On 22 March 1917 the Commandant issued a twelve page manual titled Confidential Order No. 2, Mobilization of the U.S. Coast Guard When Required to Operate as a Part of the U.S. Navy. Germany had already announced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917, on all ships trading with its enemies and included neutral shipping as targets. U.S. merchant ships sunk before a declaration of war included the SS Healdton and the SS Housatonic and five others with the loss of 36 American lives.
On 6 April, with a formal declaration of war, the Coast Guard was transferred to the operational control of the Navy. All cutters were to report to the nearest Naval District commander and stand by for further orders. All normal operations were suspended with the exception of rescues pending orders from the Navy. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels directed that although the Coast Guard was then a part of the Navy, that most of the administrative details handled by Coast Guard Headquarters would not be changed. At the outset of the war the Coast Guard consisted of less than 4000 officers and men, had 23 cruising cutters, 21 harbor cutters, 272 rescue stations and 21 cadets at the Coast Guard Academy. The Coast Guard was still in a formative stage of development from the merger of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Lifesaving Service. Because of this fact, there was not much interaction between the two former entities during the war. A qualified Lifesaving Service surfman who wished to transfer to a cutter had to be reduced to ordinary seaman upon reporting because of a lack of shipboard skills. Because of this transfers were infrequent. There were no chief petty officers in the Coast Guard at this time and Coast Guard petty officers assigned to Navy ships often served under less experienced supervisors for less pay.
Coast Guard cutters were seen by the Navy as ready assets and were used to fill in for a rapidly expanding Navy. The Navy recognized Coast Guard officers and petty officers as the experienced mariners that they were and often put them on Navy ships to fill in for crew shortages and lack of experience.
In the 1920s, the Coast Guard was given several former U.S. Navy four-stack destroyers to help enforce Prohibition. The effort was not entirely successful, due to the slowness of the destroyers. However, the mission provided many Coast Guard officers and petty officers with operational experience which proved invaluable in World War II. The Navy's epithet of "Hooligan Navy" dates from this era, due to the Coast Guard's flexibility in enlisting men discharged from other services to rapidly expand; it has endured due to the high proportion of prior-other-service enlisteds, and become a term of pride within the service.
During the disastrous 1927 Mississippi River flood, the Coast Guard rescued a total of 43,853 persons who they “removed from perilous positions to places of safety". Additionally, they saved 11,313 head of livestock and furnished transportation for 72 persons in need of hospitalization. In all 674 Coast Guardsmen and 128 Coast Guard vessels and boats served in the relief operations.
The Steamboat Inspection Service was merged with the Bureau of Navigation, created in 1884, to oversee the regulation of merchant seamen, on 30 June 1932.
In 1934, the passenger vessel SS Morro Castle suffered a serious fire off the coast of New Jersey, which ultimately claimed the lives of 124 passenger and crew. The casualty prompted new fire protection standards for vessels and paved the way for the "Act of May 27, 1936", which reorganized and changed the name of the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection Service to the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation.
Marine inspection and navigation duties under the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation were temporarily transferred to the Coast Guard by executive order on 28 February 1942. This transfer of duties fit well with the Coast Guard's port safety and security missions, and was made permanent in 1946. 
Lieutenant Commander Carl von Paulsen set the seaplane Arcturus in a heavy sea in January 1933 off Cape Canaveral and rescued a boy adrift in a skiff. The aircraft sustained so much damage during the open water landing that it could not take off. Ultimately, Arcturus washed onto the beach and all including the boy were saved. Commander Paulsen was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for this rescue.
Before the American entry into World War II, cutters of the Coast Guard patrolled the North Atlantic. In January 1940 President Roosevelt directed the establishment of the Atlantic Weather Observation Service using Coast Guard cutters and U.S. Weather Bureau observers.
After the invasion of Denmark by Germany in April 1940, President Roosevelt ordered the International Ice Patrol to continue as a legal pretext to patrol Greenland, whose cryolite mines were vital to refining aluminum and whose geographic location allowed accurate weather forecasts to be made for Europe. The Greenland patrol was maintained by the Coast Guard for the duration of the war.
Shortly after Germany declared war on the United States, German submarines began Operation Drumbeat ("Paukenschlag"), sinking ships off the American coast. Many Coast Guard cutters were involved in rescue operations following German attacks on American shipping. The USCGC Icarus (WPC-110), a 165-foot (50 m) cutter that previously had been a rumrunner chaser during Prohibition, sank U-352 on 9 May 1942, off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, and took 33 prisoners, the first Germans taken in combat by any U.S. force.
Coast Guardsmen also patrolled the shores of the United States during the war. On 13 June 1942 Seaman 2nd Class John Cullen, patrolling the beach in Amagansett, New York, discovered the first landing of German saboteurs in Operation Pastorius. Cullen was the first American who actually came in contact with the enemy on the shores of the United States during the war and his report led to the capture of the German sabotage team. For this, Cullen received the Legion of Merit. .
In addition to antisubmarine operations, the Coast Guard worked closely with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Many of the coxswains of American landing craft, such as the Higgins boat (LCVP), used in amphibious invasions were Coast Guardsmen who had received amphibious training with the cooperation of the U.S. Marine Corps. Coast Guard cutters and ships partially manned by Coast Guardsmen were used in the North African invasion of November 1942 (Operation Torch) and the invasion of Sicily in 1943 (Operation Husky).
On 9 September 1942 the USCGC Muskget (WAG-48) was sunk with a loss of 121 crewmembers while on North Atlantic weather patrol by U-755.
In November 1942, legislation was passed creating the Coast Guard Women's Reserve, also known as the SPARS. Led by Captain Dorothy C. Stratton, around 11,000 women served in various stateside positions, freeing men for overseas duty.
On 3 February 1943 the torpedoing of the transport USAT Dorchester off the coast of Greenland saw cutters USCGC Comanche (WPG-76) and USCGC Escanaba (WPG-77) respond. The frigid water gave the survivors only minutes to live in the cold North Atlantic. With this in mind, the crew of Escanaba used a new rescue technique when pulling survivors from the water. This "retriever" technique used swimmers clad in wet suits to swim to victims in the water and secure a line to them so they could be hauled onto the ship. Escanaba saved 133 men (one died later) and Comanche saved 97. Escanaba herself was lost to a torpedo or mine a few months later, along with 103 of her 105-man crew.
During the Normandy invasion of 6 June 1944, a 60-cutter flotilla of wooden WPB 83-foot (25 m) Coast Guard cutters, nicknamed the "Matchbox Fleet", cruised off all five landing beaches as combat search-and-rescue boats, saving 400 Allied airmen and sailors. Division O-1, including the Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase (APA-26), landed the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division on Omaha Beach. Off Utah Beach, the Coast Guard manned the command ship USS Bayfield (APA-33). Several Coast Guard-manned landing craft were lost during D-Day to enemy fire and heavy seas. In addition, a cutter was beached during the storms off the Normandy coast which destroyed the U.S.-operated Mulberry harbor.
The USCGC Taney (WHEC-37), a notable World War II era high endurance cutter, is the only warship still afloat today (as a museum ship in Baltimore) that was present for the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, although she was actually stationed in nearby Honolulu.
On 12 September 1944, the Liberty ship George Ade was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Cape Hatteras, N.C. USCGC Jackson (WSC-142) and USCGC Bedloe (WSC-128), heading to assist the survivors of the Ade, were caught in the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 the day after, sinking both cutters and killing 48 Coast Guardsmen. A U.S. Navy seaplane rescued the survivors.
On 29 January 1945, the USS Serpens (AK-97), a Coast Guard-manned Liberty ship, exploded off Guadalcanal, Solomons Islands, while loading depth charges. 193 Coast Guardsmen, 56 Army stevedores, and one U.S. Public Health Service officer were killed in the explosion. This was the biggest single disaster to befall the Coast Guard during the war.
As was common during this period, many of Hollywood's able-bodied screen stars became enlistees and left their film careers on hiatus in order to support the national defense. Specifically, actors Gig Young, Cesar Romero, and Richard Cromwell all served admirably in various capacities in the USCG in the Pacific for several years. The A&P heir Huntington Hartford also served in the Pacific as a commander.
Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro (1919–1942), the only Coast Guardsman to receive the Medal of Honor, earned the decoration during World War II as a small boat coxswain during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. A Navy destroyer escort, USS Douglas A. Munro (DE-422), was named in his honor in 1944. The cutter USCGC Munro (WHEC-724) was commissioned in 1971, and is still on active service.
On 14 October 1947, the American-owned Boeing 314 flying boat Bermuda Sky Queen, carrying sixty-nine passengers was flying from Foynes, Ireland to Gander, Newfoundland. Gale force winds had slowed her progress and she was running low on fuel. Too far from Newfoundland and unable to make it back to Ireland, the captain, Charles Martin, twenty-six-year-old ex-Navy pilot, decided to fly toward USCGC Bibb (WPG-31) which was on Ocean Station Charlie in the North Atlantic. The plane’s captain decided to ditch and have his passengers and crew picked up by Bibb. In 30-foot (10 m) seas, the transfer was both difficult and dangerous. Initially the Bibb’s captain, Capt. Paul B. Cronk, tried to pass a line to the plane which taxied to the lee side of the cutter. A collision with the cutter ended this attempt to save the passengers. With worsening weather, a fifteen man rubber raft and a small boat were deployed from the ship. The raft was guided to the escape door of the aircraft. Passengers jumped into the raft which was then pulled to the boat. After rescuing 47 of the passengers, worsening conditions and the approach of darkness forced the rescue’s suspension. By dawn, improved weather allowed the rescue to resume and the remaining passengers and crew were transferred to the Bibb. The rescue made headlines throughout the country and upon their arrival in Boston, Bibb and her crew received a hero’s welcome for having saved all those aboard the ditched Bermuda Sky Queen.
This event spurred ratification of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) treaty establishing a network of ocean weather stations in 1947. A second conference in 1949 reduced the number of Atlantic stations to ten but provided for three Pacific stations.
An enlisted training center was established in Cape May in 1948 and all recruit training functions were consolidated in this facility in 1982, when the West Coast recruit center at Government Island (Alameda), California was closed, the facility repurposed and the island renamed. (See Coast Guard Island).
During the Korean War, Coast Guard officers helped arrange the evacuation of the Korean Peninsula during the initial North Korean attack. On 9 August 1950, Congress enacted Public Law 679, known as the Magnuson Act. This act charged the Coast Guard with ensuring the security of the United States' ports and harbors on a permanent 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, and established a string of LORAN stations in Japan and Korea that assisted the United Nations forces.
On 18 February 1952, during a severe "nor’easter" off the New England coast, the T2 tankers SS Fort Mercer and SS Pendleton broke in half. Pendleton was unable to make any distress call; she was discovered on the unusual shore radar with which the Chatham, Massachusetts, Lifeboat Station was equipped during the search for Fort Mercer. BM1 Bernard C. Webber, coxswain of motor lifeboat CG-36500 from Station Chatham and his crew, consisting of Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey, and Ervin Maske, rescued the crew of Pendleton, which had broken in half. Webber maneuvered the 36-footer under Pendleton's stern with expert skill as the tanker's crew, trapped in the stern section, abandoned the remains of their ship on a Jacob's ladder. One by one, the men jumped into the water and then were pulled into the lifeboat. Webber and his crew saved 33 of the 34 Pendleton crewmen. Webber, Fitzgerald, Livesey, and Maske were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for their heroic actions.
In all, U .S. Coast Guard vessels, aircraft, and lifeboat stations, working under severe winter conditions, rescued 62 persons from the foundering ships or from the water; only five lives were lost among the crews of Fort Mercer and Pendleton. Five Coast Guardsmen earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal, four earned the Silver Lifesaving Medal, and 15 earned the Coast Guard Commendation Medal.
The rescue of men from the bow of Fort Mercer was nearly as spectacular as the Pendleton rescue, but is often overshadowed by the Pendleton rescue. Eight officers and crew were trapped on the bow of Fort Mercer and four were rescued using rafts and a Monomoy surfboat. By contrast, all aboard the bow of the Pendleton perished.
On 1 April 1967 the Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the newly formed Department of Transportation under the authority of PL 89-670 which was signed into law on 15 October 1966.
In 1967, the Coast Guard adopted the red and blue "racing stripe" as part of the regular insignia for cutters, boats, and aircraft. It was recommended by the industrial design firm of Raymond Loewy/William Snaith, Inc. to give Coast Guard units and vessels a distinctive appearance, as well as clearer recognition from a distance. This "racing stripe" was in turn adopted (in modified forms) by several other coast guards, in particular the Canadian Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard was active in the Vietnam War beginning 27 May 1965 with the formation of Coast Guard Squadron One consisting of Divisions 11 and 12. Squadron One assisted in Operation Market Time by interdicting resupply by sea of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. Seventeen Point class 82-foot WPB cutters were transferred to coastal waters off Vietnam with their Coast Guard crews under the operational control of the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet. Division 13, consisting of nine additional WPB's was added in February 1966. Squadron One cutters were awarded the Navy Presidential Unit Citation for their assistance provided the Navy during Operation Sealords. Coast Guard Squadron Three was activated in support of Market Time beginning March 1967 and consisted initially of five high endurance cutters (WHEC) tasked to the Navy for used in coastal interdiction and naval gunfire support for shore operations in South Vietnam. The Coast Guard developed a "piggyback" weapon that proved highly useful; an M2 Browning machine gun placed over a 81mm mortar.
Several Coast Guard aviators served with the U.S. Air Force 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron and 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron in Southeast Asia from 1968 to 1972. They were involved in combat search and rescue operations in both Vietnam and Laos.
The Coast Guard provided Explosive Loading Detachments (ELD) to the U.S. Army 1st Logistics Command in several locations in Vietnam. The ELD's were responsible for the supervision of Army stevedores in the unloading of explosives and ammunition from U.S. Merchant Marine ships. The ELD's were also responsible for assisting the Army in port security operations at each port and eventually were made a part of a Port Security and Waterways Detail (PS&WD) reporting to the Commanding General, United States Army, Vietnam (USARV). They earned the Army Meritorious Unit Commendation for their efforts.
In December 1965 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara requested Coast Guard assistance in constructing a chain of LORAN-C stations for use by naval vessels and combat aircraft for operations in Southeast Asia. Construction started almost immediately at five locations in Thailand and Vietnam and were operational after 8 August 1966.
On 22 April 1966, USCGC Planetree (WLB-307) arrived in Cam Ranh Bay to commence Aids to Navigation (ATON) operations in the coastal waters of South Vietnam. She was responsible for the marking of freshly cut channels and harbors with buoys and daymarks so that merchant and naval ships could safely navigate the waters. This direct support mission ended on 17 May 1971 with the departure of the last buoy tender, USCGC Blackhaw (WLB-390). The buoy tender crews were tasked with training South Vietnamese crews in the ATON effort prior to the departure of the Blackhaw as a part of the 'Vietnamization' policy of the Nixon Administration. After May 1971 ATON was serviced on a 'as needed' basis by USCGC Basswood (WLB-388) homeported in Guam.
In August 1970 the Coast Guard finished turning over to the South Vietnamese Navy the patrol boats of Squadron One. The training of South Vietnamese crews had started in February 1969 and continued through to the end of operations for Squadron One. USCGC Yakutat (WHEC-380) and USCGC Bering Strait (WHEC-382) were turned over to the South Vietnamese Navy on 1 January 1971. Eventually three other WHEC's were turned over to the South Vietnamese Navy. The Coast Guard's involvement in the Vietnam War ended at 1246 local time 29 April 1975 when LORAN Station Con Son went off the air for good. Its signal was necessary for the safe evacuation of Saigon by U.S. Embassy personnel in the final days before the fall of the South Vietnamese government and it was kept on the air as long as possible. On 3 October 1975 the Coast Guard disestablished the remaining LORAN-C stations in Thailand. Seven Coast Guardsmen were killed during the war in combat and search and rescue operations.
In the mid-70s the Coast Guard adopted the blue uniforms seen today, replacing Navy-style uniforms worn prior to the Vietnam War. Known jocularly as "Bender's Blues," they were implemented as part of the postwar transition to an all-volunteer force. It is noteworthy that the enlisted's and officer's uniforms differed only in rank insignia and cap devices, reflecting the value the service placed on its enlisted members (although it caused saluting confusion among members of other services). The stylish new women's uniform was created by Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, upon the request of Capt. Eleanor L'Ecuyer. Enlisted uniform buttons were gold while officer's buttons were silver. This was just opposite of most military services. Women were integrated into the Coast Guard during the 1970s, beginning with the end of the separate Women's Reserve (SPARS) in 1973, the modification of 378's for mixed-gender crews beginning in 1977, and the opening of all ratings to women in 1978. These stages of integration preceded the DOD military by roughly a year or so, as separate legislation restricted their deployment of women.
Altogether, the shift from Treasury to the DOT in 1967, the uniform change, the end of Ocean Station service, growth of the shore-side establishment by newly added missions, the steady if belated retirement of venerable but aging World War II cutters, and gender integration marked the oft-lamented end of the "Old Guard" ("wooden ships and men of steel").
The Ancient Order of the Pterodactyl was founded in 1977 in order to preserve the history of Coast Guard aviation, as the service's last amphibious seaplane, the Grumman Albatross or "Goat," was nearing retirement, as was also the service's last enlisted pilot, John P. Greathouse.
One major mission of the service, maintaining Ocean Stations, came to an end as improvements in oceanic aviation (turbojet airliners and improved radionavigation) obviated the need. However, the Magnuson–Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976 brought an increase in offshore fisheries patrols, to which the newer WHECs (the 378s) were redeployed, as the aging boiler-powered World War II-vintage wooden-deckers were gradually retired.
On 23 November 1970, Simonas "Simas" Kudirka, a Soviet seaman of Lithuanian nationality, leapt from the 400-foot (120 m) mother ship Sovetskaya Litva, anchored in American waters (near Aquinnah, Massachusetts on Martha's Vineyard Island), aboard the USCGC Vigilant, sailing from New Bedford. The Soviets accused Kudirka of theft of 3,000 rubles from the ship's safe. Ten hours passed; communications difficulties contributed to the delay, as the ship was unfortunately in a "blind spot" of Boston Radio's (Marshfield) receivers, resulting in an awkward resort to using the public marine operator.
After attempts to get the U.S. State Department to provide guidance failed, Rear Admiral William B. Ellis (1914–2001), commander of the First Coast Guard District, ordered Commander Ralph E. Eustis to permit a KGB detachment to board the Vigilant to return Kudirka to the Soviet ship. This led to a change in asylum policy by the U.S. Coast Guard. Admiral Ellis and his chief of staff were given administrative punishment under Article 15 of the UCMJ. Commander Eustis was given a non-punitive letter of reprimand and assigned to shore duty.
Kudirka was tried for treason by the Soviet Union and given a ten-year sentence in prison. Subsequent investigations revealed that Kudirka could claim American citizenship through his mother and was allowed to come to the United States in 1974.
The incident, known for several years as the Coast Guard's "Day of Shame," was portrayed in a 1976 television movie, The Defection of Simas Kudirka, with Alan Arkin playing Kudirka and Donald Pleasence playing the captain of the Soviet ship and USCGC Decisive playing the part of USCGC Vigilant. It was also portrayed in the 1973 book Day of Shame: The truth about the murderous happenings aboard the Cutter Vigilant during the Russian-American confrontation off Martha's Vineyard by Algis Ruksenas.
On 28 January 1980, the 180-ft buoy tender USCGC Blackthorn (WLB-391) collided with the 605-foot oil tanker S.S. Capricorn and capsized when the Capricorn's anchor entangled the cutter. 23 Coast Guardsmen were drowned. Coming close behind the loss of 11 men in the collision/sinking of the OCS training ship USCGC Cuyahoga (built in 1927 as a Prohibition patrol boat ), the impact of this disaster upon morale in the close-knit service was magnified.
A fire broke out on the Prinsendam off Ketchikan, Alaska on 4 October 1980. The Prinsendam was 130 miles (210 km) from the nearest airstrip. The cruise ship’s captain ordered the ship abandoned and the passengers, many elderly, left the ship in the lifeboats. Coast Guard and Canadian helicopters and the cutters Boutwell, Mellon, and Woodrush responded in concert with other vessels in the area. The passenger vessel later capsized and sank. The rescue is particularly important because of the distance traveled by the rescuers, the coordination of independent organizations and the fact that all 520 passengers and crew were rescued without loss of life or serious injury.
In April 1980, the government of Cuba began to allow any person who wanted to leave Cuba to assemble in Mariel Harbor and take their own transport. The U.S. Coast Guard, working out of Seventh District Headquarters in Miami, Florida, rescued boats in difficulty, inspected vessels for adequate safety equipment, and processed refugees. This task was made even more difficult by a hurricane which swamped many vessels in mid-ocean and by the lack of cooperation by Cuban Border Guard officials. By May, 600 reservists had been called up, the U.S. Navy provided assistance between Cuba and Key West, and the Auxiliary was heavily involved. 125,000 refugees were processed between April and May 1980. (See Mariel boatlift.)
The number of lightships steadily decreased during the 20th century, some replaced by "Texas Tower" type structures (e.g., Chesapeake, Buzzards Bay, both now automated)  , and others by buoys. However, the Columbia River and Nantucket Shoals Lightships were not replaced by large navigational buoys (LNBs) until 1979 and 1983, respectively, due to the difficulty of anchoring buoys securely at their heavy-weather locations.  .
The technology of all aids to navigation evolved dramatically during this era, reducing manning and maintenance requirements. The Coast Guard also managed the worldwide VLF OMEGA Navigation System and operated two of its stations from the early 1970s until its termination in 1997 (having been superseded, though not truly obsoleted, by GPS).
On 15 April 1986, Libya fired two Scuds at the U.S. Coast Guard navigation station on the Italian island of Lampedusa, in retaliation for the American bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi. However, the missiles passed over the island, landing in the sea, and caused no damage. As a result of the attack, the Coast Guard station was commissioned as a NATO base, including security hardening and an armory, as well as an Italian security detail stationed nearby.
In March 1989, the oil tanker "Exxon Valdez" struck Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef and spilled 260,000 to 750,000 barrels (41,000 to 119,000 m3) of crude oil.Because the incident took place in navigational waters, the Coast Guard had authority for all activities related to the cleanup effort. The Coast Guard largely served as the Federal On-Scene Coordinator between Exxon Mobil and all of these organizations, acting within authority under the Clean Water Act.
Coast Guard cutters were one of the first to respond to the spill, quickly establishing a safety zone around the stricken Exxon Valdez. At least eleven cutters were present in April 1989, the majority of them overseeing booming and skimming operations. Early that month, Coast Guard vessel activity went through a rapid buildup phase. The Coast Guard maintained a heavy cutter presence for two weeks in mid-April, and then reduced it towards the end of the month. Four or five cutters were on hand in early May, and that number was reduced to two or three by the end of the month. Three cutters were assigned to cleanup operations by the beginning of June, but only one remained two weeks later – and it stayed that way for the remainder of the 1989 response.
Several C-130s from Air Station Kodiak airlifted more than 11 ¼ tons of cleanup equipment by 10 April 1989. H-25 Falcon jets from CGAS Cape Cod, flew twice a day tracking oil with side-looking radar equipment. Five Coast Guard helicopters also assisted thirty-nine skimmers working in Prince William Sound.
On 17 August 1990, at the request of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Secretary of Transportation and the Commandant of the Coast Guard committed Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDET) to Operation Desert Shield. A total of 10 four-person teams served in-theater to support the enforcement of UN sanctions by the Maritime Interdiction Forces. Approximately 60 percent of the 600 boardings carried out by U.S. forces were either led by or supported with the LEDETs. Additionally, a 7-man liaison staff was designated by the Commandant as Operational Commander for the Coast Guard forces deployed in theater. The first boarding of an Iraqi vessel in the theater of operations conducted by a LEDET occurred on 30 August 1990. President George H. W. Bush, on 22 August 1990, authorized the call up of members of the selected reserve to active duty in support of Operation Desert Shield. Three Port Security Units (PSU), consisting of 550 Coast Guard reservists are ordered to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Desert Shield. This was the first involuntary overseas mobilization of Coast Guard Reserve PSUs in the Coast Guard Reserve's 50-year history. A total of 950 Coast Guard reservists were called to active duty.
Prior to the launch of Operation Desert Storm, Coast Guard LEDET personnel aboard the USS Nicholas (FFG-47) assisted when the frigate cleared eleven Iraqi oil platforms and took 23 prisoners on 18 January 1991. On 21 April 1991, a Tactical Port Security Boat (TPSB) of PSU 301, stationed in Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia, was the first boat in the newly reopened harbor of Mina Ash Shuwaikh in Kuwait City. Because of certain security concerns, a determination was made to send one of the 22-foot Raider boats belonging to PSU 301 and armed with M2 and M60 machine guns, to lead the procession into the harbor and provide security for the operation.
During the war, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army was seeking to pollute the Persian Gulf by pouring oil into in an effort only partly stymied when Air Force F-111F Aardvarks bombed the source of the deliberate spill. A giant slick was spreading rapidly, wreaking environmental havoc and threatening Saudi desalinization plants that supplied potable water for coalition troops. Two HU-25B Guardians from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, Mass., were dispatched 13 Feb 1991, supported by two HC-130H Hercules from CGAS Clearwater Florida, Operating from Saudi and Bahraini airfields. The HC-130s brought in supplies and returned to the United States 25 Feb.. The HU-25Bs flew over the oil spill to monitor dispersion, rate of flow, the effects of weather and currents, and other data essential for preparing a response plan.
During April and again in June 1993, Coast Guard Forces, St. Louis was activated for flooding on the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois River basins. The '500 year' flooding closed over 1,250 miles (2,000 km) of river to navigation and claimed 47 lives. Historic levels of rainfall in the river tributaries caused many levee breaks along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers displacing thousands of people from their homes and businesses. The commander of CGF, St. Louis set into motion a preconceived operations plan to deal with the many requests for assistance from state and local governments for law enforcement assistance, help with sandbagging, water rescues, evacuation of flood victims, and aerial surveillance of levee conditions. The unprecedented duration of the flood also caused Coast Guard personnel to assume some humanitarian services not normally a part of flood operations. Food, water and sandbags were transported to work sites to assist sandbagging efforts by local governments. Red Cross and Salvation Army relief workers were given transportation assistance. Many homeless animals displaced by the flood waters were rescued and turned over to local animal shelters. Utility repair crews were assisted with transportation of personnel and repair parts. Disaster Response Units (DRU) were formed from active duty and reserve units throughout the Second Coast Guard District and consisted of eight members equipped with three 16-foot flood punts powered by 25 HP outboard motors. The DRU's accounted for 1517 boat sorties and 3342 hours of underway operations. Coast Guard helicopters from CG Air Stations in Traverse City and Detroit, MI; Chicago, IL; Elizabeth City, NC; and Mobile, AL provided search and rescue, logistical support and aerial survey intelligence. The Coast Guard Auxiliary provided three fixed wing aircraft. There were 473 aircraft sorties with 570 hours of aircraft operations. CG Forces St. Louis stood down from the alert phase of operations on 27 August. A total of 380 Active Duty, 352 Reserve, 179 Auxiliary, and 5 Coast Guard Civilians were involved in the operation.
In 1994, about 38,000 Cubans attempted to sail from Cuba to Florida, many on homemade rafts. The Coast Guard and Navy performed intensive search and rescue efforts to rescue rafters at sea. Sixteen 110-foot (34 m) cutters—half the complement of the Coast Guard—were involved in this operation, as well as buoy tenders not normally assigned to high seas duty. Due to a change in Presidential policy, rescued Cubans were sent to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In the summer of 1999, USCGC Bear (WMEC-901) deployed to the Adriatic Sea in support of Operation Allied Force and Operation Noble Anvilwithin the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) Battle Group providing surface surveillance and SAR response for the Sea Combat Commander, and force protection for the Amphibious Ready Group operating near Albania. The "bear" also provided U.S. Army vessel's transporting military cargo between Italy and Albania. This escort operation took Bear up to the Albanian coastline, well within enemy surface to surface missile range.Bear earned the Kosovo Campaign Medal,and the NATO Kosovo Medal.
In September 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rejected the proposal to transfer all military responsibilities of the Coast Guard to the Navy and assigning the Coast Guard purely homeland security responsibilities. In 2002, the Coast Guard sent several 110-foot (34 m) cutters to the Persian Gulf to enforce the U.N. embargo on goods to and from Iraq. Port Security Units and Naval Coastal Warfare units also accompanied the U.S. military buildup.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Coast Guard had deployed its largest contingent of Coast Guardsmen and assets overseas since the Vietnam War, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Coast Guard Cutters primarily assisted in force protection and search and seizures of suspected smugglers close to the Iraq-Iran border. The Coast Guard also sent the Port Advisory Coordination Element to Iraq in order for the Government of Iraq to maintain compliance with international Shipping and Port Facility Security standards and requirements.USCGC Walnut (WLB-205) inspected the poor condition and position of navigational aids, such as buoys, and then replaced or corrected the aids to navigation in order to allow for the safe navigation of the Khor Abd Allah River flowing up to Umm Qasr for military, humanitarian and commercial vessels.
On 24 April 2004, Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan B. Bruckenthal, 24, from the USS Firebolt (PC-10), became the first Coast Guardsman to die in combat since the Vietnam War. He was killed in a suicide boat attack on a Basra oil terminal off the coast of Iraq. With his death, all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces had seen at least one death in that war. At the height of the conflict, the Coast Guard deployed over 1,200 men and women,including about 500 reservists, 11 ships(two large cutters, a buoy tender, eight patrol boats) 4 port-security units, a law enforcement detachments and support staff to the Central (CENTCOM) and European (EUCOM) Command to the theater to conduct maritime interception operations and coastal security patrols in Iraq and Kuwait.
During Operation New Dawn, Coast Guard Reserve units have deployed to the Middle East. The Coast Guard is charged with providing harbor defense and security to ports, seaward approaches, and waterways within U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility and ensuring the free flow of personnel, equipment and commerce in the region.
During Operation Enduring Freedom, The Coast Guard provided Redeployment Assistance and Inspection Detachment(RAID) units. The RAID units assisted U.S. Army and Marine units with the proper declaration, classification, labeling and packaging of container shipments as well as the inspection of containers for structural integrity to ensure each one is seaworthy to cut down on potential shipping problems.In addition, the Coast Guard provided multiple men and women as a part of intelligence and cyber detachments across Afghanistan. These are the most forward deployed Coast Guard units and individuals in a combat zone.
After Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the Coast Guard dispatched a number of helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, small boats, and Auxiliary aircraft as well as 25 cutters to the Gulf Coast, rescuing 2,000 people in two days, and around 33,500 people in all. The crews also assessed storm damage to offshore oil platforms and refineries. More than 2,400 personnel from all districts conducted search, rescue, response, waterway reconstitution and environmental impact assessment operations. In total, the Coast Guard air and boat rescued more than 33,500 people and assisted with the joint-agency evacuation of an additional 9,400 patients and medical personnel from hospitals in the Gulf coast region.
In May 2006, at the Change of Command ceremony when Admiral Thad Allen took over as Commandant, President George W. Bush awarded the entire Coast Guard, including the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Presidential Unit Citation for its efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
On 29 October 2009 Coast Guard HC-130 aircraft No. 1705 with seven crewmembers, based at McClellan Air Park in Sacramento, collided with a United States Marine Corps (USMC) AH-1 Cobra helicopter with two crewmembers 15 miles (24 km) east of San Clemente Island. Both aircraft crashed into the ocean and all nine crewmembers in both aircraft are believed to have perished. The C-130 was searching for a missing boater while the USMC aircraft was heading towards a military training area in company with another Cobra and two CH-53 Sea Stallions from Miramar Naval Air Station. An investigation found no one directly responsible for the crash.
A U.S. Coast Guard MH-65C Dolphin helicopter with 4 crew members on board crashed 28 Feb 2012 into Mobile Bay, Alabama.
Due to Budget sequestration in 2013, the USCG's ability to interdict drug shipments to the United States has been made more difficult due to a lack of resources, and interdictions are down 30 percent, while untracked shipments have increased. United States Southern Command's traditional support for the drug mission was cut back at the same time with no USN warships assigned to the theater.
The Integrated Deepwater System Program is designed to meet future threats to the U.S. from the sea. Although the program involves obtaining new ships and aircraft, Deepwater also involves upgraded information technology for command, control, communications and computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR).
A key part of the Deepwater system is the Maritime Security Cutter, Large (WMSL), which is designed to replace the 378-foot (115 m) high-endurance cutters currently on duty. This ship will have a length of 421 feet (128 m), be powered by a gas turbine engine with two auxiliary diesel engines, and be capable of 12,000 nautical mile (22,000 km) voyages lasting up to 60 days. The keel laying of the USCGC Bertholf (WMSL-750), the first ship in this class, took place in September 2004. The ship was delivered in 2008. The second keel, USCGC Waesche (WMSL-751), was laid in 2005.
Another key vessel is the Maritime Security Cutter, Medium (WMSM), which will be 341 ft (104 m) long, displace 2,921 long tons (2,968 metric tons), and be capable of 45-day patrols of up to 9,000 nautical miles (17,000 km). Both the WMSL and the WMSM cutters will be able to carry two helicopters or four VTOL Unmanned Air Vehicles (VUAVs), or a combination of these.
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