By Joseph T. Ponti
The events of September 11, 2001 truly changed the world. After that horrible day many measures were taken to better protect the United States. A key activity was the U.S. Congress authorizing the formation of the Department of Homeland Security on February 25, 2003. A central element of this major reorganization move was the incorporation of the United States Coast Guard as a major component of the new department.
As far as the U.S. Coast Guard was concerned it was indeed a revolutionary move, and called for rapid mobilization. Adaptive behavior by all its personnel was essential to carry out a fast and efficient transition. Never more were the core values of the Coast Guard called into play. The core values of HONOR, RESPECT, and DEVOTION TO DUTY became the driving force in reshaping the Coast Guard to fit its new mission.
The value HONOR resonates from the basis of absolute integrity captured in the words: “We do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do at all times.” The value RESPECT amplifies the dignity and value of the people that are served, and finally the value DEVOTION TO DUTY heralds the Coast Guard’s loyalty and accountability to the public trust that makes possible the dedication to the five elements of the Coast Guard’s mission.
The five areas encompassed within the Coast Guard’s mission are:
PROTECTION OF NATURAL RESOURCES
These areas expand into the five major roles namely:
MARITIME HOMELAND SECURITY
MARITIME LAW ENFORCEMENT
SEARCH & RESCUE
MARITIME ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
MAINTENANCE OF RIVER, INTERNATIONAL and OFFSHORE AIDS TO NAVIGATION
In addition eleven specific statutory roles must be stated in order to complete the scope of responsibility picture. They encompass the following:
PORTS, WATERWAYS and COASTAL SECURITY
COUNTER DRUG LAW ENFORCEMENT
3. MIGRANT INTERDICTION
4. OTHER LAW ENFORCEMENT (foreign fisheries)
5. LIVING MARINE RESOURCES (domestic fisheries)
6. MARINE (maritime) SAFETY
7. MARINE (maritime) ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
8. ICE OPERSTIONS
9. AIDS TO NAVIGATION
10. DEFENCE READINESS
11. MARINE (maritime) ENVIRONMENTAL RESPONSE
With such a formidable assignment one could readily suspect that somehow the Coast Guard has been over committed and could not possibly deliver quality services when and where they are called for. However, one need only look at the Coast Guard’s rich history over the centuries to understand that they certainly could, and would live up to their motto “Semper Paratus” (Always Prepared) without fail. And yet it begs the question of how one Service could develop the depth, character and flexibility to carry out such an expansive assignment
To best answer this question calls for delving into the past to see how the Coast Guard’s capabilities were shaped, grown and evolved over the years. Today’s Coast Guard is made up of a number of diverse organizations that synergistically contribute to making the whole greater that the sum of its parts. One might draw an analogy to the formation of metals and alloys.
It is a known fact that the compounding of metals imparts superior characteristics to the end product. Think of what copper would be without tin or zinc, or steel without carbon or molybdenum. And so it is with the U.S. Coast Guard with a history that closely parallels the creation of metallic alloys. Each component added over the years giving it enhanced strength and flexibility.
Starting in 1790, the vision of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton resulted in Congress authorizing the creation of the Revenue Cutter Marine Service. As an arm of the U.S. Treasury department its original mission was to protect the revenue of the new nation by deterring smugglers and enforcing the customs and smuggling laws. August 4, 1790 saw the birth of the Revenue Cutter Marine Service, making it America’s oldest maritime service.
A year earlier on August 9, 1789 the fledgling U.S. Congress enacted its 9th official piece of legislation by the creation of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Set on a parallel course of service, the USLHS spanned 150 years of independent operation before being amalgamated into the service we know today as the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves in the telling of this story and first take a closer look at the Revenue Marine.
The vastness of the North American continent and its thousands of miles of shoreline posed an enormous challenge for the newly created U.S. Revenue Cutter Marine Service in the last decade of the 18th century. Certainly the prayer: “Oh God thy sea is so great and my boat so small” set the tone for the operational environment of this new maritime service.
By way of background, smuggling was widely tolerated in colonial America because it undermined the much hated tariffs imposed by England. Even such noted persons like John Hancock played a hand in this activity. However once the new republic became dependent of the tariffs it levied on imports something had to be done to curtail the common place practice of smuggling.
When the tariff act of 1789 failed to bring in the anticipated revenue, Secretary Hamilton proposed “a system of revenue cutters to deter smuggling”. Thus came into being the new Service with the deployment of ten cutters being ordered by the government. The largest cutter being the two mast schooner MASSACHUSETTS launched in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1791. Secretary Hamilton’s advice to the captains of the new service was “to patrol with vigilance and firmness, marked with prudence, moderation and good temper”. (Somehow these words even ring true today.)
Besides their regular anti-smuggling patrols the new service saw engagements during the quasi-war with France (1798-1801) with the Revenue Marine fighting along side the U.S. Navy. In 1797, with British and French privateers harassing American vessels on the high seas, congress authorized President Adams to use the cutters as a separate system of defense. The following year congress ordered the Revenue Cutter Service to cooperate with the newly formed U.S. Navy in times of war or when so directed by the president. This mandate is still in force today.
As early as 1794 the Revenue Cutter Service began intercepting slave ships. In 1807 the Revenue Cutters were assigned to enforce the very unpopular Embargo Act of 1807 which outlawed nearly all European trade through American ports. With much relief the act was repealed later in 1807.
During the War of 1812 the Revenue Cutter Service was placed under the command of the U.S. Navy and saw considerable action for its duration. With the advent of peace the Cutters resumed their regular duties which were expanded to include protection of American shipping from pirates and the intercepting of slave runners.
In 1832 Secretary of the Treasury Louis McClain issued an order for the Revenue Cutter Service to conduct winter cruises to assist mariners in need. Congress made this practice an official part of regulations in 1837. Thus began the life saving mission that the U.S. Coast Guard would be best known worldwide.
The Mexican-America War (1846-48) again saw the Revenue Cutters placed under the command of the U.S. Navy where their deployment was crucial for shallow water amphibious operation.
On April 11, 1861 the Revenue Cutter HARRIET LANE fired the first shots of the maritime conflict in the American Civil War by firing across the bow of the Confederate Steamer, NASHVILLE as she tried to enter Charleston harbor during the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Revenue Cutters served under the command of the U.S. Navy for the duration of the conflict.
Although the Revenue Marine was first envisioned as a force of waterborne tax collectors, the ability to conduct many different divergent missions, some simultaneously, became the hallmark of the service. In all cases where they were employed, before and during the Civil War, the revenue cutter captains and their crews proved their versatility and utility to the nation, and by their example laid the groundwork for the eventual incorporation of the Revenue Cutter service, the Lighthouse Service, the Lifesaving Service, and the Steamship Inspection Bureau into the United States Coast Guard.
The Revenue Cutters saw yet a further expansion of their duties when in 1867 the United States purchased Alaska and began their assignment patrolling for smugglers, making surveys, locating fishing banks and collecting specimens for the Smithsonian Institute.
On June 18, 1878 at the end of the Civil War Reconstruction period Congress passed the POSSE COMITATUS ACT with the intention of severely limiting the powers of the Federal Government to use the military for law enforcement. The law specifically prohibits most members of the Federal uniformed services from exercising nominally state law enforcement activities, as well as police or peace officer powers that maintain law and order on non-federal property. The statute generally prohibits military units and units of the state national guard under federal authority from acting in a law enforcement capacity within the United States except where expressly authorized by the constitution or congress. It should be noted that THE REVENUE CUTTER SERVICE (and today the U.S. Coast Guard) WAS EXEMPT FROM THE ACT.
The story of the Coast Guard’s evolution is not complete without including a brief history of the United States Lighthouse Service (USLHS), a service whose founding predates the creation of the Revenue Cutter Service by a year.
At the end of the American Revolution 12 colonial era lighthouses remained in the hands of the individual states during the period of confederation with additional lighthouses being erected as the needs arose. On August 9, 1789 President Washington signed into law the 9th act of the U.S. Congress which provided that the individual states turn over control and operation of all existing lighthouses to the federal government. The Secretary of the Treasury assumed responsibility of all aids to navigation with the creation of the USLHS.
The growth of this new service kept pace with the growth of the new nation so that by 1822 70 light houses were in operation. Twenty years later the number increased to 256 and by 1852 the number rose to 331 with 42 light ships also in service.
One name stands out during the early days of the service and that was Steven Pleasonton who held the position of Commissioner the USLHS from 1820 to 1852. His tenure in office was characterized by the fact that once he adopted a way of operation or a new technology, he resisted changes or innovation. For example when the French scientist Augustine Fresnel invented a new lens in 1822 which proved to be significantly superior to the Argand lamp used in American Lighthouses, Pleasonton resisted testing the new lens until forced to do so by Congress. They had been bombarded by numerous mariner’s complaints on the inferiority of American Light houses.
Even after highly successful tests the new Fresnel lens was not adopted in this country until the administration of aids to navigation was taken out of his hands and assigned to the newly created Lighthouse Board in 1852. With the approval of Congress, the Board moved swiftly to apply the new technology and by 1861 all lighthouses had been upgraded. More importantly the board was constantly taking advantage of new technologies which were applied as soon as they were proven in.
The Board prescribed uniform color schemes for buoys, ranges and day markers and the buoy system was standardized throughout the United States. The Board also struggled to eliminate politics from its activities and slowly the USLHS became a professional career agency. This was greatly helped by the Civil Reform Acts of 1871 and 1873.
During its 58 years of operation the U.S. Lighthouse Board accomplished all it set out to do and by 1910 there were nearly 12,000 aids to navigation in the United States. However, over time, the administration of the Board had become cumbersome and
Congress, wanting to give a more civilian character to the operation, abolished the Light- house Board and created the Bureau of Lighthouses in 1910 under the Secretary of Commerce. The legislation authorizing this referred to the Bureau as the US Lighthouse Service (USLHS).
By the advent of WW I there were nearly 24,000 aids to navigation in place and rapid advances in technology like radio beacons, automated lights, automatic bulb changers, photo-electric alarms and improved batteries were adopted.
In 1939 the USLHS was incorporated into the U.S. Coast Guard but that’s yet another story we don’t want to get ahead of before relating the stories of two other government entities that ultimately made up the amalgam that we call the U.S. Coast Guard today.
The first that will be discussed is the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service. On August 14, 1807 Robert Fulton first demonstrated the practicality of using a steam engine to propel the CLERMONT on the Hudson River in New York. The years that followed saw unprecedented growth in the application of this new technology and with it a series of disasters that congress could not ignore. The safety inspection of U.S. flagged steam powered vessels had been authorized by congress via a series of relatively weak laws. Congress hesitated to pass adequate safety legislation for fear of interfering with the growing steamboat industry which played a big part in the country’s economic growth and development. On July 7, 1838 congress passed a law “to provide better security of the lives of passengers on board vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam”. This legislation again proved inadequate as steamboat disasters increased in volume and severity.
Numerous disasters in the 1847-52 timeframe precipitated the passage of the Steamboat Act on May 30, 1852 in which enforcement powers were placed under the Treasury Department. Under this law a new form of federal maritime inspection began to emerge. Although the legislation proved effective to a degree, even more severe disaster and loss of life prompted the passage of the Act of February 25, 1871 and the formal creation of the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service. This new sweeping legislation proved most effective.
In parallel with this activity the Bureau of Navigation an agency of the U.S. Government was established in 1884 to enforce laws relating to the construction, equipping, operation, inspection, safety, and documentation of U.S. Merchant vessels. The Bureau also investigated marine accidents and casualties; collected tonnage taxes and other navigation fees; and examined certified and licensed merchant-vessel sailors.
When first established the Bureau was a part of the Department of the Treasury. In 1903 the organization was transferred to the newly-formed Department of Commerce and Labor. In 1913 that department was split in two and the Bureau was assigned to the Commerce Department. In 1932 it was combined with the Steamboat Inspection Service as the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection.
The Motorboat Act of 1940 was enacted to cover safety requirements for every vessel propelled by machinery a not more that 65-feet in length. In addition to covering safety equipment, running lights, and reckless or negligent operation, this law gave the Bureau of Marine Inspection and navigation the authority to examine the operators of these boats and issue licenses provided they carried passengers for hire.
On February 28, 1942, Executive Order 9083 transferred many functions to two other agencies. Merchant-vessel documentation was transferred to the Bureau of Customs. Functions relating to merchant-vessel inspection, safety of life at sea, and merchant-vessel personnel were transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard.
This transfer was made permanent by the Reorganization Plan #3 on July 16, 1946. The Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection was finally abolished as unnecessary and redundant with all functions being absorbed by the Bureau of Customs and the Coast Guard. This marked the first time in the nation’s history that all functions of maritime safety came under one agency the U.S. Coast Guard.
Returning to the 19th century, one final link in the chain we today call the U.S. Coast Guard must be reviewed. That link is the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS).
August 14, 1848 marked the formal entrance of the federal government’s involvement in the life-saving business with the signing of the Newell Act in which congress established un-manned life saving stations along the New Jersey coast. That same year the Massachusetts Humane Society also received funds from congress for life-saving stations alone the Massachusetts Coast. Between 1848 and 1854 other stations were built and loosely managed. The stations were administered by the Revenue Cutter service and run by volunteer crews much like a volunteer fire department.
Still not recognized as an official service, the system of stations languished until 1871 when congress finally appropriated funds to operate the stations and allow the Secretary of the Treasury to employ full-time crews. In 1874 stations were added along the Coast of Maine, Cape Cod, The Outer Banks of North Carolina and Port Aransas, Texas.
In 1878 the network of life-saving stations was formally organized as a separate agency of the Treasury Department called the U.S. Life Saving Service and included stations on the Great Lakes. By 1900 most stations were being manned year around and their exploits were clearly imbedded into the coastal culture of the United States. By 1915 there were 270 stations covering the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes coasts. During its life the USLSS was responsible in aiding over 178,000 people in peril on the water. The motto of this service is “you have to go out but you don’t have to come back”.
On January 28, 1915 President Wilson signed the “Act to Create the U.S. Coast Guard” merging the Life-Saving Service with the Revenue Cutter Service. During WW I the Coast Guard was again made part of the Navy for the duration of the war.
The US Lighthouse Service remained a separate entity until May 9, 1939. President Roosevelt announced a sweeping reorganization plan under which the Bureau of Lighthouses would be transferred from the Department of Commerce to the Department of Treasury for consolidation within the U.S. Coast Guard. With the approval of congress, it became official on July 1, 1939. The transfer meant that the civilian USLHS employees would be moved into a military organization. Lighthouse personnel were given the option of being brought into the Coast Guard or remain as civilians and retire immediately. About half of the personnel chose the military Coast Guard route. The merger netted a savings of almost 10% of the annual USLHS budget.
On the surface, this had the appearance of being a routine administrative procedure. In reality it wasn’t. With the events taking place in Europe Roosevelt had felt hamstrung. He was anxious to put the country on a war time footing and, at the same time, help England. The Neutrality Acts governed the president official position and funding was totally lacking to carry out any measures that could strengthen America’s position. Very quietly the president reallocated a large piece of the Lighthouse Service’s budget to strengthen the Coast Guard. In addition the USLHS had a fleet of 64 buoy tenders which now became Coast Guard Cutters and were subsequently armed. The large (many considered it bloated) budget of the USLHS gave Roosevelt considerable running room to spend monies and bridge the gap until Lend Lease became a reality in 1941.
During WW II the Coast Guard was once again assigned to serve under the U.S. Navy. Its exploits are legend and are documented in numerous histories. An extensive system of weather stations was established by the Coast Guard during the war serving both the Atlantic and Pacific areas of operation. These Ocean Stations continued to be manned and operated by Coast Guard ships through the 1970’s. During this post war period the Coast Guard also took on an expanded oceanographic role, equipping their high endurance cutters with oceanographic labs and extensive deep water sampling equipment.
One of the many war-related jobs of the Coast Guard was to guard the shore line of the country. With the help of volunteers and career Coast Guard personnel, the Beach Patrol was formed. Its mission was to patrol the shore, guarding against enemy incursion, and rescuing victims of submarine warfare. The Coast Guard also organized and operated extensive Captain of the Port activities to safeguard the extensive war time logistical activities that were carried out in our nation’s ports.
During WW II the Coast Guard continued to develop and introduce new technologies. Both short range navigational aids (SHORAN) and long range navigational aids (LORAN) were installed in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Large navigational buoys (LNB) began replacing lightships in the 1970’s and by 1990 all lighthouses had been automated.
In 1964 a new graphics design utilizing a blue, white and orange stripe with the CG logo was proposed. In 1967 the Coast Guard “Racing Stripe” was first used on the hulls of vessels. Today all CG craft display the very distinctive racing stripe.
For almost 200 years the Coast Guard was part of the Treasury Department. On April 1, 1967 it was transferred to the Department of Transportation. In 2003 another major change took place when the Coast Guard was transferred to the newly created Department of Homeland Defense.
For the past 60 years the U.S. Coast Guard has worked in many instances as a stand alone military force, working in partnership all of the other US and allied armed forces on many military missions throughout the world. Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq and other theaters of operation have seen extensive use of Coast Guard assets. This level of active participation has made for a seamless transition to Homeland Security. The amalgam of traditions and expertise acquired over the years have given today’s Coast Guard the strength and flexibility needed to adapt to our country’s changing needs. Understanding the origins and evolution of the Coast Guard provides a sense of confidence in its ability to carry out its expanded mission and to meet any challenge it confronts.
About the author:
Joe “Chang” Ponti graduated from the US Coast Guard Academy with the class of 1961. He reported to the USCGC Casco (WAVP-370) in July 1961 where for the next 41 months he served as ASW officer,Communications Officer,Operations Officer,Navigator,Student Engineer and Asst. Engineering Officer over the years stationed on board. Following a tour of duty as a Merchant Marine Inspector he resigned his commission and embarked on a 35 year management career with AT&T and Lucent Technologies. He recently retired and lives with his wife in Andover ,MA where he is very active as a free lance writer and as a volunteer in his community.