United States Coast Guard

The Coast Guard began its existence when the United States Revenue Cutter Service was established by Alexander Hamilton under the Department of the Treasury on August 4, 1770.  It was founded as a naval force to collect tariffs and to protect shipping from piracy.  The Coast Guard lays claim to the fact that they are the United States’ oldest continuous seagoing service since there was no official United States Navy from 1783 until 1794.  The cutters of the Revenue Cutter Service were the predecessor of the US Coast Guard and they were the only warships protecting the coast, trade and maritime interests of the new republic at that time.

The history of the United States Coast Guard is probably the most complicated of any of the five military services.  It is a consolidation of five different federal agencies which finally culminated in the creation of what may be considered the actual beginning of the modern Coast Guard in 1915.  That is when the Revenue Cutter Service merged with the United States Lifesaving Service and Congress formalized the existence of the new organization.  Prior to that time the Coast Guard was a blend of five federal agencies:  The Revenue Cutter Service, the Lighthouse Service, the Steamboat Inspection Service, the Bureau of Navigation and the Lifesaving Service.  Remnants of each one of these groups are still Coast Guard responsibilities and missions.  The one that most people are familiar with is Search and Rescue (SAR).  The multiple missions and responsibilities under the umbrella of the Coast Guard are directly tied to this diverse heritage.

Along with their primary duties, the Coast Guard has participated in all of the United States’ military conflicts acting under the Navy.   During the War of 1812, augmenting the Navy with shallow-draft craft became a one of the Coast Guard’s primary wartime missions.  In the Civil War, the principal wartime duties of Union cutters were patrolling for commerce raiders and providing fire support for troops ashore.  The Confederate cutters were principally used as commerce raiders.  In 1939, the Coast Guard moved from its original home in the Department of Treasury to the newly formed Department of Transportation.  The Coast Guard operates under the Department of War or its current counterpart, the Department of Defense, as a service in the Department of the Navy during wartime.  In times of war, military and combat units within the Coast Guard will operate under the Navy or joint operational control while other Coast Guard units will remain under the Department of Homeland Security.  Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it was placed under the Department of Homeland Security in order to more efficiently protect American interests.

Upon the United States entrance into WWII all officers, enlisted personnel, vessels and units, were transferred to the operational control of the Navy Department.  Two hundred and thirty thousand men and ten thousand women served in the Coast Guard during World War II and of that number one thousand eighteen gave their life in action.  The Coast Guard provided communications and meteorological services plus assured port security and proper ammunition handling during Korea.  Once again in Vietnam the Coast Guard provided much needed shallow water craft for inshore operations.  At the height of the military buildup more than 300 merchant ships were engaged in the sealift of material to Vietnam.  The Coast Guard Merchant Marine Detail resolved merchant seaman problems and ensured that these ships moved in and out with as little delay as possible.   

Since most military services are at war or preparing for war, the Coast Guard is deployed everyday performing their roles in maritime homeland security, maritime law enforcement (MLE), search and rescue (SAR), marine environmental protection (MEP) and the maintenance of river, intercoastal and offshore aids to navigation (ATON).

This diversity of operations along with a smaller and decentralized organization which is able to place much responsibility on junior personnel, gives the Coast Guard an edge in response time to the other military services.  This ability was demonstrated in its rapid response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and other  emergencies.

The Coast Guard carries out all its missions with 42,426 active duty members and 7,693 reservists.  This makes the Coast Guard the smallest of the five military services.