From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
While most of the nation was adamant about keeping the United States out of what was developing into World War II during the early years of 1939-40, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and members of his cabinet were probably all-too aware it was just a matter of time before the country would be pulled into another war in Europe.
And so it was during a series of moves on Roosevelt’s part from 1939 to just a month before Pearl Harbor that he quietly orchestrated getting the country ready for war.
One of those moves was Nov. 1, 1941, when Roosevelt placed the Coast Guard under the Department of Navy. The announcement was made the day after USS Reuben James (DD 245) became the first ship lost to enemy action in World War II when it was sunk by a German U-boat torpedo, killing 115 of her crew.
Roosevelt was already using the Coast Guard for enforcement of the Neutrality Act as far east as Greenland. The country was operating under an “unlimited national emergency” when the Coast Guard cutter Northland (PG 49) seized the Norwegian trawler Buskoe en route to establish German radio weather stations in Greenland. It was the first U.S. seizure of a ship since the War of 1812.
At the time of the Nov. 1 announcement, the Coast Guard brought 613 officers, 764 warrant officers, 17,450 enlisted, 199 Cadets and 525 ships.
At the height of World War II, the Coast Guard had 170,000 in the fight, including 1,000 officers and 10,000 female SPARS, with 3,395 vessels.
It wasn’t the first time, and certainly wasn’t be the last, that the Coast Guard has worked side-by-side with her sister service. In fact, they have done so in every conflict since during every conflict since the ratification of the Constitution.
But this time it was different. During World War I, the Coast Guard was integrated within the Navy Department, but Coasties were often mixed in with Navy crews. During World War II, however, the Coast Guard remained its own separate force, similar to how the Marines operate under the Department of the Navy, according to historian Chris Havern of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Historian’s Office Office .
“The biggest difference was the organization and the manner in which the transition was conducted,” Havern explained.
“Late in the war, when the Navy didn’t have the manpower to man some of their vessels, especially patrol frigates, those ships were commanded and manned by Coast Guard personnel,” Havern said. “They also manned Army and Navy transports and logistics vessels in both theaters of operations.”
The Coast Guard brought two very unique skill sets to the Navy: the handling of small boats and craft and the use of helicopters.
“Coast Guardsmen were primarily experienced in handling of small boats and craft, and that was generally not something the Navy did,” Havern said. “Coast Guard personnel participated in amphibious operations on both sides of the war. And when the Navy needed personnel trained in small boats, the Coast Guard became the cadre force that helped in the Navy’s training of landing craft coxswains.”
As the war went on, the Navy devoted more personnel to small boat operations.
“The Coast Guard was integral in disseminating that knowledge to those who would conduct those missions,” Havern said. “They also served in key capacities in planning amphibious missions in both Europe and the Pacific. Coast Guard vessels would be modified so they could become command vessels for amphibious operations in the Pacific.”
The Coast Guard’s value to the Navy during World War II wasn’t limited to the service’s boat skills. The Coasties, with search and rescue as one of its missions, also made an impact in naval aviation.
“One of the Coast Guard’s most significant contributions to the Navy during World War II was the introduction of the helicopter to naval aviation,” according to Hill Goodspeed, historian at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla. “It was Coast Guard personnel led by Coast Guard Cmdr. Frank Erickson who evaluated the HNS Hoverfly and conducted experiments in shipboard operations and the use of rotary-wing platforms for search and rescue. The foundation for helicopter operations today rests on the work of these wartime Coast Guardsmen.”
The responsibility of “seagoing development of the helicopter” was given to the Coast Guard by a directive from Adm. Ernest J. King, who at the time was serving as both Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet.
In January 1946, control of the Coast Guard reverted back to the Treasury Department until it became part of the Transportation Department in 1967. Nearly 242,000 Coast Guardsmen had served during the war, with 574 combat deaths, plus an additional 1,343 dying from non-combat-related causes (crashes, accidents, disease or drowning).
In 2003, the Coast Guard became a key component in the stand-up of the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security, created in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Coast Guardsmen participated in both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. A Coast Guardsman killed in action during OIF became the service’s first combat death since the seven lost during Vietnam.
The Coast Guard continues to adapt and evolve within the Department of Homeland Security. The service has 11 statutory missions that include port and waterways security, search and rescue, conduct of military operations, law enforcement, and environmental protection and response.
Havern said the Coast Guard is unique in that it is, by statute, one of the nation’s five armed services, but is outside the Department of Defense. The Coast Guard’s status as an armed service was part of the legislation that combined the Revenue cutter Service with the U.S. Life-Saving Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915.
He pointed out that Paul Yost, who later became Commandant of the Coast Guard, was the only Coast Guard officer to command a Navy unit during the Vietnam War. He was also instrumental in putting the Harpoon missiles anti-ship missile system onto Coast Guard vessels in the 1980s.
The partnership between the sister services continues today as Coasties and Sailors work together providing joint training with allies, maritime security at sea, counter transnational organized crime operations, as well as diving, salvage and rescue missions.
For additional information about naval history, please contact the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Communication and Outreach division at 202-433-7880 or via email at NHHCPublicAffairs@navy.mil