By Chris Lange, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
As America’s oldest continuous seagoing service, established to enforce the maritime laws of the newly founded nation, the U.S. Coast Guard celebrates its birthday every August 4th! You might think the U.S. Navy is the oldest, but we’re actually not. Interesting fact: Although the Continental Navy was established before the Coast Guard, the Navy was disbanded following the end of the Revolutionary War. So, the Coast Guard has actually been around longer—key word being “continuously!”
On Aug. 4, 1790, President George Washington signed the Tariff Act, which, at the request of then Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, authorized the construction of ten vessels to enforce federal tariff and trade laws. These vessels were referred to as “cutters.”
For more than 100 years, this service, subordinate to the Treasury Department, was known by several names: “The System of Cutters,” “The Revenue Service,” and “Revenue-Marine.” In 1863, it was renamed The “Revenue Cutter Service.” On Jan. 28, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that merged the Revenue Cutter Service with the Life-Saving Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard was born.
Until 1798, when the Department of the Navy was permanently established, the Coast Guard was the nation’s only armed force afloat. From World War I to modern times, the Navy and Coast Guard have shared a unique relationship and have worked closely together to ensure the prosperity, safety, and freedom of Americans at home and abroad.
In 1967, the Coast Guard was transferred to the Department of Transportation, and, in 2003, it was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security, where the modern-day force currently resides. However, by direction of the President, the Coast Guard can operate under the Department of the Navy during wartime operations.
A significant example of the Coast Guard operating under the Department of the Navy was in 1917, when Congress declared war on Germany. On April 6, 1917, the code words “Plan One, Acknowledge” were passed to Coast Guard cutters, units, and bases from the U.S. Navy’s communications center in Arlington, Va., marking the American entrance into World War I.
During World War I, the efforts of the nearly 9,000 Coast Guard men and women were invaluable. Among those who served, several emerged as heroes. Two Distinguished Service Medals, eight Gold Life-Saving Medals, and nearly 50 Navy Cross medals were awarded to members of the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard and Navy would serve together again in September 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the U.S. neutrality in World War II, and in doing so, ordered the Navy, with help from the Coast Guard, to establish neutrality patrols to ensure safe passage of vessels in the Atlantic.
When the U.S. declared war on Germany, the Coast Guard grew to record numbers while assisting in both combat and traditional roles. Some of these were of search and rescue, convoy escort duty, and amphibious operations.
During the World War II Guadalcanal offensive, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Dwight Hodge Dexter commanded Naval Observation Base “Cactus,” the U.S. Navy base on Guadalcanal. He became the first Coast Guard member to take command of a naval base and was awarded the Silver Star by the Navy for his service.
In 1965, at the request of the Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze, the Coast Guard assisted the Navy with interdiction action against the Vietcong. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Coast Guard would go on to provide some 8,000 of its Coast Guardsmen and many vessels to augment the U.S. naval forces in the riverine and coastal waters of Vietnam.
Since Vietnam, the Coast Guard and Navy have worked closely together on a multitude of operations. From the Global War on Terror to drug interdiction in the Americas, the Coast Guard continues to be an extraordinary sea-service partner in operations around the globe.
For 228 years, the Coast Guard has been tasked with protecting waterways, saving lives, and enforcing laws in the United States and abroad. A very “Happy Birthday” to the Coast Guardsmen who make up the backbone of the proud legacy of work the U.S. Coast Guard has done and continues to do!
Noted above are just a few of the examples of the Navy and Coast Guard team working together to accomplish a common goal. If you have any stories, leave us a comment, we’d love to hear them!