Many Americans think the U.S. Coast Guard’s mission is to guard the coast. True, it does, but as one of the nation’s three maritime armed services – along with the Navy and Marine Corps – the Coast Guard has a role defending the nation, and does so far from home waters.
Key to maritime homeland security is the ability to learn about – and interdict – potential threats before they actually threaten U.S. lives, territory, or property. That involves collecting intelligence, knowing what is actionable, and then being able to swiftly and appropriately investigate or act upon that information.
Revenue cutters captured prizes during the Quasi-War with France, and augmented the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War. The Coast Guard distinguished itself with its wartime role and as part of the Navy in both the first and second World Wars, and has operated alongside the Navy in Vietnam, as well as serving in the Middle East today.
The Coast Guard enforced the neutrality laws until the United States declared war on Germany in World War I and the Coast Guard became part of the Navy. As an example, the CGCs Ossipee, Seneca, Yamacraw, Algonquin, Manning, and Tampa joined U.S. naval patrol forces of the Atlantic Fleet, operating from Gibraltar conducting convoy escorts and other assignments. The duty was dangerous. Tampa was sunk, presumably by a German U-boat, with the loss of 115 men, 111 of whom were Coast Guard personnel, and was the largest loss of life incurred by any U.S. naval unit during the war.
During World War II, Coast Guard crews manned many Navy surface combatants, troop transports, and amphibious ships, as well as more than 280 tankers, tugs, and logistics ships for the U.S. Army.
The Coast Guard crewed 30 destroyer escorts and 75 patrol frigates that escorted convoys across the Atlantic, and carried out other assignments. There are many examples of bravery and sacrifice. Dozens of landing ships and attack transports had Coast Guard personnel, and numerous Coast Guard-crewed landing craft bravely brought troops to the beaches of major amphibious operations from the Solomons to the Marianas, from Sicily to Normandy.
One such hero was Douglas A. Munro, a signalman first class and the petty officer in charge of a group of 24 Higgins boats engaged in the evacuation of three companies from the 7th Marines that had become trapped by Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, in September 1942. Munro planned and led the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered Marines while under constant fire by enemy machine guns on the island. He used his boat to protect the others, drawing fire from the Japanese while the evacuation took place. Munro was killed by enemy fire, but his crew fought on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. Munro became the only Coast Guardsman who has been awarded the Medal of Honor in the 224-year history of the service.
A number of Coast Guard-manned ships and landing craft served during the Normandy invasion in June 1944. The Coast Guard-manned troop ship USS Samuel Chase (APA 26) landed the U.S. Army’ 1st Infantry Division at Omaha Beach, and the Coast Guard-manned command ship USS Bayfield (APA 33) operated at Utah Beach; they are just two examples. A flotilla of 60 wooden WPB 83-foot cutters patrolled the waters off the Normandy beaches during the D-Day landings. These combat search and rescue boats saved 400 Allied airmen and sailors.
Many Coast Guard cutters were involved in rescue operations following German attacks on American shipping. The service’s cutters fought German U-boats and rescued many survivors of Nazi submarine attacks. The CGC Icarus, a veteran rumrunner chaser during Prohibition, sank the German U-boat U-352 on May 9, 1942, near Charleston, South Carolina, and took 33 prisoners, the first Germans taken prisoner in combat by any U.S. force. In fact, Coast Guard units were responsible for the sinking of a dozen German and two Japanese submarines during World War II, as well as the capture of two German surface vessels. One of those ships sunk, U-606, was actually rammed and sunk by the CGC Campbell. The Coast Guard was in the Battle of the Atlantic to the end. Just days before the German surrender in 1945, the Coast Guard-manned USS Moberly (PF 63), a Tacoma-class frigate, took part in a coordinated attack that sank German submarine U-853.