The April 2021 decommissioning of USCGC Douglas Munro (WHEC 724) at Coast Guard Station Kodiak, Alaska, marked more than the end of nearly 50 years of service for the 378-foot Hamilton-class high-endurance cutter.
“Today we say thank you and goodbye to the end of an era – an era of nearly 50 years when high-endurance cutters took our service’s racing stripe around the globe, modeling the maritime rules-based order,” said Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz at the Douglas Munro’s decommissioning ceremony.
The retirement signified the end of U.S. Coast Guard service for one of the most successful classes of cutters ever built.
The original objective was a fleet of 36 of the 378s, but eventually just 12 of the cutters were built, entering service between 1967 and 1972. All of the Hamilton-class cutters were constructed at the Avondale Shipyard in Westwego, Louisiana. With the exception of the icebreakers, they were the largest ships in the Coast Guard fleet, and were able to deploy for extended patrols, or operate as part of Navy Carrier Strike Groups.
While similarly sized Navy surface combatants were still built with steam propulsion, the Hamilton class had a revolutionary combined diesel or gas turbine (CODOG) powerplant, with two diesel engines and two gas turbines. They could cruise at 20 knots for 12,000 miles on the Fairbanks Morse diesels, and kick it up to 29 knots on the Pratt & Whitney turbines. They also had state-of-the-art controllable pitch propellers and a retractable 360-degree rotating bow propulsion unit.
Another dramatic comparison with Navy ships was that the Hamilton-class cutters had big windows on the mess decks.
Like their Navy counterparts, the Hamilton class were originally armed with a 5-inch/38-caliber gun and Mk-56 gunfire control system and anti-submarine torpedo launchers. But they had oceanographic research capabilities that Navy ships didn’t have, like a wet and dry laboratory, winches for bathythermograph sensors, and a weather balloon shelter and aerological office.
The Hamiltons received a major mid-life Fleet Renovation and Modernization (FRAM) Program overhaul during the late 1980s and early 1990s to update the combat systems – including replacing the aging 5-inch gun with a 76mm weapon – as well as hull, mechanical, and electrical system. Eventually, however, the anti-submarine warfare capabilities would be removed.
With their range, endurance, and seakeeping abilities, the 378s were used extensively for fisheries patrol.
The first of them was decommissioned in 2011. They have now been replaced by the 418-foot national security cutters.
That the Coast Guard was able to keep these ships mission-relevant for so many years after their expected retirement dates is a testament to their crews and to the maintenance, repair, and sustainment teams. As old as they were upon decommissioning, they have been refurbished yet again and made available to other nations to serve in their navies and coast guards.
All have been or will be transferred to serve in the navies or coast guards of the Philippines, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and potentially Bahrain for years to come.