Probably the best-known maritime capture of the War of 1812 was executed on Oct. 4, 1813, by Vigilant, a 60-foot cutter with 17 crewmembers and 20 volunteers commanded by Capt. John Cahoone. Vigilant had set out that day specifically to pursue the notorious Dart, a privateer sloop that had terrorized Long Island Sound and captured at least 20 American vessels, and Cahoone wasted no time: He chased down the Dart and immediately fired upon it. At the same time, he ordered Vigilant to come alongside and sent an armed boarding party aboard the Dart, whose stunned crew fled below deck. The sloop and its crew were promptly captured.
“Vigilant,” said Thiesen, “was the last cutter we’re aware of that actually used boarding as a wartime tactic in the Age of Sail.”
Late 19th Century Cutters
The term “cutter,” originally referring to a “cutter-rigged” sailing vessel resembling early 18th century English revenue patrol vessels, came to refer to any Revenue Marine (later Coast Guard) vessel more than 65 feet in length with a permanently assigned crew. The Revenue Marine was an early adopter of steam, which came into its own during the Civil War. The service’s first operational steam-powered cutter, Harriet Lane, was transferred to the Navy in 1858, and fired the Civil War’s first shot from a naval vessel on April 11, 1861, when it put a round across the bow of a merchant steamer entering Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, during the siege of Fort Sumter.
One of the service’s most unusual cutters was the E.A. Stevens, better known as the Naugatuck, an experimental ironclad that was a contemporary of the more famous Monitor and Virginia. In 1861, with fire from its turret-mounted 100-pound Parrott rifle, Naugatuck’s commander, Lt. D.C. Constable, tried to lure the Confederate ironclad Virginia into a decisive battle with the Monitor in the open waters of Hampton Roads, but the Virginia didn’t take the bait. Naugatuck later steamed up the James River with the Monitor and other Union warships with the goal of capturing Richmond, Virginia; in the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff on May 15, 1862, its Parrott rifle exploded, but it continued firing its remaining guns until it was forced to withdraw along with the Union contingent.
As Thiesen has noted, the Civil War helped to further expand the operational capabilities of the Revenue Cutter Service; wartime cutters participated in or supported convoys, blockades, port security, coastal patrol, and shallow-water operations. The Civil War also transformed the service from a fleet of sailing vessels, many of them hand-me-downs, into a primarily steam-driven fleet. One of these steamers, built in 1874, remains the most celebrated cutter in Coast Guard history.
The Bear was built in Scotland as an ice-capable sealer for northern waters, and spent its first 10 years operating off Newfoundland. With an oak hull reinforced with 24-inch oak frames and sheathed in Australian ironbark, Bear was purchased by the Navy in 1884 for the purpose of leading the mission to rescue the survivors of the infamous Lady Franklin Bay Expedition in northern Greenland. Afterward, the Navy declared the Bear obsolete and transferred it to the Revenue Cutter Service, which dispatched it to help bring order to the bustling Alaska frontier.
In 1886, Bear’s most famous commander, Capt. Michael A. Healy – “Hell Roarin’ Mike” – began cracking down on poachers of fur seals in the Pribilof Islands. His seizures of illegal sealing ships nearly provoked a war with England in 1892, when he interdicted the British steamer Coquitlan in the act of receiving illegal pelts. During that same year, Healy – at his own expense – used the Bear to transport several shipments of Siberian reindeer to Alaska to shore up the food supply for Alaskan communities.
Shortly after Healy was promoted and replaced by Capt. Francis Tuttle, Bear steamed in support of the most famous rescue in Coast Guard history: the Overland Relief Expedition of 1897, led by 1st Lt. David Jarvis and then-2nd Lt. Ellsworth P. Bertholf to rescue 265 American whalers trapped by ice at Point Barrow, Alaska. Jarvis and Bertholf, traveling more than 1,500 miles by dogsled in the dead of winter, arrived at Point Barrow more than three months after they had set out. Tuttle and the Bear broke through and met them there on July 28, 1898.
The heroes of the Overland Relief Expedition returned to find that while they had been gone, the United States had declared, fought, and won a war with Spain. Spanish-American war heroes included 1st Lt. Frank H. Newcomb of the Revenue Cutter Service and the 11-man crew of the cutter Hudson, who steered their ship into withering enemy gunboat and artillery fire to rescue the disabled torpedo boat USS Winslow from the Battle of Cardenas on May 11, 1898. Despite continued fire that killed several Winslow crewmen and almost sank it, Newcomb, while returning fire, managed to lash the Winslow and Hudson together and escape. Newcomb and his crew were singled out for bravery by President William McKinley and awarded congressional medals – the only specially struck medals awarded for bravery during the war.
“The Bear is more than just a famous ship; she is a symbol for all the service represents: for steadfastness, for courage and for constant readiness to help men and vessels in distress.”
Meanwhile Bear continued its improbable career. It joined the newly formed U.S. Coast Guard in 1915 and continued its Alaskan patrols throughout World War I. Declared obsolete in 1928, the Bear kept busy: It served as a maritime museum, starred as the sealer Macedonia in the 1930 film version of Jack London’s novel The Sea-Wolf, was outfitted as a support ship for Richard E. Byrd’s second and third expeditions to Antarctica, and then – after being recommissioned in 1941 by the Navy, which had first declared it obsolete more than 50 years earlier – served in the Greenland Patrol during World War II. The Navy finally decommissioned the Bear for the last time in June 1944. It was purchased in 1948 by a Canadian company and, in a scheme that never took off, outfitted for work as a sealer; in 1962, a Pennsylvania businessman bought Bear, intending to convert it into a seafood restaurant – but the ship, while under tow to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, foundered and sank off the coast of Nova Scotia on March 19, 1963. The Bear’s career in the Revenue Cutter Service, the Coast Guard, and the Navy had spanned nearly eight decades.
The legacy of the Bear is celebrated in many forms today: Most notably, the Coast Guard Academy’s athletic teams compete as the Bears, in honor of the service’s longest-serving ship. According to Robert Browning, Ph.D., chief U.S. Coast Guard historian, “The Bear is more than just a famous ship; she is a symbol for all the service represents: for steadfastness, for courage and for constant readiness to help men and vessels in distress.”
In the North Atlantic
The multi-mission achievements of the service’s early 20th century cutters helped illustrate Commandant Bertholf’s argument that the new Coast Guard, far from being a mere extension of the Navy’s capabilities, was a unique agency, capable of doing things nobody else could do. The cutter Seneca, for example, commissioned in 1908, was designed specifically for the mission of sinking derelict wrecks on the high seas – but also served, along with the Tampa (ex-Miami) as the first cutters in the International Ice Patrol created after the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. After the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Seneca was transferred to the Navy’s Atlantic Patrol Fleet and hunted submarines in the Caribbean before reporting to the Mediterranean as a convoy escort. On several occasions, Seneca’s crew rescued crewmembers from torpedoed convoy ships, including a dramatic attempt, directed by 3rd Lt. H.W. Brown, to board and recover the cargo ship Wellington on Sept. 16, 1918. The Wellington later sank, claiming the lives of 16 men: 11 from the Seneca and five from the Wellington.
Ten days later the Tampa, also transferred to the Navy for World War I, met a tragic end – the largest American combat casualty loss in the entire war – when it was sunk by a U-boat in the Bristol Channel. Tampa sank with all hands: 111 Coast Guardsmen, four U.S. Navy men, 10 British seamen, a British Army officer, and five British dock workers.
During World War II, the Coast Guard adopted the Navy’s system of classifying vessels by type and hull number – a tradition that continues to this day, with Coast Guard cutters given the prefix “W,” for reasons long lost to history. Cutters that served with the Navy during the North Atlantic convoys of World War II included the Campbell (WPG 32) and Spencer (WPG 36), 327-foot Treasury-class cutters that became renowned U-boat hunters, and the Escanaba (WPG 77), a 165-foot “A”-class cutter originally designed for light ice breaking on the Great Lakes. The Escanaba’s crew distinguished themselves in the Dorchester rescues of Feb. 3, 1943, when the transport ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Greenland. The rescues marked a historic first for the Coast Guard – Escanaba rescue swimmers, tethered and dressed in insulated survival suits, came to the aid of survivors too weakened by hypothermia to be able to grip cargo nets or survival ladders. Fifty of the Dorchester’s crew were pulled from the water, apparently dead, but 38 of them survived after receiving attention. In all, Escanaba’s swimmers rescued 133 living survivors from the icy waters.
The many decorations and accommodations awarded to Escanaba officers and crewmembers for their pioneering work in the “retriever method” – a forerunner to the contemporary Coast Guard rescue swimmer – had to be bestowed posthumously; the cutter was sunk while on convoy duty on June 10, 1943, and only two of its 105 crewmembers survived.
Around the World
Escanaba’s survivors were pulled from the water by the crew of the cutter Storis (WMEC 38), one of five warships escorting a convoy to Newfoundland when it witnessed the explosion and sinking. The only ship in its class, Storis, a 230-foot light icebreaker, was commissioned in 1942 to supply Greenland ports. After a fabled run in the North Atlantic, the Storis reported to Alaska on Sept. 15, 1948. The cutter would serve 59 years there, and become known as the “Galloping Ghost of the Alaskan Coast.”
Storis’ Cold War duties involved surveys and depth soundings of the largely unknown Arctic waters in order to establish supply routes to Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radar stations. On July 1, 1957, Storis set out from Seattle, Washington, for the purposes of collecting hydrographic information and marking a deep-draft channel through the Northwest Passage, along the northern coast of North America.
It would be a historic voyage, the first transit of the passage by U.S.-flagged vessels. Storis was accompanied by two 180-foot seagoing buoy tenders, the Bramble (WLB 392), homeported in Bristol, Rhode Island, and Spar (WLB 403), homeported in Miami, Florida. The mission to mark the narrow straits of the Canadian archipelago with buoys, channel markers, and other aids to navigation (ATON) was arduous; the cutters grounded and became icebound frequently, as shore parties departed by Higgins boat to drill beacon and reflector tower anchors through permafrost and rock. The ice was heavier than Storis had been built for, and on several occasions, the cutters attempted to rock free of the ice by swinging mooring weights from their buoy cranes. According to James C. Jones, the Storis radio operator, this was mostly futile – as was an attempt to dynamite their way through, which merely blasted a hole in the ice and sent crewmembers fleeing for cover. “Mostly we just had to wait,” Jones recalled, “until a lead opened up and let us through.”
In September 1957, the cutters completed their six-month transit of the Northwest Passage, having charted a new route for deep-draft vessels through the Arctic. Storis crewmembers today point out that when it entered the waters where it began the Greenland Patrol 15 years earlier, Storis became the first U.S.-flagged vessel to circumnavigate the North American continent – but those who served aboard the Spar point out that their cutter, in closing the loop at its homeport of Bristol, Rhode Island, was the first to do it in a single voyage.
Over the last half-century, long voyages to remote corners of the globe have become almost routine for Coast Guard cutters. In 1961, the Wind-class icebreaker Eastwind (WAGB 279) became the first cutter to circumnavigate the globe while carrying out Operation Deep Freeze: departing Boston, supplying Antarctica’s McMurdo Station via the Panama Canal, and then returning home via the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean sea. In the 1970s, the massive 399-foot Polar-class icebreakers Polar Star and Polar Sea took on the duty of ice breaking in southern and northern extremes.
Among the “legendary” cutters of the Coast Guard, it’s tempting to include entire classes of ships, built after World War II, that have projected the Coast Guard’s presence throughout the world for more than a half-century, with service lives that have, in both time and substance, gone far beyond what anyone could have imagined. The histories of the 210-foot and 270-foot medium endurance cutters, the 225-foot Juniper-class seagoing buoy tenders, and the 378-foot Hamilton-class high endurance cutters are still being written; among them, certainly, are several whose crews can be described as former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad W. Allen once described the career of the Storis: “More than adequate testimony to the indomitable spirit of the Coast Guard.”
U.S. CGC Eagle (ex-Horst Wessel, WIX 327)
The Eagle, built as a training vessel for German cadets in 1936, was originally named for the stormtrooper who unwittingly wrote the official anthem of the Nazi Party – and this, among other reasons, makes it a unique cutter in the Coast Guard fleet. It was taken as a war prize by the United States in the aftermath of World War II.
A three-masted, steel-hulled sailing barque, 295 feet in length, the Eagle, one of five such training barques in the world, is homeported at the Coast Guard Academy, New London, Connecticut, where it has served since being recommissioned by the Coast Guard after the war. Though extensively refitted in 1982, Eagle remains essentially unchanged, a living link to the Coast Guard’s nautical heritage.
“America’s Tall Ship” has a standing crew of six officers and 56 enlisted, and continues to serve as a seagoing classroom for about 150 cadets, who have their hands full: Eagle has more than 21,000 square feet of sail and five miles of rigging.
This article first appeared online on May 29, 2015 and in print in the U.S. Coast Guard 225th Anniversary publication, a special edition of Coast Guard Outlook.