The Coast Guard Story
Previously published as The Misnomer.  All Rights Reserved © June 2001 by Charles R Harris
Coast Guard Logo
       AMERICA'S LONGEST MYTH—born nearly a century ago—is still believed to this day.
In 1915 Congress married the U.S. Lifesaving Service to America’s oldest seagoing service: The Revenue Marines. Then
it changed their name to U.S. Coast Guard and a myth was born.
     Anemic at birth, it was nursed to believable health by rival servicemen who delighted in feeling superior to a “shallow
water navy.”
     Strangely unopposed—the Coast Guard was never strong on publicity—it grew to national stature.
     Today the myth is so popular the name “Coast Guard” alone keeps it alive. It is strong enough to destroy the morale of
the entire service, yet the Coast Guard constantly leads the other services with the highest rate of re-enlistments.
     Though not responsible for the myth, most Coast Guardsmen feel it should be ended. Others argue to leave it alone:
“Look what martyrdom did for Christianity.”
     But the gap between the myth and the cold truth has reached extreme limits: “A shallow water navy ... in the middle of
the ocean.” “The U.S. Coast Guard ... stationed in Italy.” “They stayed at home and guarded our coast ... they invaded
Guadalcanal with the Marines.”
     How many coasts does the Coast Guard guard? What was it doing in Vietnam? It’s time to crack the myth and
expose the mystery of the “Hooligan Navy.”

                          An End To Piracy

     To say the Coast Guard is our smallest armed force is an understatement. The Navy has it outnumbered 20 to 1; the
Marine Corps—the next smallest service—has a 6 to 1 edge, and by several thousand men the U.S. Coast Guard is even
smaller than the New York City Police Department.
     The chief myth-maker is the name “Coast Guard.” It’s a strange name to call an outfit that used to fight pirates; doesn’t
necessarily guard the coast, and has an unusual breed of men that occasionally become spellbound.  
     The Cutter Eagle still sails today
      It all started one day in Congress when Alexander Hamilton announced that smugglers were driving America
bankrupt. Since we had no navy in 1790 he asked for 10 “cutters” to stop it. He got the cutters; they got the smugglers;
and our nation was allowed to live past the tender age of 14.
      This is the reason our oldest seagoing armed force is neither a branch of the Navy nor under the Department of
Defense, but traditionally a service of the Treasury ... until 1967. Now it serves under the new Department of
      But these ancestral Coast Guardsmen had barely sharpened their swords: They attacked the notorious pirate’s den on
Breton Island and put an end to piracy in the Caribbean. They fired the first shot in Admiral Dewey’s famous Battle of
Manila Bay; only one American died from that battle—he was a Coast Guardsman.
All the “gold and silver” Medals of Honor awarded during the Spanish-American war went to Coast Guardsmen. They
fired the first naval shot of the Civil War and then fought on both sides.
The Cutter Eagle still sails today
                                                                    From War At Sea
In World War I the Coast Guard lost more men overseas—in proportion to its numbers—than any other U.S. service. In
World War II it made the first U.S. naval capture and also seized the first Nazi shore station. The Coast Guard took
Marines into the invasion beaches—it was in the vanguard of nearly all U.S. invasions.  
Doug Munro earns the Medal of Honor
   Because of Coast Guard rescue boats at Normandy, more than a thousand veterans are living with their families today.
It’s doubtful they know who pulled them from the sea—Coast Guardsmen are nearly always mistaken for Navy men.
   Most of their wartime achievements are absorbed by the Navy since the entire Coast Guard transfers to the
Department of the Navy during global conflicts. However, the Coast Guard is one of our armed forces at all times and
America has five military services, not four.
   The Coast Guard also served in Vietnam, under its own command. Through sea battles lasting from one shot up to two
hours they have helped stop more than 300 tons of ammunition from reaching the guns that fire at other Americans.

                                                        . . . To War With The Sea
   Peacetime returns the Coast Guard to war with the sea—to puzzle people even more. It’s name says it should guard
our coast but Congress stacked job after job on the Coast Guard to a height of 80 responsibilities around the world.  
Cutters & "choppers" patrol the seas
    Newspapers tell of its rescues across both oceans. It also looks for leaks in dry ships; anchors noisy road signs; criss-
crosses the oceans with invisible markers; and runs a huge brotherhood of the sea electronically. A Coast Guardsman is
mostly sailor and serviceman, part lifeguard, policeman, fireman, buoy tender, weatherman, aircraft pilot, scientist (plus 74
more) and world traveler.
    Coast Guard Marine inspectors watch American ships from blueprint to christening to twist the odds in favor of the
ship against the sea. Since the odds are never 100% in favor, they keep coming aboard at regular intervals to check the
ship and crew and those emergency spares—a lifeboat and life jackets for everyone.
     Pleasure boats must also carry life jackets for each person. Boarding teams—backed by law—occasionally step
aboard to see these and other items of life insurance.

                                                                   Where Land and Sea Collide
       Where land and sea collide with a roar of surf there is trouble. As one old salt put it, “Any idiot can steer a ship at
sea; it’s along the coast that it’s dangerous.” To shave down this danger the Coast Guard rides herd on more than 50,000
aids to navigation. Its many lighthouses and lightships warn of rocks and shoals. Its buoys blast, ring and blink ships safely
into harbors and up the invisible, twisting channel of the Mississippi.  
Doug Munro earns the Medal of Honor
Cutters & "choppers" patrol the seas
  To anchor buoys in the middle of the ocean is impossible, but the Coast Guard has the sea lanes marked with a long-
range aid to navigation, nick-named “LORAN”. You can’t see it but it can tell a ship exactly where she is, though more
than a thousand miles at sea. It’s entirely electronic.
A ship merely has to tune in her receiver and jot down two sets of numbers to plot her position on the chart. Behind these
number, along our coast and on opposite foreign shores and islands, Coast Guardsmen are nursing electronic monsters.
They constantly feel the pulse of each giant transmitter so a slip of its lip won’t misplace a ship.  
When an iceberg sank the Titanic more than 50 years ago and shocked the world, 12 nations decided that something
should be done. Our Coast Guard was given the job and sent farther away from our coasts. The planes of its International
Ice Patrol drone over the Northern Atlantic daily during the ice season and plot these mountains of ice. No ship has been
sunk by an iceberg since the Titanic—except during the war when the patrol was necessarily abandoned

                                                             From Rescues to Mysteries
   An S.O.S. from any ship on the Atlantic or Pacific triggers a Coast Guard computer in New York. In a few seconds it
clickety-clacks a picture of that part of the ocean which shows all the ships within a hundred miles; it also tells which ones
have doctors. Then the Coast Guard directs the nearest ship to the rescue besides sending her own.
   This international brotherhood of the sea works very simply: Ships of many nations file a “sailing plan” with our Coast
Guard, then the high speed computer keeps its electronic fingers on each ship as it crosses the ocean. The push of a button
shows the Coast Guard their positions at any time. This giant system called “AMVER” will soon cover the globe.
    The mysteries of the deep are also in the realm of the Coast Guard. It is an official agency for oceanography and other
marine sciences. More and more cutters are doubling as observatories. The new cutter Hamilton—the first and largest dual-
powered cutter, with a heliport, closed-circuit television and the most powerful twin gas turbine and diesel engine system
on any American ship—has both wet and dry laboratories and computers.
    Eskimos in the Arctic Circle wave to our Coast Guard regularly and there’s a proud penguin strutting around Antarctica
with the initials “U.S.C.G.” stenciled across the shirt of its tuxedo. Coast Guard icebreakers—it has all the big ones now—
smash their way to both ends of the earth to assist the other armed forces.
     Another icebreaker cracks open the paths of commerce on the Great Lakes when it crushes ice thicker than a man is
tall. Coast Guardsmen are as much at home in St. Louis or Cleveland as they are in New York, Norfolk, Copenhagen,
Tokyo or Pango Pango, Samoa

                                                                     Most Dangerous Job
       But the Coast Guard’s most dangerous job is on the open seas where disaster may strike at any time. At this moment
and every day of every year the Coast Guard is listening and waiting. Large white cutters are stationed at lonely intervals
down the backbone of the Atlantic and across the waist of the Pacific—beneath the air routes and near the shipping lanes.  
Racing to a rescue
Capsizing in an unforgiving sea
  Life in this blue world of sea and sky varies with the sea and sky. On one ocean station a crew may be sunbathing on the
decks while on another cutter the crew may be at Ditch and Rescue stations guiding a stricken airplane to a forced landing
at sea. Her boat crews are tensed for the sound of the impact—the starting gun in the race for survivors.
On still another station the cutter may look like a white chip as it glides down a towering wave into a dark ocean valley.
Hands will grab for holds and semi-conscious sleepers will brace against their bunks to keep from sliding out over their
 Chipping ice near grave of the Titanic
  Farther North the cutter may be a miniature iceberg staggering drunkenly as she rolls from side to side. Freezing spray
may have welded the decks and bulkhead-walls into icy slopes—impossible to walk on. As the cutter rolls heavily on her
sides and takes longer and longer to return upright, the captain will decide if his cutter can ride out the storm, or he must
run the risk of sending his men out on deck to chip the top-heavy ice.
  The Coast Guard’s ounce-of-prevention policy helps to anchor down a balloon of disaster figures that might otherwise
go sky high. This battling bantamweight is probably the most efficient agency in our federal government. Each year it saves
over five times more—in property and cargo—than it costs to run the entire Coast Guard, technically a 400% profit, to
say nothing of human lives.

                                                            Something Overwhelms Them
    Persons rescued from peril by the Coast Guard would overflow three high school auditoriums—three and a half
thousand last year. All this is done by only 34,000 officers and men—less than a third of the fans at a Rose Bowl game, or
about the size of the New York City Police Department.  
     Each time Coast Guardsmen battle the sea and add numbers to the yearly totals, something overwhelms them. Though
over half of them are veterans from the other four services, Coast Guardsmen—who have taken themselves to where
death is and placed themselves alongside the victims—cannot describe that feeling. They are seldom thanked, and words
would cheapen “that Look” on a human face when pulled from a world of water.
     During an incredible storm a chief boatswain’s mate plowed a rescue boat—only 38 feet long—toward a sinking ship.
Eight victims were stranded aboard; the chief saved seven of them. One over-anxious survivor had jumped before the boat
was in range.
      While near-hurricane winds dug under the flesh around his eyes the chief searched for that man. His boat bounced like
a split-second ride in an elevator to the fifth floor and back.
       Long after a victim could survive such heavy seas the chief would not quit. He had to be ordered to give up. Though
everyone involved says he has no reason to be, the chief is inconsolable to this day over that one man he could not save.
This is not uncommon among Coast Guardsmen.
Racing to a rescue
Chipping ice near grave of the Titanic
The Sea Doesn't Always Lose
    In an Eastern port a large white cutter returned from 35 days on an ocean station. The waving arms of wives, children
and sweethearts greeted the crew from the pier. As they secured their mooring lines, the radioman ran to the captain with a
    The captain carried it down and read it to the men standing in dress uniforms ready to go ashore. A ship was in danger
of sinking 700 miles at sea with 27 aboard.
The captain walked away; no order was given. The Coast Guardsmen walked to the rails, talked quietly with loved ones
on the pier, then went below to change uniforms.  
     But the sea doesn’t always lose. Coast Guardsmen have felt their skin sizzle and curl like frying bacon while searching
in a fire at sea for someone they’ve never seen before. They have inhaled and exhaled water for several agonizing breaths
until the black sleep came. They have seen a monster wave stand a boat on end before it swallowed and then spit back the
bodies of their buddies. Still they go out in the worst of storms.
      The highest enlistment requirements are not enough. Having courage is not enough. On a wall in a chapel of the Coast
Guard is a painting of a wild stormy sea. In the center a rescue boat climbs a towering wave. Unseen in the picture are
human lives in distress. Beneath the painting on a wooden plaque is the slogan of Coast Guardsmen: “You have to go out.
You don’t have to come back.”
      Coast Guardsmen usually do come back, however, to live with the myth—it exists only in America. Other nations are
quite familiar with our Coast Guard, World Guard.
       If these final words sound familiar, perhaps it’s because Sir Winston Churchill was head of the British Admiralty when
it made this statement about our Coast Guard:
       “Seldom in the annals of the sea has there been exhibited such self-abnegation, such cool courage, such unfailing
diligence in the face of almost insurmountable difficulties. America is to be congratulated.”
Youngest survivor