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
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
The Cutter Eagle still sails today
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.
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
Doug Munro earns the Medal of Honor
. . . 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.
Cutters & "choppers" patrol the seas
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.  
   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
Capsizing in an unforgiving sea
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
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
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 pillows.  
Chipping ice near grave of the Titanic
Racing to a rescue
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.
Chipping ice near grave of the Titanic
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.
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.”
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 Transportation.
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
Youngest survivor