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June 24, 2024

The Forgotten Branch

By Van Lee

On June 6, 1944 the largest invasion in history commenced. In some degree, all branches of the military were involved. Of course, the Army was storming the beaches and the night before they had dropped airborne forces behind enemy lines. The Air Force (at that time the Air Force did not exist as an independent branch and was part of the Army) was tasked with ferrying those airborne troops and then supporting ground forces both during and after the invasion. The Navy ferried masses of troops across the English Channel and the "big guns" pounded targets from the shoreline several miles inland. Though not taking direct action in the invasion, even the Marines participated in some degree by helping train men and plan the landing as this type of operation was their specialty and they had done several already in the Pacific. The men steering the Higgin's Boats (the landing craft taking the troops ashore) deserve a special mention.

As a sailor drove his Higgin's Boat ashore, he was bombarded with machine gun fire, mortar fire, having to dodge man-made obstacles designed to sink them, etc while driving a relatively large target made mostly of wood (for speed and buoyancy, wood was the used as steel would move slow and cause it to settle deeper forcing troops to dismount further out in the water). When he cranked the front ramp down and was directly exposed to enemy machine gun fire, he would get the troops out, raise the ramp and head back out to the troop ships. Then the process would begin anew. Each of these sailors made several trips and due to the amount of trips most of them spent more time in the direct line of fire then many of the soldiers actually hitting the beach.

What many don't recognize about these brave sailors is that they were not members of the Navy. They weren't members of the Army, Army Air Force, or Marines either for that matter. So who were these men who continually risked their lives on that frightful morning? As it turns out, they were sailors belonging to the U.S. Coast Guard. Most are surprised to hear that the Coast Guard had a direct involvement with the invasion of Normandy. After all, the Coast Guard is tasked with protecting the U.S. coastal areas right? Well, if that surprises them, then those same people will likely be shocked to hear that the Coast Guard has participated in all of the wars in which the U.S. has been involved.

Though they have relatively small numbers in a combat zone compared to the other branches of the military, their numbers often run into the thousands. In both the Korean and Vietnam wars, they had no less then 8000 sailors in action and in WWII they had over 200,000. Even in today's Operation Iraqi Freedom they have had over 1000 men and women serve.

The Coast Guard was born in 1790 and was established by the First Congress of the United States. This new force was not given an official name but was referred to as "the cutters." "The cutters" (nicknamed this due to their ships being referred to as cutters) were created to enforce national laws, especially tariffs, in coastal regions along with protecting the immediate coastal waters. At the time they were the only maritime service in the U.S. (the Continental Navy was disbanded after the Revolution and the Navy was not established again until 1798). In 1799, Congress authorized legislation stating that in times of need, "the cutters" would cooperate with the newly formed Navy and will be under the control of the Secretary of the Navy during that time. This would seen be put to the test.

In 1791 tensions began to rise with France. Privateers from France were stalking the waters around the U.S. taking advantage of the lack of Navy. This was one of the threats that necessitated the creation of "the cutters." By 1798 when Congress authorized an actual naval force, the "quasi-war" was in full effect. The new Navy and "the Cutters" were tasked with protecting American waters and shipping and this "quasi-war" lasted until 1801. During that time a total of twenty-two French ships were captured, eighteen of which were captured by "the cutters."

The first real war of the United State, the War of 1812, saw "the cutters" become the darling of the U.S. military forces. The Navy by this time was concentrating on larger warships, so "the cutters" were relegated to patrolling the coastal waters and a most of the Great Lakes. In the Great Lakes, they performed outstandingly winning several engagements (that the Navy is often credited with) and the first British ship captured during the war was by "the cutters." And while the Navy concentrated on British shipping on the high seas, "the cutters" were also the main ones responsible for keeping piracy to a minimum in the Gulf of Mexico.

During the Mexican War, "the cutters" were tasked with blockading the enemy coasts and for amphibious landings. The Navy had few shallow-draft vessels so they needed the shallow-draft cutters for troop landings. And then during the Civil War, like the rest of the nation, they were divided between home and country with many going in opposing directions. But "the cutters" still served in the war and the first shot fired by a naval vessel was by the cutter Harriet Lane. "The cutters" would later be ordered to search all outgoing vessels from the U.S. after the war while searching for the assassin who had shot President Lincoln.

In 1915 legislation was introduced realigning "the cutters." Over time "the cutters had become two similar but separate entities, the Life-Saving Service (which performed search and rescue missions and the such) and the Revenue Cutter Service (which protected maritime laws and patrolled against piracy and the such). With this legislation, they would form one entity called the Coast Guard.

When the U.S. entered WWI, the Coast Guard was transferred to the Navy giving them a much needed boost as the U.S. was severely undermanned for a large-scale conflict. This gave the Navy an immediate boost of forty-seven ships and nearly 5000 sailors. This allowed the limited number of Navy forces to concentrate on the war in Europe while control of the home ports was given to the Coast Guard. Still, several Coast Guard vessels were sent to Europe to participate in escort duties. One such vessel was the Tampa which escorted eighteen separate convoys. But on September 26, 1918 she sailed on her final mission. She never arrived at her destination and a search discovered wreckage and only two bodies. German U-boat 91 had reported sinking a U.S. vessel fitting Tampa's description. In all, 111 Coast Guard sailors and four Navy sailors were lost when the Tampa went down and officially was the largest loss of life of any U.S. naval unit during the war.

During WWII, their duties were pretty much the same with the exception of driving landing boats such as the ones at Normandy. During their patrols and escort duties, the Coast Guard sunk several enemy submarines. They also were crucial in search and rescue operations. During the war, they were credited with rescuing no less then 4000 people in the water, most of who had been sunk by German submarines. Nearly 2000 Coast Guard sailors died during WWII, 1/3 of which were in action. In all, 2000 Coast Guard sailors were decorated, one receiving the Medal of Honor, one the Distinguished Service Cross, and six the Navy Cross.

In the Korean War they Coast Guard set up several Pacific Stations for patrolling the waters around Korea. Except for a few rescue operations, the Korean War was relatively quite for them, a welcome break considering their participation in WWII. But in Vietnam they were back at the fore-front. The Navy once again was called upon for shallow-water operations and they had a lack of shallow-draft ships. The Coast Guard was called upon once again to provide shallow-draft vessels for action. In Vietnam they boarded and searched vessels for contraband, engaged several enemy vessels, and provided fire support for ground forces. The Coast Guard also helped the Army with setting up inspection points at harbor cities and even set up communication stations to aid U.S. bombers flying long distances to keep them on target. They also set up a complex series of buoys all along the Vietnam coast to help friendly shipping navigate the dangerous waters (the waters off Vietnam were notorious for sudden changes in depth making it risky to navigate with larger vessels). The Coast Guard also flew many search and rescue missions inland to rescue downed pilots. These missions were considered some of the riskiest of the conflict.

After 9/11 the Coast Guard was moved to the Department of Homeland Security. While the Coast Guard still performs its standard duties of search and rescue and patrolling friendly waters to protect U.S. assets, they are now an active participant in the War on Terror. Well over 1000 Coast Guard sailors have been sent to Southwest Asia in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In this conflict as they did in Desert Storm, they are tasked with stopping and inspecting vessels heading to Iraq in order to find contraband materials.

Throughout our nation and its grand naval traditions, the Coast Guard has been there and has been a vital component. Unfortunately, most of the time when they see action, they have been shifted to control of the Navy and as such, the Navy usually gets credit for their services. The Coast Guard isn't quite military, but then again it isn't just a police force either. They sail the seas with a careful blend of military and police, defending our nation from harm from the enemy as well as being there to lend a helping hand to the average citizens in trouble. Under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, they are sure to carry out an increasingly vital role in our nation's defense.

Article © Van Lee. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-10-31
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