U.S. COAST GUARD: The ‘Forgotten’ Military

by J.C. Carney

©Copyright 2001 - James C. Carney II, Esq. First North American Serial Rights

Reprinted By Permission

This article was written and originally published before September 11, 2001 - Jack

August 4, 2001 marked the 111th anniversary of the United States Coast Guard as it is now known. This, the smallest branch of military service, operating under various titles and duties, has been going strong since its conception in 1790. In fact, the Coast Guard (USCG), which was initially the US Revenue Service, is older by seven years then its big sister -- the Navy. Moreover, this service which started out chasing contraband smugglers in its earliest years, later to fight in all her country’s wars, has come full-circle, as it is again chasing smugglers. The ships are different. The contraband has changed. Yet little is known of the Coast Guard’s role in military history as little is known of the service itself. To wit: The Coast Guard is yet known as the "forgotten" military service.

Much is known per se of her daring sea rescues, both from the decks of her cutters to her helicopters above the waves: Hitherto, her life-saving history stands unrivalled. And, like all the other service organizations, through the years the Coast Guard has served her country well. Yet it wasn’t until the Second World War that, like an old warrior recalled-to-arms, this sea-service really scintillated. In late 1940-early ‘41, cutters originally stationed along the entire eastern seaboard were ordered to the North Atlantic to protect convoys to Britain and establish the Greenland Patrol; therein to protect Greenland from Nazi occupation. A small number of these ships never returned. One such was the USCGC ESCANABA I (WPG-77), namesake to the cutter that this author served aboard in the early sixties. She sank in June 1943 with the loss of 101 hands; two alone lived to tell the tale.

Meanwhile, on the west coast, on December 7, 1941, the 327’ cutter, USCGC TANEY, saw action at Pearl; slipping her lines and safely fighting her way to sea, yet little is recorded of this conflict. This cutter later saw action in both theatres, and after a later role in Vietnam, was -- in the 1980’s -- decommissioned and now sits in Baltimore, Maryland as a floating museum. Many people do not even know that the Coast Guard was involved in the Vietnam Conflict, as during all wars the "CG" serves under the Navy. Oh, the cutters and crews are still Coast Guard in time of war , yet take orders from the Navy hierarchy. Maybe, just maybe that is one of the reasons the Coast Guard is persona non grata during our various conflicts -- everyone thinks we are the Navy? God forbid!

Another very good explanation is that the Coast Guard is so "multi-functional," that it boggles the mind of the average citizen. "Are they military, search and rescue, sea police, or what?," asks the casual observer. The answer. All of the above -- and more! The precise difference is that in peacetime she is under the Department of Transportation (DoT); in war, under the Department of Defense (DoD); wherein the Navy always remains part of the Department of Defense (DoD). Yet, when all is said and done, she [CG] is always a military organization.

Prove it, you say? Let me employ the statistics recorded during/after our many wars. (These "stats" were compiled by the CG Historian’s Office). She was there during the Quasi-French War utilizing her 13 small two-masted cutters against much larger European Naval ships (casualties-unknown), War of 1812 (100 served, 0 killed-in-action (KIA)-wounded unknown), Mexican War (71 served, 0 KIA, wounded-unknown), Civil War (219 served, 1 KIA, wounded-unknown) Spanish-American War (660 served 1 KIA, wounded-unknown) World War I (8,835 served, 111 KIA, 0 wounded), World War II (241,093 served, 574 died in battle, 1,917 wounded) Korean War (44,143 served, 0 killed, 0 wounded), during the Korean Conflict the CG was employed to rescue downed pilots, and a few ships were used as forward observers. Vietnam War (8,000 served, 7 KIA, 60 wounded), Persian Gulf War (400 served, 0 KIA, 0 wounded). Incidentally, up until recently the CG had a group of reserves (PSU’s) patrolling the Persian Gulf in go-fast boats, looking for any terrorist activity. Lack of funds, initiated the secession of that activity.

Question: If Coast Guardsmen are not in a military service (as some reporters speculate), how did all these people get killed in action, or wounded therein? Moreover, what was the Coast Guard doing there (including the recent jaunt to the Gulf) -- if it were not a military service?

However, as I have found while searching for Coast Guard memorabilia in various military magazines (VFW; American Legion, included), there are seldom any items relating to the USCG available. There are watches, rings, insignia, etc., dedicated to the Army, Navy . . . well you get the idea! . . . Still, in only one case have I found an item, a ring, immortalizing the Coast Guard. Recently, I also espied a beautifully constructed quilt exhibited here in my town, honoring we veterans. (It is being raffled for capital needed to build a Minnesota Veteran’s Memorial). Again, the four branches are exalted; the USCG exempted. . . .

That was the last straw! I contacted the Coast Guard Public Relations Office in DC, asking Captain Jeffrey Karonis what, if anything, is being done about the lack of publicity regarding the "CG’s" military history. The reply surprised me. He acknowledged the "parity" when it came to the 4 services. "It seems like a statement that cannot be fixed," said he. "We’ve made some progress." "Last year, [former] SECDEF Cohen said he wanted to recognize the CG in a major event in Boston." Adding: "He did a great job and a major point we [CG] asked, for inclusion in his remarks, was to note that the CG is the fifth armed service!" [Italics, mine]. "He did very well." "Yet the [public] awareness curve isn’t where it should be yet."

The Captain went on to tell of the national news coverage (CG, inspired) that now includes Coast Guard action in nationally-broadcasted news spots on NBC, ABC, CBS, and FoxNews, telling of our value to the country and our budget deficit situation. We were featured in Parade Magazine [cover story] in July (read by 85 million people) and have been in West Wing and major movies. Just last week we were on 6 different network shows: Dateline, ABC and NBC news, TLC on SAR (search & rescue), Inside Edition, [and Sept 6th, FoxNews] on a drug-laden "go-fast" boat’s capture. The Captain added: "Our office [PR] pressed for those . . . we’re very proud of our accomplishments."

Yes, we are getting recognized. But what about educating the public to the fact that there are five services that fought in our wars. What about recognition for a job well done for the guys who lost their lives under the Flag and preamble: "Semper Paratus," (Always Ready), not as it still seems concerning our military status: "Semper Forgotus," (always forgotten). . . . Hope to see that next!

Return to Coast Guard Stories