The U.S. Coast Guard has a fairly convoluted history, as many different organizations and functions have been combined and recombined under different names. After the American Revolutionary War, the U.S. Navy was disbanded. By 1789, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton realized that some kind of naval enforcement agency was needed to make sure tariffs were properly collected. Ten ships with a crew of 10 men each went into service in 1790 as the Revenue Marine Service. Because these cutters were frequently out on patrol when naval accidents occurred, they naturally found themselves in the position to perform search-and-rescue operations. Volunteer organizations that conducted rescue missions later merged with the nascent Coast Guard. Military conflicts in the next few decades lead the Revenue Service to take on port defense tasks. The advent of American fishing around the coast of Alaska created a need for ice breaking and winter rescue capabilities (these remain Coast Guard specialties today). A separate service operated the lighthouses and other navigational aids across the United States until that, too, was merged with the Coast Guard. This growing organization wasn't officially called the Coast Guard until 1915.
Although the Coast Guard is ostensibly a defensive and law enforcement organization, Coast Guard recruits receive basic weapons training, and most Coast Guard vessels are armed in some way. When the United States has gone to war, the Coast Guard has gone too, usually after being subsumed into the U.S. Navy. Some of the Coast Guard's most notable wartime service came during Word War II, when numerous Coast Guard cutters provided escorts to the transport convoys traversing the North Atlantic. Refitted with additional guns and depth charges, the cutters' took on a very dangerous duty, watching for German U-boats (submarines). The U-boats hunted the convoys in "wolf packs," and their torpedoes sunk many transport ships, as well as the USCGC Alexander Hamilton, which went down near Reykjavik, Iceland in 1941.
Coast Guard crews had better training conducting sea-to-land assaults, so the landing ships at Normandy and other marine invasions in World War II were usually piloted by a Coast Guard seaman.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The USCGC Alexander Hamilton after she had been torpedoed and the majority of her crew abandoned ship.
The Coast Guard is currently in the middle of a 25-year modernization effort known as Project Deepwater. The 2007 fiscal year budget included an increase of $1 billion for Project Deepwater upgrades, research and development [Source: Navy Times]. The modernization is vital, as the Coast Guard currently operates one of the oldest fleets among the world's navies. Not only will Project Deepwater upgrade the Coast Guard's weapons, drug detection systems and search-and-rescue operations, it will make the entire service more efficient. The number of crew members needed to operate a cutter will be decreased, improving flexibility and allowing the Coast Guard to function with lower recruitment and funding levels.
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