U.S. Coast Guard played key roles in World War I
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
The U.S. Coast Guard played key roles in World War I, both here at home, and overseas. To help tell that story, the Coast Guard has created a remarkable new web page, full of stories, photos, and other resources. To tell us about the web page, we caught up with the Coast Guard's Chief Historian, Scott Price.
The USCG just went live with their new web page for World War I. Tell us about it -- what is the link? What will we see there?
We've recently created a new index page that will highlight our service's history during World War I. It will also include downloadable products as they are created, including illustrated fact sheets, articles, and hopefully soon, some infographics. The URL for the page is https://www.uscg.mil/history/ops/wars/WWI/WWI-Index.asp
The USCG played a very important role in WWI, and was in the thick of the U.S. wartime activity. Tell us what they did, and what they achieved.
The Coast Guard in its modern iteration had only been formed in 1915, so this “new” organization had barely had time to come to grips with itself before being thrust into the chaos of a World War. What had happened was that in 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service merged with the Life-Saving Service to form the Coast Guard. The Revenue Cutter Service, formed originally in 1790, was a sea-going service that had seen action in most of the country’s wars but the members of the Life-Saving Service, who manned hundreds of small surfboat stations around the nation’s coasts, had not. Yet they now belonged to this new Coast Guard, and the attempts to merge the two previously separate organizations had to take a back seat to fulfilling the Coast Guard’s new wartime role in supporting the Navy.
The legislation creating the Coast Guard specifically stated that the Coast Guard was one of the armed forces of the United States and in times of war it would fall under the Navy Department, as during peacetime it was actually under the Treasury Department. The Coast Guard had taken its national defense responsibility seriously and had worked closely with the Navy in developing its mobilization plans and it was ready for the move to the Navy on 6 April 1917.
Cutters were assigned to the local naval districts and reported for duty that very day war was declared. A number of cutters would be assigned to duty overseas and they formed one squadron that they Navy sent overseas to serve as convoy escorts between Gibraltar and the United Kingdom. Our port security responsibilities as we know them today come directly from our service in World War I, particularly after the terrible explosion in Halifax. Officers commanded Navy ships and airstations, attacked U-boats and took significant losses. In fact, our memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, is dedicated to the CGC Tampa which was lost with all hands off Wales along with the lost members of a rescue team off the cutter Seneca. Much of our history during the war is located and highlighted on our website and I would encourage anyone interested in our history to check it out.
Additionally, we’re covering the history of the U.S. Lighthouse Service during the war. It did not transfer to the Coast Guard permanently until 1939 and as such was its own agency under the Department of Commerce, but since it did eventually become part of the Coast Guard we wanted to be sure and include it in our World War I commemorative activities. It was a fascinating agency--it was actually one year older than the Revenue Cutter Service, so it was one of the first Federal agencies and it had its own customs, traditions and history. Many of their lighthouse and buoy tenders, and lightships dotting the waters off our coasts, were taken into wartime service and one light vessel was sunk by a U-boat. NOAA has only recently discovered the wreck! So in any case we’ll cover their wartime history, too.
This participation in the war had huge impact on the USCG afterward. Tell us about how things changed, and what was to come with their role in WWII and beyond.
The biggest challenge was to get the Coast Guard back under the Treasury Department—many of the Coast Guard officers liked serving with the Navy, since there were better chances at promotion, etc. so that was one hurdle that had to be surmounted. And before they had a chance to really incorporate the lessons they learned during the war, the nation undertook the great experiment that was Prohibition and so once again we were thrust into a huge new task, one unlike anything we had done to that time, and that consumed the Coast Guard for the next decade or so. But lessons were learned and by the time World War II came around, our escort-of-convoy and port security duties were still paramount – as well as our coastal defense responsibilities.
Why are these stories important? Why should they be remembered? What should people take away from these stories of the USCG's WWI heritage?
Much of what we do today, and much of who we are as an organization, comes from our experiences gained during this horrible conflict. Our history, and our tradition of serving our country in times of peace and war were evidenced by what happened from 1917 until we returned to Treasury in 1919. We were and still are a small service and the war really impacted the entire Coast Guard of the time. The Coast Guard proved that it was made up of officers and crew who were expert ship handlers, impressing even the saltiest Navy sailors with their expertise. They showed how selfless an organization the Coast Guard really is to an international audience, receiving kudos from the Royal Navy in fact.
So the fact that we are not simply a coastal police force but in fact are an international organization capable of many types of sea-going tasks is really a legacy we can take from what happened during World War I. We hope that our commemorative activities honor our predecessors’ service and bring awareness to their sacrifices and their heroic deeds.