11 Things You Might Not Know About the Coast Guard

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D.B. Grady is covering each of the five branches of the U.S. military for Veterans Day.

The U.S. Coast Guard has a unique job in the military, with a role in law enforcement and a role in war. Its 42,000 active duty members, as well as its 7,500 reservists and 30,000 members of the auxiliary, are called guardians. Here are a few things you might not have known about them.

1. The Coast Guard has a real problem with Aaron Burr.

Alexander Hamilton is the father of the Coast Guard. In Federalist No. 12, Hamilton posited that a “few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws.” Their purpose would be to enforce maritime laws and to collect tariffs. In 1790, the United States was flat broke, and Hamilton, now Secretary of the Treasury, pushed hard for the creation of his fleet to help get the coffers filled. The result was the Revenue-Marine, later renamed the Revenue Cutter Service, and eventually merged with the United States Life-Saving Service (which helped shipwrecked sailors) to form the Coast Guard.

2. For a while, the forerunner to the Coast Guard was the only navy of the United States.

In 1790, the Continental Navy was disbanded, and the only navy at the disposal of the United States was Hamilton’s Revenue-Marine. At the time, the Barbary pirates posed a threat to the U.S. at sea, and the job of dealing with them fell to the Revenue-Marine. The first three warships of the U.S. Navy didn’t set sail until 1797.

3. The Coast Guard ran the District of Alaska.

As part of an effort to lay telegraph cable from the United States to Russia, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, working subordinate to the Revenue Cutter Service, made first contact with Russia’s Alaskan coast. Later, the Revenue Cutter Service brought U.S. officials to and from the new Alaskan territory. During the 1870s, the service was charged with enforcing hunting and fishing laws in the territory (seals, especially, were valuable for their pelts and hunted to the point of near-extinction). They were also given responsibility for rescuing ships in the Bering Sea and along the Arctic coast. The upshot is that the massive role of the Coast Guard’s predecessor meant that it was the only game in town—it essentially was the government. It even maintained “court cruises,” whereby judicial officials were sailed in to try criminal cases. It also provided care and comfort in the forms of food, medicine, and supplies to villagers in the arctic.

4. One member of the Coast Guard picked a hell of a week to quit drinking.

Lloyd Bridges, Beau Bridges, and Jeff Bridges (The Dude!) all served in the Coast Guard, as did “The King,” Arnold Palmer. The Joker’s shipmates probably got a few laughs in—Cesar Romero was a guardian. Maybe the most famous member of them all: Popeye.

5. The Coast Guard doesn’t belong to the Department of Defense.

The United States Coast Guard is the only branch of military service that doesn’t belong to the Defense Department. Rather, it is an arm of the Department of Homeland Security. Before the establishment of the DHS in 2002, it belonged to the Department of Transportation. Before that, it belonged to the Treasury Department. During a declared war, the Department of Defense can take operational control of the Coast Guard.

6. The exosphere is a kind of coast.

Commander Bruce Melnick, the chief test pilot at the Coast Guard Aircraft Program Office, was the first guardian selected by NASA to serve as an astronaut. He flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990, and on the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992. He has logged over 300 hours of space flight. The only other Coast Guard astronaut is Captain Daniel Burbank.

7. Yes, it has a glee club, and an all-female a cappella group.

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Every year, 300 cadets attend the U.S. Coast Guard Military Academy in New London, Connecticut. Cadets graduate as ensigns, and have the option of attending flight school or graduate school. Unlike the other service schools, admission to the Coast Guard Military Academy does not require Congressional nomination. This is because the school’s first superintendent objected to the lousy quality of political appointments in general. Both Coast Guard astronauts are graduates of its academy.

8. If the DOGs are coming after you, it’s going to be a bad day.

Pirates seize your oil rig? You’re going to want to talk to the DOG. The Coast Guard command that handles counter-terrorism and high-threat situations is called the Deployable Operations Group. They're a quick reaction force whose teams handle maritime interdiction, force protection, nuclear-biological-chemical threats, counter-piracy, counter-terrorism, and anti-terrorism. Because the U.S. Coast Guard does not belong to the Department of Defense, its units do not belong to Special Operations Command. That said, the Navy has opened up its Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course to guardians, and have graduated Coast Guard SEALs.

9. The Ancient Order of the Pterodactyl. (That pretty much says it all.)

The Coast Guard Aviation Association is a fraternal organization of Coast Guard aviators. Its membership includes guardians and members of other military branches (of the United States and other countries) who have flown Coast Guard aircraft. Until 2007, it was known as the Ancient Order of the Pterodactyl.

10. The longest-serving Coast Guard aviator holds a special honor.

The longest-serving active Coast Guard aviator is designated as the Ancient Albatross. This pilot is bestowed traditional aviation gear of a leather coat, leather helmet, goggles, and white scarf, as well as the Royal Pterodactyl Egg. According to regulation, “Eligibility for the title of Ancient Albatross and entitlement to the award will be determined by ascertaining that aviator or aviation pilot on active duty whose date of designation as such precedes in point of time that of any other Coast Guard aviator or aviation pilot.”

11. The Coast Guard by the numbers:

According to the U.S. Coast Guard Boating Resource Center, on an average day, the Coast Guard conducts 109 searches and rescues, saves ten lives, seizes 169 pounds of marijuana and 306 pounds of cocaine worth $9,589,000.00, and investigates six vessel casualties.

November 11, 2012 - 6:40am
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