With the end of the war, the Coast Guard went back to the Department of Treasury and its traditional peacetime missions. By this time, the Coast Guard had assumed the basic elements that would characterize the Service for the rest of the century. It was an armed service that was also the lead federal agency for maritime law enforcement and safety. Its wartime peak had been over 150,000 uniformed personnel.
The nation came out of the war in a boom economy. We were the richest and most powerful nation on earth. Our ships and aircraft traveled the world. Our ports were the busiest in the world. Port cities demanded ice-free rivers and lakes so business could continue year round. Transoceanic air transportation, which bloomed after WWI, exploded after WWII. Individual citizens also prospered. With more leisure time and more expendable revenue, new hobbies grew. Among these was boating. No longer considered a pastime of the rich yachtsmen, boating became a sport of the middle class.
Much of this had been foreseen by the Coast Guard. By September 1943, the Service had drafted an outline of what it would look like after the war. The main missions were centered around maritime safety and security and included aids to navigation (ATON) (including LORAN), ocean weather stations, International Ice Patrol, ice breaking (domestic and polar), oceanographic research (especially in the Arctic and Antarctic), commercial vessel safety (CVS), enforcement of laws and treaties (ELT), and search and rescue (SAR). The plan called for manpower levels of about 35,000.
No one could officially say that any of these missions was more important than any other. But it was drilled into every Cadet at the Academy, every OC at OCS, and every boot at boot camp that, “The primary mission of every Coast Guard unit is search and rescue”. SAR could end a pollution investigation, stop the work of a buoy tender, and even divert a cutter from the hot pursuit of a boatload of contraband. Any unit could be diverted from any mission at any time to prosecute a SAR case.
But Congress and the people were demanding a massive demobilization of wartime personnel and equipment. The country was tired of war and firmly believed that we would never have to fight another one. Budgets were slashed and the Coast Guard was hit just as hard as the other services. By 1946, the draft mission statement envisioning a 35,000-man force level was accepted, but the Service was down to 18,000 uniformed personnel. It was the continuation of the idea of, “Let’s do more with less”.
To accomplish these missions, the Coast Guard, in keeping with tradition, relied on various classes of cutters. Most of these were relatively new and many had been transferred from the Navy. However, the Service also came to rely more and more on aircraft and new advances in electronics. These new tools reduced the number of men and women needed to do a given mission.
The other major mission of the Coast Guard, not related to maritime safety and security, was military preparedness. In 1950, the Coast Guard went to war again. Though no cutters deployed to Korea, 22 qualified for the Korean Service Medal, as did nine LORAN stations.
Port security had been a wartime mission until the Korean War. When the Korean War ended, the mission continued and became full time.
In the 1950s, enforcement of laws and treaties had moved beyond slavery and piracy to marine mammal protection and enforcement of fisheries regulations within the 200 Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ).
The Cold War led to a unique mission for the Coast Guard. The State Department wanted to enhance the ability of the Balkan and Soviet-bloc nations to receive Voice of America broadcasts by stationing a ship equipped to relay the signals in a harbor in the Med. Use of a Navy ship was out of the question. A freighter was acquired, commissioned as USCGC Courier, anchored in the harbor at Rhodes, and, for the next 12 years, handled the transmissions.
Due to an increase in small boat accidents, the Small Passenger Vessel Act of 10 May 1956 was passed into law. The requirements of this act became effective on 1 June 1958, and provided that all vessels, regardless of size or propulsion, carrying more than six passengers for hire, be inspected by a Marine Inspector of the Coast Guard, and meet associated safety requirements. These requirements not only covered life saving and fire fighting equipment, but also machinery and electrical installations, hull strength and stability considerations. This law required that operators be licensed by the Coast Guard and minimum manning requirements be met. Additionally, the route or routes on which the vessel may operate and the maximum number of passengers which may be carried are established by the Coast Guard.
In 1960, President John Kennedy initiated a facelift for the Coast Guard. Construction was begun on three new classes of cutters. Kennedy urged the Service to develop a distinctive logo that would raise public awareness. As a result, in 1967 (yeah, it took seven years of study), the distinctive red and blue racing stripes appeared on cutters and aircraft. The Service also developed its own classification system. Ocean-going vessels became High Endurance Cutters (WHEC). Coastal vessels became Medium Endurance Cutters (WMEC). Patrol Boats became WPBs. In 1965, the Coast Guard went to war again. Unlike Korea, several hundred Coastguardsmen deployed to Vietnam and several died there.
In 1967, the Coast Guard moved from Treasury to the newly-created Department of Transportation. The idea was to bring all of the agencies responsible for safety in various modes of transportation under one roof. It included the FAA, railroads and highways administrations, and the Coast Guard. It was probably the worst thing that could have happened to the Service. It always played second fiddle to the FAA, and often third fiddle to the highway commission. Support was abysmal and funding a struggle. The move brought a new job, bridge administration, acquired from the Corps of Engineers. But no new funding. The orientation became more scientific and technological. The Service was doing more and more missions with electronics.
The Service shared the title of lead federal oceanographic agency with the Navy until 1970 when NOAA was formed and cut deeply into the oceanographic mission. The oceanographic research was reduced to that needed to support the Ice Patrol. In the 1970s, electronic navigation and improved aircraft reliability led to the end of the Ocean Weather Stations. Also in the 1970s, environmental protection began to take center stage. A new mission was added to the list and the Coast Guard shared the lead agency title with the newly-created EPA. The Coast Guard was responsible for enforcement along the coast.
In 1974, the Coast Guard initiated a change that was intended to eliminate constant confusion with the Navy. For years, the Coast Guard had used uniforms that were identical to the Navy. The only difference was the shield on the sleeve instead of a star and the shape of the officers’ eagle cap devise. ADM Chester Bender introduced an entirely new uniform of basic light blue. They became known as the “Bender Blues”. They certainly remedied the problem of being confused with the Navy. Now Coastguardsmen would be confused with the Air Force. During a visit by President Ronald Reagan to the Reserve Training Center at Yorktown during the bicentennial celebration of the Battle of Yorktown, a parade was scheduled involving the five armed services. As the Coast Guard contingent marched past the reviewing stand, one viewer was heard to comment, “That must be the foreign contingent”. She was corrected by the wife of a Coast Guard officer.
In the 1980s, drug patrols became prominent. The Coast Guard was tasked with assuring illegal drugs were not landed on American shores by ship. As with prohibition, small successes followed, but the task, which continues today, has proved overwhelming. Also in the 1980s, several thousand Cuban refugees sailed from Mariel to Florida. The Coast Guard assisted most of these “boat people” in the Mariel Boat Lift. Later, the US closed its doors to illegal immigrants and the Coast Guard began an aggressive policy of turning the boat people back to Cuba.
1991 found the Coast Guard in the Persian Gulf as an integral part of Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield. Coastguardsmen performed vessel boardings from Navy destroyers. Others performed port security duty both ashore and patrolling in small boats.