On 31 July 1916, a massive explosion destroyed the port facility on Black Tom’s Island, New Jerseyand sent a million dollars worth of glass cascading onto the streets of New York and New Jersey cities. Only the fact that it happened at 0200 prevented the loss of thousands of lives. Sabotage was suspected, but never proven. When America entered WWI, Black Tom’s was on Congress’ mind when it passed the Espionage Act on 15 June 1917. The Act placed responsibility for the security of American ports with the Coast Guard. The senior Coast Guard officer in each port, regardless of his rank, was named Captain of the Port. He had exclusive control over all aspects of the port. But the Act expired at the end of the War.
In September 1939, President Roosevelt declared a national emergency and ordered the Coast Guard to develop a daily report on the movement of all foreign and domestic vessels and aircraft in American ports. Next was added the sealing of radios and checking of arms of all belligerent vessels entering American harbors. Port security and Captains of the Port began creeping back into the vernacular of the service. On 27 June 1940, a proclamation gave the Coast Guard the authority “to inspect and search any vessel or person, or package therein; to place guards in vessels and remove unauthorized persons there from; to take full possession or control of any vessel for the collector of customs when necessary to secure safety against damage or injury; and to prevent damage or injury to any harbor or waters of the United States.” The Coast Guard could also require all lighters, barges, ferries, tugs, and small craft to have special licenses and could revoke them for any infraction or suspicious act. Longshoremen were identified, fingerprinted, and required to carry identification.
On 8 February 1942, workmen were aboard the French liner Normandie at Pier 88, North River. They inadvertently set some life preservers on fire. The fire spread throughout the ship, which sank at the pier. Had the fire spread to the warehouses loaded with war material and arms, the results would have been a disaster along the lines of Black Tom’s. As a result, the Coast Guard built or converted 253 vessels to fire fighting vessels.
On 24 April 1943, fire broke out on the Panamanian freighter El Estero, which was loaded with 1,365 tons of explosives. Tied up beside her were two other freighters, each loaded with explosives. An explosion had the potential to kill thousands and bring down many of New York’s tallest buildings. The burning vessel, ringed with Coast Guard and New York City fireboats, was towed to the lower bay. After a two-hour battle, the vessel settled and sank with no further incident.
At the peak of the war, 28,483 Coast Guard personnel (22% of the Service) were engaged in port security work. There were 991 Captain of the Port Offices and 146 Assistant COTPs. Another 50,000 volunteers were organized from the Reserves to patrol in their own boats or vehicles. Over 2,000 SPARs worked in port security billets.
It is hard to say if the port security work paid dividends because it is hard to count the number of things that did not happen. But the Navy requested the Coast Guard port security team be removed from Port Chicago in San Francisco Bay in early 1944. The Coast Guard removed them. On 17 July 1944, the freighters E.A. Bryan and Quinalt Victory were loading ammunition. For reasons never fully explained, 5,000 tons of explosives exploded aboard E.A. Bryan. The explosion was heard 200 miles away, destroyed Quinalt Victory and a nearby fireboat, claimed 325 lives and heavily damaged property within a ten-mile radius. No such blast occurred where a port security team was working.
For a more in depth look at this mission go to this Link.
From a modeling perspective, the patrols were done in armed jeeps. A diorama of a Coast Guard jeep is a suggestion.
Commercial Vessel Safety
In a related move, to assure the safety of U.S. merchant vessels, President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order temporarily transferring the Steam Boat Inspection Service to the Coast Guard in 1941. The move was intended to be a wartime provision that would expire after the war. The Coast Guard also took over the training and licensing of merchant sailors. The training mission went to the Maritime Agency in 1942, but vessel inspection, accident investigation, and seamen licensing are all still Coast Guard missions.