The United States Coast Guard, charged with the mission of ensuring the nation’s maritime safety, security and stewardship, was established by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton on this day in history, August 4, 1790.
Originally called the Revenue Marine Service, the Coast Guard was founded eight years before the U.S. Navy.
“The Coast Guard is both a federal law enforcement agency and a military force, and therefore is a faithful protector of the United States in peacetime and war,” states GoCoastGuard.com, the service’s recruiting arm.
“In times of war, or at the direction of the President, the Coast Guard serves under the Department of the Navy, defending the nation against terrorism and foreign threats.”
The service boasts 43,000 active-duty members, plus another 38,000 reservists and auxiliary members, according to USCGBoating.org.
Coast Guard maritime rescue missions save about 3,500 lives per year.
Hamilton, upon the founding of the service, issued a lengthy set of orders to its commanders in a letter dated June 4, 1791.
Hamilton reminded them that, in the new republic, their federal agency was limited in the execution of its difficult duties by the bounds of law — a largely new concept in human history at the time.
“It will be your duty to seize vessels and goods in the cases in which they are liable to seizure for breaches of the Revenue laws, when they come under your notice,” Hamilton wrote.
“But all the power you can exercise will be found in some provisions of the law and it must be a rule with you to exercise none with which you are not clearly invested.”
The Revenue Marine, later the Revenue Cutter Service, was renamed the Coast Guard after it merged with the U.S. Lifesaving Service in 1915.
The Coast Guard counts among its heroes Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro. He earned the Medal of Honor for his dauntless courage in leading the evacuation of 500 Marines from a beachhead during the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War II.
Munro risked and gave his own life in the effort.
He was shot in the back of his skull by a Japanese bullet and died a short time later as the last Marines were pulled from the beach to fight again.
Among the Marines Munro saved: Lt. Col. Chesty Puller (later lieutenant general), a hero of three conflicts and still celebrated in military lore as the most decorated Marine in American history.
Puller himself nominated Munro for the Medal of Honor.
“By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished,” reads Munro’s Medal of Honor citation.
The Coast Guardsman “gallantly gave up his life in defense of his country.”
It remained under the Treasury Department until 1967, when it was moved to the Transportation Department.
The Coast Guard joined the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
The Coast Guard has served many of the nation’s most important and most dangerous missions.
When the U.S. abolished the import of slaves in 1808, the Coast Guard was charged with enforcing the law and ending human trafficking on the high seas.
The Coast Guard has served numerous combat missions overseas, most notably in the many amphibious landings of World War II.
Hundreds of Coast Guardsmen have been killed in combat through the years.
Fifteen Coast Guardsmen were killed on D-Day alone, the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy, according to the Coast Guard historian’s office.
Six of these American heroes are buried in the Normandy American Cemetery in France.
The Coast Guard today is charged with lifesaving operations in American waters and with enforcing U.S. immigration and drug laws.
The Coast Guard offloaded a record haul of $1.4 billion in marijuana and cocaine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in August 2021.
A long list of famous Americans have served the nation in the Coast Guard.
Among them: newscaster Walter Cronkite, actor Humphrey Bogart and heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, who participated in the Battle of Okinawa, the last pitched battle of World War II, in 1945.