Origins: 100 years ago a combination of services led to the modern day Coast Guard

Story by Seaman Sarah Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson

Jan. 30, 2015 marks 100 years since the “Act to create the Coast Guard”, signed by then President Woodrow Wilson, went into effect. The legislation merged the Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service to establish the Coast Guard in 1915.

Not long ago, the Coast Guard America knows today – the organization that saves thousands of lives at sea each year, helps keep fisheries safe and fishermen afloat, prevents thousands of tons of narcotics from reaching U.S. soil and aids mariners from around the world – faced an untimely demise.

In the early 1900s, political progressives and muckraking journalists inspired an inquisition against wealth and big government. The call for administrative reform and reorganization spurred then President William Howard Taft to create the Commission on Economy and Efficiency; the group aimed to streamline federal programs and reshuffle agencies.

As a result, the cutter branch, which enforced customs duties and assisted distressed mariners, would walk the plank. At the time five maritime agencies were dispersed among a multitude of departments, resulting in scattered duties and overlapping missions both in Washington and at sea.

Proposals for what to do with the cutter services ranged from transferring their functions to the Navy to abolishing the cutter branch altogether.

“People were asking, ‘What is the real purpose of the Coast Guard?’” said Dr. David Rosen, a historian for the Coast Guard. “The sinking of the Titanic created a new mission that made the Revenue Cutter Service relevant once again.”

Untergang der Titanic ("Sinking of the Titanic") by Willy Stöwer, 1912

Untergang der Titanic (“Sinking of the Titanic”) by Willy Stöwer, 1912

The loss of the Titanic in April 1912 shocked the world. More than half of the passengers and crew died after the ship collided with an iceberg and sank on its fateful maiden voyage from England to New York.

The next year, a worldwide effort to prevent another Titanic disaster produced the International Ice Patrol. Talk of terminating the Revenue Cutter Service ended when it sent two cutters to monitor ice in the North Atlantic, but the cry for government cutbacks continued.

Commandant Ellsworth Price Bertholf, a captain in the Revenue Cutter Service, was among the first to recommend combining the Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service into a single entity. He proposed the idea that lifesaving stations on land could support cutter search and rescue operations at sea.

What emerged was a sort of naval reserve, wherein coast guardsmen would fulfill their primary missions of search and rescue and customs enforcement until the time of war, when they would be transferred to operate under the department of the Navy.

Commandant Ellsworth Price Bertholf

Commandant Ellsworth Price Bertholf

“Bertholf and his counterpart in the Life-Saving Service Sumner Kimball were instrumental in saving the Coast Guard,” said Scott Price, a deputy historian for the Coast Guard. “Without them, the services could have easily disappeared.”

Bertholf’s bid to create a unified force gained traction among both major political parties, and his proposal passed in the Senate in March 1914. The following January, the House approved the “Act to create the Coast Guard.” Wilson, as president, signed the bill later that month, and the act took effect on Jan. 30, 1915.

Throughout the next 20 years, the two organizations jumped bureaucratic hurdles, combined regulations, adopted standard uniforms and aligned their ranks. By World War II, a framework for the modern-day Coast Guard was being put in place.

One hundred years later the Coast Guard has grown from a handful of dedicated sailors to a crew of more than 43,000 active duty, 8,000 reserve, 8,700 civilian and 32,000 auxiliary members. Having stood the true test of time, the service remains the nation’s primary instrument of maritime safety, security and environmental stewardship.

Read additional informationon this historic service change on the Coast Guard Compass.

Life Saving Service

U.S. Life Saving Service

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