Semper Paratus: Coast Guard Celebrates 231 Years

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A Coast Guard 36-foot motor lifeboat rides the waves. (Courtesy of the United States Coast Guard)

NATIONWIDE — A very Happy Coast Guard Day to all of the local Coasties in the Historic Triangle. 

Coast Guard Day is celebrated every Aug. 4 to commemorate the branch’s birthday. This year marks 231 years since then Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, established the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), then called the Revenue Marine, in 1790.

The USCG did not officially become a military branch until 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the “Act to Create the Coast Guard,” an act passed by Congress on Jan. 20 that combined the Life-Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service to form the Coast Guard (38 Stat. L., 800).  

The USCG still considers the date of the founding of the Revenue Cutter Service on Aug. 4, 1790 as its official birthday. This is even though the Lighthouse Service, which was absorbed into the USCG in 1939, is even older than that. The Lighthouse Service dates its founding to Aug. 7, 1789.  

Under the 1915 law, the USCG officially became “part of the regular military establishment of the United States.”

It’s because of this law we have our two local USCG bases in Yorktown and Portsmouth.

In 1917, the United States Navy purchased 400 acres of the peninsula in Yorktown (Va.) to serve as a fuel depot. Then, in 1942, the Navy established its Mine Warfare School on a portion of this land. 

The USCG took possession of the Mine Warfare School site in 1959, and the Reserve Training Center (RTC) was officially commissioned on July 3 that year. The original purpose of RTC was to serve as the home for the USCG’s Officer Candidate School as well as a large summer training program for Reservists. Today, the base, now known as the Yorktown Training Center, conducts training for domestic and international purposes. 

However, before the Yorktown Training Center was established, a base in Portsmouth was founded. 

The United States Lighthouse Service established a Lighthouse Depot on the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth in 1870 to provide support for aids to navigation in Hampton Roads. 

Then, in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the transfer of the Lighthouse Service to the USCG, putting it in charge of maritime navigation. The Depot was then expanded and renamed the Portsmouth Coast Guard Base. This base provided support to cutters, aids to navigation, and personnel. 

Merchant marine licensing and merchant vessel safety went into the USCG’s control when Congress transferred the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to the Coast Guard in 1946.

In the decades after, the Coast Guard was tossed among departments like a hot potato. In 1967, the USCG was transferred to the Department of Transportation. The attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 drastically changed the role of the Coast Guard, and it was once again transferred, only this time to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

Today, the USCG acts as both a federal law enforcement agency and a military force, working in times of peace and war, enforcing maritime law, protecting marine environments, guarding coastlines and ports, and performing search and rescue missions. 

For a full timeline of the history of the Coast Guard, click here.

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