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Northwest Looms Large In Coast Guard Annals

By Fred Delkin

Semper Paratus, or Always Ready is Our motto    (Our Fame and Glory too…)

The opening lines of the U.S. Coast Guard anthem describe an attitude particularly applicable to the maritime history of the Pacific Northwest.  USCG shore and air bases in Oregon, Washington and Alaska constantly launch search and rescue missions into some of the most turbulent stretches of seascape on our planet…and that is only the most dramatic function of an organization dating back to 1790 when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton created the U.S. Revenue Service, equipping it with swift sailing vessels dubbed ‘cutters’ to enforce smuggling laws and protect ocean shipping lanes from pirates.  The title “Coast Guard” was formally established in 1915.  The service now exerts a maritime law enforcement mission in both domestic and international waters, both salt and fresh.

It is currently headquartered in Washington D.C. as an adjunct of the Department of Homeland Security, after moving from the Department of Transportation in 2003.  The Coast Guard has served within the War Dept. as a U.S. Navy branch during World Wars I & II, the Korean conflict and the Viet Nam imbroglio.  Coast Guard personnel monopolized landing craft coxswain(helmsman) duties in the South Pacific in WWII, during the Inchon landing in Korea and served on river patrols in the Nam conflict.

The USCG took to the air in 1926 to spot rumrunners after the enactment of Prohibition. Today there are 210 Coast Guard aircraft stationed at bases in the continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.  The Coast Guard surface fleet operates from bases in 35 states.  There are currently 41,873 men and women on active USCG duty.  The Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. graduates 225 ensigns annually who are committed to five years of active duty on sea or in the air.  Seamen recruits are volunteers trained at Boot Camps at Cape May, NJ or Petaluma, CA. for 8 weeks before being assigned to active duty.

Coast Guard Dramas

A documentary insight on today’s USCG training and operations is currently featured in the Weather Channel’s Coast Guard Alaska segments filmed at CG Kodiak air base.  Viewers have a harrowing ride with CG personnel on responses to maritime mishaps during extreme weather conditions.  This coverage features a relatively new Coast Guard designation of “Rescue Swimmer,” dramatized in a recent Hollywood epic The Guardian, starring Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher. Other Hollywood nods to the USCG include 1951’s The Fighting Coast Guard, rescue efforts in The Perfect Storm and a battle sequence in the James Bond feature Thunderball. Another current syndicated TV coverage of USCG efforts in Alaska’s wild waters is Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel.

Celebrities who have served active duty in the Coast Guard include golf’s Arnie Palmer, boxing’s Jack Dempsey, Tennis’s Jack Kramer, actors Buddy Ebsen (Beverly Hillbillies), Victor Mature and Jeff Bridges, author Alex Haley (Roots), comedian Sid Caesar and NASA astronauts Bruce Melnick and Daniel Burbank.

Coast Guard Equipment

The USCG surface fleet includes four Ice Breakers (400′ Polar Star & Polar Sea stationed in Seattle, the 420′ Healy on the East coast and the 240′ Mackinaw keeping Great Lakes sea-lanes open in winter.  The new 418′ Legend design tops the Cutter class, which includes ‘High Endurance’ 378 ‘craft and 210’ ‘ Medium Endurance’, ships. Cutters all carry fixed deck armament and are stationed at all major U.S. harbors.  225′ and 175′ Buoy Tenders monitor  and service navigation aids along our coasts.  The Patrol Boat classification includes 110′ and 87′ designs.  The 41′ Picket Boat class familiar to offshore fishermen and small boat operators is being replaced by a 45′ ‘Response Boat’ design.  There is a group of 47′ self-bailing Motor Life Boats to serve rough surf coastal ocean duty.

The Coast Guard defines its “Boats” classification as including any craft under 65′ in length and numbers 1,850 and includes 36’ Interceptor designs carried aboard Cutters and 20′ outboard-powered inflatables.

USCG aircraft include Guardian and Jayhawk helicopters that carry rescue swimmers; fixed wing Hercules turboprops designed for major long distance cargo-carrying duty and Gulfstream passenger jets.

Northwest bases

Oregon waters are served by Coast Guard shore stations in Portland, Warrenton, Astoria, Florence, Coos Bay, Garibaldi, Depoe Bay, Coquille, Port Orford, Brookings, Winchester Bay, Coos Bay and Newport.  Point Adams air base at Warrenton launches air/sea rescues, The Washington coast is served by 8 shore stations, including Ilwaco, which teams with Warrenton to cover the fearsome Columbia River Bar and environs.  Alaska has shore stations at Juneau, Ketchikan and Valdez and a major air base and training facility at Kodiak.

This writer served in the USCG during the Korean War, standing Port Security duty in Seattle and San Francisco and can testify that drunken longshoremen were reason enough to justify my small arms training at Alameda CA Boot Camp.  My Boot Camp Platoon Chief warned as we graduated that landing craft coxswain duty (which he performed in WWII) was preferable to being assigned to Weather Patrol aboard a Cutter in the Bering Sea.  Anyone who has watched Deadliest Catch knows whereof the Chief spoke.

We treasure an experience we had while serving as deckhand on a Picket Boat out of Warrenton. Our shoreside radioman contacted us to apprehend an unusual salmon fishing participant…a fellow from Des Moines, Iowa strapped into a truck tire inner tube that he launched from the Ilwaco jetty.  Using a boat hook, we pulled the angler alongside, lashed his craft to our rail and took him, under protest, to harbor.  We’ve since learned that this tale is treated as a probably apocryphal myth amongst Coast Guardsmen to this day.  However, Midwestern neophytes joining the maddened salmon angling adherents along our Pacific shoreline are but one hint of what the Coast Guard considers one of its nightmarish responsibilities.

While the Columbia River entrance is justifiably famed in shipwreck annals (from large sailing vessels of past centuries up to today’s Container ships), the USCG rates the Tillamook Bay entry passage as the deadliest in Oregon for small boatsmen.  Any major river entry along our coast deserves the utmost navigational attention.  That red, white and blue striped hull of boat or aircraft is a welcome symbol of the Coast Guard’s vow To Protect and Serve.

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