January 1915: The Creation of the Modern Coast Guard

It might seem perfectly perfunctory that the United States Coast Guard was formed on January 28, 1915 from the merger of the United States Revenue Cutter Services and the United States Lifesaving Service by then US President Woodrow Wilson’s signature on US Bill S2337 of the 63rd Congress, but if you dig a little deeper, you will find that this was necessary to keep some kind of coastal defense and life saving service afloat (pun intended).

United States Coast Guard Logo

In a very interesting and long article in the New York Times, dated January 31, 1915, we find that the Lifesaving Service was struggling to pay and maintain its officers and enlisted men, and the subsequent merger offered not only streamlined leadership, but also key services including longevity pay for re-enlistments, a pension, a clothing allowance (for uniforms, rubber boots and oilskins) and health services.  It also provided dependent pay for Coast Guard members killed in the line of duty and created a naval reserve.

In a letter, shared with the New York Times by the wife of former US Representative, Martin W. Littlefield (he represented New York in the House from 1911 to 1913), the wife of a life saver Captain from Maine, complains that they are seeking “ready money” on a claim for what looks like an injury.  “It seems hard,” she writes, “after the Captain has given his health and strength to the service for 30 years, that he should now be turned away like an old horse.”

Apparently, according to the article, previous to the creation of the modern Coast Guard, the life savers were only paid $65 dollars a month and were not paid at all when the stations were closed. Just so you know, the Internet is amazing, and I was able to find out that in today’s dollars, $65 per month would be worth just $1,670.33 per month.  (To see where I did my calculations, click here.)  That is not a livable wage for skilled work, then or now.

The bill creating the Coast Guard, which was apparently originally championed by Mrs. Littlefield, designated the Coast Guard as a part of the “military forces.”  The Coast Guard would operate under the auspices of the US Treasury Department in times of peace and could be co-opted into the US Navy during times of war when directed so by the President.

The newly merged organization brought together approximately 255 officers, 3,900 warrant officers and enlisted men, 17 regional commands, four depots, one academy, 25 cruising cutters, 20 harbor cutters and 280 lifeboat stations, according to Wikepedia.

Into the Jaws of Death taken by Coast Guard Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent and manned by Coast Guard crew, National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain

Of course the Coast Guard did join the Navy very shortly thereafter to assist with World War I.  The Coast Guard also assisted in every major conflict to come including World War II, and has performed critical life saving missions for countless domestic emergencies including the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill clean up, the Great of Flood of ‘93 (1993 that is) and Hurricane Katrina to name a few. 

The Coast Guard embodies a very rich history of nautical expertise, critical life saving services and national defense.  Hat’s off to Mrs. Littlefield and all of the others who worked together to create an enduring and important institution.  I could probably write 500 more blogs on the Coast Guard and all of the roles it has played in history, and maybe one day, I will.

To learn more about the creation of the United States Coast Guard, visit these resources:

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