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NEWS | Oct. 18, 2017

The fifth branch of the Armed Forces: A historical perspective from MLEA

By U.S. Coast Guard commander Doug Daniels Maritime Law Enforcement Academy

At times overlooked as the nation's fifth branch of the Armed Forces, the Coast Guard has served in America’s wars, beginning with the 18th century quasi-war with France, through the Iraq War, and in all the major (and many not-so-major) conflicts in between. 

By law, the Coast Guard is an armed force at all times and may be transferred in its entirety into the Department of the Navy during times of war.  During peacetime or undeclared conflicts, the Coast Guard serves as a force provider to the Department of Defense by transferring operational control of units to fulfill niche capabilities.  Although the Coast Guard has not been transferred to the Navy Department since World War II, the latter arrangement as a force provider was used successfully during the Vietnam War and continues to this day.

The recent public television series on the history of the Vietnam War serves as reminder of the Coast Guard's role in that conflict.  Dozens of cutters and approximately 8,000 Coast Guardsmen served in Vietnam. Fifty-three were wounded during combat operations and seven made the highest sacrifice. 


The service’s involvement began in April 1965 when the Chief of Naval Operations asked the Coast Guard Commandant to support Operation Market Time: the Navy’s maritime interdiction mission off the coast of Vietnam.  Early in the war, the Navy was still developing its fleet of small patrol craft suitable for this mission, and it called upon the Coast Guard to provide this capability along with its counter-smuggling expertise.  By summer 1965, nineteen 82 foot coastal patrol boats and crews had been relocated to Vietnam. Their activities included interdiction and inspection of coastal vessel traffic to stem the smuggling of arms and supplies to the Viet Cong, naval gunfire in support of infantry units ashore and the occasional firefight with enemy vessels.  Patrol boat duty was arduous, with crews spending 75% of their time underway, frequently offshore in seas inhospitable to such small craft.  As the war escalated, the total number of patrol boats eventually increased to 26 and several larger high-endurance cutters rotated in-theater to deter trafficking farther offshore and to lend their five inch guns to naval gunfire support missions. 


By the time Coast Guard involvement in the war began to wind down in 1970, the 57 cutters serving in the waters of Vietnam had boarded or inspected 510,000 vessels, completed over 6,000 naval gunfire support missions, sank 3,000 junks and inflicted 1900 enemy casualties. Several cutters also fought in the handful of ship-to-ship battles of the war, interdicting and destroying several North Vietnamese trawlers which were outfitted for smuggling and had attempted to run the naval blockade. 


Of the seven Coast Guardsmen killed in action in Vietnam, six served on the patrol boats. Of these, Fireman Heriberto Hernandez and Chief Engineman Morris Beeson were lost in two separate combat actions, while operating their cutters’ unarmored small boats near shore and taking fire from Viet Cong machine gunners. Tragically, the costliest episode for the Coast Guard during the war was not the result of enemy action, but rather a “friendly fire” incident.  During the dark morning hours of August 11, 1966 a U.S. Air Force B-57 and two F-4s, having mistaken the USCGC Point Welcome for an enemy vessel, strafed and cluster-bombed the cutter for thirty minutes before realizing their mistake. The commanding officer, Lieutenant (junior grade) David Brostrom, and Engineman 2nd Class Jerry Phillips were killed and nearly all of the remaining crew were wounded, along with a South Vietnamese Navy translator and a civilian journalist who had happened to be on board. Despite being riddled with shrapnel holes and the helm being shot away, the cutter was saved through the heroic action of her crew.  After repairs, the Point Welcome returned to combat service and later destroyed an enemy trawler in a ship-to-ship firefight during the Tet Offensive of 1968.


The seventh Coast Guardsman lost in the war was a helicopter pilot on exchange with the U.S. Air Force.  At that time, both services used the HH-3 helicopter for search and rescue, and the exchange program took advantage of Coast Guard aviators who were skilled operators of this aircraft.  Lieutenant Jack Rittichier was among three Coast Guard pilots who volunteered to fly HH-3s during combat search and rescue missions over South Vietnam, and took part in multiple rescues.  On June 9, 1968, he and Air Force crewmembers Captain Richard C. Yeend, Staff Sergeant Elmer L. Holden and Sergeant James D. Locke, were shot down over Laos while attempting to recover a downed Marine pilot.  Although the entire crew perished in the crash and were not recovered, their remains were eventually located in 2002 and repatriated.    


The Coast Guard continues to fulfill military duties abroad, notably through its ongoing operations in the Northern Arabian Gulf.  Since 2002, six patrol boats have provided a niche capability similar to what the service had provided in Vietnam, acting once again in a partnership with the U.S. Navy to promote regional maritime security. In April 2004, the Coast Guard experienced its sole casualty of the Iraq War, when a combined Navy-Coast Guard crew from the USS Firebolt attempted to interdict a suicide boat targeting an offshore oil terminal for attack. Upon interception, the suicide boat detonated and caused the Firebolt’s launch to capsize.  Coast Guard Damage Controlman 3rd Class Nate Bruckenthal, and Navy petty officers Michael Pernaselli and Christopher Watts, were killed by the blast.


At the Maritime Law Enforcement Academy here in Charleston, our mission is to train Coast Guardsmen in the safe, legal and professional enforcement of federal law over waters subject to U.S. jurisdiction.  Since our training mission involves Coast Guard’s civil law enforcement mission, we generally don’t think of ourselves as supporting the service’s legal mandate to maintain a state of readiness as an armed force.  However, it is typically these law enforcement-based skills, tactics, and expertise in the prevention and suppression of crimes at sea the Coast Guard draws upon when providing its specialized maritime security capabilities to the Department of Defense during low-intensity conflicts and military operations other than war.  Coast Guard units, like the cutter crews based in Bahrain, advanced interdiction teams deployed overseas to combat piracy or terrorism, and international training teams performing military security cooperation activities abroad, learned the basics of their craft here.  In this regard, the Maritime Law Enforcement Academy contributes to our service’s motto—Semper Paratus—ensuring that Coast Guard personnel are “Always Ready” when called upon to fulfill their duties as members of the U.S. Armed Forces.