Friday, November 11, 2016

5 Even Awesomer Facts About the Coast Guard

I used to be in the Coast Guard, and no one thought we were dangerous.
But that’s just a clever act we put on. Beneath our candy-coated (sometimes literally) exteriors beat the hearts of true warriors: an unstoppable force that’s scoured the seas since the days when sailors fought with sword and musket.

We’ve been there in every war, in a hundred different capacities, with our unique weapons, brash ingenuity, and rare skillsets, to make sure the job got done and America stayed safe.

To show you what I mean, I made another list.


1. The Coast Guard’s weapons are too dangerous for war

Whenever we deploy to a warzone, the Department of Defense won’t let us carry our normal loadout. Why? Because like the A-bomb, napalm, and weaponized smallpox, the Coast Guard’s most-effective weapon is illegal in combat.

Because it's technically a chemical weapon, pepper spray falls under the same category as mustard gas under the Geneva convention, and so it can't be carried into battle. 

Of course, if you, like me, have ever been pepper sprayed, you might sympathize...

2. The Coast Guard built an atomic lighthouse

If someone asked you how to power a lighthouse – an object that’s essentially a large Christmas light pointed out to sea – you’d probably answer with something sane, like batteries or whale oil. But apparently, once upon a time, the Coast Guard decided to try radiation.

There was actually pretty good reason for this, though: lighthouses often sit a couple miles off the coast, or are located in remote, harsh parts of the world that aren’t easy to get fuel or power lines to. Having a power source that essentially never runs out and never breaks down saves a lot of time, money, and manpower. So in 1964, the Coast Guard experimented with a small, strontium-powered reactor installed in Baltimore Light. Although it was perfectly safe, it didn’t provide much benefit, and they removed it two years later.

The Soviets, meanwhile, built 300 of the things all along their coastline during the Cold War.

(That would be just fine, I suppose, but now the Russians apparently can’t find them all)

3. Minelayers were based on buoy tenders

What’s the deadliest ship in the Coast Guard’s fleet? Believe it or not, it’s the black hull.

Before it was integrated into the Coast Guard, the Lighthouse Service was responsible for managing all of the nation’s buoys and – yes – lighthouses. To maintain them, it operated a large fleet of tender ships: ships with heavy cranes, low freeboard, and a lot of carrying capacity to haul supplies or buoys.

But these ships had another purpose: they could plant mines. During the Spanish-American War and World War I, the ships of the Lighthouse Service carried out almost all of the work of laying coastal defenses – including laying submarine nets and mines. They also hauled supplies and ammunition to remote outposts and sailed with Navy fleets. On a few occasions, they even saw combat, and two tenders (both future Coast Guard cutters) were credited with capturing Spanish warships.

The Lighthouse ships were so effective that when the Army was looking to build its own minelayers a few years later, they used buoy tenders as their template. Because as we all know, they’re good at protecting waterways.

4. The Coast Guard literally fights sea monsters

In 1933, off the coast of New Jersey, the fishing boat Miss Pensacola II came under attack from a 5,000-pound, 20-foot-wide manta ray, after the ray became tangled in the Pensacola’s anchor line. The manta fought so hard it nearly sunk the fishing vessel, and the Coast Guard had to intervene to keep them from going under. It took 22 shots from a high-powered rifle to finally put the poor creature out of its misery.

...Okay, I know I’m kind of sympathizing with the manta here, but we’re the Coast Guard. We may protect people from sea monsters, but we’re also responsible for their conservation.

5. One Coastie captured 22 rum runners by leaping onto their ship

In the 1920s, the Coast Guard’s loyalty was tested when it was ordered to enforce Prohibition. Being the dedicated service that it is, it answered the call and sailed the coastline in search of rum runners.

The night before Independence Day 1927, as Ensign Charles Duke and his two crewmen patrolled New York Harbor, they spotted a small steamer moving through the darkness toward the shoreline. The steamer looked rundown, its sides rusty and its lights dim, although the name on the stern looked freshly painted. Duke’s boat intercepted the steamer and asked it to heave-to for inspection, but the captain refused to stop. Duke fired two warning shots from his pistol, but still the vessel didn’t yield.

Duke gave chase. When his skiff drew close, he grabbed the railing and flung himself onto the steamer’s deck, telling his crewmen to ready the machine gun. He forced his way into the cabin with nothing but a flashlight and a revolver with only three bullets, and ordered the master to stop once more. When the master said no, Duke seized the ship’s wheel and turned the steamer onto Robbin’s Reef. With the ship aground, Duke told his waiting boat crew to go for help at the nearest Coast Guard station.

As it turned out, Duke had captured the infamous rum runner Greypoint, which had sailed from Halifax under a false name. Onboard the ship were 3,000 barrels of smuggled alcohol worth over $50,000. Duke single-handedly captured all twenty-two crewmembers, seized thousands of gallons of liquor, and probably ruined someone’s 4th of July party.

But I’m sure he took his crew out afterward to celebrate.

So by now you should understand that the Coast Guard isn’t here to mess around. We’re a tough, serious service and have been since the days of Alexander Hamilton. We carry powerful weapons and fight sea monsters, we stop smugglers and handle deadly explosives. You should be afraid of us.

Very afraid.

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