A Legacy of Maritime Law Enforcement

The Coast Guard’s legacy of maritime law enforcement dates to the founding of the Revenue Cutter Service by Alexander Hamilton in 1790. This newly formed maritime force did not have an official name, it was simply referred to as “the cutters” or “the system of cutters.” This small force enforced national laws, in particular, those dealing with tariffs. The Continental Navy having been disbanded in 1785, there was no United States Navy initially under the Constitution. These cutters constituted the only maritime force available to the new government. Thus, between 1790 and 1798, the cutters were the only ships protecting the coast, trade, and maritime interests of the new republic. Hence, the Coast Guard’s status as the United States’ “oldest, continuously serving sea service”.

Listed chronologically, the following are some of the significant events/developments that have shaped the Coast Guard and its legacy of maritime law enforcement.

Suppression of Illegal Slave Trade– 22 March 1794-Congress made it illegal for US citizens to engage in the international slave trade. Revenue cutters were charged with enforcing this law. 2 March 1807-The importation of slaves from Africa was made illegal by Congress. The law became effective on 1 January 1808. 15 May 1820- This act declared engaging in the international slave trade an “act of piracy.”

Seizures of Note:

1799, Governor Jay captures the slaver Betsy in Boston. This appears to be the first capture under the 1794 law.

8 July 1820- Dallas captured the 10-gun brig General Ramirez carrying 280 African slaves off St. Augustine, FL.

25 March 1822- Alabama captured three slave ships

By the end of the Civil War, revenue cutters had captured numerous slavers and freed almost 500 slaves.

Beginning of Migrant Interdiction Mission– Act of 19 February 1862 (12 Stat. L., 340, 341) This was the first law passed to curb illegal migration. This particular law prohibited the importation of Chinese laborers. Congress passed subsequent laws regarding illegal immigration which the Revenue Cutter Service was charged with enforcing.

Protection of Marine Mammals– with the United States’ acquisition of Alaska in 1867, the Revenue Cutter Service was charged with ending pelagic seal hunting and protecting the seal herds and rookeries in the Pribilof Islands. From 1874 through 1913, two cutters named Rush served on the Bering Sea Patrol and the ships were responsible for protecting the seal herds. Due to the success of these patrols, seal poachers had to conduct their illegal hunts before the cutter arrived. This resulted in one of our most used sayings, “Get there early to avoid the Rush!”

First documented opium seizure– made by USRC Wolcott on 31 August 1890. Stationed in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, the cutter conducted a boarding of the American steamer George E. Starr. It found an undeclared quantity of opium and seized it and the vessel.

Innovative law enforcement development– In 1904 USRC Grant, cruising in the Straits of Juan de Fuca and the Puget Sound, became the first U.S ship to employ wireless for tactical purposes when it used radios to combat the traffic of illegal migrants and narcotics in the Pacific Northwest.

First Prohibition liquor seizure at sea4 August 1921– USCGC Seneca seized the rum-running schooner Henry L. Marshall off the coast of New Jersey with 1,500 cases of liquor from the Bahamas on board. The vessel was owned by the renowned bootlegger, Bill “The Real” McCoy.

Use of cryptanalysis– Elizabeth Smith Friedman, born in 1892, was one of the most remarkable women to ever work for the U.S. Government.  The National Security Agency described her as: “wife, mother, writer, Shakespeare enthusiast, cryptanalyst, and pioneer in U.S. cryptology.” While not a member of the Coast Guard per se, Mrs. Friedman was the Treasury Department’s cryptanalyst, hired in 1924, who assisted the various departments of the Treasury with code breaking.  Her work with the Coast Guard began soon after the passage of the Volstead Act. Liquor smugglers frequently made use of radios to coordinate their activities and began to encode their messages.  Ms. Friedman was then detailed to the Coast Guard and so began a remarkable career with the nation’s oldest sea service breaking these illicit codes.  She was quite successful and is credited with “breaking” the code of over 12,000 different encoded radio messages. She was also a star government witness at a number of smugglers’ trials, including the famous I’m Alone case.  In 1938 she “cracked” the code used by an opium-smuggling ring operating out of Canada.  In this instance she assisted the Canadian government.

Use of aircraft for law-enforcement– During Prohibition the Coast Guard used its aviation assets to combat the illegal importation of liquor. Examples of this include the development of aerial patrols from Ten Pound Island, MA in 1925 and the experimental arming of Coast Guard Loening OL-5 amphibians with a .30 caliber Lewis machine gun around 1929. These are the ancestral predecessors of the HITRON.

Most spectacular seizure– On 3 July 1927, Ensign Charles L. Duke and two men were patrolling New York Harbor on board the 36-foot picket boat, CG-2327. Duke noticed a small, dimly lit steamer moving through the harbor under the cover of darkness. She had the name Economy painted on her stern, but she was really the rumrunner, Greypoint. Duke maneuvered CG-2327 alongside the ship and ordered her to stop. The master refused. Duke then fired two warning shots from his revolver, yet the freighter pressed on. As CG-2327 drew close to the ship, Duke grabbed the freighter’s rail and swung onto the ship. He moved to the deckhouse armed with a flashlight and a revolver with only three rounds. Stopped by a seaman, Duke pushed him aside and moved on to the pilot house. Storming in, he ordered the captain to reverse the engines. When the captain refused, Duke took the wheel and grounded the ship on Robbins Reef. Duke quickly hailed his two crewmen on CG-2327 and sent for assistance. By the time help was sent, it was after 12:30 AM. The boarding had taken place somewhat after 9:00 PM and Duke was still alone. It was not until 2 AM that USCGC Calumet approached. She could not close because of the shallow water. CG-122 then grounded in the mud and CG-143 nearly met the same fate. It was 6 AM when Ensign Duke was finally relieved on board the seized vessel. In all Duke had captured 22 men and 3,000 fifty-gallon drums of alcohol. It was, perhaps, the most heroic exploit in the Rum War.

Most violent/dangerous seizure: 7 August 1927-Horace Alderman, a rumrunner, murdered two Coast Guardsmen and a Secret Service agent after his vessel was stopped by patrol boat CG-249 off the coast of Florida.  Alderman was eventually subdued by the remaining crew of CG-249 and arrested.  He was later tried, convicted, and hanged at the Coast Guard station at Bahia Mar, Florida on 17 August 1929.

First Major Coast Guard marijuana seizure– 8 March 1973- based on intelligence received three days earlier crewmen from USCGC Dauntless boarded a 38-foot sports fisherman, Big L and found more than a ton of marijuana on board. The boat’s master and crew were arrested.

Largest marijuana seizure – August 1978- the cutters USCGC Cape Knox and USCGC Sagebrush jointly seize M/V Heidi along with her cargo of 120 tons of marijuana in the Caribbean.

Noteworthy Fisheries enforcement– July 1997- A Canadian aircraft spotted the vessel Cao Yu 6025 fishing 1,100 miles northwest of Midway Island. After spotting the surveillance aircraft, the vessel’s crew attempted to flee. Canadian and U.S. Coast Guard aircraft tracked it, while USCGC Basswood attempted an intercept. After a 1,700-mile chase, Basswood, along with USCGC Chase, boarded the vessel in the East China Sea. Cao Yu was seized along with a catch of 120 tons of albacore, swordfish and shark fins. The vessel was escorted to Guam, where its catch was ultimately sold at auction.

Noteworthy Migrant Interdiction– The most dangerous Alien Migration Interdiction Operation faced by the Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Detachment (PACTACLET) was in September 1998 aboard the M/V Chih Yung. 172 Chinese migrants, many of whom were in very poor health and in desperate need of food and water, had been interdicted by USCGC Munro off the coast of Mexico, and needing as many experienced personnel as possible, the cutter requested PACTACLET support. Two teams were deployed and upon arrival found a hostile crowd being stirred up by its leaders. For weeks, the LEDET and the cutter’s boarding teams turned back riots, ended hunger strikes, and prevented suicide attempts by the desperate migrants. All 172 migrants were safely transferred to INS officials in San Diego for further disposition.

Largest cocaine seizure– 18 March 2007- 42,845 lbs. on board Gatun. Initially spotted by a USCG maritime patrol C-130 aircraft, the Panamanian-flagged motor vessel was seized jointly by USCGC Hamilton and USCGC Sherman, approximately 20 miles southwest of Isla de Coiba, Panama.


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