The U.S. Coast Guard is involved in a variety of missions since it began service in 1790 as the Revenue-Marine. It has destroyed pirate forts, landed Marines on beaches around the world, and recently captured over $1 billion dollars in cocaine. It requires a lot from its members.
And, for nearly 70 years, the U.S. Coast Guard has trained all of its academy cadets on a 295-foot sailing vessel commissioned by the Nazis, ridden on by Adolf Hitler, and originally named for the man who wrote the Nazi Party anthem.
The ship, now called the USCGC Eagle, has an amazing history.
Launched in 1936 as the SSS Horst Wessel, the vessel was always destined to be a training ship. The Nazis made her the flagship of the training fleet of the Kriegsmarine, the navy.
Hitler is believed to have rode on her only one time, but legends persist in the Coast Guard about where Hitler may have napped while on board. A sailor on the Horst Wessel in World War II, Tido Holtkamp said in a BBC interview that Hitler’s boots had nails that scratched the deck, but everyone was too afraid to say anything.
She served in this role for three years, but was sidelined at the start of World War II in 1939. For a few years, she was a dormitory for Hitler Youth. In 1942, the ship was pressed back into service with a complement of anti-air guns but they weren’t very effective. Hotkamp remembers an American bomber attempting to destroy the ship, but it only survived because the bombs missed.
The ship was captured by the British in 1945. In 1946, Allied commanders splitting up the captured spoils of war reportedly pulled the names of captured ships from a hat. A Russian commander pulled the Horst Wessel, but a U.S. officer eager to bring home the tall ship convinced him to trade it.
The ship was sailed across the Atlantic by a mixed crew of Germans and Americans. In American, she was rechristened the USCGC Eagle. It is the sixth cutter to bear the name.
When the Revenue Cutter Service — a prelude to the modern U.S. Coast Guard — began training cadets, it had no physical building to train them in. Instead, it took it’s first class of nine cadets and trained them on the USRC Dobbin, a cutter. In 1932 the academy received a permanent shore facility, but it has continued to use a sailing ship as a major part of the training process for potential officers. Since 1946, the vessel cadets have trained on has been the USCGC Eagle.
Training for emergencies is important when taking a nearly 80-year-old ship across the ocean.
Today, the training vessel also operates as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S., visiting friendly ports in the U.S. and around the world.
It has visited Kiel, its original homeport, a few times throughout history. She’s due to return next year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of her trip to America.
A few presidents have been photographed on board the Eagle. The first was President Harry Truman.
President John F. Kennedy toured her and later gave a speech on deck.
Future president Lyndon B. Johnson was there for the speech by Kennedy.