MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Korean War forced the U.S. Coast Guard to change

Prior to the Korean War, the Coast Guard fought in America's wars by folding into the U.S. Navy, but after World War II, the Navy proposed a shift that would see the Coast Guard fight on its own.

The U.S. Coast Guard has served in every American war since the Revolution, but there was a major shift between World War II and Korea, thanks in part to the critical peacetime role the Coast Guard had assumed in 1946: training and preparing the South Korean Navy and Coast Guard before the war.


Commander William Achurch discusses the value of training aids with a Korean naval officer and another U.S. adviser.

(U.S. Coast Guard)

See, in Korea, the Coast Guard ceased to fight as a subordinate of the Navy and started to fight as its own branch, even during war.

During World War II, and nearly every war before that, the Coast Guard was shifted under the Navy during conflict and fought within the Navy ranks. Coast Guardsmen piloted most landing craft in World War II, from Normandy to Guadalcanal, but they did so under Navy command.

Even where Coast Guard officers were holding senior ranks over other Coast Guardsmen, the senior officers were still folded in with their Navy brethren. So, you could be an enlisted Coast Guardsman who was receiving orders from Coast Guard officers and Coast Guard admirals, but that admiral still fell under the fleet admirals and you were all tasked to the Navy Department.

The destruction at the South Korean capital of Seoul was extensive. The last Coast Guard officers left the city as it fell to the North Korean communists.

(U.S. Army Capt. C.W. Huff)

But in 1947, just after the Army asked the Coast Guard to come to the Korean peninsula and help the democratic forces build a naval arm, the U.S. Navy proposed that the Coast Guard should focus on an expansion of its peacetime duties during times of war instead of trying to assume Navy duties.

So, in 1950, the Communist forces in North Korea invaded South Korea. The initial invasion was wildly successful, and democratic forces were forced to consolidate and withdraw, giving up most of the country before finally holding a tiny toehold on the southern coast.

By 1950, the active duty Coast Guard had been withdrawn from Korea and a few retired officers remained, drawing paychecks from the Army. After the invasion, even these men were withdrawn. One escaped Seoul as the city was destroyed, barely passing one of the key bridges before it blew up.

A Coast Guard Martin PBM-5G commonly used in search and rescue operations.

(U.S. Coast Guard Bill Larkins)

So, as the war drug on, the Coast Guard was forced to build its own infrastructure to perform its new wartime duties. Two of the most important tasks were to provide weather observations and to conduct search and rescue missions. Both of these tasks required extensive deployment across the Pacific Ocean.

Weather operations rely on observations from a wide area, especially before the advent of satellites. And while search and rescue is typically restricted to a limited area, the Navy and Army needed search and rescue capabilities across their logistics routes from the American west coast to Korea.

So, the Coast Guard was forced to establish stations on islands across the Pacific, placing as many cutters along the routes as they could to act as radio relays and to augment search and rescue stations.

A Navy P2V-5 maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare plane like the one that was downed while spying on China in January 1953.

(U.S. Navy)

And one of those search and rescue missions went horribly for those involved. On January 18, 1953, a Navy P-2V Neptune was shot down while spying on Communist forces. The Coast Guard dispatched a rescue seaplane into the rough, cold seas.

The Coast Guard crew managed to land in the seas and pull the seven Navy survivors aboard, but they still needed to get back out of the sea. The Coast Guardsmen placed jet-assisted take-off devices onto the plane and the pilot attempted to get airborne.

Unfortunately, the rough waves doomed the takeoff attempt, and the plane broke up as it slammed into an oncoming wave.

Five Coast Guardsmen were lost before the remaining survivors of the dual wrecks were rescued. All five were posthumously awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal.

Of course, the Coast Guard also had duties back home, guarding ports and conducting investigations to ensure that the people working at docks were loyal to the country to prevent sabotage.

The lifesaving service's Korea performance would help lead to their role supporting Air Force combat search and rescue in Vietnam. But all of this was a massive departure from World War II where they saw extensive combat but worked almost solely as an entity folded into the U.S. Navy.