Sixty years ago today, on June 25, 1950, six North Korean infantry divisions, supported by large armor and artillery forces, invaded neighboring South Korea in the opening action of what would come to be known as the Korean War. The Coast Guard’s role in this conflict marked a significant moment in the history of the service. First, the Coast Guard had played a critical role in the training of the fledgling South Korean navy in the years leading up to the invasion. Additionally, the campaign marked the first time the Coast Guard implemented the post-World War II doctrine of extending its normal peacetime tasks in support of military operations during a time of war.
Pre-Invasion: Building the Korean Coast Guard
In 1946, a contingent of Coast Guard officers, led by Captain George McCabe, arrived in South Korea to organize, supervise, and train a Korean coast guard. (Note: At the time the Korean War broke out, what we now refer to as South Korea was still recognized by the United Nations as Korea.)
Our Coast Guardsmen would work so closely with their Korean counterparts that McCabe jointly commanded the service alongside Korean Lieutenant Commander Sohn Won Yil for the better part of two years. During that time, the Korea Coast Guard established an enlisted training facility, officer candidate program, and a service academy modeled after the United States Coast Guard Academy and other military service academies. They used former Japanese navy warships to serve as training vessels. (Note: The Japanese Navy was dismantled following World War II and their ships were awarded as war prizes.)
In 1948, the Korean government decided it would change its coast guard to a navy. At that time, the active duty U.S. Coast Guard officers returned home. They were replaced by retired and reserve Coast Guard officers under the command of Commander William Achurch (USCGR) who would assist the Korean Navy until North Korean forces invaded and began the war.
South Korea would eventually reinstate its coast guard in 1953 and the partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard would resume and continues to this day.
War breaks out: The Coast Guard assumes a new wartime posture
The outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula would be the first time the U.S. Coast Guard assumed what is now its operations normal wartime role.
In times of war, elements of the Coast Guard can (and have been) transferred to the U.S. Navy by the President or Congress. Up to and including World War II, that often meant integrating individual Coast Guard personnel, ships, aircraft and facilities directly into the Navy. While history proves that our wartime Coast Guardsmen more than answered the call during these conflicts, this use of Coast Guard forces often did not take advantage of the specific expertise of the service.
Following World War II, a new course was set that would call for the Coast Guard to extend its normal peacetime roles to support military operations during times of war. Specifically, the Coast Guard was called upon to take a leading role in port security, maritime inspection and safety, search and rescue, and patrolling ocean stations in war zones.
The Coast Guard would assume these primary missions during the Korean War and in subsequent conflicts in Vietnam and the Middle East.
Click here to read more about the U.S. Coast Guard in the Korean War.