This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
Port security has been one of the longest-running missions of the United States Coast Guard. Historical events, such as World War I, have brought greater attention to the importance of this service specialty. A result of the war effort, the Espionage Act of 1917, greatly increased the importance of the Coast Guard in safeguarding our ports for the past 100 years.
Revenue cutters served one of the most time-honored missions of the Coast Guard as guardians of U.S. ports since 1790. Even after the re-establishment of the U.S. Navy in 1798, revenue cutters were the only federal vessels that secured American ports in peacetime and in war. In addition, customs collectors who oversaw cutters assigned to their respective ports served as unofficial captains-of-the-port. Over time, control over the cutters moved from customs collectors to the Revenue Marine Bureau in Washington, D.C., but all along, cutters remained the guardians of commercial shipping, protected anchorages and U.S. ports.
During WWI, protecting American ports became a matter of national security. Never before had the threat of massive destruction from explosives stockpiles been so great. This was born out by an explosion that rocked New York City on July 31, 1916. The munitions terminal on Black Tom Island, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, was a primary staging area for ordnance shipped to the war in Europe. Set off by German saboteurs, the blast shattered windows as far away as New York City, killed several persons, and caused property damage amounting to approximately $1 billion in current currency. The explosion was 30 times more powerful than the 2001 World Trade Center collapse and ranks as the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil prior to 9/11. This disaster quickly focused attention on the dangers of storing, loading and trans-shipping volatile explosives near major population centers.
In addition to focusing attention on the dangers posed to port cities, the Black Tom incident motivated Congress to enact legislation to protect the nation from sabotage. On June 15, 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which gave the secretary of treasury wartime power to make “rules and regulations governing the anchorage and movement of any vessel, foreign or domestic in the territorial waters of the United States, [and] may inspect such vessel at any time, place guards there on, and, if necessary . . . secure such vessels from damage or injury, or to prevent damage or injury to any harbor or waters of the United States . . . .” The Act’s text also states that the secretary of treasury “may take . . . full possession and control of such vessel and remove therefrom the officers and crew thereof and all other persons not specially authorized by him . . . .”
The Espionage Act also shifted responsibility for safety and movement of vessels in U.S. harbors from the Army Corps of Engineers to the Department of the Treasury. In 1917, Department of the Treasury Secretary William McAdoo assigned Coast Guard officers to oversee port security in the strategic maritime centers of New York, Philadelphia, Hampton Roads, Virginia, and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The Act provided these officers near-dictatorial power over shipping in these locations. In addition to controlling anchorages and movement of vessels, units under these officers safeguarded waterfront property, removed suspicious or dangerous passengers or crew from merchant ships, and regulated the loading and shipment of hazardous cargoes.
The power of these officers was most evident in the port of New York. During the war, the crews in New York embarked more weapons and war material than any other U.S. port. In the span of 1 1/2 years, the officers in New York loaded nearly 1,700 ships with more than 345 million tons of shells, smokeless powder, dynamite, ammunition and other explosives. Capt. Godfrey Carden commanded the Coast Guard’s New York division, which included nearly 1,500 officers and men, four tugs borrowed from the Navy and the Army, five harbor cutters and an assortment of small craft. In all, his division was the service’s largest wartime command.
With the threat of a catastrophic explosion in the back of his mind, Carden ruled port operations with an iron fist. He issued special orders to be rigidly enforced by his division. Carden’s men guarded every ship and barge loading ordnance, enforced cargo-handling regulations and kept unauthorized persons off of munitions ships. Meanwhile, his cutters patrolled every inch of New York Harbor’s anchorages and restricted areas. In an article published after the war, Carden wrote “To lose a ship by carelessness was to play the enemy act; and the guards had instructions to deal with any careless person as with an enemy. No chances were to be taken.”
Carden became the best-known Coast Guard captain of WWI and the term “Captain of the Port” was invented to describe his role as overseer of New York’s port security. His division orchestrated the movement of munitions ships between piers and restricted anchorages to alleviate collisions or boarding by saboteurs. At the same time, hazardous cargoes were loaded as rapidly as 48 hours with no serious mishaps within his division’s area of responsibility. After the war, the Department of the Treasury Secretary Carter Glass commended Carden, writing “The enforcement of anchorage regulations during the war period was a duty which involved a heavy responsibility and which could not properly be performed except by a man who combined firmness of opinion with exceptional balance of judgment.”
Port security has been one of the long-standing missions of the Coast Guard. During WWI, stockpiles of explosives in U.S. port cities focused attention on the need for port security. Congress passed the Espionage Act, which enabled the Coast Guard to oversee the safety of these ports. The act would be invoked in WWII when the nation shipped millions of tons of weapons and ammunition from U.S. ports to the front lines. It also supported Coast Guard port security operations during the Korean conflict, Vietnam War, Gulf War and in the recent global war on terrorism.
World War I focused public attention on the dangers posed by explosive cargoes to American port cities 100 years ago. The Espionage Act of 1917 became one of the most important legislative acts to empower the Coast Guard in its port security mission. Today, the act continues to support the Coast Guard’s mission to protect ports from sabotage and accidental detonations of dangerous cargoes.