Written by William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
Those familiar with Coast Guard history know that the service’s development has been shaped in response to the nation’s natural and man-made disasters. Nowhere is that clearer than the Coast Guard’s search and rescue mission (SAR).
Beginning in 1790, the Coast Guard’s predecessor, Revenue Cutter Service, assisted mariners at sea. At the time, this was a custom of the sea, but this tradition received official sanction in 1837. That year, the bark Mexico came ashore near New York Harbor with the loss of over 100 passengers and crew. In response to this tragedy, federal officials recognized the need for government assistance for ships in distress. In December 1837, Congress passed legislation assigning cutters responsibility for aiding vessels requiring assistance.
The year 1837 also saw the construction of the three-masted ship Powhatan, another vessel that played a role in spurring federal lifesaving legislation. In 1854, two major maritime disasters took place in New Jersey. In April, more than 200 lives were lost when the Powhatan wrecked on the New Jersey shore. In November, another 220 lives were lost when the ship New Era also came ashore in New Jersey. In response to this horrific loss of life, Congress passed the Act of Dec. 15, 1854. This legislation proved the most sweeping bill in U.S. Lifesaving Service history, greatly expanding the federal government’s ability to support lifesaving efforts.
The late summer and early winter of 1870 proved another deadly shipwreck season. That summer, numerous ships wrecked on U.S. shores, raising awareness of the nation’s inadequate lifesaving capability. George Boutwell, secretary of the Department of Treasury under President Ulysses Grant, responded by establishing a superintendent’s position to direct the department’s Revenue Marine Division, which oversaw steamboat inspection, marine hospitals and lifesaving stations. In February 1871, Boutwell appointed Superintendent Sumner Kimball, who initiated the rapid expansion of U.S. lifesaving operations. In 1878, Kimball formally established the United States Life-Saving Service.
The late 1800s and early 1900s saw hundreds of Life-Saving Service surfmen go in harm’s way to save the victims of maritime disasters. These heroic individuals included Capt. Joshua James, who served as a lifesaver for 60 years. During his career, he earned almost every medal bestowed on surfmen for maritime rescues. James’s medals included the prestigious Gold Lifesaving Medal, which he received in 1888 for rescuing survivors from five different shipwrecks during a severe two-day winter storm. Kimball believed James to be the most important lifesaver in the history of the service.
During James’s lengthy career, the Life-Saving Service saw the development of improved lifesaving technology, including new rescue devices, improved flares and personal floatation devices, tractor-pulled beach equipment and motorized lifeboats.
In 1915, Congress passed important lifesaving legislation once again. This time, the bill merged the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and U.S. Life-Saving Service. In so doing, this act combined the federal government’s two agencies responsible for maritime safety – one on land and the other at sea. This merger formed the modern United States Coast Guard.
Not long after formation of the Coast Guard, rapid advances took place in seaborne aviation technology. The service soon added an amphibian fixed-wing aircraft capability to the fleet of lifesaving boats and Coast Guard cutters already supporting the search and rescue mission. These Coast Guard aircraft provided rapid response assets for over-the-horizon rescues and served in numerous high-profile cases, including Gold Lifesaving Medal rescues in 1929, 1933 and 1937. During the 1930s, the service continued to perfect the use of amphibian aircraft for SAR cases.
In World War II, the Coast Guard developed the helicopter as a search and rescue asset, a new form of aviation technology that has since become synonymous with the service’s SAR mission. Coast Guard helicopters and their associated rescue hoist devices improved in the decades following the war, and rotary-wing assets gradually supplanted fixed-wing amphibian aircraft as the service’s primary aviation asset. In 1983, the tragic loss of the SS Marine Electric and most of its crew spurred Congress to pass legislation establishing the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program. This bill added yet another valuable piece to the service’s modern search and rescue system.
Marine accidents and changing technology have shaped the service’s SAR mission. Shipwrecks and maritime disasters raised awareness of the dangers inherent in the marine environment and spurred governmental establishment of a federal maritime lifesaving capability. However, new technology, such as motorized lifesaving boats, amphibious aircraft and helicopters, provided the service with the technology necessary for a robust response capability. Major response efforts and evolving technology continue to influence the U.S. Coast Guard’s development as the world’s premier search and rescue organization.