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 Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
“Built for only $2.5 million each, in terms of cost effectiveness we may never see the likes of these cutters again.”
Capt. John M. Waters, retired, “Bloody Winter”
In the quote above, noted historian and veteran Coast Guard officer of World War II John Waters, summed up the importance of the 327-foot “Secretary” class cutters. Also known as the Hamilton-class, many veteran Coast Guard members believed the 327-footers were the best Coast Guard cutters ever built.
The 327s were designed to meet changing missions of the service as it emerged from Prohibition. In the 1930s, the airline passenger trade was expanding both at home and overseas, so Coast Guard officials believed cutter-based aircraft would become necessary for high-seas search and rescue. During this time, narcotics smuggling was also on the rise, and long-legged fast cutters were required to curtail it. To meet these needs, the service’s naval architects designed the 327s to steam at 23 mph and support an amphibious aircraft.
Coast Guard planners decided to use the Navy’s Erie-class gunboat as the basis for their design. Naval architects drew up 32 preliminary designs of a modified Erie-class gunboat before one was finally selected for production. With a marked sheer forward and the high slope in the deck near the wardrooms, these cutters proved better sea boats than Navy destroyers. The 327s saved the Coast Guard a great deal of money, which was an important consideration for the service. It saved money by adopting the Navy gunboat’s existing powerplant and broad deep hull form below the waterline and the service had the cutters mass produced in U.S. Navy shipyards.
The Coast Guard named the 327s for former Department of Treasury secretaries. The class included namesakes Alexander Hamilton, George Campbell, Samuel Ingham, William Duane, Roger Taney, John Spencer and George Bibb. During WWII, the service shortened the cutters’ names to surnames, except for the Alexander Hamilton, which retained its full name to alleviate confusion with other warships carrying the same last name. Of this class, only the Hamilton was sunk in WWII. Torpedoed in January 1942 off the coast of Iceland, Hamilton was one of the first U.S. warships lost in the Battle of the Atlantic.
At the beginning of the war, the Navy assigned the 327s to the Greenland theatre of operations. However, these cutters were not suited to icy waters. Their seagoing qualities, roomy interior spaces, weaponry and superior hospital accommodations made them ideal as convoy escorts. Over the course of the war, the U-boat threat in the Atlantic gradually waned, so the 327s were converted to Amphibious Force Flagships with advanced command and control capabilities for European and Pacific campaigns.
After WWII, the 327s became the backbone of the Coast Guard’s high-endurance cutter fleet. For the next 40 years, these cutters served as maritime workhorses performing all of the missions demanded of high seas cutters.
In his book, “Bloody Winter,” Waters wrote, “. . . . the 327s battled, through the ‘Bloody Winter’ of 1942-43 in the North Atlantic–fighting off German U-boats and rescuing survivors from torpedoed convoy ships. They went on to serve as amphibious task force flagships, as search-and-rescue (SAR) ships during the Korean War, on weather patrol, and as naval gunfire support ships during Vietnam. Most recently, these ships-that-wouldn’t-die have done duty in fisheries patrol and drug interdiction.”
The Secretary-class cutters proved very dependable, versatile and long-lived warships. Of the six postwar 327s, four were decommissioned in the 1980s; however, two of these “ships that wouldn’t die” remain with us today as museum ships—the Taney in Baltimore and the Ingham in Key West, Florida. The 327-foot Secretary-class cutters became famous as part of the long blue line of the U.S. Coast Guard.