The Long Blue Line: Cowart—the Coast Guard’s fighting engineer

Perhaps the most significant period in Coast Guard history occurred in the years leading up to, during, and after World War II. During this epic struggle, Vice Admiral Kenneth Cowart, who distinguished himself as an engineer, leader, and combat hero, made his mark in history.

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LT Shannon P. Reck, M.A., U.S. Coast Guard

Official photograph of Rear Admiral Kenneth K. Cowart in dress blue uniform. (Courtesy of Lt. Paul Reck)
Official photograph of Rear Admiral Kenneth K. Cowart in dress blue uniform. (Courtesy of Lt. Paul Reck)

Perhaps the most significant period in Coast Guard history occurred in the years leading up to, during, and after World War II. In this epic struggle, many heroes made their mark in history. One such hero was Vice Admiral Kenneth Cowart, who distinguished himself as an engineer, leader, and combat hero.

Born in January 1905 in Twin City, Georgia, Kenneth Cowart completed high school in 1922. The following year, he was selected for the Coast Guard Academy, where he graduated in 1926 as an Ensign of Engineering. For the next seven years, he served on board various cutters in engineering assignments. In 1934, after a year of engineering post-graduate school, Cowart served four years at the Coast Guard Academy as an instructor of science and engineering and another four years as an instructor at the U.S. Maritime Training Center in New London, Connecticut.

After the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Commander Cowart found himself in a wartime Coast Guard. Within a year, he reported on board the Coast Guard cutter Campbell as its engineering officer. This assignment became a defining event in Cowart’s life changing the direction of his career.

327-foot Coast Guard cutter Campbell, the “Queen of the Fleet,” in wartime camouflage paint scheme. (U.S. Navy photo)
327-foot Coast Guard cutter Campbell, the “Queen of the Fleet,” in wartime camouflage paint scheme. (U.S. Navy photo)

Built in 1936, the Campbell was a 327-foot Secretary-Class cutter designed to serve new missions after the conclusion of Prohibition. The Campbell, and others of its class, incorporated new technologies, such as sonar, direction finding equipment, and a modern power-plant capable of nearly 25-knot speed. Campbell and its sister cutters would become the backbone of the Navy’s escort fleet in the first years of the Battle of the Atlantic. 

In February 1943, the Campbell was assigned to escort Convoy ON-166 from Great Britain to the U.S. On Sunday, February 21st, the convoy found itself in the middle of a “Wolf Pack” of over a dozen Nazi U-boats. Early in the operation, Campbell came to the rescue of the survivors of a stricken tanker attacked by a U-boat. Campbell attacked the submarine, seriously damaging it and driving it off. Upon returning to the tanker, the cutter rescued the 50 crew members from their lifeboats and ensured that any secret documents on the abandoned ship were destroyed. That evening, the cutter single-handedly drove off five more U-boats attacking the convoy.

Early in the morning of February 22nd, Campbell encountered U-606 on the surface. The submarine was already damaged by depth charging and prepared to attack the cutter using its deck guns. During the exchange, Campbell attempted to ram the U-boat and struck it with a glancing blow, opening a large gash in the cutter’s side. Sea water poured into the engine room and reached Campbell’s batteries. The cutter’s electrical system shorted out causing a complete loss of electrical power. Fortunately, at the same time the cutter lost power, the German’s on board U-606 surrendered.

With the battle over, decisive action had to be taken or the cutter would be lost. Commander Cowart coordinated his damage control teams so they could control the flooding in darkness. However, after controlling the flooding, the danger was far from over. Campbell’s captain, Commander James Hirshfield, ordered the transfer of the 50 merchant mariners, five German prisoners, and non-essential cutter crew onto other ships.  

Commander Cowart remained behind with a damage control team to patch the massive hole in the Campbell’s hull and stop the flow of sea water into the engine room. After four days adrift without power, the cutter and crew were towed to Newfoundland. For his efforts during these five days, Cowart was awarded the Silver Star Medal for combat heroism. Campbell went on to be the longest serving and most famous cutter of its class, earning the title “Queen of the Fleet.”

Admiral Cowart’s ribbon bar with hand-written note by VADM Cowart. (Courtesy of Lt. Paul Reck)
Admiral Cowart’s ribbon bar with hand-written note by VADM Cowart. (Courtesy of Lt. Paul Reck)

Upon completion of repairs to the Campbell, Cowart was promoted to captain and selected to serve as the cutter’s commanding officer. In January 1944, he was transferred to the Merchant Marine Personnel Division at Coast Guard Headquarters. In this position, he received his first Navy Commendation Ribbon (known today as the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal). Shortly after the war, he received a second Navy Commendation Ribbon with the distinguishing “V” device for “sound judgement, professional skill, and outstanding performance” as a commanding officer of an escort ship in the Atlantic.

After the war, Cowart served as the commanding officer of the USS Admiral E.W. Eberle, tasked with returning troops from the Pacific to the West coast. In December 1945, he set the transpacific speed record with a crossing of eight days. In 1950, Cowart was promoted to the rank of rear admiral and was selected as the Engineer-in-Chief of the Coast Guard filling that position for two consecutive tours. For a year, beginning in August 1958 until his retirement in 1959, then Rear Admiral Cowart served as the special assistant to the commandant. He was promoted to vice admiral at retirement in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the Coast Guard and nation.

Headstone of VADM Kenneth Cowart at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. (Find-a-Grave)
Headstone of VADM Kenneth Cowart at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. (Find-a-Grave)

In addition to his Coast Guard accomplishments, Cowart served as an active member and leader in the Society of Naval Architects & Marine Engineers. He was also president of the Washington, D.C., Propeller Club and the American Society of Naval Engineers. Vice Admiral Cowart passed away on March 4, 1996, and was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery. In honor of his contributions to engineering, the Society of American Military Engineers created the Cowart Award, which “recognizes excellence to a Coast Guard civil engineering unit that made an outstanding contribution to the Coast Guard civil engineering program.”

The Second World War was a highlight of Coast Guard history. Of the many men that distinguished themselves in combat, only a few stand out from the rest. Vice Admiral Kenneth Cowart’s valor and dedication to his crew on the Campbell and contributions to naval engineering are forever memorialized in the Coast Guard’s annual engineering award, ensuring his name will live on. Cowart was one of the Service’s great engineering officers and a member of the long blue line.

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