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Prohibition and Early Ocean Weather Stations

Hostilities ceased at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Coast Guard units began sailing home. Seneca arrived in New York on 1 July 1919, the last Coast Guard unit deployed. Back to the Treasury Department.

But Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels believed the transfer to the Navy should be permanent. Several old RCS officers agreed. They had never been comfortable married to the “civilians” of the LSS and felt more at home with naval military officers. Several officers favored an arrangement similar to that of the Marine Corps. Others wanted outright amalgamation into the Navy. Treasury Secretary Carter Glass waged political warfare for the return of his assets. President Wilson’s Executive Order on 28 August 1919 assured it.

But cutters were getting old and Congress did not favor any form of military spending. The Navy offered a few Eagle-class patrol boats and several 110’ sub chasers, but personnel shortages left many hulls idle. In 1919, using 1916 funds, the service was authorized four new 240’ cutters of the Modoc-class. These vessels were designed with reinforced bows to work in the ice. A 158’ tug, Shawnee, was also built. All were commissioned in 1921. Further requests were denied. The service continued to perform. This was the beginning of “do more with less”.

On 16 January 1919, the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquor, was ratified. The Volstead Act (aka Prohibition Act) became law, over the President Wilson’s veto, on 28 October and went into effect on 16 January 1920. Responsibility for enforcing the law was placed with the Treasury Department. Though Secretary David Houston had not wanted the duty, he created a unit to carry it out.

In 1922, Commandant William Reynolds (1919-1923) notified Secretary Andrew Mellon that the Coast Guard did not have the ships or crews to adequately patrol the entire coastline. In 1924, Congress signed a bill that transferred 20 destroyers and two minesweepers to the Coast Guard and added billets to man them. Congress also authorized the construction of 100 smaller boats. In 1923, Secretary Mellon appointed Frederick Billard to succeed the retiring Reynolds. Billard would oversee the expected rapid expansion of the Service.

The small boats were the 75’ “six bitters”. Ultimately, 203 of them were built. The destroyers were 750-ton “flivvers” and 1,000-tonners. With these assets, the Coast Guard began to fight the Rum War as the RCS had fought smuggling. The DDs were stationed offshore to spot mother ships and to track delivery boats and turn them over to the 75s. There were some successes. But the 75s did not sea keep well and the DDs spent more time tending them than looking for mother ships. In 1926, five destroyers of the Clemson-class flush-deckers joined the fleet.

Billard advised Mellon the Service needed ships designed specifically for its missions. Congress authorized the construction of offshore patrol boats larger than the six-bitters. Ultimately, under Billard’s urging and Mellon’s politicking, several new cutters joined the fleet.
• In 1925, one of the most widely used boat in Coast Guard history, the 125’ “buck-and-a-quarters” joined the Fleet
• In 1926, the ten cutters of the 250’ Lake-class were authorized and commissioned between 1927 and 1931
• Northland was commissioned in 1927 as a replacement for the venerable Bear
• In 1932, the six cutters of the 165’ Escanaba-class (165A-class) entered service. Like the 240s, the 165As had reinforced bows to work in the ice.
• In 1933 the 165’ Thetis-class (165B-class) joined the Fleet.
• The replacement for the six-bitters was scheduled to be the 78’ patrol boat. The 78s were fast, but drank gasoline way too quickly. Only six were built and the six-bitters soldiered on.

Mercifully, on 5 December 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment. Prohibition ended. The Coast Guard continued to operate 15 DDs until 1934 when the Destroyer Decade ended.

But the Service now had first class cutters designed specifically for its missions. In his eight years as Commandant, Billard had overseen an expansion unprecedented in Service history. He is recognized as one of the greatest Commandants. He was just starting his third tour of duty when he suddenly died of pneumonia. It was universally agreed that he had literally worked himself to death. It was his cutters, and one class still to come, that would take the Coast Guard into a new era.

Admiral Harry Hamlet succeeded Admiral Billard as Commandant. The country was in the middle of the Great Depression and President Roosevelt was looking to cut government costs. As the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1919, Roosevelt had firmly believed the Coast Guard should have been part of the Navy. He had not changed his mind. Another brief round of consolidation was fought and won. The Coast Guard stayed in Treasury. In 1934 Henry Morgenthau became Secretary of the Treasury.

This period was marked by several extraordinary rescues, notable the cases of Morro Castle and Childar. These, and the growth of other missions, lead to the commissioning of nine more 165B-class cutters. One of these, Electra, served for one year before being transferred to the Navy for conversion to the Presidential Yacht Potomac.

Transoceanic airways services began to expand. Navigation was sketchy and aircraft often needed the assistance of ships to verify their positions. It was assumed that, eventually, an aircraft on the trans-oceanic route would be forced to ditch and a search and rescue (SAR) operation would be needed. In addition, the weather service was asking all ships at sea to send them weather information for forecasting. These circumstances came together to shape a new Coast Guard mission. Cutters would man Ocean Weather Stations. These cutters would transmit navigation data to aircraft, transmit weather data to the Weather Service, and stand by for SAR as needed. This mission lead to a new class of cutter. In 1933, the largest ship yet designed for the Coast Guard was approved by Congress. The 327’ Secretary-class cutters would join the fleet in 1936. In 1936, Admiral Russell Waesche succeeded Admiral Hamlet as Commandant. The Coast Guard had the man and the equipment for its next major trial.

For a complete list of cutters that enforced prohibition go to this Link

For a complete list of 327s that stood the original OWSs go to this Link.