Five years ago the U.S. Coast Guard were the first responders after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, saving over 33,500 lives when other parts of government seemed immobilized. They were dubbed 'the New Orleans Saints.'
Still, their role as the lead federal agency responding to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has strained this smallest of the armed services (41,000 active duty members) to its limits.
A recent report from the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General notes that the Coast Guard has reduced its commitment to most of its environmental missions since 9/11, when it took on new and expanded duties guarding America's ports and coastline from potential terrorist attacks (and later guarding Iraqi offshore oil terminals from insurgent attacks).
While the service was transformed by the events of 9/11, few recall the critical role it played on that day when Al-Qaeda attacked the United States.
Its first effort proved futile when the commander of the Air Station in Cape Cod saw the second plane strike the north tower of the World Trade Center and, on his own authority, sent two HH-60 Jayhawk helicopters to try and rescue people stranded on the roofs. The south tower collapsed before they arrived but they thought they could still save people on the north tower had air traffic control not ordered them to land on Long Island saying that Air Force F-15s would shoot down any aircraft encountered over Manhattan. "We're the rescue helicopter!" one of the pilots pointed out. As they landed and got back on the radio to continue arguing their case the second tower collapsed.
By then, the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic System (VTS) in New York had shut down the port. But, as the smoke cloud from the towers enveloped lower Manhattan, pushing tens and then hundreds of thousands of panicked citizens towards the southern point of the island, VTS issued a new directive, calling for all available boats in the harbor to go to Battery Park and begin evacuating people.
As the tugs, fast ferries, police launches, fireboats and other working and recreational watercraft pulled up to the foot of Manhattan, their crews would hang handmade signs on their railings saying where they were headed -- to Sandy Hook or Hoboken, Brooklyn or Staten Island. Teams of Coast Guard inspectors, cops and firemen ashore organized the crowds into boarding lines and helped them over the seawall. This also helped to stem the panic. Offshore, other Coast Guard personnel aboard the pilot boat 'New York' and harbor tug 'Hawser' directed the growing boat traffic through the smoke. With the subway system closed down some half million New Yorkers would be taken off Manhattan by boat this way (while tens of thousands of others fled by foot across the Brooklyn Bridge).
In Washington D.C., where the Pentagon was also under attack, Coast Guard Commandant Jim Loy received a call from the chief of naval operations asking what the Navy could do to assist the Coast Guard. It was decided that placing Coast Guard cutters in New York Harbor would reassure the public in a way that putting Navy ships of war there would not. By the next morning a flotilla of armed Coast Guard vessels were patrolling the harbor including the 110-foot Cutter 'Bainbridge Island' flaying an oversized American flag as its battle ensign.
On maps showing the location of Coast Guard cutters on September 10 and September 12, 2001, you see what looks like a belt being cinched tight around the continental United States as the service quickly shifted from a peacetime to a wartime footing.
While the firemen and policemen of New York rightly deserve the honors they earned on 9/11, both with their sacrifice and willingness to, we ought also to remember the Coast Guard and all the working mariners they helped mobilize that day for what would prove to be, though few people know it, the largest maritime evacuation in world history.