The Long Blue Line: Coast Guard operations during the Persian Gulf War

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 H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian

Members of U.S. Coast Guard Port Security Unit 302 patrol the harbor aboard a Navy harbor patrol boat during Operation Desert Shield.

Members of U.S. Coast Guard Port Security Unit 302 patrol the harbor aboard a Navy harbor patrol boat during Operation Desert Shield. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Units and personnel of the U.S. Coast Guard and its predecessor services have served with distinction in every major American conflict since the founding of the United States.

The Persian Gulf War proved no exception to this rule.

The Persian Gulf War began on August 2, 1990, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered land forces to invade and occupy Iraq’s southern neighbor Kuwait. Within days, U.S. President George H.W. Bush ordered U.S. forces to prepare for military operations in the Middle East.

On August 6, the Department of Defense (DOD) initiated Operation “Desert Shield” to defend Saudi Arabia from attack by the Iraqis.

Coast Guardsmen from a law enforcement detachment boarding team on board a Turkish freighter. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guardsmen from a law enforcement detachment boarding team on board a Turkish freighter. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Although the Coast Guard was under the Department of Transportation, not DOD, during the Gulf War, the Coast Guard mobilized personnel and units to ensure the safe conduct of military shipping to the Persian Gulf and enforcement of United Nations sanctions in the theater of operations.

On August 10, Coast Guard Marine Safety Offices (MSOs) activated personnel to inspect the nearly 80 Ready Reserve Fleet (RRF) vessels preparing for sea duty. MSOs throughout the nation also instituted a flexible Merchant Marine manning and licensing program to expedite the movement of RRF vessels. In addition, Coast Guard MSOs became responsible for Port Security Detachments at ports within their respective areas of responsibility. This effort involved the oversight of security for port facilities and supervising the loading of explosives and hazardous material on board Military Sealift Command vessels bound for the Persian Gulf.

At the request of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Coast Guard also committed 10 four-person law enforcement detachment boarding teams (LEDETs) to serve with U.S. maritime interception forces. On August 16, U.S. forces initiated maritime interdiction operations consistent with United Nations sanctions. Within two weeks of instituting these maritime interdiction operations, a Coast Guard LEDET had boarded its first Iraqi-flagged vessel.

The Persian Gulf War set many precedents for the Coast Guard’s combat mission.

Petty Officer Sandy Mitten mans the stern .50 caliber machine gun. She was one of six women in PSU 303, and one of three women assigned machine gun positions on board a Raider patrol boat. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Petty Officer Sandy Mitten mans the stern .50 caliber machine gun. She was one of six women in PSU 303, and one of three women assigned machine gun positions on board a Raider patrol boat. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

On August 22, Bush authorized the activation of Coast Guard reservists in support of military operations. Of the 950 reservists called to active duty, over 500 of them were members of the Coast Guard’s newly formed Port Security Units (PSUs). On September 14, PSU 303 from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, became the first port security unit deployed overseas when it was assigned to Al Damman, Saudi Arabia. On September 22, PSU 301 based in Buffalo, New York, deployed to Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia, and on November 14, PSU 302 from Port Clinton, Ohio, deployed to Bahrain. These PSUs featured the first Coast Guard women to serve in combat roles, including female machine gunners assigned to “Raider” tactical port security boats.

On January 16, 1991, the White House announced the commencement of Operation “Desert Storm,” an offensive military operation against the Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait. This operation altered Coast Guard activities at home and abroad. It increased the level and tempo of the MSO’s activities as they stepped up land-based security patrols around key U.S. military and commercial waterfront facilities and enforced waterside security zones to defend against terrorist attack. Overseas, the Coast Guard’s LEDET personnel helped clear Iraqi oil platforms, securing 11 such platforms and aiding in the capture of 23 Iraqi prisoners.

Coast Guard HU-25 Falcon jet monitors burning oil fields during Operation Desert Storm. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard HU-25 Falcon jet monitors burning oil fields during Operation Desert Storm. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

With the added threat of environmental warfare carried out by Hussein’s regime, the Coast Guard assumed yet another unprecedented mission — that of environmental protection in a combat zone. On February 13, two Coast Guard HU-25A Falcon jets, equipped with oil detection equipment, flew from Air Station Cape Cod in Massachusetts to Saudi Arabia. They were joined by two Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules cargo aircraft, which transported spare aviation parts and support packages. The Falcons were deployed for 84 days, providing daily updated surface analysis of the location, condition and drift projections of spilled oil to the Coast Guard-led U.S. Interagency Assessment Team.

On February 28, coalition offensive operations ceased and, on April 11, the United Nations declared a formal ceasefire, ending the Gulf War. On April 21, when coalition naval forces entered Kuwait’s Mina Ash Shuwaikh Harbor, they selected a Coast Guard “Raider” port security boat from PSU 301 to lead the way. This event symbolized how Coast Guard forces played a vital role in Desert Storm military operations.

Some of the 400 Coast Guard men and women who participated in the postwar victory celebration in Washington, D.C. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Some of the 400 Coast Guard men and women who participated in the postwar victory celebration in Washington, D.C. U.S. Coast Guard photo

In the Persian Gulf War, the Coast Guard provided essential support for naval and land-based military operations that the U.S. Navy could not. The MSOs ensured a nearly 100 percent ready rate of RRF vessels and LEDET personnel either led or supported 60 percent of the 600 merchant ship boardings. Aviation units mapped over 40,000 square miles of the Persian Gulf while their aircraft maintained a readiness rate of nearly 100 percent.

During the Persian Gulf War, Coast Guard personnel proudly served their country both at home and abroad and proved once again the importance of Coast Guard missions in overseas conflicts. These Coast Guard activities focused on, but were not limited to, marine safety, vessel boarding, port security and environmental protection operations. In all of these missions, men and women of the Coast Guard fulfilled their wartime missions as members of the long blue line.

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