Semper Paratus

Written by Cmdr. Rick Wester.

Today is the U.S. Coast Guard’s 222nd birthday, and marks the date on which the Tariff Act of 1790 authorized, at the suggestion of Alexander Hamilton, the building of ten cutters to assist in the collection of tariffs, which became the country’s sole source of income for more than 120 years. These cutters composed what became the Revenue Cutter Service which was renamed the Coast Guard in 1915.

Captain Francis S. Van Boskerck

Capt. Francis S. Van Boskerck. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Known as “Coast Guard Day,” August 4th is celebrated annually at U.S. Coast Guard units worldwide and also represents an opportunity to reflect upon our history and heritage of courageous service. One appropriate way to reflect upon the early history of the Coast Guard is to understand the historical references in the lyrics of our service song, Semper Paratus, which was written 90 years ago this year.

The lyrics, written by Captain Francis S. Van Boskerck, provide a good synopsis of the Coast Guard’s pre-WWII history. The history behind some of the references are well known, while others, not so much. For example, the second verse mentions “From Barrow’s shores to Paraguay.” Paraguay is a land-locked South American country. What was the Coast Guard doing there?

The lyrics highlight how even back then, the Coast Guard’s unique capabilities and authorities were required well outside the territorial seas of the continental U.S. For the first two lines of the first verse, “From Aztec shore to Arctic zone, To Europe and Far East,” “Aztec shore” refers to the U.S. landings on Mexico’s Gulf Coast during the Mexican War (1846-48) in which Revenue cutters participated. With the U.S. Navy short of shallow-draft vessels, five cutters engaged in numerous amphibious operations, including Alvarado and Tabasco.

Cutter McCulloch (1897)

Cutter McCulloch circa 1897. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Shifting to the north, for decades after the Alaska Purchase in 1867, revenue cutters conducted the annual Bering Sea Patrol in the frigid, fog-shrouded waters including the “Arctic Zone.” Cutters provided law and order in isolated areas in which no other law enforcement agency existed. In “Europe,” Coast Guard cutters escorted hundreds of vessels in European waters throughout World War I (lyrics were penned before WWII). The service also saw action in the Spanish-American War, and Cutter McCulloch saw action in the “Far East” in the battle of Manila Bay (Philippines).

The second verse continues with other wartime references. The first line, “Surveyor and Narcissus,” refers to the Cutter Surveyor which distinguished itself in a close-aboard engagement against the British ship Narcissis during the War of 1812. The second line, “The Eagle and Dispatch” is another War of 1812 reference. When the British ship Dispatch drove Cutter Eagle ashore on Long Island, Eagle’s crew dragged its guns up on a hill and continued to attack British ships. When they ran out of shot, they recovered British cannonballs and returned fire.

Coast Guard Cutter Tampa crewmembers (1918)

Coast Guard Cutter Tampa crewmembers circa 1918. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The third line, “The Hudson and the Tampa” refers to two cutters. During the Spanish-American War, eight cutters, including Hudson, participated in the blockade of Havana. On May 11, 1898, at the battle of Cardenas, Cutter Hudson along with torpedo boat USS Winslow engaged shore batteries and gunboats, and later Hudson heroically towed the disabled Winslow to safety under heavy enemy fire.

During WWI, Cutter Tampa served as an ocean escort for 18 convoys and received praise for its high state of readiness. However, on September 26, 1918, after detaching from a convoy near Wales to return to port, the cutter was torpedoed by the Imperial German Navy submarine UB-91. All 130 onboard perished, 111 of which were Coast Guardsmen. This loss was the greatest single casualty incurred by any U.S. Naval unit as a result of known enemy action.

Harriet Lane portrait

Miss Harriet Lane, niece of President James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States. In the background is the Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane. Painting by artist George Sottung of Brookfield Center, Conn.

The next line, “From Barrow’s shores to Paraguay” further highlights the diversity of Coast Guard missions. In late 1897, eight whaling ships were trapped in ice field near Point Barrow, the northernmost point in Alaska. The ice off of Alaska prevented cutters from directly assisting, so crew from Cutter Bear, including Second Lieutenant Ellsworth P. Bertholf, formed a successful overland relief expedition and drove a herd of reindeer 1,500 miles from Teller, Alaska, on the Bering Sea, through blizzards and frequent darkness to the whalers on Barrow’s shores more than three months later.

And finally, Paraguay. Cutter Harriet Lane was assigned to the punitive naval expedition against Paraguay in 1858-59. Ten years after the Mexican War, a naval force was sent to Paraguay in 1858 to settle a dispute with that nation. Cutter Harriet Lane was ordered to join the squadron, and since the cutter was the only shallow-draft steamer among the 18-ship force, it was the most active warship in the squadron. After landing at Montevideo, Uruguay, the U.S. force transited the 1000-mile journey up the Parana River to the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion, forcing a peaceful resolution.

The next time you hear a band play Semper Paratus, think back on the 222 year legacy of the Nation’s oldest continuous naval service and share what you know about our history with your friends and shipmates.

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