Building the National Security Cutter: Looking back

U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton (WHEC-715) is the most recent ship to carry on the Hamilton namesake. The cutter was decommissioned in 2011 following nearly 40 years of service. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton (WHEC-715) is the most recent ship to carry on the Hamilton namesake. The cutter was decommissioned in 2011 following nearly 40 years of service. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Hamilton is a name internalized by each and every Coast Guard member. It’s the name held by the “father” of the Coast Guard, Alexander Hamilton, and a name that has continued to serve our country in the form of Coast Guard cutters since 1830.

And in just a few weeks, the Coast Guard fleet will welcome its newest member: Cutter Hamilton, the newest National Security Cutter, which will carry on this historic namesake.

The crew of Hamilton, the newest cutter to bear the name, carries forward a more than 180-year tradition of serving aboard a vessel that bears the name of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who created the Revenue Cutter Service in 1790.

Countless crewmembers have crossed the brow and saluted the national ensign before stepping foot aboard one of these cutters, and all have a myriad of experiences which make the dynamic service of these cutters truly inspiring.

As the Coast Guard prepares for a future generation of Hamilton sailors, past crewmembers and families share their experiences and wishes for the new crew.

Cutter Alexander Hamilton, later renamed Hamilton, served the Coast Guard during World War I until it was struck by an enemy torpedo and subsequently sank. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Cutter Alexander Hamilton, later renamed Hamilton, served the Coast Guard during World War II until it was struck by an enemy torpedo and subsequently sank. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Family of Michael Vas

In 1937, Cutter Alexander Hamilton (WPG-34) was commissioned, carrying on the legacy that had been established more than 100 years earlier. This ship was one of the Coast Guard’s 327-foot cutters, designed to meet changing missions and needs following the prohibition era.

After arriving in Oakland, California, the cutter’s homeport, the name was shortened to Hamilton prior to her first deployment to the Bearing Sea.

Following the declaration of World War II in 1939, Hamilton’s originally scheduled deployment to the south Pacific was cancelled, and it was sent to Norfolk, Virgina, to prepare for wartime missions in which it would operate under the U.S. Navy.

In January 1942, a torpedo from an enemy ship struck Hamilton. The order came to abandon ship as Hamilton settled lower and lower in the water, but it was not enough – 20 men had been killed instantly and six others died later of injuries sustained in the attack.

One of those men killed was Michael Vas, a boiler operator who was just 22 years old at the time.

Dave Downey, Vas’s cousin, plans to attend the commissioning ceremony for the newest Hamilton cutter in order to honor Vas’s memory and see the new legacy be carried forward.

“We think it’s great,” said Downey. “The Hamilton is a proud name that should sail the seven seas.”

He compares the namesake of Hamilton to the way families carry forward names for generations – he says the newest Hamilton is the “latest and greatest.”

Thomas Winkler

Thomas Winkler first stepped foot aboard Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton (WHEC-715) in the summer of 1974 at its homeport in Boston.

Relatives of Michael Vas, including Vas's mother and cousin, hold a plaque honoring Vas's legacy, along with teh seal for the newest Hamilton cutter. Photo courtesy of Dave Downey.

Relatives of Michael Vas, including Vas’s cousins, hold a plaque honoring Vas’s legacy, along with teh seal for the newest Hamilton cutter. Photo courtesy of Dave Downey.

Winkler, a fire control technician, served aboard Hamilton three separate times from 1974 to 1991 and each time brought new and memorable moments.

In 1984, he was involved in a boarding that shifted to a rescue mission when the sailboat capsized, throwing all 70 Haitian migrants and the boarding team into the water.

“I was extremely proud watching the entire crew function as a well-oiled rescue team pulling people from the water, performing emergency first aid to those in need,” he said.

Winkler was also part of the crew that prepped Hamilton for the fleet renovation and maintenance project in 1985 and assisted in the re-home porting of Hamilton from Boston to San Pedro, California, in 1991.

And now, with the recent decommissioning of the cutter he served aboard, he looks forward to attending the commissioning ceremony for the newest Coast Guard cutter to carry on the Hamilton namesake.

“I am excited to see that the legacy of the ‘Hambone’ will continue in this latest incarnation of the USCGC Hamilton,” he said. “I wish this new version of my ‘pride’ fair winds and following seas that she may continue to serve this country and continue to provide adventure and new memories for future generations of Coast Guard men and women who proudly serve aboard the best cutter in the Coast Guard.”

Richard Guilmette

Richard “Dick” Guilmette, an electronics technician, first stepped aboard Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton (WHEC-715) when he was only 21 or 22 years old.

While assigned, he completed the cutter’s west Pacific tour to Vietnam during the late 1960s. The cutter spent 10 months in the Vietnam region before returning to it’s homeport of Boston and normal operations along the Eastern seaboard.

Thomas Winkler, a fire control technician, served aboard U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton (WHEC-715) during three seperate tours, which spanned more than two decades. Photo courtesy of Thomas Winkler.

Thomas Winkler, a fire control technician, served aboard U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton (WHEC-715) during three seperate tours, which spanned more than two decades. Photo courtesy of Thomas Winkler.

Even though he only spent three years aboard Hamilton, the cutter still holds a special place in Guilmette’s heart. So much so that in 2011, Guilmette, along with a grouping of 15 to 20 other previous Hamilton sailors, attended the cutter’s decommissioning ceremony in San Diego.

“The ceremony was beautifully done with lots of pop and circumstance,” he remembers.

And just as Guilmette remembers how in awe of the ship he was when he first stepped aboard in 1968, he hopes the same for the newest Hamilton crew.

“She was so clean and new…with those twin jet engines,” he said. “We were all proud to be part of her crew. I sure hope the new Hamilton’s crew feels like we did back in the day.”

Looking forward

Though the Hamilton namesake has served our nation for more than 180 years, it’s not even close to being finished patrolling our coasts.

From 1830 to 2011, cutters bearing the name Hamilton have protected our coasts from smugglers, saved lives and, perhaps more importantly, impacted the lives of countless many Coast Guard men and women.

And for the foreseeable future, the name “Hamilton” will continue to do just that.

The Coast Guard's newest National Security Cutter, the 418-foot Cutter Hamilton. As the 4th cutter out of planned eight Legend-class cutters, the Hamilton is scheduled to be commissioned and homeported in Charleston, South Carolina, Dec. 6. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Coast Guard Aviation Training Center Mobile.

The Coast Guard’s newest National Security Cutter, the 418-foot Cutter Hamilton. As the 4th cutter out of planned eight Legend-class cutters, the Hamilton is scheduled to be commissioned and homeported in Charleston, South Carolina, Dec. 6. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Coast Guard Aviation Training Center Mobile.

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