The history of an admirable, undeservedly neglected service agency.
Every day, the Coast Guard’s men, ships and aircraft respond to 123 distress calls and rescue an average of 14 people; this translates into more than 1.1 million lives saved during its 200-year history. Sadly, notes environmental journalist Helvarg (50 Ways to Save the Ocean, 2006, etc.), far more attention is paid to seagoing organizations that kill people—Navy, Marines, etc. The Guard has suffered thousands of deaths in the line of duty while killing almost no one, except during wartime when it comes under Navy command. The author makes a convincing case that this is not for lack of drama and heroism. Fittingly, the book begins in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While the Bush administration was caught napping, Coast Guard leaders had no doubt that a disaster was in the works. Assembling men and equipment, they waited for the storm to pass and then sprang into action, rescuing thousands. Helvarg follows the Guard’s history from a few lighthouse keepers in the 1790s to today’s high-tech service, whose ships and aircraft routinely pluck men from raging seas and sinking vessels and intercept drug and illegal-immigrant smugglers. Lacking the enthusiastic private-industry lobbyists who promote massive appropriations for the other services, the Guard makes do with ships far older than the Navy’s and never-quite-cutting-edge equipment. Antiterrorism duties added since 2001 have forced diversion of units from rescue, safety, antipollution and anticrime patrols, while world shipping and its inevitable problems continue to increase.
Readers will agree with the author that the Coast Guard is the only American military service that needs more money and publicity.