Follow TV Tropes


Useful Notes / Coast Guard

Go To

The United States Coast Guard is one of the nation's Armed Forces, right up there with The Army, The Navy, The Air Force, and The Marines. Despite this, most people forget that it even exists. Or for most of its history, people mistook them for the Navy after being rescued at sea.note  Part of that is its small size: with 42,000 active duty members, it is less than a quarter the size of the Marine Corps.

They've fought in every war of the United States since 1790, but their rescue and law enforcement roles and their shuffling around some decidedly nonmilitary Departments leads to frequent accusations that they're "not military." Given that, their small size, their constant workload, and their status as "shallow water sailors," the Coast Guard has a longstanding, mostly friendly rivalry with the Navy, wherein Coast Guardsmen like to boast that they're better, tougher sailors than the Squids could dream of.

Generally, while the other four branches get prime-time TV spots that chant, "Army! Navy! Air Force! Marines!" the Coast Guard is relegated to late-night TV or the occasional pre-movie blurb. It doesn't help that the Coast Guard report to a different department than the "big four", rolled up into Homeland Security with less popular agencies like Immigration Services, while the Navy and Marines kick it in the Department of Defense.note 

This being America, despite the Coast Guard's small size compared to the other military branches, it is still larger than many nation's navies and operates more ships. The Legend-class National Security Cutters, for instance, are larger and better armed than some second and third world frigates and destroyers. Of course, the USA needs a bit more oomf to its Coast Guard, considering the USCG has to police and protect the world's largest exclusive economic zone, all 11,351,000 square kilometers of it.

If you ask a Coast Guardsman, they might tell you that they belong to the oldest continually operating US sea service. The US Navy and Marine Corps— as opposed to the Continental Navy and Marines— were both formed in 1794, four years after the Revenue-Marine was founded. The Revenue-Marine, after several name changes and agglomerations with other services, became the modern Coast Guard.

Coasties are also more than happy to tell you that they're ALWAYS in the fight. When the Navy and the Marines are putzing around bases with their hands on their cocks waiting for the next war, Coast Guardsmen are out there saving lives, catching crooks, keeping the waterways safe, and protecting the environment. There's also the running joke that when the Air Force is afraid to fly in the weather, they send out the Navy, and the Coast Guard gets sent out when the Navy is afraid to fly.

When wars do come, Coast Guardsmen have been there ever since 1790. They are that hard nucleus of seagoing professionals around which the Navy forms in times of war, serving as additional manpower and fulfilling variations on their peacetime roles— such as handling small boats or intercepting the same. Many of the American landing craft used in World War II were operated by the Coast Guard, with one Guardsman, Douglas Albert Munro, earning the Medal of Honor during the Battle of Guadalcanal when he died while evacuating a group of Marines pinned down on a beachnote . Today, cutters are forward-deployed today in support of counterpiracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars; and Port Security Units are tasked with defending far-off oil terminals.

The official Coast Guard marching song is "Semper Paratus"note , which conforms to the Common Meter, and can thus be sung to the tune of "The Ballad of Gilligan's Island".

Beginning in the 1980s, the Coast Guard's role in drug interdiction took on renewed importance. Today, much of the public perceives that as the Coast Guard's main role, with the help of many other organizations and the Navy.

By law, the Coast Guard has 11 missions (listed in order of percentage of operating expenses):

  • Ports, waterways, and coastal security
  • Drug interdiction
  • Aids to navigation
  • Search and rescue
  • Living marine resources
  • Marine safety
  • Defense readiness
  • Migrant interdiction
  • Marine environmental protection
  • Ice operations
  • Other law enforcement

Coast Guard vessels range from small, fast 29' Response Boat Smalls, through 47-foot "self-righting" Motor Life Boats, to 378' High Endurance Cutters and 420' icebreakers, with a wide range of patrol boats, tugs, and buoy tenders in between. The Coast Guard fleet is divided into three categories based on the color of the ships — "white hulls", consisting of the USCG's combat/interdiction craft, "black hulls", consisting of maintenance and support vessels like buoy tenders, and "red hull" icebreakers. They also have a wide range of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. Interestingly enough, the Coast Guard can also boast to have the only active commissioned sailing vessel in the American armed forces, the USCGC Eagle, built in Germany in 1936 and seized after the war, which now operates as a training and public relations vessel.

And like the US Military Academy in West Point and the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, the Coast Guard also has an academy for aspiring officers in New London, Connecticut, complete with its own collegiate sports teams. Somewhat counterintuitively, their mascot is a bear. If you're wondering why a school for sailors has a land animal as its mascot: it's a tribute to the USS Bear, one of the most famous Coast Guard vessels of all time. Like the Coast Guard itself, the Coast Guard Bears are often overlooked in the world of college sports, partly because they've avoided getting swept up in the US military's other storied sports rivalries (of which the Army-Navy rivalry is the most famous). Notably, they're the only military team that doesn't compete for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, a collegiate football award contested annually by the Army Black Knights, the Navy Midshipmen, and the Air Force Falcons.

Television and film depictions of Coast Guard operations typically show small craft or the MH-60 and MH-65 helicopters. Big cutters are seen far less frequently.



  • Most often seen as support in a disaster drama. The most potent exception, perhaps, is The Guardian (2006), a film focusing on Coast Guard rescue swimmers.
  • Seen, but seldom identified, in any movie about the Normandy Invasion: most of the landing craft were piloted by Coast Guardsmen. In addition, many of the river patrol boats used in the Vietnam War movies were Coast Guard vessels.
  • At the beginning of The Santa Clause 2, the North Pole is overflown by a C-130 — apparently part of the Coast Guard Ice Patrol, but with the serial numbers filed off.
  • A Coast Guard chopper features prominently in Licence to Kill.
  • The 1958 dramedy Onionhead features a character (played by Andy Griffith) joining the Coast Guard as a cook during World War II.
  • A Coast Guard cutter can be seen off the coast of Los Angeles at one point in Battle: Los Angeles, though is eliminated in short order by an alien artillery barrage.
  • In Overboard, Billy says that he used to be in the Coast Guard. Later at the climax of the film, the Coast Guard helps Dean catch up with Joanna's yacht — complete with the Semper Paratus march playing in the background.
  • In a throwaway line from Back to the Future, Marty explains away his "life preserver" vest to his future mother and grandmother by saying that he is in the Coast Guard. Later, Doc uses a mind-reading helmet to incorrectly guess that Marty is a member of the "Coast Guard Youth Auxiliary."
  • The Coast Guard gets a lot of screen time in Bad Boys II, which fits with the bad-guys of the film being drug dealers. We see them at the start when a cutter loses a Go-Fast, then again later when Coast Guard helicopters stop another one. They even help secretly insert an assault team into Cuban waters.
  • Invasion U.S.A. (1985): Impostors pose as U.S. Coast Guard personnel that massacre a boat full of Cuban refugees in the film's beginning scene.
  • The Lost World: Jurassic Park: The Ingen Harbor Master and several Ingen security guards attempt to contact the Coast Guard as the ship SS Venture shows no sign of slowing down just as it approaches the San Diego Ingen docks.
  • Dawn of the Dead (2004): In the "We Interrupt This Program" Special Features, the reporter mentions the U.S. Coast Guard is currently patrolling the East and Hudson Rivers around Manhattan Island after all bridges and tunnels there were destroyed, possibly to contain the infection.
  • Scooby-Doo: Mary Jane attempts to call the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance after demons attack Spooky Island, though the Coast Guardsmen have been possessed themselves. They later show up as part of The Cavalry that arrest Scrappy Doo and his henchmen in the ending.
  • The Finest Hours (2016), based on the book of the same name, starring Chris Pine, covers the rescue of a ship's crew off Cape Cod in the winter of 1952.
  • In Assault on a Queen, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter comes to investigate why the RMS Queen Mary has come to a dead stop in the water, and winds up fighting Submarine Pirates.
  • The Island (1980): The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Dauntless stumbles on the pirate island while investigating the cocaine that had been dumped overboard from the schooner. The crew is ambushed by the pirates and massacred. Maynard uses the weapons onboard the cutter in his final showdown with the pirates.
  • Thunderball features the Coast Guard helping James Bond save the day by launching an underwater SCUBA attack. Needless to say they don't have this capability in reality, but they do actually have anti-diver defenses for homeland security purposes. Several Coast Guard vessels also attack and sink the Disco Volante's rear hull, but they are not obvious because it was before the iconic racing stripe was created.


  • Features prominently in the book (and later movie) Clear and Present Danger, highlighting the Coast Guard's drug interdiction role. The novel goes into more detail about "Red" Wegner's background, most of which focuses on their search and rescue role.
    • They also get a good bit of time in the prequel Without Remorse, mostly in regards to the start of the USCG becoming involved in drug interdiction.
  • The book and movie The Perfect Storm are partially about the USCGC Tamaroa and other Coast Guard assets trying to rescue victims of the titular storm.
  • One book of the Worldwar series by Harry Turtledove features the guy carrying stolen Uranium (or possibly Plutonium) to the Manhattan Project getting a ride across the Great Lakes on a Coast Guard cutter so he can catch a train through Canada.
  • Blindfold Game, a thriller by Dana Stabenow, has a USCG Cutter as the primary force in place to prevent a terrorist attack on the western United States.
  • The Keeper's Son and its sequel, The Ambassador's Son are novels by Homer Hickam featuring an officer of the Coast Guard named Josh Thurlow. The first book takes place off the coast of North Carolina and the second in the Pacific, both during WWII.
  • MAYDAY, MAYDAY! is a children's book by Chris Demarest about a Coast Guard rescue.
  • In Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, after the kids escape from the Underworld and end up floating in the ocean, the Coast Guard pulls them out. In the midst of dealing with the huge earthquake that just hit LA, they kinda just dump the kids on land. On the other hand, the kids are apparently Junior Coast Guardsmen now.
  • The Coast Guard, specifically the Training Barque Eagle, features prominently in S. M. Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time.
  • In The Dresden Files book Death Masks, Harry, two Knights of the Cross, and Gentleman Johnny Marcone assault a moving train from a surplus Coast Guard helo piloted by a Valkyrie, blasting Ride of the Valkyries the whole way. Whaddaya think, were they flying an H-3 or did they somehow manage to get an H-60 or H-65? We know that Marcone and Monoc Securities like flying old Vietnam-era aircraft.

Live-Action TV

  • The Coast Guard often appeared on Baywatch.
  • The main characters of Boston Legal, after trying the National Guard, Army, Navy, etc., end up trying to join the Coast Guard, since it's the only organization they can technically qualify for. Hilarity Ensues. This is odd, because the Coast Guard requires the highest score (45) on the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) to qualify, as well as much tighter regulations regarding criminal background.
    • Note that they join the Coast Guard Auxiliary, which is the non-military civilian volunteer component of the Coast Guard. Still requires the background check, but the only test you have to pass is an open book exam on what the CGAUX is about.
  • CSI: Miami has featured a number of cases involving the Coast Guard, from bodies found at sea, to migrant interdiction, to drug runners.
    • Or just when a suspect is trying to make a dash for international waters.
  • The documentary series Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel often prominently features the Coast Guard, usually in its search-and-rescue role, sometimes in one or another of its regulatory roles. One episode was dedicated to a rescue swimmer who was fatally injured in the process of evacuating the crew of a disabled ship.
  • An episode of NCIS, called "Jurisdiction," features the CGIS, Coast Guard Investigative Service, in a major role. Including Special Agent Abigail "Abby" Borin, who is essentially Gibbs' Distaff Counterpart. The CGIS team even had their own probie, named something that sounded vaguely like McGee.
    • Since then, CGIS Agent Borin has become a vaguely recurring character, showing up Once a Season since her first appearance.
  • The USCG shows up a few times on JAG.
    • When Bud was picked to carry 'the football' (the briefcase carrying the nuclear launch codes for the President) and through a series of mishaps gets separated from the party, afterwards the Admiral assures him that nobody blames him or is angry with him, but it would be best if the next officer in rotation take over the duty—a Lieutenant from the Coast Guard. The way Bud says "Coast Guard, sir?" indicates that he thinks that's the crowning humiliation.
  • Psych: Chief Vick's sister works for the Coast Guard.
  • In an early episode of Magnum, P.I., TC's chopper is intercepted by Coast Guard aircraft as TC tries to smuggle a Vietnam War deserter friend into Hawaii. The CG's interception was deliberate—the episode's Big Bad had called the CG via radio, intending for TC to be captured as part of an elaborate plan.
  • A Coast Guard team recovers a small airplane's black box in the episode "Lapaʻau" on the revival of Hawaii Five-0.
  • The documentary-style show Coast Guard Alaska on The Weather Channel follows USCG units in Kodiak and Sitka, Alaska, that perform search and rescue missions. A similar series, Coast Guard Florida, follows a unit from Miami, Florida.
  • The series finale of the show Dogfights shows a hypothetical combat scenario where an air-battle is started after enemy aircraft fire on a Coast Guard rescue helicopter.
  • Coast Guard officers help Wilbur and Mr. Ed capture foreign agents in "Ed the Counterspy."
  • Norm from Cheers was in the Coast Guard.
  • They show up occasionally on the National Geographic TV Channel program Border Wars, often in their drug and migrant interdiction roles.
  • Michael calls in the coast guard to help him take down a rogue CIA agent in the sixth season finale of Burn Notice.
    Michael!Narrator: Most people don't think of the Coast Guard as being particularly well armed. Most people are wrong.
  • In the 30 Rock episode Reaganing, Tracy mentions that if he doesn't do his community service, a judge will make him join the Coast Guard.
  • The Walking Dead: T-Dog mentions about heading to the coast, find a boat, and head to the Caribbean islands (Bahamas, Puerto Rico, United States Virgin Islands, etc) where it is the best place to ride out the Zombie Apocalypse. It is heavily hinted elements of the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard are still operational, protecting the Caribbean islands and establishing safe-zone for refugees coming in from the U.S. mainland.
    • Fear the Walking Dead: In Season 2, the group hears a message over the radio of a Coast Guardsman apologizing on behalf of the organization being unable to rescue survivors in the West Coast, implying that USCG may have experienced a high amount of casaulties or desertion. It is also implied that some of their equipment may have fallen into the hands of pirates since a boat is seen sunk in which Daniel Salazar states was done by a .50 Caliber machine gun, the same one used in U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats.

Video Games

Western Animation

  • G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero has a Coast Guard member, codenamed 'Cutter'.
  • The Simpsons:
    • Homer Simpson once told the members of the Coast Guard after rescuing him that "you Navy rejects are all right."
    • Grandpa Simpson, according to one of his stories, served as an officer in the Coast Guard at some time prior to 1936.
    Grandpa: ...And I guess he won the argument, but I walked away with the turnips; the following morning I resigned my commission in the Coast Guard. The next thing I heard there was civil war in Spain!
    • In "Homer the Vigilante", Homer recognizes that the Coast Guard is a possible obstacle to his vigilante group:
    Lisa: ...If you're the police, who will police the police?!
    Homer: I dunno, Coast Guard?
    • A Coast Guard vessel, having earlier been taunted by Homer and Bart (they were in international waters, outside the Coast Guard's jurisdiction), refuses to assist them and their guests aboard Mr. Burns' yacht when it is boarded by pirates in "The Mansion Family". Instead of intervening, the Guardsmen take the opportunity to taunt them back via loud-hailer:
    (Sarcastically): Navy SEALs are on their way.