Waesche: The U.S. Coast Guard’s Second Founding Father

A 1943 photograph showing the commandant, Vice Adm. Russell Waesche, during a tour of wartime Coast Guard forces in the field. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
A 1943 photograph showing the commandant, Vice Adm. Russell Waesche, during a tour of wartime Coast Guard forces in the field. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

By William Thiesen 11-23-2018 06:29:13

“Adm. Waesche was largely responsible for the consistent development of the United States Coast Guard from a peacetime organization of approximately 15,000 to a wartime force of more than 170,000 officers and members. Under his supervision, the Coast Guard distinguished itself in supporting landing operations of the Army, Navy and Marines, on convoying merchant ships and in other hazardous tasks.” Navy Secretary James Forrestal, Navy Distinguished Service Medal Citation.

The quote above refers to Adm. Russell Waesche, an organizational genius whose keen intellect and acumen for systematizing bureaucracy equipped him to head the Coast Guard for 10 years and lead the service through the many challenges it faced during the lean years of the 1930s, then rapid expansion and preparation for World War II. With the exception of founder Alexander Hamilton, Waesche shaped the Coast Guard more than any other individual in the history of the service.

Born in 1886, in a small town north of Frederick, Maryland, Russell Randolph Waesche received his primary and secondary education in the Maryland public schools. He completed one year at Purdue University before applying for entrance to the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service School of Instruction. Waesche was appointed a Revenue Cutter Service cadet, May 19, 1904. In 1906, he graduated from the School of Instruction and was commissioned an ensign.

During his first five years as a Revenue Cutter Service officer, Waesche saw duty in the North Atlantic, Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest. In October 1911, he received his first command, the Revenue Cutter Arcata, based out of the Pacific Northwest Division and received assignment to the cutter Pamlico in November 1912. Waesche began a tour at Coast Guard Headquarters in February 1915 and remained in this position throughout World War I. After the war, Waesche commanded the Bothwell, a Navy surplus Eagle-Class patrol craft, and then the 152-foot cutter Snohomish.

From May 1924 through March 1926, he commanded the destroyer Beale, on loan from the Navy for Prohibition patrols. Afterward, the service assigned Waesche to the Philadelphia Navy Yard where he represented the Coast Guard at Philadelphia’s U.S. Sesquicentennial International Exposition. He later commanded the Prohibition-era destroyer Tucker then served briefly as the Coast Guard Destroyer Force Gunnery Officer. In March 1928, he returned to Coast Guard Headquarters to serve as the Coast Guard’s chief ordnance officer.

The 1930s began a new era for the Coast Guard in which Waesche played a leading role. During this period, he established the Coast Guard Institute and Correspondence School for warrant officers and enlisted personnel. In 1932, he developed a plan to reorganize Coast Guard field forces as part of a Great Depression effort to streamline government and reduce the federal budget.

Waesche’s model established an “Area” command structure with an Eastern Area, Western Area, Northern Area and Southern Area. This tiered system formed the basis for an organizational model used by the Coast Guard today. He also served in the Navy’s War Plans Division and developed plans to quickly transition the Coast Guard to Navy control in the event of war. To improve efficiency, Waesche also designed a new system for promoting commissioned Coast Guard officers. In 1935, he assumed a key position in the command staff under Commandant Harry Hamlet.

The 1930s saw the expansion of the service and preparation for war. In June 1936, Waesche was “deep-selected” to serve as commandant and received the rank of rear admiral. In the years leading up to World War II, Waesche and his staff prepared for the greatest expansion the Coast Guard would ever see. In 1939, war erupted in Europe and President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration moved the civilian-manned U.S. Lighthouse Service from the Commerce Department to the Coast Guard. By adopting the Lighthouse Service, the Coast Guard gained the important aids-to-navigation mission. In addition, the service had to absorb hundreds of lighthouses and lightships, a fleet of black-hulled tenders, thousands of buoys and beacons and the thousands of former civilian personnel that maintained and operated all of these ships, lighthouses and aids-to-navigation.

During the war, Waesche dealt with rapid change within the Coast Guard. In November 1941, the Department of Treasury transferred control of the service to the Navy where it fought alongside its fellow military services in the air, at sea and on land. At the same time, the Coast Guard performed its law enforcement, search and rescue, humanitarian response, port security and aids-to-navigation missions. In 1942, the civilian-staffed Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation moved as a temporary measure from the Commerce Department to the Coast Guard, adding marine safety to the service’s long list of maritime missions.

In World War II, Waesche saw his small peacetime fleet swell to more than 750 cutters, 3,500 smaller craft, 290 Navy vessels, and 255 Army vessels. Under Waesche, the Coast Guard also recruited 12,000 women and led the U.S. sea services in racial desegregation of enlisted and officer ranks.

The Coast Guard participated in every major amphibious operation and contributed 250,000 men and women to the war effort. In 1943, Waesche secured Congressional support for the Coast Guard’s postwar return to the control of the Treasury Department. By doing this, he alleviated problems that occurred after World War I when the Navy tried to retain control over the Coast Guard. So, at the end of World War II, the Coast Guard returned to its former place within the Department of Treasury.

After a record-setting 10 years as commandant, Waesche retired from the Coast Guard effective January 1, 1946. Two weeks after his retirement, Navy Secretary James Forrestal decorated Waesche with the Navy Distinguished Service Medal for his leadership and administration of the Coast Guard during World War II.

In March 1946, President Harry Truman nominated the top 10 U.S. flag officers to retain their wartime ranks in retirement. At the same time, the president announced the formation of an “elder statesmen’s organization” for national defense consisting of the same 10 officers. Waesche was designated one of these distinguished flag officers.

Waesche’s tenure as Coast Guard commandant was the most productive and successful in Coast Guard history. Not only was he responsible for the efficient expansion of the service, he also improved the traditional functions of the Coast Guard. He extended and intensified Coast Guard activities on the Great Lakes and the inland waterways. His administration saw several new missions added to the Coast Guard’s growing list, including marine safety, icebreaking and aids-to-navigation. As commandant, Waesche also took an interest in work in the field, and he frequently made personal inspections of district units and activities.

Over the course of his commandancy, Waesche rose from rear admiral to four-star flag officer. He died on October 17, 1946, and was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Agnes Cronin, and four sons, three of whom saw military service. His oldest son, Russell Randolph Waesche, Jr., also retired from the Coast Guard as a flag officer.

Waesche was one of many Coast Guard men and women who have distinguished themselves as members of the long blue line.

William Thiesen, Ph.D. is Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian.

Source: Coast Guard Compass


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.