The Long Blue Line: Reliance—historic, revolutionary and OPC namesake

Saturday, July 6, 2019

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

This black and white photo shows newly the commissioned Reliance (WMEC-615) with an HH-52 helicopter landing on its helicopter pad and davits down with one of its small boats deployed. Notice the lack of smokestack and paint scheme pre-dating the Racing Stripe or “U.S. Coast Guard” paint schemes. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

[Cutter] Reliance will enhance the Coast Guard’s humanitarian mission of ensuring the safety of all men at sea and the ships they sail in regardless of the flags they fly. She will give added stamina to the Coast Guard’s ceaseless vigil in safeguarding our sea frontiers against law-breakers and illegal entries, and she will stand ready to serve our naval forces in time of armed conflict.President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964

In 1964, the U.S. Coast Guard commissioned the medium-endurance cutter Reliance (WMEC-615). This 210-foot cutter has served the nation for over 55 years. During that time, Reliance has performed the missions of search and rescue, national defense, international engagement, migrant interdiction, maritime safety and security, port and coastal security, regulating living marine resources and preventing drug smuggling.

Reliance is named for an inspirational trait of dependability. The first cutter named Reliance was a 100-foot steam-powered tugboat. The Revenue Cutter Service purchased Reliance and two other tugs for $9,000 apiece at the start of the Civil War. The service received the cutter in August 1861 and it served through 1865. During the war, Reliance operated out of Baltimore mainly as a blockade enforcement ship in Chesapeake Bay. The cutter also served as a convoy escort and a troop transport for Union landing parties along the shores of Chesapeake Bay.

The second cutter named “Reliance” was a 110-foot topsail schooner. Built in Baltimore, and commissioned in June 1867, Reliance II was one of the last strictly sail-powered cutters in the Revenue Cutter Service. The cutter sailed around Cape Horn for San Francisco where it deployed on Bering Sea Patrols off the coast of Alaska. Reliance II was only the third cutter deployed to the new territory for law enforcement cruises. The duties of the Bering Sea Patrol were hard on wooden ships and the cutter only remained in service for eight years before it was decommissioned and sold in 1875.

This aerial photograph of sister-cutter Vigilant shows the original helipad and superstructure arrangement lacking smokestack and enabling 360-degree visibility from the bridge. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Commissioned in 1927, the third Reliance was a 125-foot Active-Class patrol boat assigned to New York. As part of Prohibition’s Offshore Patrol Force, the cutter’s missions included law enforcement, search and rescue, and the interdiction of illegal liquor off American shores. In 1933, Congress repealed the 18th Amendment, so Reliance III was detailed to Norfolk, Virginia, where the cutter was homeported until 1935. That year, the cutter was transferred to Honolulu and rearmed for possible combat operations in December 1940. In 1941, the cutter was stationed at Pearl Harbor, and on Dec. 7, Reliance III became one of the first U.S. warships to see combat action in World War II. The cutter fired on Japanese aircraft until they withdrew. The cutter continued to perform wartime duty in the Pacific until 1946. That year the cutter was transferred to Cordova, Alaska, and performed law enforcement and search and rescue missions for a year. Reliance III was decommissioned in 1947 and sold out of the service in 1948.

Today’s Reliance is the first of the 210-foot medium-endurance cutter fleet and its class’s namesake cutter. In 1962, Commandant Edwin Roland presided over Reliance IV’s keel laying at the Houston, Texas-based Todd Shipyard. The cutter was stationed in Corpus Christi after its 1964 commissioning and remained there until 1975. The cutter’s duties included offshore oilrig inspections, fisheries and marine pollution patrols, and search and rescue. During Reliance IV’s long career, it has been homeported in Yorktown, Virginia; Port Canaveral, Florida; and New Castle, New Hampshire. Presently based out of Kittery, Maine, at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Reliance patrols Atlantic waters from the eastern coast of Canada to the northern tip of South America. Its many duties include the enforcement of laws and treaties, fisheries patrols, migrant interdiction, drug interdiction, safety inspections, and search and rescue.

In addition to its distinguished career, Reliance IV occupies a unique place in Coast Guard history. Reliance was the first cutter built as part of the service’s post-World War II fleet revitalization. From World War II through the 1950s, the Coast Guard had re-purposed surplus Navy ships, so Reliance was the first purpose-built cutter laid down and commissioned after World War II. With the exception of the Wind-Class icebreakers, Reliance marked the first new Coast Guard cutter construction since the 1930s.

Reliance in dry-dock after application of the Racing Stripe and installation of new engines and smokestack. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The Navy’s Office of Naval Architecture and Engineering designed the Reliance-Class to perform traditional Coast Guard missions and support Navy operations in case the Cold War heated-up. Thus, the Reliance and its sister cutters were designed with a 3-inch deck gun and mounts for 40mm cannons, and anti-submarine weapons and equipment. The Reliance-Class also came equipped with state-of-the-art navigation and communications technology and controllable-pitch propellers. Moreover, Reliance was the first cutter equipped with a combination diesel and gas (CODAC) powerplant that drove the cutter at speeds of up to 20 knots, so it could tow a 10,000-ton vessel or keep pace with Navy carrier fleets.

The Reliance-Class featured superior comfort and habitability for the crew with the first use of air conditioning on a cutter. In addition, the famed industrial design firm of Loewy-Snaith, Inc. (designers of the Coast Guard Racing Stripe logo) worked with the Coast Guard Design Branch to design and decorate all interior spaces, including all furniture, light fixtures, pictures and frames, upholstery fabric, curtains, tiles, vinyl flooring, and all other materials and finishes in crew spaces.

Reliance was also the most advanced U.S. vessel of its day with an all welded steel hull and an aluminum superstructure to minimize top-heaviness. The Reliance-Class was the first fleet of cutters designed with a flight deck for helicopter operations. To provide 360-degree bridge visibility and oversight of flight operations, the cutter’s designers redirected powerplant exhaust through stern pipes thereby eliminating the need for a smokestack. However, the CODAG system proved inefficient, so Reliance and the next five cutters in-class were re-engined to a twin diesel powerplant in the late 1980s. During this conversion, a smokestack was added enlarging the superstructure and reducing the size of the helicopter pad.

Cutter Reliance underway today in the Western Caribbean. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The Coast Guard will soon build the “Heritage”-Class of 360-foot Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs). Reliance (WMSM-925) will be the 11th in the first flight of OPCs and the fifth service vessel to bear this distinguished name. Reliance V and its OPC sister cutters will become the mainstay of the Coast Guard’s ocean-going fleet fulfilling the service’s maritime security and safety missions. For more information on the OPCs, check the Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate’s Offshore Patrol Cutters web page.

In its 55 years of service to the nation, Reliance has received countless honors. These awards include numerous service commendations, medals, and special operations ribbons. Firmly rooted in its long list of accomplishments, the history of its distinguished predecessor vessels and its revolutionary design, Reliance continues to live up to its motto of “First in the Fleet.”

The official crest of cutter Reliance. (U.S. Coast Guard)


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