Defending America’s Coasts

Historic photograph of the USS San Diego in 1916
The USS San Diego in 1916. Photo: Library of Congress

Fire Island National Seashore and New York Harbor Parks


The outbreak of World War I in 1914 required commissioned vessels, or cutters, of the Coast Guard to enforce US neutrality. Upon the declaration of war on Germany, Coast Guard vessels and sailors were transferred to the control of the Navy. The Coast Guard, created in 1915 and its predecessor, the Revenue Cutter Service, established in 1790, had long been responsible for governing the movement of vessels in American waters, as well as where vessels could anchor. The Espionage Act, passed in June 1917, gave the Coast Guard further power to protect merchant shipping from enemy attacks, a new concern in the political climate of the time, as well as safeguarding waterfront property.

Upon entering the war, there was a tremendous increase in munitions shipments from the US, particularly from New York, the nation’s largest port at the time.The title “Captain of the Port” was first used in New York to describe the officer charged with supervising the safe loading of explosives. Captain Godfrey Carden, commander of the Coast Guard’s New York Division, was the Captain of the Port in New York Harbor.

The Coast Guard, created in 1915 and its predecessor, the Revenue Cutter Service, established in 1790, had long been responsible for governing the movement of vessels in American waters, as well as where vessels could anchor.

In August and September 1917, six cutters, Ossipee, Seneca, Yamacraw, Algonquin, Manning, and Tampa, left from New York to join US naval forces in European waters. They escorted hundreds of vessels while in Europe as well as conducted patrols in the Mediterranean.

After April 1917, German U-boats started to conduct operations off of the eastern coast of the United States, in American waters. Germany had conducted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1915, resulting in the loss of many merchant vessels, including the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner that carried American citizens. After the US declared war on Germany, U-boats began appearing in American waters in an attempt to destroy as many vessels as possible. On July 19, 1918, submarine U-156 sank the USS San Diego 10 miles offshore of Fire Island. The vessel was an armored cruiser with a crew of 1,189 officers and sailors under the command of Captain Harley H. Christy. Her primary mission was to escort convoys out of Nova Scotia and New York through their extremely dangerous trip to Europe. She was on her way back home when she sank.

The vessel kept a wartime watch, as the captain and crew knew there was a possibility that U-boats were in the area. Suddenly there was an explosion on the vessel. Captain Christy assumed they had been hit by a torpedo and he called the sailors on board to their battle stations. There is no evidence that a U-boat was around at the time of the sinking, but it is thought that a U-boat laid a line of mines across the south shore of Fire Island, near New York Harbor. The ship sank in less than 30 minutes. Only six lives were lost that day, but the USS San Diego was the only US Navy captain ship lost in World War I. Her wreckage still lies offshore of Fire Island.

Last updated: October 24, 2018