The designation of High endurance cutter
(WHEC) was created in 1965 when the United States Coast Guard
The United States Coast Guard is a branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven U.S. uniformed services. The Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission and a federal regulatory agency...
adopted its own designation system. High endurance cutters encompassed its largest cutters previously designated by the United States Navy as Coast Guard gunboats (WPG), Coast Guard destroyer escorts (WDE), and Coast Guard seaplane tenders (WAVP).http://www.uscg.mil/history/webcutters/WHEC_Photo_Index.html
There are several classes of high endurance cutters that have operated with the United States Coast Guard (USCG):
- The Hamilton class cutter
The Hamilton class cutter was the largest class of vessel in the United States Coast Guard until replaced by the National Security Cutter, aside from the Polar Ice Breakers. The hull classification symbol is prefixed WHEC...
which is a contemporary design. These vessels are also sometimes referred to as "Secretary class cutters" or in some cases, "Hero class cutters".
- The Owasco class cutter
The Owasco Class Cutter was a cutter class operated by the United States Coast Guard. A total of thirteen cutters in the class were built, all named after lakes. Eleven were constructed by the Western Pipe & Steel Company at San Pedro, California, while the remaining two—Mendota and...
which was a World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...
design, all of which were scrapped by the 1970s.
- The Treasury Class Cutter
The Treasury-class high endurance cutters were a group of seven ships launched by the United States Coast Guard between 1936 and 1937. The class were called the "Treasury-class" because they were each named for former Secretaries of the Treasury. These ships were also collectively known as the...
, a 327 feet (99.7 m) class from 1936 to the mid-1980s.
The Designations of the Cutter Fleet
The US Coast Guard's predecessor, the US Revenue Cutter Service designated its cutters and craft based on "classes." From about 1890 through the formation of the US Coast Guard in 1915, the largest cutters were referred to as vessels of the 'First Class." The smaller coastal cutters and larger tugs were vessels of the "Second Class," and the smaller tugs and cutters were designated as vessels of the "Third Class." Finally, the small harbor craft were referred to as "Launches."
In 1915, the newly-formed US Coast Guard began referring to all of its larger cutters as "Cruising Cutters." At that time, most of the smaller vessels fell under the classification of "Harbor Cutter" and the smallest craft were known as a "Launches." This changed in 1920 when the Coast Guard divided the "Cruising Cutter" designation into "Cruising Cutters" for the largest sea-going cutters and "Inshore Patrol Cutters" for those that were primarily coastal vessels.
In 1925, the designation changed once again. Now the largest cutters were known as "Cruising Cutters, First Class," while the coastal cutters were "Cruising Cutters, Second Class." With Prohibition enforcement becoming a major mission, the US Coast Guard began adding numerous smaller patrol craft and these were grouped together under the classification of "Patrol Boats." The service also acquired a large number of US Navy destroyers to augment the fleet and these were known as, simply, "Coast Guard Destroyers."
In February 1942, the US Coast Guard adopted the US Navy's ship classification system whereby a vessel was designated with a two-letter abbreviation (based on the type of ship) and its hull number. Thus, the large, sea-going cruising cutters of the first class became gunboats, or "PG." To differentiate them from their US Navy counterparts, all US Coast Guard cutters were given the prefix "W" at that same time. (The W was an unused letter on the Navy's designation alphabet and was arbitrarily assigned to designate a "United States Coast Guard cutter"--it does not stand for any particular word.) The US Coast Guard also began assigning an exclusive hull number to each cutter.
After the end of the war and the US Coast Guard's transfer back to the control of the US Treasury Department, the US Coast Guard continued to use the US Navy's system. The large, sea-going cutters were classified primarily as "WPG," "WDE", and "WAVP" (Coast Guard gunboats; Coast Guard destroyer escorts; and Coast Guard seaplane tenders). This changed in 1965 when the service adopted its own designation system and these large cutters were then referred to as Coast Guard High Endurance Cutters or "WHEC." The coastal cutters once known as "Cruising cutters, Second Class" and then "WPC" (Coast Guard patrol craft) under the US Navy system were now Coast Guard Medium Endurance Cutters, or "WMEC." Patrol boats continued to be referred to by their US Coast Guard/US Navy designation, i.e. "WPB. "
Regardless of their changing designations, the largest cutters in the fleet have always been ocean-going vessels capable of handling a multitude of missions in any weather. They have demonstrated the remarkable ability to answer successfully the nation's call in a variety of crises, many times on the spur of the moment, a testament to their designers, their builders, and their crews. All have been long-lived as well.
This is not meant to be a complete history of high endurance cutters. Rather, this page is an history of the differing types of ships the US Coast Guard has designated "high endurance" and the changes these cutters underwent over the years between World War II and the Millennium.