High endurance cutter
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The designation of High endurance cutter (WHEC) was created in 1965 when the United States Coast Guard 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). There are several classes of high endurance cutters that have operated with the United States Coast Guard (USCG):
- The National Security Cutter also known as the "Legend class" is the largest cutter class.
- The Hamilton class cutter which is a contemporary design. These vessels are also sometimes referred to as "Secretary class cutters" or in some cases, "Hero class cutters".
- The Treasury Class Cutter, a 327-foot (100 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 seagoing 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, seagoing 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, seagoing 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.
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.
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1. US Department of Homeland Security. United States Coast Guard Historian's Office.http://www.uscg.mil/history/webcutters/WHEC_Photo_Index.asp
2. US Department of Homeland Security. United States Coast Guard Historian's Office. http://www.uscg.mil/history/default.asp