Photo: Helicopter approaches Cutter Diligence for landing.

Built to Last—The early days of the 210-foot cutter fleet

From the Long Blue Line, by Commander Nolan V. Cain, United States Coast Guard

With the Fast Response Cutter and National Security Cutter programs nearing completion and the recent launch of the first Offshore Patrol Cutter, Argus, the Coast Guard is well on its way to recapitalizing the fleet with highly capable assets. Meanwhile, the two leading ships of the 210-foot Reliance-class cutters, Coast Guard Cutter (CGC) Reliance and Diligence, will turn 60 years old in June and August of this year, respectively. While ships of this vintage might otherwise be considered maritime museums, these iconic cutters and their dedicated crews continue to carry out Coast Guard lifesaving, law enforcement, and homeland security missions. The following is a look back at the beginning of Reliance and Diligence’s distinguished 60 years of service.

The decision to name the first two 210-foot cutters—Reliance and Diligence—came early in 1962. A study that concluded in November 1961 evaluated more than 15 categories of names, including lakes, indigenous tribes, islands, seamounts, universities, historic cutters, and commandants. It was decided that the Reliance-class would include seven ships with historic names and the rest would take on names that “connote, action, aggressiveness, and daring.” Some of the initial suggested names were seen as too aggressive, and this direction was later amended to use names that were “desirable human traits.” While some of the names on the list were adopted for the 210-foot cutters we know today, there were many that thankfully did not make the cut, such as, CGC Eager, CGC Lively, CGC Aggressive and CGC Timely.

It is no mystery why the lead ships were named so. The many preceding cutters bearing the names Reliance and Diligence were rich in heritage and service history. The current Reliance is the fourth so-called cutter, with the first being a steam tug commissioned in 1861 that saw service in the Civil War and was sold in 1865. The second Reliance was commissioned in 1867 and patrolled the waters of Alaska until it was decommissioned in 1876. The third Reliance was a 125-foot cutter built in 1927, during Prohibition, to interdict rumrunners and later refitted as a sub-chaser in World War II. The cutter was stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the outbreak of World War II and attacked an enemy submarine near Johnston Atoll in 1944.

The current Diligence is sixth in a long line of cutters of the same name, beginning with one of the service’s original 10 revenue cutters built in 1790. Built in 1798, the second Diligence was larger and could carry between 10 and 14 guns. This cutter was transferred to the U.S. Navy in 1799 to fight in the Quasi-War with France. Little is known of the third cutter Diligence other than it was lost in a hurricane in July 1806 near Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. The following year, a fourth Diligence was built that saw action in the War of 1812 and was in service until 1831. The name was not used again until 1927, when the fifth cutter Diligence was commissioned. Like its sister-ship Reliance, Diligence’s main purpose was to stem the flow of illegal rum smuggling, and it served until 1961.

In the early 1960s, America was a country on the brink of social and political change. The civil rights movement was in full swing, and the Cold War threatened global stability. The vibrant sounds of the Beatles and Motown dominated the airways, a fitting soundtrack to the start of dynamic decade. Art and design reached new heights with Googie architecture and the radical car designs from the Detroit automotive companies. One person in particular, Raymond Loewy, had a tremendous impact on industrial design the first half of the 19th century and continued to make his mark well into the 1960s. His repertoire included a wide variety of “streamlined” designs for furniture, kitchen appliances, automobiles, and trains, as well as the well-known Coca-Cola bottle, and even spaceship interiors.

In 1961, the Raymond Loewy and William Snaith design team took on the interior design of the Coast Guard’s first shipbuilding endeavor since World War II—the Reliance-class cutter. This ship design program included general arrangements of interior spaces, furniture, materials, and colors. The firm’s work in the area of ship interior design would lead to fundamental changes in habitability standards for U.S. Navy ships.

Reliance-class cutter concept art with interior sketches showing side views, bridge, and captain's office.

Credit: Coast Guard Historian’s Archive

Reliance-class cutter concept art with interior sketches from the Loewy/Snaith Design company. The artist for the ship profile is unknown.

The Reliance-class cutters were originally designed with search and rescue as their primary mission. Requirements published in 1961 called for a cutter 210 feet in length with a 34-foot beam and equipped with a novel combined diesel and gas-turbine propulsion plant (CODAG), giving the cutter a cruising range of 5,000 miles at 15 knots. Special features included a flight deck large enough to land a Coast Guard “Seahorse” helicopter, a 360-degree visibility bridge, and exhaust piped through the stern. The contract was awarded to Todd Shipyard in Houston, which subcontracted a majority of the detail design to J.J. Henry, Inc., Naval Architects in Philadelphia.

At the time, the Reliance-class’s construction materials and processes were state of the industry and included advanced epoxy protective coatings and noise reducing materials. The cutters equipment and general arrangements were designed to reduce personnel and maintenance requirements and best utilize available space. The cutters were not intended for wartime use but were equipped with a 3-inch/50-caliber gun and space allocation was made for anti-submarine warfare equipment should the need arise.

Reliance was christened and launched on May 25, 1963, and Diligence held a similar ceremony on July 20, 1963. Both ships were commissioned the following year in June and August  1964, respectively, beginning a new era for the Coast Guard cutter fleet. Initial plans called for as many as 30 Reliance-class cutters, but only 16 were built with the last, Alert, entering service in 1969. The ships performed favorably and were able to reach their target speed of 18 knots, however, the CODAG arrangement was difficult to operate and took up much engine room space. Only the first five cutters received the CODAG propulsion system, and the rest received Alco diesel engines. In the 1970s, the more reliable Alco engines became standard for the entire class.

Reliance proved its value to the fleet early on by providing a proof of concept for cutter helicopter operations. Up to this time, landing helicopters on cuttershad been experimental and not part of standard operations. The Reliance-class cutters, along with their forthcoming bigger siblings the Hamilton-class cutters, were designed with a helicopter landing pad. Because this capability was unproven, the future of cutter-based aviation hinged on the successful operational testing on the 210s. In preparation for the operational tests, a wooden grid was added on Reliance’s flight deck to stabilize the helicopter during landings by capturing the landing gear. Due to scheduling complications, initial cutter helicopter operations took place during Reliance’s sea trials, from July 7-10, 1964, off the coast of Galveston, Texas. During this three-day period, a HH-52 helicopter completed 170 landings, including 20 nighttime landings. A second set of flight-deck landings was scheduled in November of that year, this time in more challenging environmental conditions. At the conclusion of these evolutions, Reliance had proven that the Coast Guard was ready to advance shipboard helicopter operations.

Profile photo of Coast Guard cutter Reliance with helicopter.

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Coast Guard cutter Reliance conducting helicopter operations circa 1964.

Aerial photo of cutter Vigilant with view of helicopter pad.

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

The extensive accommodation for helicopter operations is shown by this photo of third-in-class 210-foot cutter Vigilant.

Photo: Helicopter approaches Cutter Diligence for landing.

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

A color photo of Cutter Diligence retrieving its HH-52 helicopter in choppy seas.

Not to be outdone by her slightly older sister-ship, Diligence was soon pioneering a new concept as well. After a referral from President John F. Kennedy, the Coast Guard once again collaborated with the Loewy and Snaith team—this time to design a new service logo. In March 1965, the design firm presented its ideas for the new service logo to senior leaders at Coast Guard Headquarters. Soon after, Diligence was chosen as one of the units to prototype the new logo, along with the cutter Androscoggin, several aircraft, and small boats. This design was later implemented, service wide, in 1967.

Aerial view of Coast Guard cutter Diligence.

Credit: Coast Guard Historian’s Archive

Coast Guard cutter Diligence shown with the prototype “racing stripe” painted on the bow in December 1966.

The 1960s was an exciting decade for space exploration. At the time, the “Space Race” was in full swing and by 1965 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s was ready to launch the third Gemini mission. Gemini III was the first crewed space mission for the Gemini program. CGC Diligence and her sister ship Vigilant, with attached HH-52 helicopters, joined the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid as part of the Gemini III capsule recovery force. The pilots who flew in the recovery operations were the same who had participated in the initial helicopter operational tests aboard Reliance. The Gemini III mission was launched on the morning of March 23, 1965, and splashed down approximately four hours later just short of the designated landing area. Diligence was first on scene and launched its helicopter to ensure the safety of the Gemini and crew. Sometime afterward, Navy helicopters from USS Intrepid recovered the astronauts. Although the Coast Guard was largely uncredited, this mission proved the versatility of the new class of cutter.

Photo: Coast Guard helicopter hovers over Gemini III space capsule floating on its side.

Credit: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation

A Coast Guard HH-52A launched from Diligence hovers over the Gemini III space capsule in 1965.

For Reliance and Diligence these early missions were just the beginning of six decades of service to our nation. These ships and the generations of crew-members to cross their decks went on to launch daring rescues, pursue drug smugglers and poachers, respond to natural disasters, and remain, to this day, enduring symbols of U.S. sovereignty on the high seas. There are many newer and more sophisticated cutters in the Coast Guard’s fleet today; however, none can match the character and legacy of these two ships.

National Coast Guard Museum insider tip:
National Coast Guard Museum visitors will be able to learn more about the evolution of cutter design on Deck 2 of the museum. There they will find multiple cutter models illustrating innovation of cutter design.

Photo: Two cutters moored side by side.

Credit: Photo courtesy of the author

Cutter Diligence moored outboard of Reliance in Pensacola, Florida, in October 2023.