1980s drug war: WWII gear used


(The WWII-veteran USCGC Cherokee on a 1980s narcotics patrol.)


(A demilitarized WWII-veteran C-46 Commando which crashed while in use as a smuggling plane during the 1980s.)

The US Coast Guard was formed (as the Revenue Cutter Service) on 4 August 1790. The Posse Comitatus law of 1878 restricts use of the American military in law enforcement. However the US Coast Guard is specifically exempted from any restrictions, and in fact law enforcement is one of it’s core missions.

During the Cold War the US Coast Guard’s funding came from the Department Of Transportation, not the Pentagon, and money just to buy fuel was at a premium, let alone new construction. The fleet during President Carter’s term was in a bottleneck; as all Prohibition-era cutters were gone, but new modern hulls were not being launched fast enough to replace them. Some aged WWII ships were pressed into service as cutters.

The US Coast Guard of the 1980s was an extreme example of what military strategists call High/Low Theory (a low number of high-capability assets + a high number of low-capability assets), here taken almost to the absurd.

On one end were the Hamilton class cutters. Modern, fast, and new; they had guided missiles, automated guns, sonar, and a helicopter. In any other country these cutters would have been destroyers in the regular navy.


(The modern Hamilton class cutter USCGC Mellon (WHEC-717) firing a RGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile during the 1980s.)

Far, far on the other end of the spectrum was the Coast Guard’s motley assortment of WWII veteran hand-me-downs, all of them old, many being used in roles never envisioned during WWII, and most with obsolete equipment. Some had been built by the US Navy as secondary service craft during WWII with a planned 10 year lifespan; nobody could have imagined they’d be chasing smugglers around the Caribbean 40 years after Japan’s defeat.


(USCGC Ute, one of the WWII “retreads”, patrolling the Florida Keys during the 1980s.)

the nature of 1980s smuggling

There was no strict pattern for bringing narcotics to the USA. Typically, large quantities of drugs were loaded onto freighters in Colombia and at a mid-journey port stop, or, at rendezvous points at sea (“intermodal zones”), transferred to smaller ships – often, fishing trawlers. From there, they either proceeded straight to the USA or more commonly, split up to secondary intermodal zones. There, drugs were divided and transferred again to even smaller craft such as yachts, or airplanes.


(Graphic from the Miami Herald newspaper. Drug drops were not always this complex, but it certainly was not unheard of.)

This final leg often involved the boat or plane dumping bales of drugs offshore of Florida where speedboats retrieved them, but sometimes they too would take it straight in. Sometimes speedboats out of Miami marinas shuttled to the Bahamas to retrieve drugs directly.

Drug Routes

At the start of the “drug war”s height, roughly the end of President Carter’s term and the start of President Reagan’s first term, there were three main smuggling arteries. The heaviest (1 on the map) was centered on a first leg ending in an area inbetween Cuba and Haiti. The pathetic and corrupt Haitian military was no hindrance, and Castro was not about to help the USA. There, the drugs intermodaled to Haiti, the D.R., or the Bahamas, and from there intermodaled down again for the last leg.

Another route (2 on the map) straddled Central America and saw the contraband intermodaled to Mexico, Jamaica, or the Cayman Islands, and then again as described above.

The third (3 on the map) went straight to Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands.

In all the routes, but especially the first, the Bahamas were a frequently-used locale. Some marinas, airstrips, and even small islands there were de facto fiefdoms of the Colombian cartels.


(President Reagan receives a narcotics briefing aboard a US Coast Guard cutter. Beside him are Attorney General William Smith and Admiral James Gracey, Commandant of the USCG.)

As the 1980s progressed, these patterns fluctuated. Smugglers increasingly tried an “end run” out into the open Atlantic Ocean (4 on the map) and then straight in to the USA’s eastern seaboard, sometimes as far north as Boston.

As an example, on 5 March 1983, the WWII-veteran USCGC Duane hailed the Honduran-flagged merchant Civonney in the open Atlantic and requested permission to inspect, which was refused. Several hours later, while USCGC Duane circled Civonney awaiting permission from Honduras to force-board, the freighter’s crew set their ship on fire and jumped overboard. The cutter rescued the crew and tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire. As Civonney capsized, bales of marijuana floated out which were seized as evidence.


(M16 at the ready, the Law Enforcement team aboard USCGC Duane waits as the WWII-veteran ship circles the Honduran vessel.) (photo via Duane veteran’s group)


(USCGC Duane’s smallboat retrieves survivors, soon to be prisoners, off the burning Civonney.) (photo via Duane veteran’s group)


(The burning Civonney capsizes.) (official USCG photo)


(Recovered evidence aboard USCGC Duane.) (photo via Duane veteran’s group)

A later route the smugglers discovered was Panama, one of the busiest shipping nodes on Earth. A bonus was that Panama used the US Dollar as legal tender, meaning illicit cash could be laundered immediately. The December 1989 “Just Cause” operation was ostensibly due to this drug activity but for the most part, a simple desire by the USA to end the Noriega regime there. None the less, it did (at least for a while) succeed in it’s cover story by disrupting this route.


(WWII-era M1 steel pot helmet of the Panamanian Defense Forces captured in 1989.)

These patterns were not strictly adhered to by smugglers and varied wildly. The drugs themselves changed during the 1980s. In 1983, the Coast Guard seized 3.1 million pounds of marijuana, but by President Reagan’s last year in office in 1988, this fell to 280,000 lbs as smugglers discovered cocaine to be more lucrative.


(Key West, FL is the southernmost point of the continental USA and home to US Navy and US Coast Guard stations. On the left is the Navy’s Trumbo Annex during WWII (with the large seaplane hangar roughly in the center), and to the right, the site during the counter-narcotics operations. The WWII hangar remains and the seaplane ramp is still visible beneath the tide.)

It should be remembered that the USCG’s narcotics operations were not happening in a vacuum. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Cold War tensions between the USA and USSR fluctuated. As a branch of the military, the Coast Guard had to be aware of what was happening in the larger picture. The Caribbean was a troubled region during the time: Jamaica had instability in the late 1970s, followed by the USA’s invasion of Grenada in 1983. A vicious civil war was being fought in Nicaragua, and as the 1999 canal turnover approached, Panama was sliding further into dictatorship. Corrupt and bankrupt Haiti was a constant issue, and above it all loomed Castro’s Cuba.


(This supersonic MiG-21 “Fishbed” fighter of the Cuban air force evaded the USA’s air defense radars and made a surprise landing at Key West, FL. The pilot requested asylum. The plane was returned.)


(Many of the tiny Caribbean island nations were unprepared for the chaos of the 1980s. This military policeman from Barbados was still armed with an Enfield No.4 Mk.I from WWII in 1983.)


the “Treasury”s


These ships were Coast Guard from the start and served throughout all of WWII and the Cold War. All were named after Secretaries Of The Treasury, hence the nickname. Seven were built, of which one, USCGC Hamilton (WPG-34) was lost, being torpedoed by U-132 during WWII.

The leadship USCGC Bibb was laid down in January 1937. The USCG intended this class to move the fleet from the Prohibition-era mindset into a modern, multi-role force. They displaced 2,700 tons at full, and measured 327’x41’x12’6″. They were steam-powered, with two Babcock & Wilcox 400psi superheated boilers and a pair of Westinghouse double-reduction steam turbines, turning two shafts with 9′-diameter 3-bladed propellers. They had tremendous range (8,270 NM @ 11 ½ kts) and a top speed of 19½ kts with 21 kts possible for short bursts. As designed, they had 16 officers and 107 enlisted crewmen.


(Treasury-class USCGC Ingham during WWII)

A curious feature was the ability to carry a seaplane, either a SOC-4 Seagull or JF-2 Duck. This was not for combat but to scout for ice. The planes were deleted at the start of WWII.


(Seagull seaplane aboard USCGC Bibb in 1938.)

As completed before WWII, they looked nothing like they ended up during their 1980s narcotics operations. The initial fit was three Mk8 5″ and two Mk9 2¼” open-mount guns which were anti-surface only, plus one Mk15 37mm AA gun.


(Looking down from the bridge of a Treasury class cutter: Left, the original pre-WWII fit with two of the Mk8 and one of the Mk9 open-mount guns. Right, the appearance as in the late 1980s with the enlarged deckhouse, single Mk30 turret, and starboard M2 Browning.)

For anti-submarine warfare (ASW) during WWII, a Type QC sonar was added, as was a Mk10 Hedgehog launcher, a pair of Mk6 K-Gun depth charge throwers, and two stern racks for Mk3 depth charges.

As WWII went on, the gun fit was changed to one Mk30 5″ dual-purpose gun, a Mk2 twin 40mm AA gun, and four or more Mk4 20mm AA guns. A variety of US Navy radars (SK, SG-1, SC-3) were added during WWII, as was a Type DAR radio direction-finder and Type BI-5 IFF system.

An exception was USCGC Taney which was experimentally “gunned-up” with four Mk30 5″s, two Mk2 twin 40mm’s, plus the ASW weapons, sonars, and radars. This was unnecessary after WWII and the heavy fit was undone after Japan’s surrender.


(The experimental “gunned-up” modification to USCGC Taney during WWII.)

Several of these cutters served in the USCG’s contribution to the “Sea Lords” and “Market Time” operations during the Vietnam War. The WWII anti-aircraft guns were removed and replaced by two Mk13 81mm mortars and two M2 Browning .50cal machine guns. The main Mk30 5″ was retained, and was quite effective on the gunline off the Vietnamese coast: USCGC Campbell was credited with the destruction of 105 Viet Cong targets ashore. At the same time, the sensor fit was completely overhauled. Gone were the obsolete WWII radars, and in their place a AN/SPS-29 air search radar, the AN/SPA-52 converter to use the same for surface search, and a Mk26 gunnery radar for the 5″ mount. AN/SQS-11 sonar and a AN/UQN-1 fathometer replaced the WWII-era gear, and a AN/UQC-1 set was installed to allow the Coast Guard cutters to communicate with submerged US Navy atomic submarines. Several received Mk44 ASW torpedoes to replace the K-Guns of WWII. Finally an AN/URR-22 radio replaced the old RBO set of WWII.


(USCGC Duane firing at Viet Cong targets.)


(Patch from USCGC Ingham’s operations off Vietnam.)

In 1979 President Carter funded a service life extension program (SLEP) for three (USCGC Bibb, USCGC Duane, and USCGC Ingham) of the six remaining Treasurys. Each cost $1.5 million ($5.1 million in 2017 dollars) which was still relatively a bargain. The goal was to completely reorient them to anti-smuggling patrols. All ASW gear was removed, as was all the sonar equipment less the fathometer. Any light guns were removed except the two M2 Brownings. The Vietnam-era radars were replaced by cheaper navigational sets, and crew berthing was improved. A special $550,000 device was installed to allow each ship to connect to civilian sewage systems inport. The WWII-era asbestos insulation was removed.

All three of the SLEP’ed ships were active hunting drugs during the 1980s.


(USCGC Bibb as modernized.)

USCGC Bibb (WHEC-31) seized 103 tons of narcotics in one month of 1982 alone. In July of that year, USCGC Bibb stopped the merchant Grimurkanban off Cape Cod with 50 tons of drugs aboard. This was an exceptionally northern latitude for a bust of that size.


(One of USCGC Bibb’s fiberglass boats, which replaced the WWII wooden boats.)

Of the three SLEP’ed cutters, USCGC Bibb was in the poorest material condition and was decommissioned on 30 September 1984. The hull was later sunk as an artificial reef.


(The Mk30 main gun of USCGC Duane during a gunnery drill.)

USCGC Duane (WHEC-33) was in action almost immediately after her SLEP, not for narcotics patrols but as the response flagship to the 1980 Mariel Boatlift from Cuba. In November 1982, USCGC Duane fired a warning shot across the bow of the Panamanian freighter Biscayne Freeze, later discovered to be carrying 30 tons of marijuana. The cutter then towed Biscayne Freeze, drugs and all, into Boston.


(Clipping from Boston Globe newspaper.)

In the US Coast Guard, a tradition is that the oldest cutter is the “golden ship” and has gold leaf paint instead of black for the pennant number. During the 1980s, many of the WWII “retreads” cycled through this honor, and in 1982 it was USCGC Duane‘s turn.


(USCGC Duane in drydock with the gold pennant number.) (photo via Duane veteran’s group)

A stroke of luck came in the early 1980s, when a run-down USCGC Duane had a refit at the same time as the hull of USCGC Spencer (WHEC-36), a non-SLEP’ed sister ship, was made available for parts stripping. Afterwards USCGC Duane was in excellent condition. Both USCGC Duane and her sister ship USCGC Ingham were upgraded with AN/SPS-66 surface search radar and an AN/SPS-64 navigational radar.

USCGC Duane continued narcotics operations thereafter. However due to budget cuts, the cutter was decommissioned on 1 August 1985. The hull was stripped to support the last of her sister ships, USCGC Ingham, then sunk as a reef.


(USCGC Ingham late in WWII. These successful cutters were so active at sea that their wartime changes were done incrementally. Here, the cutter has all of the WWII light AA guns and ASW weapons, but still has the old “stepped” forward deckhouse and the forwardmost open Mk8 gun.) (photo via Navsource website)


(USCGC Ingham transferring supplies prior to the class’s 1979-1980 SLEP.)

USCGC Ingham (WHEC-35), which had sunk U-626 during WWII, was used throughout the 1970s-1980s drug operations. One of the USCG’s first planned missions of this type, operation “Squeeze” in 1979, saw the WWII veteran exchange gunfire with the Honduran trawler Mary Ann which had marijuana aboard. In 1982, the aptly-named Misfit was stopped with 35 tons of narcotics. Besides active patrols, USCGC Ingham was also an instructional ship during the 1980s, training crewmen destined to man other cutters in the Caribbean.


(USCGC Ingham in the 1980s, after the SLEP.)

On 1 August 1985, USCGC Ingham became the “golden ship”. Following a November 1987 drug patrol, USCGC Ingham was found to be in declining material condition. By then, eight years had passed since the 1979 SLEP which was supposed to only guarantee another five years of service. Earlier in 1987, it had been seriously debated to request funding for a second SLEP that would keep the cutter in service until 2000. Several factors led the USCG not to. USCGC Ingham was not only the last Treasury class in service, but the final steam-powered cutter of any class remaining. She was the last big cutter without a helipad. The Vietnam-era radio gear was obsolete, as was the WWII-era main gun, and some secondary things like pumps, valves, etc were from WWII manufacturers long since bankrupt.


(The port side rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) aboard USCGC Ingham. RHIBs replaced traditional smallboats on many of the USCG’s WWII “retreads” during the 1980s. Very fast, agile, and with almost no draught, RHIBs were handy for boarding suspect vessels and could chase smuggler speedboats all the way to the beach.)

On 7 May 1988, USCGC Ingham‘s 52-year career ended. The cutter was the last American warship (Navy or Coast Guard) to have had sunk an enemy submarine still in commission. USCGC Ingham was the most-decorated cutter ever, and the only to receive a Presidential Unit Citation twice. The ship is now a museum in Key West, FL.


(A half-century of decorations on USCGC Ingham: The upper left ribbon is the Presidential Unit Citation with gold star for the second award. Following are various medals from the US Coast Guard and US Navy, plus decorations from the Philippines and South Vietnam. On the right are ten “bust” markings from the 1980s and U-626 from WWII.)

In pure dollars and cents, the Treasury class was probably the most cost-effective warship class in history. Their build cost was $2,468,460 ($37 million in 2017 dollars) and they gave four to five decades of non-stop use, service in two wars plus the drug operations, one submarine kill, and all of it often in the worst weather. Their flexible design allowed many modifications over the years and they were economical to operate.

the Cherokee class


(Old and new: USCGC Cherokee (left), built in 1939, and USCGC Vigorous, thirty years later.)

These were WWII-veteran US Navy fleet tugs. Originally the US Coast Guard intended to continue using them as tugboats. Because of delays to new construction, the Coast Guard redesignated them medium-endurance cutters (WMEC), a  role they were never intended for in WWII. None the less, they were very successful.

They had tremendous (13,000 miles+) range and were cheap to operate. They could tow seized vessels larger than themselves. While slow, their typical prey (the merchants, tugs, and trawlers favored by smugglers) usually wasn’t much faster. Their main handicap was lack of a helicopter.


(USS Cherokee (AT-66) with the US Navy during WWII.)

USCGC Cherokee (WMEC-150) had originally been the US Navy’s USS Cherokee (AT-66). A pre-WWII design, this fleet tug commissioned on 26 April 1940. During WWII, USS Cherokee participated in the invasion of North Africa, then as a seagoing “tow truck” assisting ships which broke down in Atlantic convoys. Surplus to the postwar Navy’s needs, the ship transferred to the Coast Guard on 29 June 1946.

USCGC Cherokee measured 205’x38’6″x15’4″ and displaced 1,641 tons. The propulsion was diesel-electric, with four General Motors 12-278 diesels powering four Allis-Chalmers motorgenerators which in turn fed an electric motor turning the single shaft with 4-bladed propeller. This arrangement was fuel-economical, as all four diesels need not be run if not required. The top speed during WWII was 16½ kts, but by the 1980s the ship rarely exceeded 11 kts unless the mission required it.


(USCGC Cherokee (WMEC-150) and USS Seneca (ATF-91) in the 1970s. During WWII, they had been sister-ships in the US Navy.)

The WWII 3″ gun ahead of the bridge was retained by the Coast Guard, while all other combat systems including the 40mm and 20mm AA guns were deleted. An AN/SPN-25 radar was fitted in 1961, in turn later replaced by AN/SPS-64. Later still a second AN/SPS-64 was installed, this allowed the cutter to lock on and stalk a contact by radar while still maintaining a 360° search.


(USCGC Cherokee inport.)


(USCGC Cherokee stopping a trawler in 1977.)

USCGC Cherokee was one of the first WWII-era “retreads” to join in the drug war. On 2 December 1976, the cutter seized the merchant Valborg 28 miles outside of American waters with drugs aboard. In 1978 the Friendship IV was chased down and boarded off North Carolina with drugs aboard. On 3 April 1984, USCGC Cherokee seized the merchant ship Somape II with drugs aboard. On 18 November 1984, the civilian tug Arikok was seized off the Bahamas.


(The bridge of USCGC Cherokee in the 1980s. Other than the enlarged windows and radarscope on the right, little had changed in forty years.)


(USCGC Cherokee at sea, with the starboard davit ready to deploy a smallboat.)

Considering that they were up against warships, typically smugglers did not actively resist, but this was not always true. On 12 October 1987, the merchant Camaronero II intentionally rammed USCGC Cherokee. Little damage was done to the all-steel WWII ship and Coast Guardsmen force-boarded and secured the Camaronero II, which was taken in tow with 23 tons of marijuana aboard.


(USCGC Cherokee at Little Creek, VA; after being rammed by the Camaronero II. The dent is visible on the A of “COAST”.) (photo via Cherokee veteran’s group)

Despite her successful use, the Coast Guard knew that the end was near. Spare parts for 45-year old items were hard to source, and hull maintenance was hindered by the class’s riveted construction.


(Bales of drugs piled up on USCGC Cherokee’s aft deck following a successful 1980s bust.)


(Pieces of the Space Shuttle Challenger retrieved off the Florida coast by USCGC Cherokee in 1986.) (photo via Cherokee veteran’s group)


(USCGC Cherokee on narcotics patrol.)


(USCGC Cherokee at the Bermuda Naval Annex in 1987. This facility had been built during WWII as part of the USA/UK “destroyers-for-bases” treaty.)

A planned refit was stopped just as it was starting in 1989. USCGC Cherokee decommissioned on 30 January 1990, a  few weeks shy of a half-century of service. This WWII ship was one of the best 1980s anti-narcotics vessels, logging seventeen major busts and several more small ones.


(During 1995, the ex-USCGC Cherokee was expended as a target for the US Navy at Roosevelt Roads, PR. The WWII tug absorbed tremendous punishment, including a UGM-84 Sub-Harpoon from USS Key West (SSN-722), a RIM-7 Sea Sparrow from USS Arthur W. Radford (DD-968) and air-launched weapons.)

USCGC Tamaroa (WMEC-166) had been USS Zuni (ATF-95) during WWII, where the tug participated in the Marianas, Leyte Gulf, and Iwo Jima battles. USS Zuni transferred to the Coast Guard on the same day as USS Cherokee in 1946. The Coast Guard renamed her USCGC Tamaroa, both to honor a Prohibition-era ship and also (supposedly) because over radio Zuni sounded too close to Zinnia (USCGC Zinnia, in service at that time). Prior to the 1980s drug war, USCGC Tamaroa was infamous for a 1963 incident where the cutter sank inside a drydock, requiring $3.2 million of repairs. Further unwanted publicity came in 1979 when USCGC Tamaroa was the tug for NYC’s controversial sewage dumping barges.


(USCGC Tamaroa on narcotics patrol in 1997.)

On 25 September 1980, USCGC Tamaroa seized the Panamanian-flagged merchant Moondiep in the Atlantic. The merchant had tried to outrun USCGC Tamaroa and only stopped after the cutter put 3″ rounds into the water across her bow. On 26 February 1984, USCGC Tamaroa seized a ship named Apollo III with 16½ tons of drugs aboard. Apollo III was flying no flag. On 15 August 1987, USCGC Tamaroa made a unique bust; a small sailboat with 400 lbs of marijuana inside waterproof tubes under the boat’s hull. In 1988, the cutter spent 223 of 356 days at sea, an astonishing reliability figure for a ship built to fight Japan a third of a century earlier.


(“Tam-Tam” on patrol in the Caribbean during 1990, 45 years after the end of WWII.)

USCGC Tamaroa‘s constant service came at the price of heavy wear on her WWII-vintage hull and engines. During December 1993, a survey recorded that the cutter needed over $1 million of immediate repairs, some of which would be difficult as the equipment manufacturers were long out of business.


(The ex-USCGC Tamaroa being scuttled as an artificial reef.)

On 1 February 1994 “Tam-Tam” left service, the last of the converted WWII tugs. A civilian effort to restore the ship as a museum failed and the hull was scuttled as a reef.

USCGC Ute (WMEC-76) had been USS Ute (AT-76) during WWII, one of USCGC Cherokee‘s sister-ships during the war. Commissioned on 13 December 1942, USS Ute participated in the Aleutians and Okinawa campaigns. USS Ute later made five Korean War tours, and later still a tour off Vietnam. On 30 August 1974, the tug was transferred to Military Sealift Command with all guns removed and a civilian crew.


(USS Ute with the US Navy during WWII.) (photo via Navsource website)

On 20 March 1981, Ute transferred to the US Coast Guard on what was supposed to have been a 2-year loan pending delivery of proper cutters. Since it was only supposed to have been temporary, little was done to “re-militarize” the ship. No main gun could be reinstalled as a firefighting monitor had been placed on the balcony deck ahead of the bridge. A .50cal M2 Browning machine gun was installed, and the crew was issued M16s.


(USCGC Ute reactivated for counter-narcotics service.)

Due to the tempo of the drug war, USCGC Ute was desperately needed in service and kept past the 2-year mark. This was fortunate as the old WWII ship, now homeported at Key West, FL was a prolific drug hunter. Between 1982-1987, USCGC Ute logged no fewer than a dozen “major” busts, the biggest being the Cayman Islands-flagged Neptune with 42 ½ tons of marijuana aboard. One bust in 1983, the yacht Miss Shirley, involved a gunfire exchange.


(USCGC Ute navigating the many islets of the Florida Keys during the 1980s.)


(The WWII-veteran USCGC Ute at CGS Key West, FL, moored opposite the three Sea Hawk class surface-effect ships (SES). The SESs were basically half-hovercraft, half-catamaran, with rigid side hulls between which was blown compressed air, allowing them to move at high speeds. Built in 1982-1983 for $5 million each, they were eliminated by Clinton-era defense cuts in 1994.)

USCGC Ute‘s maintenance schedule was haphazard due to constantly being at sea, and because the cash-strapped Coast Guard was unsure when the ship, ostensibly a temporary asset, would leave service. By the end of 1987, the WWII veteran was in poor shape, with a dented hull, leaking fuel tanks, and engines running on their last legs. USCGC Ute decommissioned on 26 May 1988 was was expended as a gunnery target in 1991.

While still as USS Ute, this ship had shot down a Japanese D3A “Val” dive bomber during WWII. When USCGC Ute left service in 1988, she was the last active American tugboat to have shot down a warplane.

USCGC Lipan (WMEC-85) had been USS Lipan (AT-85) during WWII, and was acquired at the same time as USCGC Ute for the same reasons. Like USCGC Ute, USCGC Lipan had been disarmed prior to delivery to the Coast Guard.


(USCGC Lipan and her sister ship USCGC Ute at Key West, FL during the 1980s.)

Operating alongside USCGC Ute as part of the 7th District patrols out of Key West, FL; USCGC Lipan was an equally effective smuggling hunter, ranging as far south as Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The old tug logged eleven major busts, including three within 48 hours on 21-22 December 1983. By the latter part of the decade, USCGC Lipan faced the same quandry as USCGC Ute, in that the 2-year loan had greatly been exceeded and the Coast Guard was hesitant to spend money on repairing the WWII ship. USCGC Lipan decommissioned on 31 March 1988 and was expended as a target in 1990.

the Abnaki class

Commissioned 5 April 1945, USCGC Chilula (WMEC-153) had been USS Chilula (ATF-153) during WWII. A member of the Abnaki sub-class, this ship differed from the Cherokee only in structural and equipment details. USS Chilula did not see combat during WWII and was mothballed by the US Navy on 8 February 1947.


(USCGC Chilula near Cuba’s 12 NM territorial waters limit in 1980. Only 60 NM separate the 12 NM limits of the USA and Cuba south of Key West, FL.)

On 3 October 1956, the WWII tug was reactivated for Coast Guard service as USCGC Chilula, along with her sister-ship USS Avoyel (ATF-150).


(USCGC Avoyel after transfer to the Coast Guard.)

Initially the Coast Guard used both in their intended roles as open-ocean tugboats. In 1966, they were redesignated as patrol cutters. Prior to the drug war, USCGC Chilula‘s biggest claim to fame came in 1973 when the cutter sailed directly through a waterspout, one of the few ships in history to have done so and lived to tell the tale.

USCGC Avoyel was sold as surplus in 1969 and throughout the 1970s, plans to likewise discard USCGC Chilula was made and deferred. By the end of the decade, the Coast Guard was eager to retain any asset, no matter how old or obsolete, and USCGC Chilula continued in service. A pair of M2 Browning .50cal machine guns were fitted, as was AN/SPS-64 radar. Based out of Atlantic Beach, NC, USCGC Chilula made a number of drug busts during the 1980s including one 18 NM outside Cuban waters. By the end of the decade the WWII veteran was thoroughly worn-out, but repeatedly had her decommissioning deferred. The old vessel was finally retired on 19 June 1991, the last Abnaki class in American use.


(USCGC Chilula being decommissioned in 1991.) (photo via Navsource website)

the Balsam class


(USCGC Gentian under construction during WWII.)

These vessels served as convoy service ships during WWII. All were named after trees. Considering their role, they were fairly well-equipped by WWII standards with a Type SL radar, WEA-2 sonar, a 3″ gun, two 20mm AA guns, two Mousetrap ASW weapons, and depth charges.

In 1966, AN/SPS-23 radars replaced the WWII models, all of the WWII weapons were removed, and the sonar deactivated. They were re-roled as buoy tenders.


(Left, the AN/SPS-23 which replaced various types of obsolete radars on the WWII “retreads”. Right, the AN/SPS-64 which in turn later often replaced it.)

These ships measured 180’x37’x14’7″ and displaced 1,025 tons. They had a 52-man crew. The WWII engines varied widely between makes and models (which would cause spare parts headaches by the 1980s), but all had diesel-electric drive, with a top speed of 13 kts.

By the start of the 1980s, these ships were old but had been well-maintained and most were still in commission. Two light guns were reinstalled.

USCGC Cowslip (WLB-277) had decommissioned in 1973 but was recommissioned in 1981. She was assigned to the New England area to free other assets for use in the Caribbean.


(USCGC Cowslip at sea.)

As part of his first term budget, President Reagan sought and obtained funding for a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) for this class. Not the whole class was funded, only 14 were authorized by Congress. The first, USCCG Gentian (WLB-290) completed the SLEP in 1983. The SLEPs cost $7.5 million ($18 million in 2017 dollars) each. By comparison, their entire WWII construction cost was $911,968 ($5.6 million in 1983 dollars). The WWII deckhouse was deleted, and the cargo hold converted into sleeping areas and workshops. The interiors were air-conditioned. An electric maneuvering thruster was added. The propulsion system was completely gutted, with two EMD 8-645 diesels replacing whatever WWII-era engines were there, and a pair of Westinghouse 275vDC electric motors installed. The SLEP’ed ships had 45% better fuel economy and were 1½ kts faster. Two additional smaller diesel engines were installed to generate electricity with the main propulsion offline. The WWII boat davits were replaced by hydraulic models, and a RHIB replaced one of the boats. Any leftover  WWII-era combat systems was removed and AN/SPS-64 radars installed.


(USCGC Gentian at the completion of the SLEP in 1983.)

Ships which didn’t get a SLEP usually had a lesser refit done. The AN/SPS-23 radar was replaced by AN/SPS-64, and other small upgrades done.

USCGC Gentian (WLB-290) had commissioned on 3 September 1942. The cutter participated in anti-narcotics operations throughout the 1980s; and additionally the 1983 invasion of Grenada and 1994 invasion of Haiti. On 27 November 1984, USCGC Gentian stopped the merchant M/V Princess which had 17½ tons of marijuana on board.


(USCGC Gentian on patrol in the early 2000s. By this time, GPS and satellite communications gear had been installed, obviously unthinkable technologies during WWII.)

This WWII vessel served until 2006, then transferred to the Colombian navy. Now named ARC San Andres, this is by 2017 one of a declining number of WWII warships still in use in the world.

the Diver class


(USS Shackle, the future USCGC Acushnet, with the US Navy during WWII.)

The Diver class was eighteen ocean-going salvage ships built for the US Navy during WWII. They displaced 1,745 tons and measured 213’5″x39’x15′. They had a diesel-electric propulsion system, with four Cooper-Bessemer GSB-9 diesel-generators linked to two electric motors turning two propeller shafts. The maximum speed was 15½ kts and they had a crew of 64, except USCGC Acushnet which had a crew of 72. Much like the Balsam class, these salvage vessels were never originally intended as patrol units. Two transferred to the US Coast Guard after WWII, with all AA guns deleted. In the 1980s they were rated as WMEC (medium-endurance cutters).

USCGC Yocona (WMEC-168) had been USS Seize (ARS-26) during WWII. Commissioned on 3 November 1944, USS Seize participated in the Okinawa engagement, then after Japan’s surrender clearing harbors of war debris. In 1946, USS Seize was stripped of her WWII guns and transferred to the Coast Guard and renamed. During the 1950s and 1960s, this cutter’s career was limited to rescue and fisheries missions. The old WWII-era OS-8E radar was replaced by AN/SPS-23 but few other changes were made.


(USCGC Yacona at sea.)

USCGC Yacona made one of the earliest busts in the Pacific, which at the early stages of the 1980s drug war was a secondary theatre. In April 1978, the merchant Helena Star was found with 10 tons of narcotics aboard. Despite USCGC Yacona‘s unsuitability to the role, the WWII veteran was given a half-million dollar refit in the 1980s to stay in Pacific service, freeing up newer cutters for Caribbean use. USCGC Yacona remained in use far past her projected retirement date. One of her last missions was a joint exercise with the Russian coast guard after the Cold War ended. The tired old cutter decommissioned on 14 June 1996.

USCGC Acushnet (WMEC-167) had been USS Shackle (ARS-9) during WWII. Commissioned on 5 February 1944, USS Shackle participated in the Iwo Jima and Okinawa engagements, then repairing the former Imperial Navy base at Yokosuka for the occupation. In 1946, like her sister ship above, USS Shackle was disarmed, transferred to the Coast Guard, and renamed.

In 1967 the Coast Guard converted USCGC Acushnet to be an oceanography ship. The appearance changed with the large foremast removed. Due to delays in new cutter construction, the USCG was forced to press USCGC Acushnet into service as a medium-endurance cutter in 1978.


(USCGC Acushnet in 1978, with the large foremast removed.)

USCGC Acushnet was effective in this role. In just one 10-week span during 1980, 128 tons of narcotics were captured. During the 1980s additional law enforcement features were added, including a RHIB. In 1990 the ship rotated to the Pacific to free up other cutters for the Caribbean, but USCGC Acushnet‘s patrols continued. In 1991, the sailing ship Malekula was intercepted as it tried to smuggle 12 tons of Cambodian hashish to California. USCGC Acushnet served into the 21st century and was the last of the WWII “retreads”.


(USS Escape with the US Navy during WWII.)

USCGC Escape (WMEC-6) had been USS Escape (ARS-6) during WWII, having commissioned on 20 November 1943. Unlike the other two, USS Escape was not transferred in 1946 but had remained a US Navy unit until 1978. During the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, the overwhelmed Coast Guard pleaded with Congress for more vessels and this old WWII salvage ship was pulled out of mothballs. This was originally supposed to have been a temporary arrangement so the WWII US Navy name was retained, and the ship was numbered out of sequence in the medium-endurance cutter lineage.


(USCGC Escape on narcotics patrol during the 1980s.)

After a hectic reactivation overhaul and quick training of a new crew, USCGC Escape entered the drug war on 14 March 1981. The cutter was very effective in the Caribbean, and the Coast Guard made sure they got full use of the ship, which spent 7-8 months of every 12 at sea.

One of USCGC Escape‘s more notable operations was a joint operation with USS Gemini (PHM-6), a modern hydrofoil based at Key West, FL. A quirk in American law basically allows US Coast Guard personnel to “deputize” US Navy vessels outside of American waters, and the old, slow USCGC Escape acted as a partner for the new 48-knot hydrofoil which chased down the yacht Ojala with 350 lbs of cocaine onboard.


(USS Gemini (PHM-6) on foils. The Pegasus class was part of Adm. Elmo Zumwalt’s plans while he was Chief of Naval Operations during the 1970s. He envisioned dozens of these hydrofoils being stationed all over the world. After his tenure as CNO ended, the plan died, with only six built. They were all then stationed at Key West, FL and made a creative partner to the old, slow WWII Coast Guard ships.)

USCGC Escape‘s second career lasted much longer than planned and the old ship served until 1995. The worn-out hull was scrapped.

the “Whites”


(The future USCGC White Bush, while still the nameless YF-339, in service with the US Navy during WWII.)

These eight ships were all conversions of nameless US Navy harbor lighters (YF’s) built during WWII. Their original task was simply to move objects from one area of a port to another. A part of the emergency “Yard & District Program” during WWII, they were considered minor, semi-disposable vessels and were transferred to the Coast Guard after WWII ended. At the time, nobody could have ever envisioned that some would be sailing the open seas near the turn of the millennium.

Originally the Coast Guard wanted these vessels for the ATON (aids-to-navigation) mission; maintaining buoys in coastal waterways. For this, a 15 ton capacity boom was installed in place of the WWII model. They measured 132’10″x30’x8’9″ and  displaced 600 tons. They had a top speed of 9½ kts, with a 21-man crew which was all enlisted except for the captain. Obviously unsuitable for combat, they were not armed. All were named for “white” vegetation species, hence the nickname.


(Patch of USCGC White Sumac showing the class’s three missions: lifesaving, law enforcement, and navigational buoy service.)

During the 1960s, additional ATON-related equipment such as an aluminum workboat was installed. The WWII lifeboats were replaced by modern inflating types.

Seven of the eight (USCGC White Alder sank in 1968) were still in use in the 1980s. Now way overdue for retirement, they were slated for deletion and USCGC White Bush decommissioned in 1985. However the demands on Coast Guard resources resulted in the rest being retained.

As built in WWII, these ships had two Union 06 diesels hard-linked to the propeller shafts. These engines were wearing out by the 1970s and Union was looking to get out of the spare parts business. In 1974, some were re-engined with Caterpillar D-353-E diesels linked to a generator, and the propulsion lineup overall changed to diesel-electric, with a linked electric motor turning the shafts. This had the added benefit of fuel economy as the electric motor, not the diesel itself, throttled up and down to adjust speed.

Later in the 1970s, most had their bridges remodeled to a modern standard. Also, AN/SPS-52 navigation radars were added. During WWII they had no radar as it was expected they would never leave port.

In 1971, USCGC White Holly (WLM-543) transferred to New Orleans, LA. Besides the Gulf of Mexico, USCGC White Holly‘s zone included the Mississippi River itself. The old ship decommissioned in 1998.


(USCGC White Sumac during the 1960s.)

USCGC White Sumac (WLM-540) made the first drug bust by a ship of this type. On the evening of 5 June 1978, the ship came upon the yacht Joy Toy which was running without lights. When USCGC White Sumac inquired if the yacht was in distress, people aboard jumped overboard and smoke started coming off the yacht. The cutter came alongside and extinguished the fire, and found 102 bales of marijuana on the yacht. Smugglers trying to scuttle their vessels to destroy evidence was common throughout the 1980s.


(The WWII cargo hold was converted into storage and work spaces, as here on USCGC White Pine. On the open seas these ships were very light without any cargo, so a block of concrete was carried as ballast.)

USCGC White Pine (WLM-546) was unique in the class for having “spuds”, a system of steel legs that telescoped out of the hull allowing the ship to dig in to a muddy seabed which otherwise would result in a dragged anchor. The ship serviced buoys between the Mississippi delta and the Florida panhandle. As the drug war heated up in the 1980s, USCGC White Pine too was used in law enforcement, despite nearly complete unsuitability from a tactical standpoint. The WWII ship served on until 1999 and was then sold to the Dominican Republic navy.

WWII guns in the 1980s Coast Guard


(1984 Mk30 night firing exercise aboard a USCG cutter.)

The Mk30 was carried only on the Treasury class. Like all of the US Navy’s 5″/38 guns of WWII, this was an excellent piece of hardware. Even in the Vietnam War era, this was still a respectable gun. Highly accurate, it had a range of about 7 NM against ships, and 3 NM against aircraft. Like all 5″ guns of WWII, it was manually-loaded. A good crew could get off about 13rpm. The ammunition was semi-fixed, meaning the shell and it’s propellant were separate, but, the propellant was in a metal casing as opposed to bags as on a battleship’s guns.

Ammunition was not an issue during the 1980s. Manufacturing had continued well into the Cold War era. A 1985 audit found 720,000 rounds still in the Navy / Coast Guard stockpile.


(The Mk30 of USCGC Ingham. Visible is the cased propellant, ahead of it would be the shell. To fire, a steel rectangle called a power spade (out of picture beyond the brass) would flip out and ram both into the chamber. The power spade would then retract, the breech would be closed, and the gun fired. The breech would then be opened and a sailor with asbestos gloves would catch the spent casing and throw it out of the turret.)

During their SLEPs, the three upgraded Treasurys had the gunnery radar and fire control system removed. The Coast Guard maintained the guns for “show of force”, which is basically to say it was better than an empty foredeck. None the less, even with no fire control gear, they could still target ships in a line of sight, and in more complex situations tabletop math could be used to generate a rough solution. During the drug operations, they produced a booming report with impressive muzzle flash, and a 5″ warning round in the water served to convince smugglers not to be stupid.


The Mk22 3″ gun was carried on some smaller WWII “retreads”, namely the ex-tugs. The gun itself was considered a separate item from the Mk34 open mount. Everything about this weapon was manual: rotating and elevating the mount, aiming and loading the gun, and firing. The ammunition was fixed (complete like a rifle round) and weighed 24 lbs, of which 13 lbs was the projectile. The range was about 4½ NM – limited of course, by how far the gunner could see.


(Gun drill aboard USCGC Cherokee during the 1980s. The helmets are still M1s, as the USCG did not receive kevlar until later in the decade.)

During WWII, the US Navy installed these guns on secondary ships, like fleet tugs, as a “better than nothing” asset and by the 1980s, that is certainly what they were in the US Coast Guard. A pre-WWII design, the drug war was their last hurrah as they were out of US Navy use for years already. They had little realistic combat potential but none the less, crews trained diligently on them and they were still a valid close-quarters, self-defense option. They were certainly more than adequate for firing warning shots. When USCGC Cherokee and USCGC Tamaroa left service, they faded altogether from the American inventory.


(M2HB .50cal firing aboard USCGC Cherokee during the 1980s.)

John Browning’s legendary M2 .50cal machine gun was still in tremendously widespread shipboard use during the 1980s. This was carried on any number of US Coast Guard classes, and was (along with the crew’s own M16 rifles) the most commonly weapon fired in the Caribbean. Belt-fed, the shipboard M2HB fires at 500rpm with a 2,910fps muzzle velocity.

other navies

Other navies in the Caribbean during the 1980s used ex-US Navy warships of WWII vintage. In particular, large warships of the Mexican and Dominican Republic navies were almost all WWII-vintage American designs.


The Mexican navy’s ARM Cadete Francisco Marquez was the minesweeper USS Diploma (AM-221) during WWII. The ship had been sold to Mexico in 1962. With minesweeping gear removed and a modern radar installed, ARM Cadete Francisco Marquez conducted narcotics patrols off the Yucatan peninsula during the 1980s. Like the ex-tugboats and ex-lighters in the US Coast Guard, this former minesweeper was not ideal for the patrol mission but none the less adequate.

WWII ship used by smugglers


This diving attraction off the Cayman Islands had been built as the Camano class light cargo ship Col. Armond Peterson for the US Army watercraft corps during WWII.


In 1966, the 180′ long, 692t ship transferred from the Army to the Navy as USS Palm Beach (AGER-3), and converted into an “environmental research vessel” which was the euphemism for spy ship. USS Palm Beach was a sister ship to USS Pueblo (AGER-2) which was seized by North Korea in 1968. In 1970, the aging USS Palm Beach was stripped of all electronics and sold to Ralston Robertson in Alabama. Instead of scrapping the WWII ship, it was patched back up into a cargo vessel and resold to a Panamanian fruit company as M/V Oro Verde. The ship’s new name (“green gold” in Spanish), reflected that the cargo hold was modified to hang bananas, which ripened during the trip between South America and Miami.

Bananas were not the only “green gold” hauled by M/V Oro Verde. In a bizarre event, a rival drug cartel tried to sink the ship in Miami with a homemade limpet mine. A US Coast Guard EOD team deactivated the device.

In 1976, there was some sort of mutiny aboard M/V Oro Verde over ownership of the marijuana cargo. The ship apparently lost control and ran aground off Grand Cayman, upon which the crew fled. With nobody willing to claim the WWII ship or repair it, it was confiscated by the Cayman Islands government in 1980 and scuttled as a scuba attraction later that year.


The last WWII-vintage airplane in the Coast Guard’s inventory was retired in 1960. However even in the 1980s, many were still in the skies of the Caribbean in private hands.


(A 1968 classified ad for demilitarized surplus WWII planes still very much on the market at that time. Listed were the A-20 Havoc, A-26 Invader, C-47 Skytrain, J4F Widgeon, and C-60 Lodestar.)

WWII planes, still plentiful in the 1970s, made ideal smuggling assets. Contrary to their portrayal in the media, smuggling pilots were usually not top-tier aviators. Crashes of smuggler WWII aircraft were common throughout the 1980s. For every crashed Commando or Skytrain that is known, no doubt there are more in the jungle or on the seafloor of the Caribbean.


(Wreckage of a smuggler’s WWII-vintage C-46 Commando which crashed near the Bahamas during the 1980s.)

Intentional destruction of the planes was also not unheard of; the profits from a successful run greatly outstripped the value of a 1940s-vintage transport. Sometimes planes would land, be unloaded, and either set on fire or immediately sold for cash to a local junkyard, as it was worth sacrificing the plane to eliminate evidence. Now in 2017, WWII warbirds are treasured relics and it’s unfortunate to think how many were lost in this manner during the 1980s.

the Douglas C-47 Skytrain


The definitive transport of WWII, the C-47 served on postwar and was only gradually weaned out of use. Very many of these surplus aircraft were snapped up by airlines in the 1950s, then often resold to secondary civilian operators.

The Skytrain was 63’9″ long with a 95’6″ wingspan. It was powered by two supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engines, with a top speed of 195 kts. It’s rated capacity was 3 tons although it could take off and land well above that, and it had a 1,600 mile average range.


(Mixed cargo/passenger configuration C-47.)

Most operators were of course legitimate, but for those that weren’t the C-47 was a smuggler’s dream. The Skytrain could take off and land on grassy fields or dirt roads, was fast considering it’s size, easy to pilot, very tough, maintenance-friendly, and had a spacious cabin with wide doors.


(This C-47 was impounded for suspected smuggling at Queen Beatrix IAP in Aruba. The impound was never contested in court and the Skytrain was simply abandoned there.)

In mid-1982, the Colombian army found a C-47 crashed deep in the jungle. Two decomposed bodies were in the cockpit and the cabin was full of drugs. It is thought that the C-47 was one which had it’s American FAA civil registration expire in 1980.

On 1 July 1982, a C-47 crashed on Berry Island in the Bahamas. The plane had no registration and was flying with no flight plan. The two bodies onboard had Dominican Republic drivers licenses. Also onboard was 312 lbs of marijuana.


(The C-47 which was shot down by SA-7 missiles in 1983.)

On 4 October 1983, a C-47 was shot down by the Nicaraguan army near Rio Blanca. The plane was circling when it was engaged by a shoulder-fired SA-7 “Grail” surface-to-air missile. All registrations and serial numbers had been scrubbed off the Skytrain. It’s unknown if the plane was smuggling weapons for the Contra rebels or drugs, or both; as Contra supply planes often did.


(Nicaraguan troops with SA-7 missiles, like the one used in 1983 C-47 shootdown. In August 1986, the Contras themselves shot down a Nicaraguan air force C-47 with a “Grail” missile they had captured.)

The intertwined nature of the Contra’s war with the 1980s drug menace continued. A “chameleon” C-47 which wore a variety of registrations was known to make nearly twice-monthly loops between the USA and Central America during 1984. It was later traced to Eden Pastora, a Nicaraguan communist general who switched sides in 1983 and joined the Contras. Pastora financed the plane through bank accounts of George Morales, an alleged Colombian cocaine kingpin. It was suggested by then-Senator John Kerry that the WWII-vintage plane was flying CIA goods to the Contras, and then narcotics back on the northbound leg. This plane disappeared in the 1980s and is assumed to have crashed somewhere along the route.

On 10 March 1987,  a C-47 belonging to Aero Express, a Guatemalan airline, was shot down over Honduras by a Mystère fighter. The C-47 was using a Colombian civil registration which belonged to a different aircraft, and was already suspected of smuggling. The C-47 had departed Guatemala City at 09:39 local with a flight plan to El Estor, Guatemala. Shortly after takeoff the pilot radioed El Estor and said he was returning to Guatemala City, but instead turned towards Honduras. The C-47 ignored radio calls from the Honduran air force and did not respond to hand signals from the Mystère inside Honduran airspace. The jet then shot it down.

the Curtiss C-46 Commando


The Curtiss C-46 Commando was 76’4″ long with a 108′ wingspan. It was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp piston engines and had a top speed of 235 kts although it’s cruising speed was much less at 150 kts. At that speed it could fly 2,700 miles loaded. During WWII it was designed to transport 40 paratroopers, but with the seats removed it could carry 7 ½ tons of cargo.

After WWII, the Commando was an “interim standard” alongside the Skytain which remained in use and pending deliveries of postwar designs. Production had already ceased by WWII’s end, and Curtiss was exiting the military transport market. Many C-46s were disposed of immediately after Japan’s surrender via the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a New Deal-era governmental arm that handled disposal of unwanted WWII aircraft in 1945-1946.

Just like the C-47, surplus C-46s were snapped up by airlines, however they were soon discarded as the the Commando was less fuel-efficient and required more maintenance than the Skytrain. A secondary market was “nonskeds”, small micro-airlines (sometimes limited to a single plane) that made irregular, non-scheduled flights. These were popular across North America but especially in Florida, Texas, Mexico, and the Central American & Caribbean nations. Most were legitimate operations, but there were some bad apples. A number of these “nonskeds” were still flying C-46s by the 1980s.


(photo by Geoff Goodall)

In 1977, this C-46, FAA registered N5076N to a private individual, landed at Ft. Lauderdale, FL where the “flight crew” immediately left the airport and abandoned the airplane. It had been built in 1944 and used by the US Army in WWII and then the US Air Force until 1954. It then was used by the West German airline Lufthansa and then the Peruvian air force, before passing through a half-dozen less famous owners by 1977. The control tower at Ft. Lauderdale suspected it was a smuggling plane. It was finally scrapped in 1984.


(The Norman’s Cay C-46 wreckage is now a popular snorkeling attraction and is sometimes fictitiously presented as a plane lost during WWII.)


(The same C-46 before it’s demise. The smugglers often changed the appearance of the aircraft and/or used bogus registration numbers.)

On 15 November 1980, a C-46 last registered to an American holding company crashed into the sea off Norman’s Cay, Bahamas. No survivors or bodies were found, and nobody filed an insurance claim. It was assumed that the Commando had taken off without a flight plan either from Florida or from the Bahamas, and was involved in illegal activity.

Just a month earlier, a C-46 wearing Haitian registrations belonging to a DC-6 airliner crashed into the sea prior to entering Colombian airspace. It was assumed the plane had been smuggling cocaine.

When Hurricane Andrew struck the Caribbean in August 1992, a number of civilian-registered Commandos were destroyed on the ground and thereafter, it’s role in smuggling diminished greatly.

the Douglas A-26 Invader


The Douglas A-26 (also designated B-26 depending on model) Invader first flew in July 1942. It entered service in mid-1943 and served the duration of WWII, and later the Korean War. This 3-man plane was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp piston engines and had a maximum speed of 308 kts. The bombload was 3 tons and defensive armament was a pair of twin AN/M2 .40cal machine gun turrets. In some “solid-nose” versions, the bombardier’s position was replaced by a pack of eight additional .50cal machine guns. Most also had ten rocket rails under the wings.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, the US government began to sell these planes (with all military equipment removed) as surplus. Well over a hundred later received civilian FAA registrations, and smaller number were shipped abroad. Another small tranche came in the late 1970s when the Brazilian air force retired the type.

The A-26 made a surprisingly ideal candidate for conversion to civil use. A company called On Mark Engineering was one of several that offered packages, remodeling the bomb bay and fuselage into a small passenger area, with the nose extended and used as a baggage hold. Converted Invaders were as fast as a new Beechcraft and much cheaper, and made a decent option for small companies that wanted an affordable executive plane.


For certain, most converted A-26s went to legitimate owners. But the WWII design’s basic characteristics made it ideal for smuggling drugs as well. It was able to operate from small airstrips (2,450′ takeoff / 1,700′ landing), and could fly long distances at a bare minimum of altitude – below most civilian air traffic radars.


(photo via napoleon130.tripod website)

This Invader had been built as a “gun nose” model in 1944 and served in WWII. It was converted in 1962 and initially registered to a legitimate civilian user in the USA. The conversion was done by On Mark and included the tip tanks shown. In 1971, it’s FAA registration lapsed and it reappeared in Colombian civilian registration. During the 1980s, this particular plane popped up from time to time all over the Caribbean, and it was strongly suspected of being a drug runner. On 21 September 1988, it crashed north of Bogota, Colombia.


This Invader was completed in 1945 as a “glass nose” model, but remained in the USA during WWII. It then served in the postwar US Air Force until 1957. It was bought as surplus by On Mark in 1958 and converted for civilian use. During the 1960s and 1970s it passed between several legitimate owners. In July 1982, it was re-registered to a company in Oklahoma. On 17 March 1983, US Marshals inspected the plane during a refueling stop in California and found it “…..packed to the gills” with marijuana. The plane was flown to nearby Travis AFB. In 1984, a court decided since there was no lawful owner, the plane should revert to the military. In 1990 the US Air Force donated it to the Hill Museum in Utah, which restored it back to WWII appearance.


This WWII Invader was converted to civilian use in 1954 and operated by a number of legitimate owners including, ironically, Rockwell, which was a Cold War-era competitor of McDonnell-Douglas, the successor of Douglas. In 1984 it was sold in Miami to a private individual, however the plane was never re-registered with the FAA nor any known foreign government. It is suspected that the purchaser was a smuggler and the plane was taken immediately abroad without a flight plan. This plane was never seen again and most likely crashed in the Caribbean during the 1980s.


(photo by Carl Jenkins)

Maybe the most interesting of all, this Invader was a “glass nose” model in WWII. After the war it was bought as-is by Dollar Line (a predecessor company of the modern shipping giant APL) and then passed to a variety of owners. Only marginally modified, it was used for cloud seeding in the 1960s. In September 1982, USAF jet fighters out of Ellington AFB, TX tracked this Invader flying very fast at an extremely low altitude over the Gulf of Mexico. When they were within visual range, the Invader opened the WWII bomb doors and jettisoned marijuana into the Gulf. The plane was ordered to land at New Orleans, LA and impounded. In 1987 it was transferred to the War Eagles Museum in New Mexico.

the Lockheed C-60 Lodestar


The Lockheed C-59 / C-60 Lodestar was an 18-passenger light transport of WWII. It had a 2-man crew and was 45’10” long with a 65’6″ wingspan, powered by two Wright R-1820 Cyclone piston engines with a top speed of 231 kts.

After WWII the military sold most Lodestars into civilian service. A number of companies demilitarized them, including Dallas Aero Service and Bill Lear (later the founder of Learjet). Unsuitable for airlines, most were used as corporate planes. There was nothing remarkable about the Lodestar to make it an ideal smuggling plane, other than it was cheap and with the seats ripped out, more spacious than a 1970s Cessna.

The first known involvement of this WWII plane in the narcotics trade came in September 1972. A C-60 which had been converted by Lear took off from Clarendon Airport in Jamaica (which was at the time, unlighted) at night and failed to clear trees at the edge of the airport. Jamaican police stated that the crash site was strewn with marijuana.


The Lodestar above had been a C-60 during WWII. Afterwards it passed between a series of private owners. Last registered N9051, it was suspected of drug smuggling by the US government. On 1 May 1978 as US Customs agents were monitoring it at Daytona Beach Airport, FL, it quickly took off without notification and headed north. It was found crashed near a rough airstrip near Durbin, FL. The NTSB estimated that the pilot, who was killed, was trying to land there to hide the plane and overshot the runway.

Another C-60 was impounded by the Bahamas government for drug smuggling. Another crashed near Veracruz, Mexico while flying without a flight plan and likely smuggling drugs. Still another landed on a highway near Hastings, FL and was set on fire by drug smugglers. In 1982, a Lodestar was involved in a bizarre crash near Kosciusko, MS. Flying at night with no lights, it clipped trees and crashed. NTSB investigators found the plane had been fitted with a homemade auxiliary fuel tank, a handcranked pump for self-refueling on the ground, and an inflatable raft. Both occupants were killed.

As of 2017 there are a dozen WWII Lodestars with valid FAA registrations in the USA – none of these by now, of course, are involved in anything illegal.



(USCGC Acushnet (WMEC-167) decommissioned on 11 March 2011. She was the last ocean-going cutter of WWII construction in service.)

There is no “end” to the story as drug smuggling into the USA of course continues. By the end of the Cold War, the peak of the activity at sea and in the air around the Caribbean had passed however.

One factor was the nature of the drug trade itself. By the 1990s, smugglers discovered it was easier to corrupt Mexico’s law enforcement and move narcotics overland through the USA’s porous southern border. The South American cartels increasingly hedged their bets by using the longer, but much more open, Pacific Ocean route.

For better or worse, the 1980s operations redefined the US Coast Guard in the public mindset. In the mid-1970s the Government Accounting Office had recommended abolishing the whole Coast Guard altogether. During the 1980s, nightly news reports of drug seizures in the Caribbean, combined with over-glamorized portrayals on TV shows like “Miami Vice”, recast the image of the USCG from mundane life-jacket inspectors to tough high seas lawmen.


(A US Coast Guard recruitment TV commercial which ran during the summer of 1990 prominently featured the pot leaf “bust” symbols painted on one of the old cutters.)

The USCG’s use of the WWII ships during the 1980s remains a triumph of squeezing every last bit of use from aging military hardware. Many of these vessels were being used out of their intended role and should have rightfully been sent to a shipbreaker years before, yet none the less performed their mission admirably.


(Fading emblems of the 1980s, peeling off the mothballed WWII veteran ex-USCGC Escape in 2009.) (photo by Mike Hibbard)

5 thoughts on “1980s drug war: WWII gear used

  1. In the 60s the CG has several former seaplane tenders for ocean patrol. The crews struggled to keep them running. Also the navy charged the CG for 5″ ammo even though they had 100s of 1000s of rounds in storage. I was told in training with the 5″-38 they were lucky to fire 5 rounds.
    The Civonney is a former US Army FS. AI small cargo ship built in the 100s. Many became coastal freighters, fishing processors and so on. The Pueblo was an FS.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Cherokee hull number is incorrect in the text, but obvious in the pictures. It should be 165. But great pictures and great memories. I served on Cherokee in the mid 80s as XO and was on there duing the Challenger Operations and the MV Arikok drug bust noted in this story.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Regarding the Tamaroa; “On 25 September 1980, USCGC Tamaroa seized the Panamanian-flagged merchant Moondiep in the Atlantic.”, that Panama flag merchant was “Roondiep”.
    I love your work. Thankyou

    Liked by 1 person

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