The Hamilton Class 378 foot WHECs, an Appreciation

USCGC Douglas Munro (WHEC-724)

The Navy League’s magazine, Seapower, reports that the last of the US Coast Guard’s Hamilton class 378 foot WHECs, Douglas Munro, will be decommissioned at the end of the month.

The designers of these ships certainly made them aesthetically pleasing, and the preliminary design work was done in house by Coast Guard engineers.

The 378s were the crowning achievement of a recapitalization program begun in the late 1950s that resulted in the 82 foot Point class patrol boats, the 210 foot Reliance class WMECs, and ultimately the 378 foot Hamilton class WHECs, all built to preliminary designs developed in house.

Between October 1960 and August 1970 the Coast Guard commissioned 79 Point class WPBs. The Point class followed closely on the heals of the 95 foot WPB, the last of which had been commissioned in July 1959.

Between June 1964 and July 1969 we commissioned 16 Reliance class WMECs. Between February 1967 and March 1972 we commissioned 12 Hamilton class WHECs.

So between Oct. 1960 and March 1972 the Coast Guard commissioned 107 new patrol cutters. In 1967 alone we commissioned 17 Point class WPB. 1968 was the peak year for the larger cutters. In that year the Coast Guard commissioned four 378s and seven 210s. (Makes it clear we should be able to complete more than two Offshore Patrol Cutters per year, doesn’t it?)

USCGC Gallatin WHEC -721 (378), USCGC Rockaway WHEC-377 (311), and USCGC Spencer WHEC-36 (327)

When the 378s were built, the WHEC designation had just recently been coined. 36 ships were classed as WHECs, six 327 foot 2,656 ton full load Secretary class cutters, 18 Casco class 311 foot 2,529 ton cutters, and 12 Owasco class 255 foot 1,978 ton cutters. The plan was to build 36 of Hamilton class to replace all of them, but the termination of the Ocean Station program resulted in only twelve being built. The 378s were 15 to 54% larger than the ships they replaced at 3,050 tons full load, and they were a much more advanced design.

CODOG Propulsion:

The COmbined Diesel or Gas turbine (CODOG) propulsion was a bold choice in the early 1960s. The Royal Navy had commissioned their first combatants with gas turbines (combined with steam) in 1961  The US Navy would not complete their first gas turbine powered Perry class frigate until 1977. (I think you can see the influence of the Hamilton class in the design of the Perry class frigates.) A pair of Danish Frigates, the Peder Skram class, would also use the same FT-4 turbines, but the first of that class was laid down only four months before Hamilton, so it was more contemporary than predecessor. 49 months after Hamilton was laid down, the Canadian laid down the first of the Iroquois class destroyers that used more powerful versions of the FT-4 in a COGOG arrangement with smaller 7500 HP Allison gas turbines. We would see the FT-4 gas turbine again in the Polar class icebreakers beginning in 1976.

The Coast Guard had done some experimentation with gas turbines. As built, USCGC Point Thatcher (WPB-82314), commissioned in Sept. 1961, was equipped with controllable pitch props and two 1000 HP gas turbines (later replaced by two 800 HP diesels that would became standard in the class). The first five 210 foot cutters of the Reliance class, commissioned June 1964 to February 1966, had two 1,000 HP gas turbines in addition to two 1,500 HP diesels, that they retained until they received major renovations 1985-1990.

The Hamilton Class’s Navy contemporaries were the 3,371 ton full load Garcia and 4,066 ton Knox class frigates (classified as Destroyer Escorts until 1975). Those ships were larger and used high temperature and pressure steam propulsion to produce 35,000 HP (compared to 36,000 for the 378s on their turbines). The frigates used only a single shaft for a speed 27 knots. The Hamiltons’ turbines gave them a two knot speed advantage, while their diesels gave them more than double the range. Two shafts gave them a greater degree of redundancy.

ASW Capability: 

While the contemporary Garcia and Knox class were much better equipped for ASW, the newly commissioned 378s, with their AN/SQS-38 sonar and helicopter deck were not only larger and faster, but also compared favorably as ASW ships to all but the newest Navy Destroyer Escorts (those completed 1963 and later).

CGC DALLAS (WHEC-716)… Vietnam… During seven combat patrols off the coast of Vietnam, Dallas undertook 161 gunfire support missions involving 7,665 rounds of her 5-inch ammunition. This resulted in 58 sampans destroyed and 29 Viet Cong supply routes, bases, camps, or rest areas damaged or destroyed. Her 5-inch (127 mm) guns made her very valuable to the naval missions in the area. Original 35mm Slide shared by Capt W.F. Guy, USCG… Circa May 1970.

Electronic Warfare, Gun and Fire Control: 

The 378s introduced the post WWII Coast Guard to electronic warfare with the WLR-1.

Unlike the earlier WHECs, the 378s were completed with the Mk56 gun firecontrol system which was much more capable than the short to medium range Mk52 used by the older cutters. Their 5″/38s proved useful when deployed to Vietnam. Below is quoted from Wikipedia’s description of USCGC Morgenthau‘s Vietnam deployment.

From records compiled by then-Lieutenant Eugene N. Tulich, Commander, US Coast Guard (Ret), Morgenthaus Vietnam numbers included: Miles cruised – 38,029 nautical miles (70,430 km; 43,763 mi); Percentage time underway – 72.8%; Junks/sampans detected/inspected/boarded – 2383/627/63; Enemy confirmed killed in action (KIA) 14; Structures destroyed/damaged – 32/37; Bunkers destroyed/damaged – 12/3; Waterborne craft destroyed/damaged – 7/3; Naval Gunfire Support Missions (NGFS) – 19; MEDCAPS (Medical Civic Action Program) – 25; Patients treated – 2676.

The FRAM:

During the late 1980s the Reagan administration was pushing for a 600 ship Navy. The FRAM of the Hamilton class was one of the small ways the Coast Guard played a part in the competition that may have driven the Soviet Union into dissolution.

While the 378s would still might not have been first class fighting units, electronic warfare was brought up to date, a newer air search radar, a modern gun, and firecontrol was installed. Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles were add along with a Close in Weapon System (CIWS), a hangar was added and the ships were equipped to operate with a LAMPs I ASW helicopters.

Ultimately, following the collapse of the threat from the Soviet Union, the ASW equipment and anti-ship cruise missile were removed, but benefits of modernization, remained.

The After Life: 

These ships are now 49 to 54 years old and, thanks to the hard work of their crews over a half century, they are still doing good work, no longer for the US Coast Guard, but for Navies and Coast Guards around the world. Virtually all of their contemporaries have gone to the ship breakers, as have many younger ships.

BRP Andrés Bonifacio (FF-17), the former USCGC Boutwell.

  • Hamilton (715), Dallas (716), and Boutwell (719) serve in the Philippine Navy.
  • Mellon (717) serves in the Bahrain Naval Force
  • Chase (718) and Gallatin (721) serve in the Nigerian Navy
  • Sherman (720) serves in the Sri Lanka Navy
  • Morgenthau (722), Midgett (726), and Munro (724) serve or will serve in the Vietnam Coast Guard
  • Rush (723) and Jarvis (725) are in the Bangladeshi Navy

The Vietnam Coast Guard patrol vessel CSB-8020, formerly the US Coast Guard cutter Morgenthau (Photo: Vietnam Coast Guard)