Adm. Russell R. Waesche entered a branch of the military known as the Revenue Cutter Service in 1906. By the time he retired 40 years later from the same service, it had become the U.S. Coast Guard. In those four decades, Waesche served through two world wars, Prohibition, and in the longest tenure ever as Coast Guard commandant, from 1936 to 1945.
Waesche served most of his first 20 years at sea, including tours in the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Bering Sea, interrupted by an assignment to Coast Guard Headquarters during World War I. His commands included the Eagle-class patrol boat Bothwell, the cutter Snohomish, and the destroyer Beale. On the Beale, he was sent out against rumrunners during the government-sanctioned Prohibition on alcohol.
Described by his son as "jack of all trades and master of many," the unassuming Waesche brought his considerable brainpower to bear on some of the problems that had plagued his service for years. He originated the Coast Guard Institute and Correspondence School for warrant officers and other enlisted personnel. He established the Coast Guard Reserve in 1941. While commandant, Waesche was integral in bringing the Coast Guard under the Navy’s wing for wartime purposes — and equally instrumental in the post-war separation of the services. Waesche strongly believed that the Coast Guard should improve safety at sea not just through search-and-rescue operations, but also through preventive measures. Thus, under his command, the U.S. Lighthouse Service was made part of the Coast Guard in 1939; the Bureau of Marine Inspection followed in 1943.
The U.S. Coast Guard fought in every major amphibious operation of World War II, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to the Pacific. As commandant, Waesche oversaw the transformation of the small peacetime Coast Guard fleet into a force of 160,000 men manning 30 destroyer escorts, 75 frigates, 750 cutters, 290 Navy vessels, and 255 Army vessels, among scores of smaller craft.
His successful and productive years were marked by promotions to vice admiral in 1943 and full admiral in 1944 — the first Coast Guard officer to achieve three and four stars.