USCGC VIGILANT (WMEC 617) is the third of the Coast Guard’s RELIANCE class medium endurance cutters. She is the twelfth cutter to bear the name VIGILANT, dating back to 1790 when the original VIGILANT was built for the Revenue Cutter Service. The present VIGILANT was commissioned on October 3, 1964 at Todd Shipyard in Houston, Texas at a cost of 2.3 million dollars. From 1964 to 1989, VIGILANT was home ported in New Bedford, Massachusetts. In February of 1989, after twenty-five years of active service, VIGILANT was decommissioned to undergo an 18 month Major Maintenance Availability at the Coast Guard Yard. On November 16, 1990 she was again commissioned and proudly rejoined the active fleet at her new homeport of Port Canaveral, Florida.
VIGILANT has been involved in numerous unique operations. In 1813, under the command of John Cahoone, VIGILANT captured the armed privateer DART which was the last successful boarding by a revenue cutter in the Age of Sail. In 1965, she was a part of the primary recovery team for Project GEMINI. VIGILANT secured her place in history in 1970 as a result of the "VIGILANT Incident" where Simas Kudirka, a Lithuanian seaman attempted to defect to the United States by leaping from his Soviet ship to the deck of the VIGILANT off Massachusetts. (See "VIGILANT Incident" below.) In 1976, VIGILANT also served as On-Scene Commander when the tanker ARGO MERCHANT grounded near Cape Cod spilling her cargo into the sea, earning the Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation for her role in the cleanup of what was considered one of the worst spills in U.S. history prior to Exxon Valdezl. In 1981, VIGILANT played a key role in operation ABLE MANNER to stop the Cuban exodus and operation SUPPORT DEMOCRACY to enforce the UN embargo on the island nation of Haiti. VIGILANT was also awarded the Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation for the rescue and seizure of the motor vessel VIVIANA whose crew attempted to scuttle and burn their drug-laden vessel.
Today’s VIGILANT remains “Semper Vigilans” and continues her history of operational success. VIGILANT participated in OPERATION TRADEWINDS in 1993, training the nations of Nassau, St. Vincent, Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, and Antigua in law enforcement, search and rescue, leadership, and teamwork techniques. During the span of two patrols in 1994-1995, VIGILANT conducted seven migrant repatriations, returning over 1,400 migrants to Haiti. VIGILANT demonstrated her multi-mission capabilities by taking on the mission of homeland security following the September 11th tragedy. VIGILANT participated in OPERATION NOBLE EAGLE in the fall of 2002, boarding merchant vessels entering the mouth of the Mississippi, and ensuring they did not pose a threat to the security of the port and New Orleans. VIGILANT boarding teams also conducted port security boardings of merchant vessels entering Port Canaveral. On May 1, 2003, VIGILANT transferred with the rest of the Coast Guard from the Department of Transportation to the newly formed Department of Homeland Security.
During routine patrols in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, VIGILANT has been responsible for the interdiciton of illicit drugs being smuggled into the United States and neighboring countries as well as the safe transfer of migrants attempting to seek refuge in the United States and the search and rescue of distressed vessels on the high seas.
In over 50 years service to the nation, VIGILANT remains Semper Paratus, performing with unparalleled success in a wide range of Coast Guard missions. VIGILANT’s awards include the Coast Guard Unit Commendation, Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation (6 awards), Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation, Humanitarian Service Medal (3 awards), Coast Guard Special Operations Ribbon, and the Coast Guard “E” Ribbon (12 awards). Firmly rooted in her history of accomplishments, VIGILANT will continue to live up to her motto, “Semper Vigilans…ALWAYS VIGILANT.”
"THE VIGILANT INCIDENT"
On November 23, 1970, Simonas "Simas" Kudirka, a Soviet seaman of Lithuanian nationality, leapt from the 400-foot (120 m) mother ship Sovetskaya Litva, anchored in American waters (near Aquinnah, Massachusetts on Martha's Vineyard Island), aboard the VIGILANT, sailing from New Bedford. The Soviets accused Kudirka of theft of 3,000 rubles from the ship's safe. After ten hours had passed and attempts to get the U.S. State Department to provide guidance failed, Rear Admiral William B. Ellis, commander of the First Coast Guard District, ordered Commander Ralph E. Eustis to permit a KGB detachment to board the VIGILANT to return Kudirka to the Soviet ship. This led to a change in asylum policy by the U.S. Coast Guard. Admiral Ellis and his chief of staff were given administrative punishment under Article 15 of the UCMJ. Commander Eustis was given a non-punitive letter of reprimand and assigned to shore duty.
Kudirka was tried for treason by the Soviet Union and given a ten-year sentence in the Gulag. Subsequent investigations revealed that Kudirka could claim American citizenship through his mother and was allowed to come to the United States in 1974.
An award-winning book detailing the incident, Day of Shame, by Algis Ruksenas, was published in 1973 (David McKay Publishers, New York). The book helped spur further investigations into the incident that eventually led to Kudirka's release by the Soviets. The incident was also portrayed in a 1978 television movie, The Defection of Simas Kudirka, with Alan Arkin playing Kudirka and Donald Pleasence playing the captain of the Soviet ship.