As the Coast Guard continues to re-engineer itself and assumes an important, maritime anti-terrorist role in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, it is critical that the service invest more in preserving its storied history in order to capitalize on past lessons learned and avoid repeating old mistakes.  A proposed history program must be supported before dwindling, once-in-lifetime opportunities to chronicle the service’s past are missed as World War II era Coast Guard personnel pass away, rare artifacts get pawned off on the Internet and new generations of Coasties strike out into the 21st Century with little appreciation for their organization’s origins and character.

This article examines recent examples where the resource-strapped Coast Guard’s lack of comprehensive historical programs hindered incorporation of past insights into modern planning and obscured a new generation of guardsmen’s view of their service’s treasured past.  It also makes recommendations for better stewardship of a venerable organization’s heritage.

The 9/11 Wakeup Call.

The Coast Guard’s performance in the hours, days and months after the 9/11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks was nothing short of phenomenal.  Within 24 hours after September 11, 2001, the service coordinated the ferrying of more than 750,000 people from southern Manhattan, the largest water evacuation since 300,000 Allied Forces were saved from invading Germans during WWII at Dunkirk. 1 The Coast Guard also quickly safeguarded more than 350 of America’s ports and restored critical commerce.

But, aside from public-sourced articles and the efforts of one reserve Chief Public Affairs specialist,2 the Coast Guard will have little idea what key decisions were made after the WTC attacks, who made them and what long-term impacts those choices hold for the service’s strategic planning.  Five years or fifty years from now, the service may still be wondering what it did, how it did it and in the worst case, have to relearn old lessons, when terror strikes US shores anew.

A Mission for the Future

Today, the guard and the nation are contemplating “new” coastal defense, port security and consequence management programs involving: credentialing, public reporting of suspicious maritime activities, protection and response programs for cruise ship calamities, to name a few, that have rich historic precedent — in the Coast Guard.  But, minimal effort or value has been placed in mining the past for today’s operations, until very recently.

For example, the Coast Guard is struggling to develop plans to respond to possible terrorist acts on cruise ships carrying thousands of people.  Part of this effort is an attempt to articulate mass evacuation plans.  Thus far, planning is progressing without the benefit of even 10-year-old insights, such as from the 7 August 1992 grounding of the RMS Queen Elizabeth II near Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts.  In that rescue, 1,824 passengers were safely offloaded without incident from the stricken liner using commercial ferries that transported their human cargo to nearby Newport, RI. 2

Similarly, the Coast Guard is developing new schemes to differentiate who’s good and who’s bad on the water and how to involve the public in this effort.  The modern term of art is Maritime Domain Awareness.  A brief review of WWII and post-WWII history reveals that the Coast Guard had extensive experiences involving the maritime public and developing and using color-coded credentialing systems in domestic ports and waterways.  Could these historic lessons be useful today?  An analysis of how other services responded to 9/11 is insightful.

Taking the Past into the Future

A quick comparison with the US Army’s and Navy’s considerable efforts to chronicle their activities reveals the magnitude of the Coast Guard’s lack of resources and minimal capability to preserve its heritage or capture the potential value the events following the WTC attacks might have for longer range planning.

Within hours of the WTC and Pentagon attacks, the Army had 22 three-person military history detachments assembled and fielded, collecting and analyzing key events and the service’s response to those events.  The Navy mobilized 12 reserve Captains to collect 9/11 operational documentation.  This effort will enable these two services to construct real-time after-action reports and lessons learned.

The Army’s incorporation of history and after action reports from past major events have led to key historic analysis, such as General Wesley Clark’s Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat.  Clark’s conclusions that ground operations are too slow, costly, and indecisive have been borne out in Afghanistan, and may lead to a complete overhaul of the Army’s concept of fighting future wars. 3

The CG on the other hand, brought just one reserve Chief Petty Officer on board after the WTC attacks for extended duty.  His interview schedule caught up with some key decision makers in the guard as late as nine months after the attacks.

Limited funds for this project have caused the Chief Petty Officer to focus his historical collection efforts narrowly on a three-day period and some operational policy decisions made immediately prior to and after the events of 9/11.  No concerted effort is being made to chronicle sweeping, service-wide doctrinal changes that have scrambled priorities, led to the largest budget increase in Coast Guard history and generated a plan to increase the number of personnel by 5,000 active duty and 3,500 reservists over the next three years.  For example, the guard is struggling with a major revision of its use-of-force policy that for years had been predicated upon strict oversight and direction from superiors.  Today’s fast-paced scenarios require on-the-spot empowerment and decision making by junior enlisted personnel in order to counter some threats; a major paradigm shift for the organization.  Likewise, major portions of the Coast Guard’s aviation community, previously an exclusive humanitarian culture, are being transformed with the addition of personal and aircraft armament and weaponry.

In one bright spot that highlights the potential for using past lessons learned in today’s war on terrorism, the Coast Guard is integrating a review of historic materials as part of the service’s experimental use of canines in the war on terrorism.  During WWII, the Coast Guard employed some 1,800 dogs as part of its Coastal Defense forces.  Their mission was to help intercept German saboteurs. 4 Today’s planners have incorporated some past lessons into modern plans, including: canine and handler training, outfitting and employment standards.  For example, a WWII report that concluded canines should be outfitted with booties to protect the dogs from beach shells has led modern planners to consider paw protection for dogs that operate on ships where they might be hurt by rough surfaces and nails.  No effort to date, however, has been placed on interviewing WWII veterans of the Beach Patrol, who could provide unique insights as to the vagaries and true costs, benefits and tactics of this important low-end technology.

The Coast Guard’s ability to chronicle its World Trade Center attack responses and the evolution of its emerging homeland security mission mirrors its pre-9/11 Historian program’s bare bones apportionment of resources.  For example, the Coast Guard has eight permanent positions in its history program.  None operate in the field.

By contrast, The US Navy has 225 full time employees, the Army 843, Marines 114 and the US Air Force has 554 employees assigned to their history programs.  Even accounting for the disparity in size between services, the Coast Guard still appears woefully undersized and under-committed to properly document and learn from its past.

Other Symptoms

Several other examples typify the Coast Guard’s past lack of ability to appreciate its heritage.  Notable enlisted personnel and officers who served during WWII are passing away without any plan to capture their experiences, memories and decisions.  This is especially troublesome because the service is missing tremendous opportunities to compare WWII and post-WII port security efforts and incorporate historic lessons learned into today’s planning for the war on terrorism.  Retirees’ testimonials from past port security duties might give critical insights about detecting anomalous activities among recreational boaters and how critical waterfront infrastructure was protected with minimal resources.  But, oral histories are expensive and currently funds are limited and only available for capturing the oral histories of some former service Commandants.

More subtle historic oversights also quietly occur each day.  For example, the Coast Guard’s first Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard (MCPO-CG), MCPO Charles L. Calhoun, recently passed away — with minimal chronicling of his service career or oral history.

Master Chief Calhoun had the distinction of creating and setting the standard for the incredibly important MCPO-CG (E10) position that had him “advising the Commandant of the Coast Guard on matters related to the health and well being of the enlisted workforce.”  Or, in the words of a boot camp drill instructor at the time “He’s the guy that tells the Commandant what to do.  He’s the enlisted man’s admiral!” 5 Unfortunately, all that remains in Coast Guard Headquarters of Calhoun’s past are some old newspaper clippings, a few press releases and a brief web-link passage.

A sad note, too, is the increasing appearance of rare Coast Guard artifacts for sale on the Internet.  One distinguished Coast Guard flag officer, RADM Roland, USCG (Ret.), recently had his uniform auctioned off on the Internet pawnshop, eBay.  The Coast Guard had no means to even know this or for that matter, whether any other treasured artifact was being auctioned, much less the funds to be competitive in the process.

Even when the CG does commit to good ideas related to its history, it does so with the speed of molasses.  Six years ago noted CG historian and author, Dr. Dennis Noble, made the suggestion that the guard name each of its new and powerful motor lifeboats after historic enlisted heroes.

The idea finally gained traction in November 2001 and was enthusiastically embraced by many, but still remains “under consideration.”  In stark contrast to the Coast Guard’s ability to appreciate and act on ideas linked to heritage, the Army’s Sergeant Major heard about the Coast Guard’s discussion of boat naming and just three months later, the Army began naming its new Stryker interim armored vehicles after its enlisted war heroes! 6

Beacons of Light

Like the historic beacons of light that have been shining near America’s shores since the establishment of Boston Light in 1716, the Coast Guard has made some important strides in history-related activities in the past few years, and especially in the last 12 months.  For example, the service is actively considering a prototype field historical collection and analysis program, which would, for the first time in more than 55 years, provide a linkage between current operations, newly developed lessons learned and strategic planning.

And, the CG distributed CG Publication 1:  America’s Maritime Guardians, the service’s first doctrinal publication to “synthesize” who Coast Guard personnel are, what they do, and how they do things.”  It devotes an entire early section to carefully chronicling the service’s rich evolutionary history from its inception as Alexander Hamilton’s 1790 Revenue Marine to today’s military, multi-mission, maritime service.   CG Publication 1, according to former Commandant Loy, “recounts our history, highlighting how we came to be the service we are today.  It illustrates how the CG accumulated new roles and missions, and in the process, developed a distinct character…” 7

And, on August 4, 1999, the CG entered into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the newly formed Foundation for CG History (FCGH).  The foundation was created to “encourage and foster the study and preservation of the history of the CG and its predecessor organizations.”  The MOA went on to indicate that the foundation would support the CG historian “by assisting in the accession and maintenance of historic USCG documents, fabrics and properties.” 8

A retired CG vice admiral chairs the foundation’s board and oversees the efforts of a group of professional historians and enthusiasts.  They assist the CG Historian by obtaining funds for prioritized heritage projects, including: oral histories, obtaining rare artifacts, and the chronicling of key historical events through research and writing.

Since its establishment, the foundation has participated in a vigorous campaign of “active recruitment” within the Coast Guard to sign up new members.  However, as of 22 January 2003, only six active duty flag officers among a corps of approximately 35, and five active duty officers of about 7,000 are annual FCGH subscribers.   Of these eleven officers, only three are life members.  Seven enlisted personnel of approximately 26,000 are members and none are life members.  Annual FCGH membership fees begin at $10. 9

Under the leadership of the immediate past Commandant, Admiral James M. Loy, USCG, plans are in the making for a brand new 40,000 square foot museum in the New London, Connecticut area.  This facility will provide impressive state-of-art housing and display capabilities for the service’s vast array of artifacts and memorabilia.

The Coast Guard also makes a concerted effort to provide some history indoctrination to its new officer candidates (OC’s), cadets and enlisted personnel.  OC’s receive 1.4 hours of indoctrination during their eight-week program and academy cadets are grilled on service heritage as part of their initial summer training.

The Academy began an innovative program a few years ago to pair new cadets and Coast Guard retirees from the local area.  The “Long Blue Line” has proven an effective program in bridging generational gaps and passing down information from the old guard to the new.  New Academy cadets are also immersed briefly in their heritage during the “Walk of Honor,” a summer play designed to make them appreciate that they are becoming members of an organization with a rich heritage. 10

However, none of these programs are yet linked to a more comprehensive service-wide heritage plan, none are linked to how people get promoted, nor do they lead to graduate or postgraduate history educational programs.

Conclusion and Recommendations.

The efforts of the FCGH, CG Publication 1 and the planned national Coast Guard museum as well as the tremendous individual efforts of many, will remain disjointed “pockets of excellence” until the Coast Guard’s leadership takes steps to actively inculcate a culture that believes that preserving and appreciating the memories of what the service has done is just as important as what it is doing.  As an inaugural step, each Coast Guardsman should be provided a personal copy of CG Publication 1 and required to read it.

The Coast Guard has invested far too little in its past and may be destined to repeat critical mistakes without leadership’s strong intervention.  The dilemma is that few people in the public have anything but high praise for the service knowing its emerging roles in homeland security, transition to the Homeland Security Department, and substantive track record in recent years.  But, unfortunately, even fewer will be sympathetic to significant budgetary requests that support anything other than front line, futuristic investments in today’s mission areas, especially the war on terrorism.

An ambitious prototype program of field historians whose job it is to collect and analyze materials, past and present, is now being actively considered by the service.  This program must be supported both with resources and the full commitment of the Coast Guard’s leadership.  A first order of business for these professionals might be to begin expanding the initial Herculean efforts of the one reserve Public Affairs Chief and better chronicle lessons learned from the emerging homeland defense mission and to preserve ongoing historical discussion about the Coast Guard’s move to the new Department of Homeland Security.

As the Coast Guard endeavors to develop new strategies for the war on terrorism, selected historians, retirees and key individuals should be sought out to incorporate their historic knowledge of key events.  Some of these people will require security clearances in order to produce meaningful analysis.  The service’s historian should become an active member of current operational-strategic planning and be tasked specifically with researching segments of the Coast Guard’s past and developing strategic analysis from lessons learned, beginning with port security operations.  These historic insights should become part of today’s planning.

The service’s senior officers and enlisted personnel must make time in their busy schedules to instill a sense of “value” for CG history.  “Walking the talk” may mean they might have to spend some minimal amount of their own money through memberships in organizations such as the Foundation for Coast Guard History that provide materials and more visible signs of commitment.

Coast Guard field commands should be challenged with developing unit histories, which can be incorporated into check-in and indoctrination programs and made part of public events and shared with the media.  Each unit should designate an active duty historian.  Local CG retirees, reservists and Auxiliarists can also help develop the history.  Unit histories can be posted on unit websites and “linked” to the CG Historian’s website.

Also, the Commandant, in partnership with the U.S. Naval Institute and the FCGH, could sponsor an annual CG history essay contest.  This will be an uphill struggle, since the US Naval Institute recently cancelled the annual Coast Guard Proceedings magazine essay contest, signaling a move away from tailored, small service programs.  Likewise, the CG Academy’s Alumni Bulletin or the service’s magazine could host an annual history contest, with the winning essay timed for publication in the month of August, the Coast Guard’s birthday month.

The Coast Guard must provide its heritage programs a “heart” by inculcating a better, deeper appreciation for service history in its Academies, training centers and especially in the field.  The CG’s Leadership Development Center and Leadership Council should be charged with reviewing officer and enlisted accession programs and making recommendations for furthering service heritage.

For example, at different stages of a person’s career, history and heritage, like any other valued commodity, should be emphasized differently and in different measure.  It has been suggested that a voluntary program of historic questions be added to the service-wide exams for accession.  Those candidates who take the time to know and study their service’s history, could be given points on the exam which might separate them from others of equal technical competence.

Artifact acquisition must keep pace with the 21st Century.  Key items from the service’s past can be expected to become available on e-Bay and other online auctioning services without notice.  The CG Historian’s office should be funded adequately and develop processes to monitor and competitively bid on prioritized memorabilia.

Funding must be authorized for invaluable oral histories of those whose time is limited, both enlisted and officer, not just former Commandants.  And, the CG’s leadership and the FCGH should consider the merits of supporting the Library of Congress’ new Veterans’ History Project, a Congressionally sponsored effort to collect oral histories, albeit by volunteer, non-historians. 11

In the words of the service’s immediate past Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, MCPO Vince Patton, “Passion is our sense of belonging.  If you want to inspire people, you have to encourage their sense of belonging to the organization…in order to elevate the interests of the CG, first we have to embrace our history, heritage and traditions.” 12

Today’s Coast Guard must embrace and commit to its past or forever be relearning old lessons and missing opportunities to build esprit de corps and bolster retention.

Picture credit:
By FrankBrueck (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Capelotti, Dr. P. J., E-mail note to the author of 29 May 2002.
  2. National Transportation Safety Board, Marine Accident Report: Grounding of the United Kingdom Passenger Vessel RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 Near Cuttyhunk Island Vineyard Sound, Massachusetts August 7, 1992. NTSB Report Number: MAR-93-01, NTIS Report Number: PB93-916401, p.9.
  3. Capelotti, Dr. P. J., E-mail note to the author of 29 May 2002.
  4. Willoughby, Malcolm, The Coast Guard in World War II,
  5. Kozaryn, Linda, Patton’s Creed: ‘People, Passion, Performance,’ American Force Press Service, 29 April 2002.
  6. Garamone, Jim, American Forces Press Service, 27 February 2002, Army Names Stryker Vehicle for Heroes.
  7. Loy, James M., Admiral, USCG (Ret.), ‘Coast Guard Pub One Is Our Doctrine,’ Proceedings, US Naval Institute, May 2002, p. 192
  8. Herzberg, Fred, Captain, USCG (Ret.), Foundation for Coast Guard History, e-mail to the author, 22 January 2003.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Heyl, Phil, Captain, USCG, Assistant Superintendent, USCG Academy, e-mail note to the author of 29 May 2002.
  11. Public Law 106-380 was signed by President Clinton on October 27, 2000.  It calls upon the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress to collect and preserve audio and video taped oral histories.  See for more information.
  12. Kozaryn, Linda, Patton’s Creed: ‘People, Passion, Performance,’ American Force Press Service, 29 April 2002.