Coast Guard History Day

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As the Compass grows and expands we are going to be adding new features, bit by bit working to bring you a variety of information. The 4th of every month is going to be History Day for the Coast Guard Compass. I know it is the 4th was last week but there were issues with the site that day, my apologies. So now we bring you, History Day!

-A. Thorsson

A HISTORY OF THE COAST GUARD HISTORIAN’S OFFICE

We’ve been invited to blog for The Compass and as I thought about what to write for our inaugural post it seemed like a good idea to cover the “history” of the Coast Guard’s Historian’s Office since most Guardians don’t even realize the Service has an active historical program.  I can’t tell you the number of folks who visit HQ and see our office and pop their head in and exclaim “We have a history program”?  Well, yes, in fact, we do.  Although compared to the historical programs of the other armed services we are tiny but with a total staff of 9 full-time employees, 2 Reservists and 1 Auxiliarist we still manage to do what the other armed services’ history programs do, which is basically preserve and promote the institutional memory the Service.

As is the case today there have been a number of officers and enlisted persons who took more than a passing interest in the history of the Coast Guard.  These individuals can be considered the first Coast Guard historians and it was they who carried the torch during the times when the Service did not have an official historian and continued to do so after the history program became active.

The United States Coast Guard 1790-1915 a Definitive History.
The United States Coast Guard 1790-1915 a Definitive History.

Captain Commandant Horatio Davis Smith of the Revenue Cutter Service was the first of these intrepid uniformed scholars.  He collected historical materials and published in the years prior to 1905 articles on the history of the service—this material was later published in book form as U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, 1789-1846.  In 1949 Captain Stephen Evans continued in this vein and published his book on the history of the Coast Guard entitled The United States Coast Guard, 1790-1915.  Evans’ book served as the textbook for the Academy’s history classes for many years.  That tradition continues to this day with Coast Guard veterans-turned historians Captain Alex Larzelere (The Coast Guard at War: Vietnam, 1965-1975 & The Coast Guard in World War I), Senior Chief (and Ph.D.) Dennis Noble (click here for a list of his many titles including 8 on Coast Guard history!!), CWO Paul Scottie (Coast Guard Action in Vietnam), CWO Doug Peterson (U.S. Lighthouse Service Tenders, 1840-1939), Commander (and Ph.D.) Doug Kroll (USCG Academy class of 1971 and retired Navy chaplain who is now an Assistant Professor of History at the College of the Desert and author of the biography of the namesake of the lead NSC: Commodore Ellsworth P. Bertholf: First Commandant of the Coast Guard), Michael G. Walling and Master Chief Bill Wells all of whom write path-breaking articles and books about the Service’s long and rich history.

The first instance of a serving officer being ordered to preserve and write an official history happened at the end of World War I.  Commander Charles Johnston, assigned to HQ during the war, collected documents in order to write the official history of the Coast Guard during the war although it is unclear if he did this under orders or just because he was interested in Coast Guard history.  Unfortunately he died soon after the war and on 15 June 1921 Commander Richard O. Crisp was ordered to take his place.  He wrote the history but it was never published.  The history program was then forgotten until World War II, when at least seventeen officers, men, SPARs, and civilians formed a history office under the command of Lieutenant Commander Frank R. Eldridge, USCGR (T).  They wrote the 30 volume official history of the Coast Guard in World War II.  When they finished in the early 1950s, though, the program again lapsed.  However one of the members of that team, Malcolm Willoughby, wrote (on his own time) and published a one-volume history that is still in print entitled The U.S. Coast Guard in World War II.  He later wrote and published a history of the Coast Guard during Prohibition entitled The Rum War at Sea.

Dennis Noble
Dr. Dennis Noble

After the Coast Guard disbanded the history office CWO4 Joe Greco served as an unofficial historian for fifteen or so years.  But it wasn’t until 27 November 1970 that the Coast Guard’s first official permanent historian, Mr. Truman Strobridge, reported to Headquarters.  Truman began collecting material, established an archive and photography collection (we have the best and most comprehensive collection of Coast Guard photography in the world), and published a number of studies on the history of the service, including the first Chronology of Coast Guard History .  Truman left in early 1976 and then Senior Chief Noble, who had been assisting Truman, took over as an unofficial historian until the Coast Guard hired Dr. Robert Scheina away from the U.S. Navy’s Naval Historical Center later that year.  Truman continues to write Coast Guard history to this day and has published a number of books in concert with Dr. Noble, including a biography of Revenue Captain Michael Healy due out any day now.  Dr. Scheina continued Truman’s efforts in adding to the archival collection, including collecting photography from Public Affairs, and that effort continues to this day.  Dr. Scheina authored two histories on the cutter fleet which are the standard reference books we use when researching cutter histories.

Dr. Robert Browning came on board in 1989 as Dr. Scheina’s assistant and he took over as the Chief Historian when Dr. Scheina left for good in 1992.  Under Dr. Browning’s watch the program has continued to grow.  I came on board in 1993 as his assistant and during that time the office created an Artifact Program from scratch and took over operation of the Coast Guard Museum in New London.  The Artifact Program now controls over 20,000 historic artifacts and we are working on a plan for a new museum in the not-to-distant future.  Three more historians, Mr. Christopher Havern (HQ), Dr. William Thiessen (Portsmouth) and Dr. Dave Rosen (Alameda) joined the staff in recent years as has an archivist, Ms. Nora Chidlow (HQ).  The Coast Guard Curator, responsible for the entire artifact collection, is Ms. Arlyn Danielson while the Curator of the Academy is Ms. Jennifer Gaudio.  The Coast Guard Collections Manager is Mr. Jeffrey Bowdoin.  Reservists MCPO (and Ph.D.) Peter Capelotti and SCPO Barbara Voulgaris drill with the program and Auxiliarist Gerard Counihan volunteers his time assisting the staff.

We’re particularly proud of our efforts to document the Coast Guard’s response after 9/11 and again during and after Hurricane Katrina, two of the office’s most important efforts in recent memory and our success is attributable in large part to MCPO Capelotti’s dedication and hard work.  Also critical to our success with documenting the Coast Guard’s response to Katrina were our newly hired staff, Dave Rosen, Bill Thiessen, and Jeff Bowdoin who jumped right into action and were deployed to collect oral histories and documentation right after the winds of Katrina passed north.  The staff at HQ backed up their efforts in what was one of the most comprehensive operations we’ve ever undertaken.  Looking to the future we are prepared to support and document any future surge operation and we look forward to working closely with the DOG.

There are a number of agencies that are integral to our operations.  Assisting the program in many ways is the Foundation for Coast Guard History.  A privately funded organization, the FCGH has been instrumental in raising the visibility of the history program and sponsors a number of prizes for books as well as Coast Guard units that excel in preserving and promoting their history.  We work closely with many veterans groups too, in particular the Pterodactyls and the Coast Guard Combat Veterans Association.

That, in a nutshell, is the “history” of the Coast Guard’s history program—not a terribly thrilling first blog but I felt it was important to honor our past, as Admiral Allen has noted on many occasions, as well as those who continue to write and preserve Coast Guard history.  Since we’ve been offered a chance to blog on the 4th of every month I will try to blog about items of interest, historic anniversaries, historical quandaries, current research projects as well as give the other members of the office a chance to write about what they are up to and give readers a closer look into what running a modern government historical program entails.  We look forward to your comments and suggestions for blog topics as well!

Scott Price, Deputy Historian (CG-09224)

4 comments on “Coast Guard History Day”

  1. Can you provide archival photos of the Coast Guard Cutter 244 during its 1939 deployment off the coast of Cuba and during the SS St Louis episode.

    I would really appreciate that.

    Arnold Reisman PhD PE

  2. Arnold Reisman PhD PE,

    I spoke with our Historians and they are working on your request. You should hear back from them in the near future.

    CBraesch

  3. Hello,

    I am a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary member doing an article on the first crew of the Cutter Eagle in 1946. I am currently doing interviews with some of the original crew and would appreciate any names and details. I can send you the article when completed.

    Thanks for your assistance,
    Ramon Evans FSO-PB
    Flotilla 15-08 Yorba Linda CA

  4. Ramon Evans,

    Thank-you for your email. I spoke with our Historians and they are working on your request. You should hear back from them in the near future.

    I look forward to reading your article.
    CBraesch

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