History: Honoring our profession through tradition

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Coast Guard Ancients in 2009
The Coast Guard ancients on watch in July 2009 gather together in their ceremonial clothing, which honors the history of their service. From left are Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officers Christopher Kukla (Silver Ancient Mariner) and Peter MacDougall (Enlisted Ancient Albatross), Vice Adm. Vivien Crea (Ancient Albatross), and Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Guthlein (Ancient Keeper). U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Jorgensen

Written by Nora L. Chidlow, archivist in the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office

Capt. Joshua James
The Joshua James Ancient Keeper Award is named for Capt. Joshua James, a celebrated lifesaver in Coast Guard history with 626 lives saved. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

For most, being called “ancient” isn’t a good thing. But, in the Coast Guard being an Ancient is a tradition steeped in the Service’s history. For the past 45 years, since Vice Adm. William D. Shields was bestowed the first Ancient title in 1966, the Coast Guard has paid respect to its most experienced members.

An elite group, the Ancients – the Gold Ancient Mariner, Silver Ancient Mariner, Ancient Albatross, Enlisted Ancient Albatross and Ancient Keeper – serve as a living link to Coast Guard history and as a reminder of the call to duty on the high seas. The men and women who hold these distinctions truly exemplify what it means to be a Coast Guard man or woman and honor our Service with their fortitude.

“The spirit of centuries of our fellow Coast Guardsmen and their forebears, who have met the sea and conquered it, or have gone to their Maker while trying, is keeping watch with you, the Ancient Mariner. Keeping a sharp eye out to ensure their tradition is continued and the time-honored reputation of the Coast Guard is kept intact,” wrote Commandant James S. Gracey in 1984 in the Ancient Mariner’s Log, which is passed down from one Ancient Mariner to another.

Coast Guard Ancients in 2007
Coast Guard ancients on watch in April 2007 were (from left) Master Chief Petty Officer Amritt Villa (Silver Ancient Mariner), Vice Adm. Bob Papp (Gold Ancient Mariner), Rear Adm. David Kunkel (Ancient Albatross) and Chief Petty Officer Peter MacDougall (Enlisted Ancient Albatross). Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Barry Bena.

The Ancient Albatross, which honors the longest-serving Coast Guard pilot, was the first to begin the Ancient tradition in what is now a long line of Coast Guard Ancients. It wasn’t until 12 years later, in 1978, that the Gold and Silver Ancient Mariner titles were established to honor the officer and enlisted Coast Guard cuttermen with the most sea time. The Enlisted Ancient Albatross followed suite in 1988 to recognize the senior enlisted aviator. The Ancient Keeper is the most recent addition, dating back to 2003, and honors the Coast Guard member with the most experience in Coast Guard boat forces. To date, there have been 23 Ancient Albatrosses, 13 Gold Ancient Mariners, 10 Silver Ancient Mariners, eight Enlisted Ancient Albatrosses and three Ancient Keepers.

“Earning the title as a Coast Guard Ancient is more than an honorary position and a cherished tradition, it’s a sign of respect for achieving mastery of craft that comes with our Service’s commitment to excellence,” said Coast Guard Commandant and current Gold Ancient Mariner Adm. Bob Papp. “These men and women are at the peak of their specialty, serving as mentors and inspiring junior members to develop proficiency and pride in the execution of our missions.”

Admiral Passmore becomes Ancient Albatross
Rear Adm. George Passmore, left, receives his Ancient Albatross ceremonial garb from retiring Vice Adm. Howard B. Thorsen June 27, 1991, at Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

As the respected Ancients retire from active duty, often after more than 30 years of service, they pass on the torch in a unique and meaningful ceremony. They pay tribute not only to the Ancient title but also to the service of those who came before them.

“This ceremony is not about the principals….. it’s about our past, our present, our future, “ said Rear Adm. George Passmore, Ancient Albatross in 1992. “When it comes to flying, we think about people the great deeds they have done. Some of the aviators who came before us made the ultimate sacrifice of laying down their life while trying to save others.”

As the tradition of the Ancients continues, these servicemembers serve as a reminder of the pride and professionalism Coast Guard men and women have, honoring our profession as America’s maritime first responders.

Current Coast Guard Ancients are:
Gold Ancient Mariner – Adm. Bob Papp
Silver Ancient Mariner – Master Chief Petty Officer Lloyd Pierce
Ancient Albatross – Vice Adm. John Currier
Enlisted Ancient Albatross – Senior Chief Petty Officer Peter MacDougall
Ancient Keeper – Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Guthlein

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