At the heart of Old Town Key West, Fla., nestled alongside a pier at Truman Waterfront, is the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Memorial Museum. Ingham is the only Coast Guard cutter in history to receive two Presidential Unit Citations for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy and truly is a national treasure.
From thwarting submarine attacks during a world war, performing coastal surveillance with the Navy’s Operation Market Time in Vietnam and responding to one of the largest humanitarian responses the service has seen, Ingham is a quintessential portrait of Coast Guard history.
Ingham was decommissioned in 1988 to become a museum ship, and as one can imagine, after performing operations for five decades, the ship needed some “TLC” to preserve its history.
Ingham in particular is constantly in need of sailors and “landlubbers” with experience in welding, pipefitting, painting and shipboard electrical systems. There is perhaps no one better served for that role than a Coast Guard chief.
The Southernmost Chief’s Mess, a group of chief petty officers stationed in south Florida, has dedicated countless hours to restoring each and every corner of Ingham.
Sometimes the work is technical and complex, like getting mechanical units up and working properly or patching compressors. Other times, Ingham just needs a little elbow grease. Regardless of the project, the chiefs take each task head on.
“Volunteerism is an important part for the survival of museum ships,” said retired Lt. Bill Verge, executive director of the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Memorial Museum. “The Southernmost Chief’s Association has been a big asset to CGC Ingham for its community service and organizing work parties toward the restoration of the Coast Guard’s most decorated cutter.”
But while the chiefs commit time and effort toward keeping Ingham in perfect shape, they are also instilled with a sense of pride and reverence for all Ingham has been a part of.
“It means a lot to me to be able to work on the Ingham. Every time I’m aboard, I learn something new about the cutter,” said Chief Petty Officer Justin Morgan, a member of the Southernmost Chief’s Mess. “It instills a sense of pride in what’s being done and it’s something I can look back on.”
“I feel like as a mess we need to instill in our younger Coast Guard the importance of our heritage and where we have come from,” added Chief Petty Officer Kevin Huber, also a member of the mess and a current crewmember aboard Coast Guard Cutter Kodiak Island. “The Ingham is a true representation of that history and it gives us a chance to actually touch, see and smell history!”
Something unique to Ingham, is the ship has retained many of its original components. Those who go aboard Ingham will find original ship’s logs, engine maintenance records and even personnel jackets – remaining just as Coast Guardsmen left them the day the ship was decommissioned.
Ingham is in such good condition the chief’s mess has held ceremonies and special gatherings aboard the ship. While the ceremonies have significant meaning in and of themselves, the hallowed decks of Ingham only increase each attendee’s connection to their service’s history.
“Coast Guard Cutter Ingham is a national and Coast Guard treasure that we are blessed to have available to us. I was able to attend chief’s call to indoctrination in October 2010 aboard Ingham and felt the tie that our chief’s mess maintains with that long blue line of Coast Guardsmen who have gone before us,” recalls Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Reserve Force Mark Allen.
With the ship’s storied past it is also fitting Ingham is the official monument for Coast Guardsmen who lost their lives from World War II through Vietnam in the service of their country.
The sacrifices generations of Americans have made are not lost on those who work to restore Ingham. Huber sees his experiences with the museum as a connection to those who have gone before him, inspiring him to look for other ways to preserve history and share the service’s story.
“I feel like we should do more with our older fleet to better allow the public to see what we do and where we have come from,” said Huber. The Coast Guard isn’t seen in the same light as other services, and museums like the Ingham really show how big a role the Coast Guard has played in the history of our country. I feel like it can make the public understand that we too have served in the same ways as our other services and we are a much larger piece in the fabric of freedom.”