I don’t know but I’ve been told, Iceberg duty is mighty cold.
Hip-o, hop-o, bring out the swab-o left-o, right-o, left. Guide right.
Six decades after enlisting in the United States Coast Guard, Rep. Howard Coble recites the very cadence he delivered as a recruit. This time, however, the cadence was being delivered far from the training fields of Cape May. The memories of his first days of boot camp were being recalled in the hallowed halls of Congress.
“It’s strange how that comes back after all these years,” said Coble.
The words of his cadence lingered within the walls of his office. Walls stacked high with memorabilia. Alongside political caricatures and photos of Coble with constituents or elected officials were symbols of the Coast Guard: the service’s seal, an oar, tokens of appreciation, flags from commemorations all across the nation. And yes, even a plaque from an icebreaker; a curious ship to be on display for the North Carolina native. But each of these items represents a memory for Coble. Memories of a journey from recruit to congressman.
His journey started in North Carolina, 250 miles inland, where he knew “virtually nothing” about the Coast Guard prior to enlisting. It was 1949 when he was attending Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. His college classmates had gone to the recruiting office and talked him into going with them. Why the sudden interest?
“I wrecked my dad’s car, for one thing,” chuckled Coble. “Ran it right off the road. I had a college deferment. So I could have stayed and rolled the dice and see how that played out but after I wrecked my dad’s car I thought this would be one less expense for him.”
Coble was soon a recruit at Training Center Cape May. After boot camp, Coble’s first duty station was a port security unit just outside of Portsmouth, Va. He hoped for adventure as a self-proclaimed “frustrated geographer.”
“I’m just interested in places I’ve never been before,” said Coble.
While he sought adventure, he wound up with the humdrum duties of life at a new unit.
“My initial Coast Guard duty was garbage man,” recalled Coble. “I was assigned to the garbage detail. I wasn’t even the driver. I was the pick-up man. I was at the bottom that’s for sure.”
After three months on the garbage detail he attended storekeeper school in Groton, Conn. Upon graduating from school he asked for a position in Seattle.
“I had never been west of the Mississippi before, so I thought what the heck,” said Coble.
Coble had finally found his adventure. After five and a half years of active duty service, Coble transitioned into his role as an officer in the Coast Guard Reserve and continued to serve for 22 years. At his last unit, he served as the commanding officer of a Coast Guard Reserve unit in Wilmington, N.C.
Looking back on his time in service, he cautioned those who are new to the Coast Guard on having the right attitude. His one piece of advice?
“Don’t do what I did in my initial two years of active duty and try to bitch, gripe and complain,” said Coble. “I realized this outfit is bigger than you are pal and yeah, you ain’t going to win it. It’s easy to do that. To complain and gripe. But it serves no good purpose.”
After his time on active duty, Coble went on to receive degrees from Guilford College and the University of North Carolina and in 1979 was elected to North Carolina’s House of Representatives where he says he “got the political bug.” In 1984 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, two years after retiring as a captain in the Coast Guard Reserve. It may have started as “just a bite” but Coble has gone on to serve 15 terms in office. Throughout his tenure, he championed the Coast Guard, most notably as the inaugural chairman of the Coast Guard Subcommittee in 1995.
Coble will soon retire after this term in Congress. He is the last Coast Guard veteran currently serving in Congress. Reminiscing on both his service in the Coast Guard and as a member of Congress, the one thing he wishes Americans would do is fully support the service.
“I wish Americans would more openly embrace the Coast Guard,” said Coble. “Oftentimes I would go to a Veterans Day program and the four marching hymns naturally would play. Conspicuously absent? You guessed it, Semper Paratus.”
A stalwart among Coast Guard supporters on the hill, Coble was presented the Commodore Ellsworth P. Bertholf Award in July 2012. The Bertholf Award is presented to those members of Congress who exemplify the spirit of Commodore Bertholf by making substantial contributions in support of the men and women of the United States Coast Guard and enhance the ability of the service to carry out its missions.
“I’m very proud of having been affiliated with America’s oldest, continuous, sea-going service,” said Coble.
He may be proud, but equally so are the men and women of the Coast Guard who he has long supported. Retired Adm. James Gracey, former commandant of the Coast Guard, once stood before a crowd on the hill and said while there are many supporters of the Coast Guard in Congress, “Coble is the only one who is family.”
Recalling that moment, Coble teared up.
“I will never, never forget that.”