This post is part of our “Inside the Historian’s Office” series . Stay tuned for more posts about how our unique history is collected and preserved!
Written by Nora Chidlow, Coast Guard Archivist
So you know the Coast Guard has a couple of curators, but did you know that the Coast Guard also has an archivist?
With the Coast Guard being in some form of service since 1790, that means that there have been a lot of things to archive. And this is where I come in! While the National Archives holds the bulk of Coast Guard records, the Historian’s Office has its own distinctive collection of artifacts and documents at our headquarters in Washington, DC. Archival material, such as photographs, newspaper clippings, correspondence, diaries, scrapbooks, and drawings, are vital to the history of the nation’s smallest military service.
The Archives rely heavily on donations from servicemen, both active and retired, and their families. Very often, a conversation about Coast Guard history turns into “Oh, I have my grandfather’s Coast Guard photo album; would you be interested in that for your collection?” or someone who served 50 years ago is cleaning out house and wants to donate. Active duty members might be cleaning out a station, stumble on early documents about station activities, and wonder what to do with it. In many cases, the passing of a notable figure in Coast Guard history prompts the family to donate material to the Historian’s Office. The Stewart Graham Collection was donated upon his death this past August, and is currently being processed. He was the Coast Guard’s second helicopter pilot.
The Archives contains historical files on small boats, cutters, aviation, lighthouses, lighthouse tenders, stations, disasters, and other general subjects. Some of these include whaling, the early days of icebreaking, prohibition operations, Coast Guard Cutter Itasca’s role in the search for Amelia Earhart in 1937, and the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The Archives also maintains a small rare book collection, mostly on cutter specifications, as well as logs from the cutters Bear’s and Corwin’s Alaskan cruises in the 1890s/1900s. There is a complete collection of the Coast Guard Magazine, from 1928 to the present, and also a partial collection of the Tide Rips, the Academy’s yearbook, dating back to 1906.
I often feel like a time traveler when at work, as I am often knee deep in files looking for answers to historical questions or doing research on various topics.
The gem of the Archives is its Special Collections. This includes photographs of Coast Guard baseball teams from as early as 1905, and photographs from the early days of Coast Guard aviation, which got its start in 1916. There are large, oversized, handwritten commissioning certificates, and there are personal papers of service men and women who have served over the years.
One of my favorites is the Charles Satterlee Collection. Charles Satterlee was captain of Coast Guard Cutter Tampa when she was lost with all hands to enemy action on Sept. 26, 1918, during World War I. It comprises handwritten correspondence, photographs, scrapbooks, and newspaper clippings documenting his service from 1895 to 1918. Satterlee wrote very detailed letters to his parents about life in the service, even describing what local people wore in each port of call. He wrote a letter home in May 1897 describing the collision of the training ship Chase with another ship. And the Archives actually has a copy of a photograph of the damaged ship in the Chase files.
The Philip F. Roach Collection is equally fascinating, that includes items from his Wisconsin high school days to his death at age 95 in 1976. He served in the Coast Guard for 46 years, from 1905 to 1946, and retired a Commodore. He also served on Coast Guard Cutter Tampa, but transferred off just two months prior to her demise. And the William M. Wheeler Collection, while only a few folders, is vital in that there are ink drawings of convoy formations during World War I. He was captain of Coast Guard Cutter Seneca, known for its rescue of the steamship Wellington’s crew in 1918. Wheeler was also instrumental in establishing the Coast Guard Memorial at Arlington Cemetery.
Fast forward to World War II, and you can find the Joseph C. Jenkins Collection – detailed scrapbooks and photographs of his time on the Coast Guard’s first integrated cutter, Sea Cloud, from 1942 to 1945. Jenkins was the first black enlisted Coast Guardsman in the service.
The Historian’s Office is in the process of obtaining a very detailed photograph collection of the Morgenthau’s activities in Vietnam. Most of the Archives’ scrapbook collection from the Vietnam era is not fully processed yet. Other recent conflicts documented in our collections include the Korean War, the Gulf War, and the war on terrorism.
The Coast Guard Historian’s Office continues to preserve archival collections as we move forward into the future. Surely 10, 50, or 100 years from now, there will be more stories to document as the Coast Guard continues to serve. For instance, stories of life on board the new National Security Cutters are waiting to be archived!
I’m Nora Chidlow, your friendly Coast Guard Archivist. The archives bug bit me back in 5th grade when I did a research paper on the history of my school. Now I’ve been an archivist for 28 years! Working at the Syracuse University Archives my entire four years as an undergraduate, I learned everything there is to know about archives. Upon graduation, I moved to Washington, D.C. to obtain a master’s degree in library science with a concentration in archives from Catholic University. Being at the center of history here in D.C., I’ve worked for the Catholic University Archives, the Daughters of the American Revolution Archives, the History Factory (a private archival consulting firm in northern Virginia), the Gallaudet University Archives, the National Archives, and now the Coast Guard Historian’s Office. I have been with the Coast Guard for nine years and have every intent of staying until retirement. I love maritime history, as I grew up hearing stories of my father’s Merchant Marine/Coast Guard service during World War II. The very first ship he ever went out on was torpedoed in 1942 and it was a week before he was picked up.
Click here to learn more about the Coast Guard Historian’s Office.