Below Zero: A red hat for a cold mission

What started as a source of pride aboard the former Coast Guard Cutter Glacier in the mid 1970s, donning a red uniform ball cap, is now part of a right of passage for those who serve aboard icebreakers throughout the Coast Guard.

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Written by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley

A crewmember aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star stands the bridge watch during icebreaking operations off the coast of Antarctica, Jan. 10, 2017.
A crewmember aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star stands the bridge watch during icebreaking operations off the coast of Antarctica, Jan. 10, 2017.
Crewmembers are authorized by the cutter’s command to wear their red ball cap once the cutter enters the Antarctic region.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley

What started as a source of pride aboard the former Coast Guard Cutter Glacier in the mid 1970s, donning a red uniform ball cap, is now part of a right of passage for those who serve aboard icebreakers throughout the Coast Guard.

During his deployment as operations officer aboard the Glacier, retired Rear Adm. Joseph McClelland Jr., served aboard the ship as it left a yard maintenance period where it was painted red for the first time. Painting the cutter red was an endeavor intended to help helicopters spot the ship in the ice.

“I remember some hilarity on the part of observers on the shore as we sailed for an Arctic cruise,” said McClelland. “It (the red paint) was a somewhat radical change, but certainly proved to make good sense.”

The idea of the red ball cap attempted as a means to enhance pride in icebreaker sailors, according to McClelland. Crewmembers could earn the privilege to wear the red cap by completing necessary qualifications for their responsibilities on board or by earning either the Coast Guard Arctic or Antarctic Service Medal.

“Fortunately for me, the commanding officer and executive officer understood and they gave me some maneuvering room to establish the tradition,” said McClelland. “I am pleased that the practice continues to be accepted.”

Earning a red ball cap is now a tradition used on all major icebreakers in the service, which include the Coast Guard Cutters Polar Star and the (non-operational) Polar Sea, both 399-foot heavy icebreakers, and the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot medium ice breaker, all of which are based out of Seattle, Washington.

As a surprise, during the Polar Star’s current icebreaking mission to ensure the critical resupply of U.S. Antarctic Program research stations in Antarctica, the red ball cap was presented to all new crewmembers. The command believed that the crew earned the right to wear the red ball caps because of ”above and beyond” effort through a demanding shipyard season and an arduous work schedule to prepare the vessel for deployment. The hats were distributed at an all-hands event held shortly after the cutter’s crossing into the Antarctic Region.

The crew is in Antarctica to facilitate the annual resupply and refueling of two Antarctic Program stations, McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole. The National Science Foundation manages the U.S. Antarctic Program.

“The crew really pulled it together to ensure we could get to Antarctica to do our job this season,” said Capt. Michael Davanzo, commanding officer of the Polar Star. “We truly believed that every crewmember earned the right to a red hat. However, in the future, we will be following the tradition developed by Adm. McClelland.”

A pair of Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star red hats sit on a chart of the coast of Antarctica, Jan. 10, 2017.
A pair of Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star red hats sit on a chart of the coast of Antarctica, Jan. 10, 2017.
The wearing of a red ball cap aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker is a tradition that was started in the 1970’s.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley

In addition to the red hat, each crewmember can earn a small round gold pin emblazoned with a man in cold weather clothing and the words “Antarctic Service.” A crewmember becomes eligible to receive and wear the pin once they serve 10 days in the region, a requirement to qualify for the Antarctic Service Medal.

“The ability for people to earn the right to wear the red hat is a source of pride for each crewmember,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Gavin Dunaway, an electronics technician with the Polar Star’s engineering control group. “Some red caps display one, two or more pins, demonstrating that the wearer served multiple times in the region.”

Because of the foresight of a single operations officer aboard the first red-painted Coast Guard icebreaker, earning a red hat is now a tradition that crewmembers strive to achieve. Regardless if they are serving in the Antarctic or the Arctic, icebreaker crews have the opportunity to earn something that offers a source of pride while supporting the country’s economic, commercial and national security missions.

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