This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
In the modern history of the United States Coast Guard, there has been a rapid shift from mistaken identity to a brand identity. One case provides a perfect example of this identity problem. In October 1956, Coast Guard Cutter Pontchartrain came to the aid of a downed trans-oceanic passenger aircraft. On October 19, the Pan American clipper Sovereign of the Skies lost two of its engines en route from Hawaii to California. After the aircraft radioed the cutter and ditched in the ocean, the cutter sent out its smallboats and gathered up all 31 passengers and crew. One survivor no sooner gained the safety of the cutter’s deck, when he gratefully exclaimed, “Thank goodness for the Navy!” Unfortunately for the Coast Guard, this case was one of many in which the service seemed unrecognizable to the public it served.
John F. Kennedy was acutely aware of the importance of image-building, having relied on it in his successful 1960 presidential campaign. When they moved into the White House in 1961, the president and First Lady Jackie Kennedy began an effort to re-make the image of the presidency. With the aid of professional designers, the first lady completed the redecoration of the White House. The Kenndy’s also met with architects to direct the design and renovation of buildings surrounding Lafayette Square, a park located next to the White House.
Kennedy next undertook a re-design of the presidential jet Air Force One. The president believed an initial design provided by the Air Force was too regal looking and, on the advice of the first lady, he turned to French-born industrial designer Raymond Loewy, whose work had been recognized the world over in the post-war period. Loewy’s Air Force One design won immediate praise from Kennedy and the press, and the aircraft became an important symbol of the president and the United States in official visits in the U.S. and overseas.
Delighted by the look of Air Force One, Kennedy granted Loewy’s request for a meeting on May 13, 1963. During the meeting and a second held a day later, the men discussed improving the visual image of the federal government and Kennedy suggested the Coast Guard as an appropriate agency to start with. Soon after, the design firm of Raymond Loewy-William Snaith, Incorporated, received a contract for a 90-day feasibility study and, in January 1964, the firm presented its findings to Coast Guard leadership.
With its experience in designing industry trademarks, Loewy-Snaith recommended the Coast Guard adopt an identification device similar to a commercial trademark. The firm believed the symbol should be easily identifiable from a distance, easily differentiated from other government or commercial emblems, and easily adapted to a wide variety of air and sea assets.
The Coast Guard established an ad hoc committee to work with Loewy-Snaith on the project and, on June 19, 1964, the Coast Guard signed a contract to “accomplish studies, prepare design efforts and make a presentation of a comprehensive and integrated identification plan for the U.S. Coast Guard.”
On March 21, 1965, during an all-day session, representatives from Loewy-Snaith presented their findings to the service and on the same day Coast Guard chief of staff, Rear Adm. Paul Trimble, agreed to proceed with the “Integrated Visual Identification System.”
During the development process, Loewy-Snaith selected a wide red bar to the upper right of a narrow blue bar canted at 64 degrees and running from right to lower left. The Loewy-Snaith team used its own stylized version of the traditional Coast Guard emblem for placement on the center of the red bar. The overall design came to be known as the “Racing Stripe” or “Slash” emblem. Next, the Racing Stripe design was tested on cutters and facilities in Florida due to milder weather conditions and the wide variety of sea assets stationed there. The prototype Slash was affixed to the cutters Diligence and Androscoggin, a buoy tender, vehicles, and buildings at Base Miami. At North Carolina’s Air Station Elizabeth City, the Slash was affixed to an HH-52 “Seaguard” helicopter, HU-16 “Albatross” amphibian and HC-130 “Hercules” turbo-prop aircraft.
On May 4, 1966, the service’s ad hoc committee for testing the Visual Identification System sent to the commandant a favorable report regarding service-wide use of the Racing Stripe. During the prototyping process, the Coast Guard’s selection committee had decided against the Loewy stylized shield and opted for the service’s traditional shield emblem instead. While the plan received the stamp of approval, details had to be ironed out over several months. By early spring 1967, most outstanding issues had been resolved, including the type-font for lettering and specific paint color specifications. On April 6, 1967, Commandant Edwin Roland issued Commandant Instruction 5030.5, which ended four years of study and experimentation and ordered service-wide implementation of the Integrated Visual Identification System.
Initially, the adoption of the Racing Stripe met with resistance from the Coast Guard’s service culture. However, over the course of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the symbol spread to every maritime and aviation asset in the service. By 1975, the Coast Guard’s sail training ship Eagle remained the last asset not sporting the emblem. Traditionalists had long held that the Racing Stripe would destroy its classic lines and opposed application of the emblem to the bow. However, with preparations underway for Operation Sail 1976 to celebrate the nation’s Bicentennial and Eagle to serve as the host ship, Coast Guard leadership saw an opportunity to present the service’s brand identity to the world and distinguish Eagle from the other tall ships. The Racing Stripe received a public stamp of approval when CBS news anchor, experienced sailor and OpSail TV commentator, Walter Cronkite, singled out Eagle and its Racing Stripe logo with approving remarks.
Over the past 50 years, the service and its missions have been associated with the Racing Stripe symbol and its unique color scheme. During this time, the U.S. Coast Guard has served throughout the world and collaborated on variety of levels with foreign coast guards and sea services. These activities include training, international patrols, liaison personnel, and advisors to foreign sea services. And in modern operations, such as Operation Iraqi Freedom and the deployment of cutter Dallas during the war between Russia and Georgia, the presence of Coast Guard cutters with the Racing Stripe and traditional color scheme has proved a de-escalating influence in high-tension maritime missions. This international engagement has spread the service’s reputation and brand identity throughout the world.
The Integrated Visual Identification System stands as the most successful branding program of a federal agency in U.S. history. Since the 1970s, the Coast Guard Racing Stripe design has been applied to assets not commonly associated with the service. With alterations in coloration and angle, the Racing Stripe has become a symbol for sea service vessels at the federal, state, county and municipal levels throughout the U.S., and for scores of foreign sea services. In the future, Coast Guard assets will continue to feature the coloring and emblem developed 50 years ago to identify the service and distinguish its assets from other sea services.
Where many could not identify Coast Guard cutters before the service adopted a brand identity, most individuals connected with the water do so now. Some of this recognition is a credit to the many missions carried out by the Coast Guard around the clock 365 days a year. However, some of this recognition is a credit to the Coast Guard’s adoption of the Racing Stripe symbol. Thanks to a visionary president, talented industrial designers and Coast Guard leaders who saw the importance of a service brand identity; the assets of the Coast Guard are now easily identified by millions of individuals world-wide who share a connection to the sea.