The Long Blue Line: Shooting history–Coast Guard Photographer’s Mates

The Coast Guard’s involvement with operational photography began in 1903 with the iconic photo of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Today, members of the public affairs rate are responsible for photographing Coast Guard operations.

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Petty Officer Gordon Foy, a Coast Guard combat cameraman, prepares to take a photograph during World War II. (Coast Guard Museum Northwest)
Petty Officer Gordon Foy, a Coast Guard combat cameraman, prepares to take a photograph during World War II. (Coast Guard Museum Northwest)

LCDR Matthew M. Kroll, U.S. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard’s involvement with operational photography began in 1903. That year, Surfman John T. Daniels, of the Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station, shot the iconic photograph of the Wright Brother’s “First Flight” at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. However, the Service did not formally designate an official photographer until 30 years later and it took a few more years to create an enlisted Photographer’s Mate rating.

A statue of Surfman John T. Daniels, U.S. Life Saving Service, stands at the historic airfield in Kitty Hawk, N.C., where the Wright brothers successfully completed their first flight. (Wikipedia)
A statue of Surfman John T. Daniels, U.S. Life Saving Service, stands at the historic airfield in Kitty Hawk, N.C., where the Wright brothers successfully completed their first flight. (Wikipedia)

During the 1930s, newspapers battled the rapidly growing radio industry as the foremost source of news. To emphasize the value of periodicals, newspapers increased the number of photographs they published offering a visual element that radio could not. Senior leaders at Coast Guard Headquarters recognized this as an opportunity and discussed the need to create a photographic library of operational assets and units. In a series of memos between the Coast Guard’s Public Relations Section (predecessor to today’s Public Affairs Division) and its Personnel Office, the Coast Guard assigned Yeoman 1/c Everett Washburn to create such a library. During the late 1930s, Petty Officer Washburn would remain one of only a few Coast Guard photographers.  

In 1940, the Coast Guard created the rating of Photographer’s Mate. As the United States entered World War II, the rating would grow with the rest of the Service. One of the rating’s first additions was Lt. Jack Dixon, a former newspaper photographer from Boston with more than 20 years of experience. Lt. Dixon began by recruiting his former colleagues to deploy as combat photographers for overseas operations. 

Under Lt. Dixon’s leadership, more than 150 Coast Guard photographers stationed around the world captured the Service’s wartime involvement. Award-winning photographs such as Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert Sargent’s D-Day photograph “The Jaws of Death” (widely distributed in June 2019 for D-Day’s 75thanniversary) and Combat Photographer Art Green’s “Explosion of the liberty ship USS Paul Hamilton” placed Coast Guard photographs on the front page of newspapers across the county.

Coast Guard photographer assigned to aviation branch during World War II. (Coast Guard Collection)
Coast Guard photographer assigned to aviation branch during World War II. (Coast Guard Collection)

In 1944, Lt. Dixon published a collection of Coast Guard photographs from the war in a book he dedicated to combat photographers titled Our Sons Will Triumph. And, for the 1945 book Sea, Surf, and Hell, Dixon also authored the chapter “Picturing the War,” which documented the Coast Guard photography program in World War II.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Photographers Mates joined Coast Guard Journalists in Public Information Offices. Personnel of these two enlisted ratings worked together to record and publicize Coast Guard operations. For example, when the Coast Guard deployed cutters and patrol boats to Vietnam, many Photographers Mates found themselves returning to their roots in combat photography.

As the Photographer’s Mate rating grew, many districts established their own photographic laboratories in order to process the large quantities of official photographs. District Thirteen’s laboratory in Seattle, WA, developed hundreds of photographs a day during the height of World War II. (Coast Guard Museum Northwest)
As the Photographer’s Mate rating grew, many districts established their own photographic laboratories in order to process the large quantities of official photographs. District Thirteen’s laboratory in Seattle, WA, developed hundreds of photographs a day during the height of World War II. (Coast Guard Museum Northwest)

Coast Guard squadrons in Vietnam deployed under the command of Department of Defense agencies, so Coast Guard photographs were often included with images shot by DOD photographers. Consequently, the work of Coast Guard photographers was overshadowed by a flood of imagery from military and civilian photographers in Southeast Asia.

After Vietnam, the Service experienced a reduction in personnel. To minimize the size of the staff needed to run Coast Guard Public Affairs Offices, the Service combined the Photographers Mate and Journalist ratings. In 1973, the two merged to become the Photojournalist rating. In 1984, the rating was titled Public Affairs Specialist.

The legacy of the Photographers Mate rating may be seen in the accordion-style camera insignia used as the current INFO warrant officer collar device. This was the same design used for the Photographers Mate rating badge in the 1940s. Today, the Public Affairs Specialist’s rating badge also features a camera as a tribute to its roots in photography and to signify the importance of imagery in telling the Coast Guard story.

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