History of the USCG Chief

The words … “Go Ask the Chief” … have resounded throughout the U.S. Coast Guard since the establishment of the enlisted rank of Chief Petty Officer.

The 66th U.S. Congress officially approved and established the Coast Guard’s Chief Petty Officer grade on 18 May 1920. The Coast Guard adopted the Navy’s rate structure and its Chiefs inherited equal status with their Navy counterparts. The “Chief” captured a place in Coast Guard history.

The rich nautical origin of the Chief Petty Officer can be traced back to 1 April 1893, when the Navy created the rank of Chief Petty Officer. Earlier use of the title “Chief” dates back to 1865 during the Civil War era. At that time, Cooks were promoted to “Chief’ Cook (meaning the highest in ranking or authority).

In 1915, the merger of the Revenue Cutter Service and the U. S. Life Saving Service into the modern Coast Guard brought about many changes. When the “Surfman” of the Life Saving Service and the “Petty Officer” of the Revenue Cutter Service clashed over who was in charge, the Coast Guard realized there was a need to establish a position of higher authority—the “Chief” then secured a permanent place in the chain of command.

The first Coast Guard Chiefs were the former Station Keepers of Life Saving Stations. They were given the title Chief boatswains’ mate (CBM) with an (L) for “Lifesaving” attached to their rate to distinguish them from their seagoing counterparts.

The initial ratings of the Chief Petty Officer, as they first appeared in U. S. Coast Guard Headquarters Regulations, General Order No. 43, Article 817, dated 18 May 1920, were: Seaman Branch — Chief boatswains’ mate, Chief gunners mate and Chief quartermasters; Artificer Branch — Chief machinists’ mate, Chief electricians, Chief carpenters’ mate, Chief water tender and Chief storekeepers; Special Branch — Chief commissary stewards, Chief yeomen and Chief pharmacists’ mate.

The first uniforms of the Chief Petty Officer appeared in the 1922 Coast Guard Headquarters Uniform Regulations. They were similar in design to the Navy’s with a Coast Guard distinguishing mark, a shield one inch in height, on the arm midway between the wrist and elbow.

The trade mark of the Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer, “The Anchor,” was inherited from the Revenue Cutter Service. The fouled anchor with a shield superimposed to its shank (the emblem of the Officers of the Revenue Cutter Service) is still worn on the shoulder boards of Coast Guard Flag Officers.

The anchor is the identifying authority of the Chief Petty Officer and is emblematic of a Chief. It represents stability and security. It reminds Chiefs of their responsibility to keep those they serve safe from harm’s way.

The historical significance of the shield dates back to the Revenue Cutter Service, when the U. S. Congress added the shield to the ensign in 1799 to distinguish cutters from other naval vessels. The 13 stars and 13 stripes on the shield represent the 13 original colonies.

The chain, symbolic of flexibility and strength, reminds Chiefs that the chain of life is forged day-by-day, link-by-link. The chain also represents the reliance of one CPO on another to get a job completed, and stresses that every Chief should endeavor not to be the weak link in the chain.

The chain fouled around the anchor represents the “Sailor’s disgrace,” and reminds Chiefs there may be times when circumstances are beyond their control in the performance of duty, yet a Chief must complete the task.

A white combination hat, known as “The Hat,” with an anchor above the brim became the rite of passage for all First Class Petty Officers promoted to Chief. When they left behind their “Cracker Jacks” and “Dixie Cups” and donned a new uniform, “The Hat” became the trademark of the Coast Guard Chief. Today, the combination hat represents leadership and authority, and is the only cover allowed to be worn by students attending the Chief Petty Officers Academy. At one point, Khakis became a trademark of the Chief, but they were eventually replaced by Bender Blues.

Despite the lack of historical records identifying the first Chief Petty Officers, it can be said that many Chiefs have served with honor, respect and devotion to duty in the finest traditions of the U.S. Coast Guard for over 80 years.

Editor’s Note: The information in this article was contributed from several sources including GMC Ken Vanek, Cleveland, Ohio, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard’s Office and Scott Price, Historian’s Office, U. S. Coast Guard Headquarters.

– – Naval Affairs (Aug 1995