100 Years of Coast Guard Chief Petty Officers

Hawaiian Chief Radioman Melvin Bell, who became the first Asian-Pacific Island-American Coast Guard chief in 1944 (family of Melvin Bell)

Published May 22, 2020 4:24 PM by William Thiesen

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the establishment the United States Coast Guard, a new military agency comprised of the former U.S. Life-Saving Service and former U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. The merger was similar to a second founding of the Service combining two federal maritime agencies, one serving from the coast and other serving from the sea.

The modern Coast Guard had many growing pains to overcome. These included the structure of the enlisted chain of command between members of the two predecessor agencies. The Service resolved the enlisted issue in 1920 when it adopted the U.S. Navy’s enlisted and officer rank structure. On May 18, 1920, the 66th Congress passed legislation that blended the rank order between enlisted men of the Life-Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service.

The same day that Congress passed the legislation, the Coast Guard issued General Order 43. This order established the non-commissioned Coast Guard rate of Chief Petty Officer. The first chief petty officers were advanced in 1920. Boat station keepers received the designation of chief boatswain’s mate with an “L” [BMC (L)] designator for lifesaving. Senior enlisted boatswains on board cutters received the simple designation of chief boatswain’s mate (BMC) while chiefs in other ratings received designations specific to their branch.

The Chief Petty Officer rate included three categories: Seaman Branch, Artificer Branch and Special Branch. The first branch included Chief Boatswain’s Mate, Chief Gunners Mate, and Chief Quartermaster. The second included Chief Machinist’s Mate, Chief Electrician, Chief Carpenter’s Mate, Chief Water Tender and Chief Storekeeper. The third included Chief Commissary Steward, Chief Yeoman and Chief Pharmacists’ Mate. Within a year, the Service issued new guidance increasing the chief ratings from these original 11 ratings to 18.

The chief rate’s emblem is symbolized by a fouled anchor with a shield superimposed on its shank. The anchor represents stability and security reminding chiefs of their responsibility to keep those they serve out of harm’s way. The symbol of the shield dates back to 1799, when Congress added the shield to the Revenue Cutter Service’s ensign to distinguish its cutters from other naval vessels. The thirteen stars and thirteen stripes represent the original thirteen states to ratify the Constitution. The chain symbolizes strength with each link representing the reliance of the Chief Petty Officer on others and to avoid being the weak link in the chain. The chain fouled around the anchor represents the “sailor’s disgrace” reminding chiefs that there are times when events are beyond their control, but they must complete their duties nonetheless.

The chief’s uniform was designed in the early 1920’s and first appeared in the Coast Guard Uniform Regulations of 1922. The design (left) was very similar to the Navy’s chief uniform with the exception of the Coast Guard distinguishing mark–a shield one inch in height, on the arm midway between the wrist and elbow. Similar to Navy custom, Coast Guard chiefs initially wore khaki uniforms like commissioned officers. However, in 1972, Coast Guard Commandant Chester Bender introduced “Bender Blues” uniforms to differentiate Coast Guard personnel from their Navy counterparts.

When an enlisted person advances to chief, they don the white combination hat, also known as “The Hat.” This white cover with anchor insignia over the brim has become the trademark of the Coast Guard chief. Since its introduction, The Hat has become a distinctive symbol of the chief’s authority.

(Left: Hispanic American Chief Gunners Mate Joseph Aviles who became the first Latino Coast Guard chief in 1925 / U.S. Coast Guard)

It is unknown who was the first chief appointed in the Coast Guard in 1920, however, the first minority chief was African-American BMC, George Pruden, who advanced in 1922. The first Native-American chief was BMC Harold Quidgeon and the first Hispanic-American chief was GMC Joseph Aviles, who both advanced later in the 1920s. The first Asian-Pacific-Island-American chief was RMC Melvin Bell, who advanced in 1944. In 1942, enlisted women in the Women’s Reserves, or SPARs, advanced to Chief Petty Officer becoming the first women to do so. In 1977, HMC Connie Swaro became the first active-duty woman advanced to chief.

On May 20, 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Public Law 85-422, establishing the rates of Senior Chief and Master Chief. In the post-World War II economic boom, senior enlisted men could not advance beyond chief and left the Service to land well-paid jobs in the burgeoning economy. The establishment of the Senior Chief and Master Chief pay grades was intended to reverse the flight of these experienced chiefs to the civilian labor market. In 1969, the Service also established the Coast Guard rate of Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, the single senior most enlisted position in the Coast Guard. In August 1969, MCPOCG Charles Calhoun became the first Coast Guardsman advanced to this rate.

Chief Charles Calhoun, the first Coast Guardsman advanced to the rate of Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard in 1969. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Since 1920, chiefs have served many roles. These include teacher, parent, rating specialist and mentor. In the first years of the rate, chiefs accrued knowledge and skill from experience and on-the-job learning. In modern times, senior enlisted personnel have undergone training at every level before advancing to chief. In 1982, to add to chiefs’ training and professionalization, the Service established the United States Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Academy at the Reserve Training Center in Yorktown, Virginia. In 1985, as part of a consolidation effort, the Academy was moved to Training Center Petaluma in Northern California. Today, all enlisted personnel advanced to chief must attend the Chief Petty Officer Academy.

Over the years, the Coast Guard chief has become a linchpin to the Service, able to advise petty officers and commissioned officers in the chain of command. Many of these chiefs have been recognized as cutter namesakes, including CPM Alex Haley, MCPOCG Charles Calhoun, BMC John Midgett and the dozens of chief namesakes of new Fast Response Cutters. They are all honored members of the long blue line.

William Thiessen is the Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.