Commander Beard has identified what may be the real reason the Coast Guard has trouble every year justifying it's existence. Maybe we don't keep track of what we are doing. The Army and Navy record their wars for all of posterity. The Coast Guard is always at war and records nothing!


History Lost ©

For The Coast Guard History Foundation

By Tom Beard

Originally Published in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings _ Reprinted and Posted by Permission of the Author.


It can’t be done!  I, as an essayist, cannot compose a proper tract encouraging a discussion about current issues and new directions for the Coast Guard. To understand where the Coast Guard is and what new directions it must take, I must know the past. Normally, a researcher discovers the past from accumulated records. Unfortunately, we cannot look back at most Coast Guard records.

The present state of Coast Guard records management prohibits all but a gauzy view of the record of Coast Guard achievements. Virtually all the records each unit saves sits in storage awaiting eventual disposal. There is no adequate inventory and retrieval system. One partially exists on paper (COMDTINST M5212.12, Paperwork Management Manual). However, even if units follow its directions, because of mixed instructions within it, there cannot be a centralized inventory control.

Unfortunately, records exploiting bold deeds of the men and women of the Coast Guard are buried, inundated by their own mass. Most recent documents form a mantle closing off access to earlier history. Coast Guard archives are immersed virtually unrecoverable in its own landfill of recorded babble. Eventually this mass becomes toilet paper rolls and other paper conveniences making room for more useless records.

Tons of selected vital records, documents, photographs and artifacts passing through “in/out” boxes daily at all Coast Guard offices eventually reach cartons. Today, more than eighty thousand cardboard boxes cram warehouses throughout United States. The National Records Centers stores these boxes as archival material for the Coast Guard. Their address is "Record Group 26."  A label on each box is marked with an accession number, inventory and includes a date for destruction, depending on the historic value of material within. Historians, lawyers, students, federal offices, congress plus others need occasional glimpses into these "boxes."  Unfortunately, as Robert E. Johnson writes in his book, Guardians, "Record Group 26 has few records more recent than 1947; those since that date, are said to number thousands of boxes. . . . Relatively little has been done to catalog them because the Coast Guard, which retains custody, has never been allotted the resources necessary for this task." 

Historians seeking primary source material presently are forced to search in scattered directions for documents. Arthur Pearcy, author of A History of Coast Guard Aviation, relied on many trips to Coast Guard air stations from his home in England. His task took twenty years. Forty percent of the photographs he used in his book came from private or public collections, not Coast Guard files. His trials perhaps answer a question, “Why don’t more people write Coast Guard stories?”

Not all documents reach the archive "boxes.”  Some are diverted or delayed for current budget research projects, law cases or public information. Archival bound material may be detained by the Coast Guard's historian, the Coast Guard Museum, legal offices, district offices or units. This practice leads to problems. Fortunately, it is through these exceptions to regulations that some records are still available if one knows whose desk to search.

Record material has vanished through "serious blunder" and the "inconsistency factor" (Adm. L.L. Zumstein, memorandum, 1 November 1979). Photograph collections are missing (Frank Erickson collection; rare photos used in the History of Coast Guard Aviation). Furthermore, access to research materials for serious researchers is restricted. Dr. Dennis Noble, writer of the Coast Guard Bicentennial series in the Commandant's Bulletin, unable to develop adequate sources from traditional archives, was forced to seek information direct from district offices. This was unrewarding. Most units are not staffed or have the assets for this type of search. They have no access to archival material anyway. Three districts responded only after repeated queries that they were "too busy with operational matters to be interested in history."  Unfortunately, this is the appropriate response. The system failed.

The immediate need for proper records keeping is frequently lost in the urgency of up front operations. Restricted funding trickles away before reaching less insistent need of archival management. It is more fun to muck out the barn than manage old paperwork. The mere mention of the words “records management” will clear an office or cause eyes to glaze.

Security classifications further compound the problem for records handling. Classified documents require protected storage. Misuse comes from inappropriately classifying materials creating storage and handling problems from excessive classified documents. Delay in declassifying adds to the need for unnecessary secure storage space. Presently, burning is a preferred safe way to handle sensitive records and avoid these problems. An ugly question arises. How, in the future, can the Coast Guard claim achievements or dispute charges if these documents prematurely become egg cartons or ashes?

Potential contributors are discouraged from donating valuable documents when learning of losses of accessions once in Coast Guard custody. Unfortunately, these individual treasures (diaries, photos, personal papers, artifacts, etc.) unless discovered and held securely in public trust can get scattered as holders die, obliterating provenance. For example, I discovered the existence of a diary and photographs by a crewmember on the original CGC Bear. The member’s family has no intention of passing these on to official Coast Guard archives where they might be valuable to researchers. Now they provide no insight locked away in a private safe deposit vault.

Archival materials, like bilge dunnage does not just go away if ignored. Someday, someone must go down and heave the mess out. Delay only compounds the problem. Some are aware of its presence and the need to do something. But, the closet naturally is the last place to get attention.

Zumstien, in his study, established the following four objectives for a historical program:

  1. Instill in all Coast Guardsmen a link with our Service and past to promote  esprit de corps and retention.

  2. Prepare an annual Historical Record. 

  3. Provide collections to illustrate and enhance the achievements of the Coast Guard.

  4. Provide research and archival assistance to the CG, other government agencies, and the public.

Still, today after more than 15 years, this directive goes unheeded.

Under present guidelines, the task of proper archival records management is not possible. Two nonprofit organizations have accepted some responsibility in preserving Coast Guard history. The Coast Guard Foundation supports where "appropriated funds could not be used or where they are inadequate."  Presently, they are providing some financial support to the Coast Guard Museum. The second group is the Coast Guard Alumni Association, which has among its missions the goal "to preserve and foster Coast Guard traditions and history."  Other Coast Guard retired associations are willing to jump in but know not where. The scope of this thesis is beyond the commitment of these organizations. They are needed, however, and collectively are encouraged to examine the challenges.

Properly managed archives offer benefits beyond its cost.  A cursory examination, for example, of Coast Guard operations during Prohibition and the current drug-interdiction efforts shows startling similarities. Today’s operational planners might be shocked to find their problems, or solutions, the same generations before. With historical data, they certainly might avoid repeating some mistakes. Records necessary to justify expenditures are understandable, yet with inaccessible data buried beneath un-cataloged archives, how can arguments be substantiated plans supported?  Cases in court are decided daily against the Coast Guard, though presumably innocent, simply because historical data or records are not accessible for defense. Furthermore, money won’t come from a reluctant congress to the Coast Guard that cannot build a justification from historical records.

The Coast Guard must start a comprehensive records management system. Presently, it cannot manage what it cannot measure. It is not total-quality management if judgments are made from anecdotal information. So, for the Coast Guard, the ball game is in the last quarter and the team is down by too many points to recover.

Therefore, I propose two items. The Commandant must begin with an examination of current records management practices. Whatever management-program results, it should be supported by a Coast Guard History Foundation, a nonprofit corporation. Its purpose is to support official efforts in records’ assimilation, documentation and the dissemination of the history of the U.S. Coast Guard. It will:

·        Provide perpetual leadership maintaining historic Coast Guard documents and historic fabrics.

·        Seek funding supporting a nonprofit foundation providing non-appropriated funds helping the U.S. Coast Guard Commandant’s Historic records office.

·        Assure educational opportunities for maritime historians by:

o       Providing endowments and education loans for graduate and doctoral studies relating to Coast Guard history.

o       Publishing manuscripts created from research using Coast Guard archives.

o       Furnishing means and graduate interns for records management projects in Coast Guard documents as adjuncts to existing programs financed with appropriated funds.

If the current practices continue, both Coast Guard and the public will be losers. Recognition, as mentioned by Zumstien, is the greatest force in leadership. Along with that, public knowledge of the enormity of the tasks accomplished b the Coast Guard provides the political/funding support needed. Ordinarily, a military organization creates an historic record only during war or military action. The U.S. Coast Guard, in a sense is a military organization always at war!

Therefore, it is for the protection and distribution of this continuous flow of historic fabric that the U.S. Coast Guard History Foundation is created.

Once these records are available then the essayist can write—from valid data, not anecdotal-discussions on current issues and new directions for the Coast Guard with absolute confidence and clarity.


About the author:  Barrett T. (Tom) Beard is a retired Coast Guard LCDR holding a Masters degree in maritime history with studies in historic preservation, records management, and museum science with published articles in maritime and aviation history. He is a former Naval and Coast Guard aviator with over 7,000 hours in more than 30 different aircraft. Currently he researches and writes history when not sailing with his wife Carolyn now on a second global voyage.



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