When Boatswain’s Mates Whistle


by Jack Cole, CBM


Coast Guard Combat Correspondent


[Excerpted from U.S. Coast Guard Magazine, October, 1944] 




In the Army they call him a sergeant. In the Coast Guard he’s a boatswain’s mate. And until the raw recruit has washed the first salt from his dungarees and spun a good sea story, he regards the boatswain’s mate as a “guy” with a stone heart, whose hand were made to carry nothing but bull whips, and whose lungs are made of leather.




But the recruit soon learns that “Boats” is musically inclined. Besides knowing seamanship from the tying of a reef knot to operating invasion equipment, the boatswain’s mate is an experienced piper. With a trick whistle, which is as difficult to master as many musical instruments, he can summon the attention of the crew.


There are thirteen boatswain’s mates aboard this Coast Guard-manned Attack Transport, eight first class, five second class and every one of them is a veritable Pied Piper. In the old days, they’d have blown their lungs out to make themselves heard over the howl of the sea or the roar of battle. But, today they merely whistle into the modern public address system and their calls are carried clearly to every part of the ship.




It may not take a Benny Goodman to blow a silver boatswain’s pipe correctly, but it’s no cinch either. A boatswain’s mate must commit to memory at least a half dozen “musical scores” and put in hours of practice. An extra breath, a slip of the finger or a split-second hesitation and an inexperienced piper can unwittingly change “Silence Fore and Aft” to “Up all Hammocks,” which would not only throw the crew into confusion, but the boatswain’s mates into the “drink.”


There are about sixteen standard pipes or calls, with two or three variations for each. Consequently, an old-time boatswain’s mate had to learn over fifty pipes.




The Coast Guard boatswain’s mates on this ship, however, use just four standard calls with only a couple of variations. “Chow” (soup’s on, in any language). “All Hands” (usually followed by an order to the crew). “Call to Colors” (lowering or raising the flag) and “Stand By” are the basic four. Unlike the old days, when every man aboard knew all the calls, modern transports and other smaller ships follow most calls with an announcement or order spoken through the loud speaker.


To the crew’s ear, the boatswain’s pipe sounds sweet or harsh, depending not only on how it’s blown, but on what the occasion is. When “chow” is piped down, for instance, it has the melodic quality of a sweet inviting symphony, while “turn to” (especially at five a. m.) has the maddening screech of an alley cat. The six-inch sterling silver pipe (which would cost you three dollars in the open market) is “played” by manipulating the hands, modulating the breath and trilling the tongue.




With the stem in the mouth, the cupped hand is placed over the round bowl. The call is made with the hand either open, closed, curved or clinched. The clenched hand needs a good hard blow and makes a high beep, shrill enough to be heard over the splitting roar of a five-inch gun. The extraordinary carrying quality of the pipe was, of course, the original reason for its use at sea.


Like an old hat, the boatswain’s pipe doesn’t become a prized possession until it gets that happily battered appearance. This isn’t entirely a question of ornamentation, however. New pipes are seldom in pitch. The bowl has to be dented, bent or soldered, or sometimes a small piece of wax is inserted in order to make the pitch true.


The history of the boatswain’s pipe dates back to the days of the Crusades, when it was employed to transmit orders across the sweeping battle fields. As far back as 1485 A. D., the pipe was used by the English as an honored badge of rank. When the Lord High Admiral, Sir Edward Howard, was killed in action in 1513, a “whistle of honor” was presented by the queen mother of France to the officer who commanded the French Galleys at the time of the Lord Admiral’s death.




Sometime after that, the pipe reverted to its original use as a method of passing orders. From 1671 A. D. on, it was referred to as a “call,” but today the word “pipe” is more often heard. The slangy admonition “pipe down” is naturally, a direct derivitive.

Out of tradition, too, grew the custom of wearing the pipe as part of the uniform, and years ago every boatswain proudly had his pipe slung from a chain around his neck while ashore, as well as at sea. The Coast Guard boatswain’s mates on this attack transport sadly lament the passing of that find old custom. They don’t give a darn about the looks, they say. But if they had their pipes with them on “liberty,” they’d sure show up some of those land-bound wolves. What gal wouldn’t turn around, they ask, if you give her a blast on the pipe.




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