The interservice rivalry and gentle joking between the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard has gone on for centuries. Navy veterans joke about being from the blue water Navy, often referring to Coasties as the shallow water navy. But the truth is that both of the services have vastly different missions and they are, during peacetime, two completely separate services which is part of the reason U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Chester R. Bender decided to ensure everyone knew there was a difference between the two sea services.
But before we discuss why the U.S. changed Coast Guard uniforms, it is important to know some history. In 1915, the Coast Guard Act was passed and it merged the U.S. Life-Saving Service with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. Those in the newly formed Coast Guard wore similar uniforms to the U.S. Navy and the structure of the Coast Guard was similar to the Navy.
According to the Coast Guard history office, from the time of the adoption of the rank of chief petty officer (CPO) by the Coast Guard in 1920, the Coast Guard CPO’s uniform paralleled that of the Navy’s CPO uniform. With minor modifications, including the addition of a Coast Guard shield device on the right sleeve, this essentially “Navy” uniform remained the regulation uniform for Coast Guard chiefs until 1975. Enlisted men, below the rank of petty officer, adopted the Navy-style white duck hat, though the traditional “Donald Duck” flat cap remained standard. Maybe that’s why the U.S. changed Coast Guard uniforms, some might ask, but that’s not the reason.
According to the U.S. Defense Department, the Coast Guard uniform in 1941 took a small step to distinguish itself from the Navy and started to offer glimpses as to why the U.S. changed Coast Guard uniforms. Coast Guard uniforms were the same as Naval uniforms and included the khakis. The Coast Guard added distinguishing corps devices, buttons, shoulder marks, that were distinctively Coast Guard. One of those items, the officer’s cap device was the most obvious difference. It consisted of a large gold spread eagle with shield, with a single horizontal anchor held in the eagle’s talons. The Navy’s has a smaller silver eagle over crossed anchors.
The Coast Guard uniform coat also continued to have the national shield placed above the sleeve rank stripes. Coast Guard gilt buttons centered their design on a perpendicular anchor, with a rope like inner-rim. The Naval button consisted of an eagle, facing dexter over a horizontal anchor.
Why the U.S. changed Coast Guard uniforms was truly answered in 1970 when Bender became commandant of the Coast Guard. He believed the Coast Guard should create a unique uniform that stood out from the Navy’s. Bender also believed the Navy’s enlisted bluejacket uniform detracted from the authority of senior enlisted personnel.
Bender organized a uniform-change board. The board got to work and proposed a uniform similar to the old Surfman’s uniform. The uniform’s color was suggested by the Army’s Nattic Research Lab. It was unique and unlike any other military service. The board recommended enlisted uniforms that would be similar to officer uniforms.
Bender then took the board’s recommendations and disseminated them throughout the Coast Guard. He surveyed Coasties and the new designs were widely lauded by enlisted personnel, but officers did not care for them. Coast Guard aviators were especially unhappy because they were poised to lose their beloved distinctive aviator greens and accompanying leather jackets.
The Coast Guard Blue uniform was approved by Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe in 1972. The uniform is known as the “Bender Blues.” Today, the only uniforms still identical to the Navy’s are the officer’s summer white service and full-dress combinations.
When you see a Coastie in uniform remember that Bender saw value in and wanted to show respect for CPOs and he wanted the service to have its own unique look, and those are the best answers as to why the U.S. changed Coast Guard uniforms.