APRIL 26, 2016 – History makers are rarely aware they’re making history. As a child on the small Caribbean island of Nevis, Alexander Hamilton likely never dreamed he would one day be called the Father of the Coast Guard. As Joshua James was rescuing those in peril from rough surf, he couldn’t foresee he’d come to be known as the Coast Guard’s most celebrated lifesaver.
The service’s history holds a special place in the story of the United States of America, but what about a special place to hold the history for all to enjoy? There are 87 national museums devoted to military history in the United States, and not one of them belongs to the Coast Guard. However, plans are now underway to build a National Coast Guard Museum, which aims to respect the past, engage the present and look to the future.
Based in New London, Connecticut, the National Coast Guard Museum Association is respecting the past by creating an original plankowner certificate for its supporters.
Being named a plankowner in the nautical realm means you are part of a ship’s original crew, serving during the building process and commissioning, bringing it into active service to the nation. In the olden days, the title of plankowner was literal — it also meant you were entitled to an actual piece of the ship’s deck.
Retired Capt. Wes Pulver, the executive director for the NCGMA, is no stranger to Coast Guard history. An experienced cutterman and officer, his final tour in the service was as the commanding officer of America’s Tall Ship, the Coast Guard Barque Eagle, which bears the namesake of one of the original 10 revenue cutters.
“We wanted to do something that could allow everyone to be a part of our museum,” said Pulver as he discussed the plankowner program. “We wanted a way to recognize those who provided assistance by presenting them with a historic certificate.”
Pulver said plankowner certificates used throughout the Coast Guard actually come from the Navy, therefore it was decided to commission a true Coast Guard document for the National Coast Guard Museum — one that would pay tribute to all the organizations that were consolidated to create the modern Coast Guard.
Pulver looked to his co-worker Jeff Creighton, a retired master chief petty officer and history enthusiast, to help bring the plankowner certificate to life.
“This is an opportunity for us to highlight our service’s heritage and history,” said Creighton. “Those of us who are familiar with the history know there are some fantastic stories in there, but outside of the Coast Guard, nobody hears them.”
Creighton hopes to bring the Coast Guard’s story into the public light through the exhibits and accessibility of the national museum. His enthusiasm for Coast Guard history is contagious. His excitement level spikes as he lists his ideas for the museum.
Creighton knew he needed to find an artist who both understands and appreciates the Coast Guard way of life and the plankowner tradition. He contacted Schon Russell.
Russell is a retired Coast Guard chief who served as a health services technician. He resides in Connecticut and works as a program manager at the Stonington Institute’s Starlight Program, which provides care for service members and veterans dealing with substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues.
Aside from his inherent care for others, Russell has nurtured a love of art since he was a child. He has focused his enthusiasm and creativity into tattooing, which has a deep-rooted connection to naval traditions. He even tattooed Creighton’s son.
He said the opportunity to create the plankowner certificate is humbling. He’s spent countless hours examining historical records to ensure the artwork will represent the service well.
“Like with everything I do, I wanted to do research,” said Russell. “Being a chief, I believe in traditions more than anything. We live by traditions and we work by traditions. The more research I did, the more I realized these certificates were often hand-drawn, so it really intrigued me to get this all on paper.”
The certificate pays tribute to many facets of the Coast Guard story, and highlights the organizations that were the foundation of the modern day Coast Guard.
The top left corner shows the likeness of one of the original 10 ships of the Revenue Cutter Service. Taking center stage is a lighthouse shining its beacon to portray the Lighthouse Service. The seal of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation hearkens back to the beginnings of merchant vessel oversight. Representing the Life-Saving Service on the top right is an old surfboat and breeches buoy, used to bring stranded souls ashore.
A treasure chest on the bottom right corner overflows with relics of the service. Insignia devices, covers, shoulder boards and other trinkets tip the hat to officers, enlisted, and Auxiliary members alike. Russell included another special element about the treasure chest: the name of its owner is emblazoned upon it — Alexander Hamilton. This represents Hamilton’s efforts in 1790 as the first treasury secretary to create a system of cutters that would come to be called the Coast Guard in 1915.
On the bottom center, a telescope, sextant and compass are displayed to highlight the importance of safe navigation. The bottom left shows the design concept of the National Coast Guard Museum, marrying the rich history of the service with the future of its preservation. The entire certificate is complemented with golden tones, lauding the involvement of the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, known as SPARs, in World War II.
Of all the elements shown, the one Russell spoke of the most is the lantern hanging from a wooden post draped with the national ensign on the left center of the certificate. He says it’s the most meaningful element he drew, as it represents those who went out for a rescue but never made it back.
Russell said trying to draw a generalized image of what the Coast Guard does is challenging because each part of the service is such an integral part of a huge team.
“We’ve really tried to incorporate everybody,” said Russell. “You can’t put an airframe in because it singles out a specific group of people — the same way you couldn’t put a particular cutter or something that only a certain amount of people would identify with.”
Russell said the importance of the whole project is a joint effort amongst people to make this the best certificate possible for a museum that’s going to honor the Coast Guard for years to come.
The tireless efforts to open the museum doors in the not-too-distant future will change the city of New London, as well as the Thames River, over which the building will extend.
“We’re not trying to replace anything,” said Pulver. “We’re trying to make a national museum that represents the entire service across the entire nation. Our maritime history is our nation’s history, and our Coast Guard has been part of that fabric since 1790.”
“For 225 years we have not had a national museum,” said Pulver. “We’re going to get this done. We’re going to work hard for the men and women of the Coast Guard who have served. We intend to make this a national effort to deliver a National Coast Guard Museum worthy of our service and worthy of our nation.”
There is a palpable passion amongst those involved in the development of the plankowner certificate. They could have simply walked away after retirement, but they continue to dedicate their time to the Coast Guard even without wearing the uniform. It’s a testament of how they’re ensuring the service’s legacy outlives their own. It’s a sign of their respect to be in the room where it happens.
When asked how he felt about being entrusted with creating the plankowner certificate for the National Coast Guard Museum, Russell nervously laughed and said, “Honestly, scared to death — because there’s nothing like it.”