US Coast Guard Traditions and Honors

U.S. Coast Guard Air Station, Biloxi, Mississippi General Muster, 1941

Of Surfmen, Cuttermen, Albatross, Pterodactyls, Mariners, and Queens, the US Coast Guard has several unique and colorful awards and references.

The United States Coast Guard, one of the smallest of the countrys armed uniformed branches, has a rich and varied tradition of service awards and honors that are not repeated anywhere.


The US Coast Guard was formed in 1916 when the Revenue Cutter Service and the Lifesaving Service were merged and the new amalgam organization renamed. One of the old traditions of the 19th-century Lifesaving Service was certifying surfboat coxswains, who captained rescue boats through the pounding waves to rescue those lost at sea, as Surfmen. Today this is an extreme elite group of coxswains who stand ready at 19 designated “surf stations” around the United States. These 161 coastguardsmen are the Navy Seals of Search and Rescue and operate 47-foot Motor Rescue Boats and a quartet of Eisenhower-era 52-foot Motor Lifeboats in some of the worst seas imaginable.

Ancient Albatross and Pterodactyls

The current Ancient Albatross award was established to honor the most senior individual Coast Guard aviator in 1966. Enlisted aircrews were added to the award in 1988. The current officer is Vice Admiral John P. Currier while the current enlisted man is Aviation Maintenance Technician Senior Chief Peter G. MacDougall who has been flying since December 1975 when he started as a Flight Mechanic on the Sikorsky HH-3F “Pelican” helicopters.

Honorees perform the award ceremony wearing vintage Red Baron”-style flying leathers, goggles, scarves and caps. These awards are part of the larger US Coast Guard Aviation Association formed in 1977 by retired USCG aviators. Today it has some 1200 members who proudly refer to themselves collectively as the Ancient Order of Pterodactyls because they have been flying since the earth was flat.

The Coast Guard Cutterman and Mariner honors

In 2007, the US Coast Guard, now under the Department of Homeland Security and celebrating its 217th birthday, decided to institute an honor for old salts and established the Master Cutterman certificate for those who had served 20 years at sea. The wording, punched up by Admiral Thad Allen, the unsung hero of the Deepwater Horizon disaster reads:

“To all sailors who have crossed the deck of a Cutter, from the ghosts of the Revenue Marine to the United States Coast Guard, wherever ye may be; And to all Ancient Mariners, Albatrosses, Pterodactyls, Surfman and various breeds of Dogs; Let it be known that ______ has stood watch, laid before mast, made rounds, checked the navigational lights, monitored engine temperatures, launched boats as required, balanced the electrical loads, provided rations and otherwise attended to the watch, quarter and station bill for all evolutions required to guard the coast and protect the Nation for 20 years. Accordingly, all cutterman with lesser sea time and those unaccustomed to venturing offshore shall show due honor and respect at all times.”

As of 2017, more than 600 certificate members have joined to form the Coast Guard Cuttermen Association.

The Cutterman honor their senior most members with the title Ancient Mariner. The USCG officer still on duty with the longest linage of sea time is referred to as the Gold Ancient Mariner while the veteran enlisted man is the Silver Ancient Mariner. Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr. who, serving since 1975 holds the Gold award, and Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Steven Hearn whose service since 1981 earned him the Silver hold the current titles. As their badge of office, they carry nautical spyglasses and authentic relic headgear of the Revenue Cutter Service and Lighthouse Service respectively when carrying out Mariner duties

The Queen of the Fleet

The oldest commissioned ship in the Coast Guard is known as the Queen of the Fleet. Her numbers were painted in gold on her hull, and her crews wear distinctive devices upon their uniforms. The current Queen is the USCGC Smilax, at age 67 she is one of the last World-War-Two era vessels afloat, much less still in active daily service. The below picture by USCG Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley shows Gold Ancient Mariner Adm. Bob Papp and Silver Ancient Mariner Master Chief Petty Officer Steven Hearn pose with the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Smilax after a relief of watch ceremony in Atlantic Beach, N.C., April 14, 2011. The event was part of the celebration of the Smilax becoming the Queen of the Fleet as the oldest cutter in the fleet.

And the traditions carry onward on the sea.