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As experienced by Ira Lewis BMC(L), USCG (Ret.)
(Service dates: 1938-1959)

The U.S. Life-Saving Service existed as early as the 1700s in China -- it then expanded to Europe and finally to the U.S. The USLSS was established in 1878.  The personnel consisted of men from the coastal areas of the U. S. - men who worked on the water - sounds, rivers, and the ocean (going through the surf from the beaches in pulling boats under oars). Thus they were called surfmen.  They were not rated, but were designated as surfmen with a number assigned to them.  They wore an emblem on their cap and coat-sleeve, which was a life-ring with crossed oar and boat hook.  The number one (1) man was assigned as keeper.  The numbers ran like: 1,2,3,4, etc.

In 1915 the Revenue Cutter Service and the USLSS were combined and called the U.S. Coast Guard.  So the new Coast Guard was just a carry-over of the USLSS.  Duties were the same at all stations and all stations were manned by surfmen only.

I went in the service in 1938 as surfrnan.  In 1939 the Cutter Branch and the aids to navigation units and all the lifeboat stations were combined.  The surfman designator was abolished.  Then the men of the three services could be sent to any of the units.  However, the surfmen mostly remained at lifeboat stations.

Before 1939 there were two branches of the C.G.: lifeboat stations and the cutter branch and you had a choice as of either of these two - but upon enlisting you would be sent to a location determined by District Office.  After 1939, they sent you to boot camp first for training - and then they (District) determined where you were sent (lifeboat station, a ship, buoy tender, or lighthouse).

In approximately 1938 or so there were only two (2) rates at lifeboat stations: Boatswains Mate (BM) and Motor Machinist Mate (MoMM).  The surfman pay at that time was in the same pay grade as a third class petty officer on a cutter.  A surfman could be promoted to a BM 2c(L) or MoMM 2c(L).  From there you could be promoted on up through the ranks: for example, BM1c, CBM(L) and then to Warrant Grade (WG).  A surfman did not wear a crow until he was promoted to BM2c(L) or MoMM2c(L). The rate system came in 1923 or earlier.

Note: There is a 36-foot motor lifeboat on display at the Point Reyes National Seashore in California.


In 1938 the surfman uniform consisted of a dress black and dress white, single-breasted coat with matching trousers, white shirt and black tie, and chief-type cap with emblem (crossed oars on life ring).  White top for summer and black top for winter.  Also, black wool shirt for winter.  The work uniform was navy dungarees and blue chambray shirt (long sleeve), with cap described above.

In the mid-1940s the dress white uniform was phased out for surfmen.  When I was promoted to BM2c(L) we wore khaki for undress after working hours and standing O.D. watches, etc.  Surfman wore the same uniform until he either made Chief or retired.  After I made Chief I was issued a dress khaki uniform, single-breasted, along with the dress blue uniform.

The modern (last 15 years or so) Coast Guard has a uniform which is copied after the surfman (single breasted coat and chief-type cap).  The suit is dark blue and the shirts are light blue - all the cap tops are white with a C. G. Emblem on cap. Present work uniform is blue pants and blue shirts with blue baseball-type cap.

Beginning in 1939 when they combined the lifeboat stations with the cutter branch, the new men we received came right from boot camp with sailor type uniforms.  It seemed odd seeing men around lifeboat stations with sailor suits, but we soon got adjusted.  I wonder how many of the regular surfmen are still around.  I will be eight-eight years old this Aug. 2 [2006] and have been retired 47 years as of Aug. 1, 2006.

For detailed information on the life saving service, one of the best book s available is: “The U. S. Life Saving Service - Heroes, Rescues and Architecture of the Early Coast Guard” by Ralph Shanks, Wick York (Lisa Woo Shanks, editor). Published by Costano Books, PO Box 2206, Novato, CA 94948. Publisher’s e-mail is:  (6th Printing -2004. Book is approx. 265 pages with many old photos (covering a period of over 100 years or so).

Another book of interest “Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers]” (about an all-Black surfman crew on the Outer Banks of North Carolina) [by David Wright & David Zoby and published by Scribner in 2000.]

Above info submitted by:

Ira M. Lewis, BMC(L), USCG Retired
143 Cape Lookout Drive
Harkers Island, NC 28531
Phone: 252-728-4134





Last Modified 1/12/2016