The History of the US Coast Guard Song
Oftentimes we look at history to inspire our futures. That’s exactly what Captain Francis Saltus Van Boskerck did when he wrote the lyrics that would eventually become the official US Coast Guard Song. The US Coast Guard is a military branch that is often overlooked. The brave men and women that make up the coast guard are as tough as they come.
“Semper Paratus” (Latin for “Always Ready”) is the official motto of the Coast Guard, and Captain Van Boskerck decided he wanted to write a song about the many times in history the Coast Guard exemplified that motto.
The lyrics of Captain Van Boskerck’s original “Semper Paratus,” written in 1922, focused on the Coast Guard’s history prior to World War II. The song makes specific references to missions the Coast Guard completed and to the cutters (the Coast Guard’s commissioned ships that are vital for the transportation of troops and supplies) that they used to complete those missions. While some of the references are clear, others are a bit more ambiguous.
Clear references to many different cutter boats, and the missions they were used for, are seen in the second and third verses of “Semper Paratus.” The first line of the second verse says, “Surveyor and Narcissus,” referencing a conflict between the US Coast Guard’s Cutter Surveyor and a British ship called Narcissus. The third line of the second verse makes reference to “the Hudson and the Tampa,” two revered cutters in the Coast Guard. The Hudson was a boat used during the Spanish-American War that heroically towed another damaged cutter to safety under heavy enemy fire during a blockade in Havana. The Cutter Tampa was used during World War I. It was known as one of the most prepared cutters in the Coast Guard. Sadly, the Tampa was torpedoed by the German Navy, and everyone on board went down with the ship. The sinking of the Tampa was the greatest casualty to occur in a single moment up to this point in Coast Guard history.
One of the more ambiguous references is also in the second verse. It says “From Barrow’s shores to Paraguay.” The missions at Barrow’s Point and Paraguay were both land-based missions, and many have wondered why the United States Coast Guard was involved. Regardless, in 1897, a fleet of whaling ships were stuck in an ice field. The cutters stationed at Barrow’s Point were unable to help, so instead, the crew from Cutter Bear, a commissioned US Coast Guard ship, organized an overland relief expedition. They traveled 1,500 miles over three months in crazy Alaskan weather to bring relief to those on the trapped whaling ships.
The second land-based mission took place in 1858, ten years after the Mexican War ended. The US Navy was sent to Paraguay to help settle a dispute between the two nations. Troops on board Cutter Harriet Lane were sent to assist in 1859, and as it was the only shallow-draft steamer, it traveled 1,000 miles up the Parana River to Asuncion, Paraguay, to help with the resolution. Reference to the Coast Guard’s immense help in both of these land missions was added to the song to exemplify that they are indeed always ready, whether their help is needed on land or sea.
Becoming the Official US Coast Guard Song
While stationed in Savannah, Georgia, in 1922, Captain Van Boskerck wrote the lyrics, and five years later, in 1927, while in Unalaska, Alaska, Captain Van Boskerck wrote a melody for his song with the help of two Public Health Service dentists named Alf E. Nannestad and Joseph O. Fournier. That same year, the Coast Guard went looking for an official song, and Captain Van Boskerck submitted his. It was selected and dedicated as the anthem of the US Coast Guard in 1928.
In 1943, the chorus lyrics in “Semper Paratus” were altered by Homer Smith and Walton Butterfield, two soldiers in the 3rd Navel District Coast Guard. The first lines of the chorus were changed yet again in 1969, and the song has remained that way since then. It’s not clear why the lyrics were changed since they retained the meaning of the original song written in 1927.