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roots of the noaa corps

There have been many reasons offered for why today's NOAA Corps is a uniformed service and its officers serve under commission. Although the roots of NOAA Corps lie in the system of field assistants, sub-assistants, and aids dating back to the days of Ferdinand Hassler, the birthday of the NOAA Corps is officially recognized as May 22, 1917; the date on which the bill became law establishing the Coast and Geodetic Survey as a commissioned service. However, although designated a commissioned service, the pay and benefits of Coast and Geodetic Survey officers were not on a par with their brethren in the other services at that time. Consequently, following the end of the First World War, there was such an exodus of officers from the ranks of the Survey, that it was feared that the organization would cease to be able to accomplish its mission. This resulted in Congress passing a law on May 18, 1920, that established pay and benefit comparability for Coast and Geodetic Survey officers with the other services. Some of the testimony and background information regarding the results of that law and the rationale for the Coast and Geodetic Survey follow. These documents give a glimpse into the reasoning of E. Lester Jones, the "Father of the commissioned service of the Coast and Geodetic Survey."


Statement of Herbert Hoover
Secretary of Commerce
November 21, 1921

During the period following the signing of the armistice, the demand for engineers having the highly specialized training that is required of the commissioned force of the Coast and Geodetic Survey was very great, and so many attractive inducements were offered them outside the Coast and Geodetic Survey that the large number of consequent resignations made imminent a complete breakdown. On May 18, 1920, the number of officers remaining in the service was less than two-thirds of the authorized complement.

The act of May 18, 1920, checked this disintegration, and there has been preserved to the public service a nucleus of trained officers about which to rebuild the corps.

There are still existing vacancies, which evidence the fact that the present pay is none too large to attract men of the necessary training and ability.

I therefore feel that any reduction in the pay and allowances of these officers would result in renewing the disintegration checked by the passage of the act of May 18, 1920. It is of paramount importance that the corps be built up as rapidly as possible to the maximum authorized strength and so maintained, in order that its work may not fall short of the requirements of our commerce and national defense; and I am therefore of the opinion that the rates of pay and allowances to be fixed by Congress should not be less than the rates now in effect.


Testimony of COL. E. Lester Jones

Readjustment of Service Pay

November 1921

COL. Jones. Yes, sir. I have been before you, and I have been before the Naval Affairs Committee of the Senate, and I would like to say - even though you know the merits of this service -- which is considerably over a hundred years old - the whole history of the service in time of national distress and at all other times - these officers are always in readiness. And this is true of the men who occupied these positions in past years. All of the records of the country prove that the present status should have been granted long ago. In the Civil War they were active in the most important maneuvers, in the most important matters which had to do with the results of the war, and yet in spite of strong recommendations of Army and Navy officers these men have gone on up until within a few years without salaries or positions commensurate with what they deserved. In the last war in the active service of the Army and Navy our officers performed conspicuous service. Some of the characteristics common to all of the commissioned corps and present not at all or only in part in other Federal services are: (1) Hazardous duty in time of war. (2) Hazardous duty in time of peace. (3) Transitory detail in any locality. (4) Educational qualifications.

First. Hazardous duty in time of war: Every commissioned officer of the Coast and Geodetic is subject to active military duty with combat forces. During the World War every commissioned officer below the age of retirement who was not needed to carry on surveys which had been requested by either the Army or Navy for home defenses was transferred to either the Army or Navy and wore the uniform of one of those services and served side by side with regular Army and Navy officers on whatever duty was required of him. These officers entirely severed their connection with the Coast and Geodetic Survey as far as being subject to orders from that bureau and were for the duration of the war absolutely under the authority of the Secretary of War or of the Secretary of the Navy. Sixty-two commissioned officers were detailed to either the Army or Navy.

Second. Hazardous duty in time of peace: Every commissioned officer of the Coast and Geodetic Survey is subject to the same hazardous duty afloat and ashore that characterizes the life of the explorer and pioneer, whether from storms in dangerous unsurveyed waters, exposure to severe and inclement weather, sickness from unhealthy localities, or the dangers incident to climbing precipitous cliffs and lofty mountains. This duty is so severe that few officers retain their health and full vigor beyond middle age.

Third. Transitory detail to any locality: No commissioned officer of the Coast and Geodetic has any assurance of permanent employment in one locality. The director holds tenure of office for four years, the assistant director at the pleasure of the Secretary of Commerce, and all other officers at the pleasure of the director. There are no permanent shore or office positions open to any of these commissioned officers, and less than 10 per cent of the officers on the active list now occupy office positions, including those on duty at Washington and at the field stations. All other are afloat (70 per cent) or on field work ashore (20 per cent) in various parts of the United States and its possessions and are moving from place to place as they complete surveys in one locality and take up surveys elsewhere.

Fourth. Educational qualifications: All of the commissioned services require higher education of their officers either at the time of admission or by completion of prescribed courses of instructions after appointment and before final acceptance. The work of the Coast and Geodetic Survey can not be done by persons not having the advantage of higher education, and accordingly no one is accepted for commission who has not completed a course and received a degree in civil engineering in a college or engineering school of recognized standing. Fitness for undertaking this work is further determined by mental and physical examinations fully as rigid as are required in any of these other services. After admission to this service officers are required to keep up in their profession, and no officer can be promoted until he has passed a searching mental and physical examination and has demonstrated by his work that he merits advancement to a higher grade.

Commissioned Officers of the United States
Coast and Geodetic Survey
in Time of Peace and in Time of War


The normal work of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey is a highly specialized branch of civil engineering, which requires exact, practical knowledge of astronomy, geodesy, geology, trigonometric surveying, higher mathematics, physics, navigation, and seamanship.

Applicants for admission to the commissioned force, which directs and performs all the field work and directs all the office work, must have completed, with credit, a four-year course in a university or engineering school of recognized standing and must then pass a rigid mental and physical examination. The successful applicants are then admitted to a temporary grade where they serve a probationary period [,where] they are under close observation to determine their fitness for entrance to the commissioned corps, and [where they] are not accepted until they have shown conclusive evidence of the qualities which are deemed necessary for the efficient performance of the work of this bureau.

The work of the Coast and Geodetic Survey is largely that of the explorer and the pioneer; the surveys made by this bureau precede all others and furnish the fundamental data upon which all other surveys are based.

The geodetic surveys, through the interior of the country, as well as along the seaboard, are the foundation upon which all topographic and engineering surveys are constructed and without which these surveys could not be correlated nor even extended over a large area.
The hydrographic surveys are both the basic and the final surveys of the coastal waters of the United States and insular and other possessions, except where special hydrographic surveys are required for river and harbor improvements, and these latter are controlled largely by previous surveys of this bureau.

The tidal, current and magnetic surveys and investigations by this bureau are the only source of information on those subjects, and are of the greatest importance to mariners and surveyors. The coast pilots and tide tables published by this bureau are from the original investigations by officers of the bureau and used by all navigators on American and foreign naval and merchant vessels.

The experience which the officers of the Coast and Geodetic Survey acquire in the performance of these duties and the exact knowledge which they must have of navigation and piloting, of the use of instruments of precision and of the methods of higher surveying have long been recognized as special qualifications for the performance of certain important military and naval duties for which there are during a war an insufficient number of trained officers in the Regular Army and Navy Establishments.

Congress, in 1917, recognized the military value of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and accordingly enacted special legislation to make the personnel and vessels of the survey readily available for transfer to the Army or Navy during a national emergency. The engineers of the survey were commissioned as civilian engineers, but were given relative military rank, and were made subject to military duty at the discretion of the President. Under this authority, the President transferred 56 per cent of the officers to the Army or Navy, retaining on duty at the survey only enough officers to make the special hydrographic and geodetic surveys that had been requested by the War and Navy Departments for planning the defenses of the country.

The officers transferred to the Navy, without training other than they had received under the Coast and Geodetic Survey in the performance of their usual peace-time work, immediately entered upon the duties to which they were assigned and performed those new duties so well that nearly all were advanced to higher ranks than they held in the survey prior to the transfer, and to which they returned when released from the Navy. They served as navigators, first lieutenants, watch and division officers on combatant ships, as executive and commanding officers of auxiliaries and as experts on investigations of submarine-detecting devices, and on the design and installation of navigating equipment for naval vessels.

In the Army they served in the Corps of Engineers, in charge of military mapping, and in the Artillery as orientation officers, where their special training in trigonometric surveying made them particularly valuable. In 1918, after all available officers had been transferred to either the Army or Navy, the Chief of Engineers, impressed by those officers who had been transferred to his corps, requested an additional 75 officers.

On the termination of hostilities these officers were returned to the Coast and Geodetic Survey in the ranks which they held at the time of entering the military services and which were, in most cases, from one to two grades lower than the ranks which they had attained while in the military services. Furthermore, the pay and allowance of all commissioned ranks in the Coast and Geodetic Survey were then considerably lower than the pay and allowance of equivalent rank in the Navy.

This condition of unequal pay for equivalent rank and equal degree of responsibility of position and hardship of employment had long been a subject of discontent in this service, which was greatly increased with the return of those officers who had served throughout the war side by side with officers of the Army and Navy, who had made good in those positions, and had had full opportunity to measure their skill and ability against the regular officers of those services.

The older officers, confident that Congress would see this injustice and correct it at an early date, took up their old duties with a will and endeavored to get the survey back as soon as possible to its prewar condition. Many officers, however, could not wait, but resigned to accept more profitable employment elsewhere, and many others, while willing to await the outcome of pending legislation, stated that if this legislation failed they must resign. Nearly one-third of the Corps had resigned prior to the passage of the act of May 18, 1920 (Public No. 210, 66th Cong.), and it is a conservative estimate that another third would have resigned if this act had failed of passage.

Since that date there has been no question as to the future of the Coast and Geodetic Survey: resignations have practically stopped; it has been possible to fill vacancies as rapidly as officers could be trained for the work, and all officers are working with an enthusiasm that will, within another year, put the service on its prewar efficiency. Earlier return to prewar strength is impossible because the work is of such a specialized nature that persons qualified to take charge can not be found outside the bureau, but must be trained for the work.



Statement by C&GS Re: Readjustment of Service Pay March 1922
The Coast and Geodetic Survey as a Military Organization

The Coast and Geodetic Survey not only is now a military organization, it has been such continuously for many years prior to the recent recognition of that fact by appropriate legislation.
a) Its normal peace time function has long constituted an integral, essential part of the national defense. It has been so recognized by the War and Navy Departments, which have constantly delegated to it certain details as essential to that purpose as are the building of fortifications or the manning of battleships. For example, the recognized priority of that function over the demands of commerce is evidenced by the fact that on military request surveys of important strategic localities have been made which have never been given to the public. Conversely, those surveys have not been of the Survey ready for utilization in case of emergency, indicating clearly that the Army and Navy recognize a common singleness of purpose, and the preeminence of the survey within the field delegated to it. [This last sentence is copied directly from the available text. However, it appears that the typed copy was apparently not transcribed properly from original text.]
(b) In every war since the survey was organized its officers have served with the military forces. They did not sever connections with the survey and enter the military forces as individuals but were directly detailed to serve as Coast Survey officers. Space does not permit an adequate account of such service, and the following instances are merely typical.

During the Civil War they * * * made topographic surveys directly under fire of the enemy * * * were dangerously wounded * * * were surprised by a party of the enemy, but instead of being captured took the rebels prisoners * * * under the fire of the enemy made hydrographic surveys of obstructed entrances to southern harbors; located obstructions and piloted Union vessels in safety past them * * * aboard Union vessels attacking land fortifications utilized methods of hydrographic surveying in determining the range for gun firing." In connection with such service, Under Admiral Farragut at the mouth of the Mississippi, Commander Porter stated: "The results of our mortar practice here have exceeded anything I ever dreamed of; and for my success, I am mainly indebted to the accuracy of positions marked down, under Mr. Gerdes's direction, by Mr. Harris and Mr. Oltmanns. They made a minute and complete survey from the "jump" to the forts, most of the time exposed to fire from shot and shell, and from sharpshooters from the bushes. * * * I can not speak too highly of these gentlemen. I assure you that I shall never undertake a bombardment, unless I have them at my side."

The men performing the services just described were civilians; they had no military status and a significant indication of the character and value of their service is found in the fact that in a number of cases the Confederate authorities offered special rewards for the apprehension of the men so engaged. If captured, they would undoubtedly have been executed as civilians engaged within the zone of military operations.

It is a matter of record that many high Army and Navy officers at that time recommended that the survey be merged with the military forces in order that these men might be relieved of the unnecessary jeopardy thus incurred but that the superintendent of the survey declined to consider this for the reason that he preferred to maintain the corps in tact in order that there might be no delay in the resumption of its normal peace time function upon the termination of hostilities.

Upon our entrance into the World War Congress recognized the value of this corps and the need of providing adequate means of utilizing it efficiently, by legislation commissioning the corps and rendering it subject to military duty at the discretion of the President. Recognition of the anomalous condition obtaining during the Civil War and of the unnecessary jeopardy which it entailed was undoubtedly one of the factors which caused Congress to take this action.

During the World War these officers served in the Army with the Artillery and the Engineers along various portions of the western front in France, performing duties identical with those performed by Army officers. In the Navy they served aboard troop transports and cargo carriers plying through the submarine zone; aboard the vessels which planted the mine barrage in the North Sea, and in the destroyer and patrol fleets about the English coast which assisted so materially in overcoming the submarine menace. One of the survey vessels is officially credited with the disabling of the U 39, the submarine which sank the Lusitania, to such an extent that she was compelled to intern for the remainder of the war. When she performed this notable service she was manned in part by officers of the Coast and Geodetic Survey.
(c) The organization of the service is, and has always been, semimilitaristic. Among the predecessors of the present commissioned corps were Army and Navy officers who were temporarily detailed to duty in the survey. Upon the outbreak of the Spanish War the detail of such officers finally ceased, but the body of regulations and customs, of ship routine and discipline, which they spent half a century in building up, has gaged on sea duty. Officers and crews are uniformed. The routine is a direct survival of the days when naval officers manned the vessels. The ships fly the commissioned pennant. They go to navy yards for repairs and outfitting, where they conform in all respects to the regulations and customs exacted of naval vessels. In foreign ports, or when foreign government vessels visit home ports upon which they are basing there is an interchange of courtesies similar to those customary in the case of our naval vessels. All these details are of long standing far antedating recent legislation relative to the service.

It seems obvious, therefore, that such recent legislation did not effect any fundamental change in the status of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, but merely recognized in the law a body of fact which had long been in existence in purpose and in actual practice.




Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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