Happy 100th to the most forgotten service
This week is the 100th birthday of one of the most unsung of the U.S.’s seven uniformed services– the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps.
Dating back to the Coast & Geodetic Survey and United States Fish Commission which used seconded Navy ships for its blue water work (see former Warship Wednesday alumni, the USC&GSS Pathfinder and USS Albatross) and Army officers for land surveys (the first commander of the Corps was an Army colonel from the intelligence branch), the force today amounts to some 400 uniformed officers who operate the agency’s dozen ships (some as large as frigates) and half-dozen aircraft including two converted P-3 Orions used as Hurricane Hunters.
They are the smallest of the U.S. uniformed services and, while they have a provision for a single O-9, the branch typically exists with a RADM as a senior officer. They wear Navy dress blues and dress whites and Coast Guard working uniforms, all with NOAA devices. Since 2013, they have conducted their 18-week OCS at the USCGA in New London, Conn.
The corps was born in battle.
With America’s entry into the World War I, a commissioned service of the C&GS was formed on May 22, 1917 to ensure the rapid assimilation of C&GS technical skills for defense purposes. During World War II, officers and civilians of the C&GS produced nautical and aeronautical charts, provided critical geospatial information to artillery units, and conducted reconnaissance surveys.
Continuing in the tradition of their C&GS predecessors, NOAA Corps officers continue to play a vital role in the acquisition and analysis of environmental data that aid NOAA and other agencies in meeting the national security, economic, and environmental challenges of the 21st century. NOAA Corps officers command ships that scan the seafloor for potential hazards to shipping, monitor oceanographic and atmospheric conditions, and study ocean resources. They also pilot NOAA’s highly specialized aircraft that collect environmental and geographic data necessary for weather and flood prediction, nautical charting, disaster response, and resource management.
As noted by John Hopewell of the Washington Post’s Weather Gang:
There are two clear advantages of having nearly 400 uniformed specialists. Unlike civilians, they can be moved rapidly from project to project and — in the case of war — can be deployed quickly to support the military itself.
In fact, that’s why the NOAA Corps was established as a commissioned officer group 100 years ago. If one of the officers is captured by an enemy, they could not be executed as a spy — something their civilian predecessors risked.
The corps operates and maintains much of NOAA’s hardware, including Hurricane Hunter aircraft fisheries ships (but not satellites). They conduct special missions after disasters, such as the 2016 blizzard or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to gather data and provide support. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the corps surveyed the seafloors of New York City and Virginia channels and ports for hazards.