The Seventh Uniformed Service of the United States: NOAA

While doing research for my second novel, I came across the NOAA website and, procrastinator that I am, paged through it and discovered the existence of the Commissioned Officer Corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It is one of the seven uniformed services of the US Government. Who knew? I always thought there were only six: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and US Public Health Service.

NOAAS Thomas Jefferson (S 222). New York Harbor, 2006.

Their jobs look really interesting. I wish I had joined something like this when I was younger – I’m too old to join now – and after twenty years I would have had a pension. I could certainly use a pension now.

According to their website, the Commissioned Officer Corps, which numbers about 325 men and women, is the direct descendant of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS), the oldest scientific agency in the US Federal Government, which can trace its origins to an order signed by President Jefferson in 1807 directing a coastal survey of the US.

Seems that in the American Civil War and the Spanish-American War, in which your servant’s grandfather served as a private in the 4th South Carolina Regiment of Volunteers, the surveyors accompanied the army and navy practically to the front lines and made coastal survey maps which were critical to victory.

Eye wall of hurricane image taken by a NOAA P-3.

Concern arose in the years prior to the First World War that the map makers and surveyors could be taken prisoner and under international law, could be shot as spies since they were in civilian clothes. (It would be hard to talk your way out of being a spy if you were captured by the enemy wearing civilian clothes and carrying map-making equipment.) So the Commissioned Officer Corps was formed which allowed the US Coast Survey officers to wear uniforms and hold an officer’s commission from the President as do the officers of the other services.

The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps conforms to the ranks, uniforms, pay, and benefits for US Navy officers. They even have their own admiral. However, there are no enlisted personnel. In time of war, the President can place the NOAA Commissioned Officers under the command of the armed forces which happened in both world wars.

NOAA operates the famous “hurricane hunters” which are the aircraft that fly into hurricanes to gather data. They also operate 19 ships which are involved with oceanographic research and fisheries protection. After the proposed cuts in the Royal Navy and the German Navy, NOAA will have more ships than either of those services. This seems out of whack somehow.

NOAA P-3 flying in eye of Hurricane Caroline. Note circular eye below aircraft.

[Images courtesy of NOAA Photo Library and NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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