[Editor’s note: This essay is reprised from the December 2015 issue of the Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association Bulletin. Our thanks to the Alumni Association for permission to republish Cmdr. Pecora’s essay and imagery.]
The director steps to the podium and firmly taps his baton, bringing the military band to attention in the recording studio. The 55-person ensemble sits poised, ready to play a medley of service tunes and marching songs for their latest ceremonial CD, which will be distributed to Coast Guard units to play at countless retirements and changes of command. Finally, the musical group reaches their own service song, Semper Paratus.
While most Coast Guardsmen’s hearts swell with pride at the sound of Semper Paratus, for the band members, playing the music stings like the pain from an old wound. While they recorded the service songs of the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and the Marine Corps free of charge, the band cannot say the same of their own anthem. The copyright and licenses of Semper Paratus are held by three separate companies, and the U.S. Coast Guard Band pays for the privilege to record it.
The story of the Coast Guard’s service song began in the winter of 1922 on the decks of the Cutter Yamacraw. Capt. Francis Saltus Van Boskerck, the commanding officer, was suddenly struck by a moment of inspiration and descended below to his cabin. When he emerged, he brought with him a ballad strewn with the legendary feats of the small seagoing service destined to be America’s maritime guardians. Van Boskerck’s pride in his service was evident in the poem—his 23 years at sea provided ample fodder for the verses. A career cutterman, Van Boskerck truly served from the Aztec shore to the Arctic Zones. One may imagine the veteran officer battling “the surf and storm and howling gales” while in command of the famed Cutter Bear during his six-month Bering Sea patrol in 1921.
Drawing upon his experiences and the service’s rich heritage, Van Boskerck wrote the song with the intent of “keeping alive and building of our fine traditions, morale of the service and general pride in the Coast Guard.” Expecting a lukewarm reception from the wardroom, he presented the poem to his fellow officers. Van Boskerck was shocked when he was encouraged to set the rhyme to music. Alas, the rigors of command and his subsequent tours at the Naval War College and as district commander of the Great Lakes District proved too demanding to follow through with his quest until four years later.
Van Boskerck found an unexpected respite as the commander of the Bering Sea Patrol while stationed ashore at the small city of Unalaska located on Unalaska Island. The unforgiving terrain of the Aleutian Islands provided startlingly fertile ground for his creative efforts to blossom. With the musical assistance of two U.S. Public Health Service dentists, Alf Nannestad and Joseph Fournier, the threesome composed the musical score seated at a piano in the home of Mrs. Albert C. Clara Goss, buoyed by delicious dinners of baked ham and pineapple.
Van Boskerck departed the West Coast for what would be his last Coast Guard tour, the Captain of the Port for Norfolk, Virginia. It was there, in the Norfolk neighborhood of Ghent, Semper Paratus was publicly debuted in the winter of 1926-27. Played by an orchestra at a meeting of the League of Coast Guard Women, known today as Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, the song was excitedly received; it seemed Van Boskerck had a hit on his hands.
In fall of 1927, seemingly sensing his own mortality, Van Boskerck traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the editor and publisher of the U.S. Coast Guard magazine, Lt. Col. Harvey Miller. He carried with him a well-worn copy of Semper Paratus and implored Miller to make his song as recognizable as the service songs of the other military services. Miller promised to try, and Van Boskerck departed to catch his ferry back to Norfolk. That evening, as the ferry plowed the waters of the Chesapeake, Van Boskerck was struck by an apparent heart attack and died at sea, leaving the future of his contribution to the Coast Guard in Miller’s hands.
Miller’s vow to Van Boskerck became deeply sentimental—he felt obligated to fulfill the captain’s final wish. Miller enlisted the help of Lt. William Sima, the ninth U.S. Naval Academy bandmaster, to expand the simple melody into a full orchestral presentation. With the entire composition complete, a gala musical event was held in Washington to formally premiere Semper Paratus, featuring a realistic storm scene, nautically dressed chorus girls and armed personnel from Cutter Apache, while a male quartet dressed in lifesaving station garb sang the service’s new Coast Guard anthem.
Seizing upon the enthusiastic reception, Miller published the song and piano score in the April 1928 issue of the U.S. Coast Guard magazine with the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Rear Adm. Frederick Billard, endorsing the song as the service’s anthem. Miller even took the additional step to copyright the April issue of the magazine, with the Service Publishing Company located at Coast Guard Headquarters listed as the rightful owners, protecting the enclosed song. However, despite his efforts, years later, Miller struggled to distribute the song outside of the national capitol region, sending copies to bands and orchestras throughout the nation at his own expense. Despite the service’s devotion to the song, musical society continuously rejected the composition. Perhaps the mere idea of a cutterman creating a significant musical contribution was simply discordant.
Fate finally smiled on Miller’s quest, and the song was used in two movies, Border Flight and March of Time, which garnered the attention of the Sam Fox Music Publishing Company. Intrigued by the song’s potential, the publishing company coordinated with Miller to purchase the copyright for $50 so the song could be distributed on a national level, and the copyright was transferred in 1938. In 1942, Sam Fox Music Publishing in conjunction with Miller’s U.S. Coast Guard magazine, launched a campaign to popularize the service’s song with Semper Paratus ultimately reaching number 16 on the music charts.
Transferring the copywriter Sam Fox Music Publishing Company came with the stipulation all royalties be paid to Van Boskerck’s widow, Carlotta. However, she refused any royalty payments out of a sentiment of good will. Her only interest was the Coast Guard use the song in accordance with her husband’s wishes.
The United States government, Sam Fox Publishing Company, and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), reached an agreement as noted in the November 1942 issue of The Bulletin, allowing the royalty-free usage of the song “in any program sponsored by the United States Government, or the United States Coast Guard, and presented with the knowledge and cooperation of the latter.”
As generations of Coast Guardsmen ran through the course of their careers, decades passed, and Semper Paratus became an elemental component of the service’s culture. The copyright remained with Sam Fox Music Publishing Company until 2000, when Warner/Chappell Music, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers Entertainment, acquired the entire Sam Fox music library. Alfred Music assumed the management of the mechanical rights for Semper Paratus in 2005, which includes printing and recording the song. These companies actively manage copyright and associated licenses, and to this day collect royalties from the service’s song.
However, it appears the initial agreement established between Sam Fox Publishing Company and the Coast Guard is no longer being honored by these three companies. The U.S. Coast Guard Band pays Alfred Music a licensing fee of $175 every time they wish to record or rearrange the service’s anthem. Of note, the U.S. Air Force’s service song is also owned by a private company, Carl Fischer Music; however, a formal agreement relinquished the Air Force from the payment of any royalty or licensing fees for their service song. A company spokesperson noted, “It was the right thing to do.”
For the U.S. Coast Guard Band, it appears they will continue to pay to record their own song until 2024, when the song is scheduled to be released to the public domain. Various Coast Guard affiliated groups have attempted to either purchase the copyright or have it released to the public domain for the past 77 years. The first attempt occurred in 1940, when the Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association unsuccessfully attempted to purchase the rights from Sam Fox Publishing Company. Attempts have increased during the past decade; however, the rights and licenses remain with Warner/Chappell, ASCAP and Alfred Music.
Despite his best intentions, Harvey Miller may have unwittingly sold government property to a private entity without proper authorization. Semper Paratus was written on a Coast Guard vessel by a Coast Guard employee and musically arranged by several different government employees, all with the intention to create a service anthem for the Coast Guard. In addition, the initial copyright was registered to an office within Coast Guard Headquarters. These factors indicate the song was government property and subsequently public domain 10 years before the copyright was sold.
Reclaiming Semper Paratus may not be a matter of mission execution and nor is it the most pressing issue the service faces today. However, ownership of the song is a matter of service pride and, moreover, a matter of principle. The U.S. Coast Guard Band should not have to pay for the privilege to record Semper Paratus. Whether the validity of Semper Paratus’ copyright will be challenged is unclear, and the future of the service’s song remains uncharted. Perhaps, the most interesting chapter in Semper Paratus’ history has yet to be written.
Semper Paratus’s lyrics
From Aztec Shore to Arctic Zone,
To Europe and Far East,
The Flag is carried by our ships
In times of war and peace;
And never have we struck it yet
In spite of foemen’s might,
Who cheered our crews and cheered again
For showing how to fight.
We’re always ready for the call,
We place our trust in Thee.
Through surf and storm and howling gale,
High shall our purpose be.
“Semper Paratus” is our guide,
Our fame, our glory too.
To fight to save or fight and die,
Aye! Coast Guard we are for you!
SURVEYOR and NARCISSUS,
The EAGLE and DISPATCH,
The HUDSON and TAMPA,
These names are hard to match;
From Barrow’s shores to Paraguay,
Great Lakes or ocean’s wave,
The Coast Guard fights through storms and winds,
To punish or to save.
Aye! We’ve been always ready!
To do, to fight, or die
Write glory to the shield we wear
In letters to the sky.
To sink the foe or save the maimed,
Our mission and our pride.
We’ll carry on ‘til Kingdom Come,
Ideals for which we've died.