BARNSTABLE -- Ralph Jones stands before a tailor's form draped in the crisp blues of a Coast Guardsman's dress uniform, complete with cowl collar and square-knotted tie. "I had a uniform just like this," Jones recalls, "the flat hat and everything. I used to fold the pants and put them under my mattress to keep them flat."
Jones served in the North Atlantic from 1946 to 1952. Now he volunteers in the red brick landmark building on Cobbs Hill in Barnstable village. Constructed in 1856 as a US Custom House, the structure served as the post office from 1913 to 1959 and for more than four decades as a town history museum. Now it's home to the Coast Guard Heritage Museum, which focuses on the Life-Saving Service and the Coast Guard on Cape Cod.
"A lot of old Coast Guard guys got together and a lot of people donated things," Jones says of the museum, which is in only its third season. The organization has also taken on the task of restoring the building's interior and has beefed up its collection with artifacts on loan from such sources as the Nantucket Life-Saving Museum.
The exhibits range from Cape Cod to the world theater. Photographs show the 11 lightships that warned vessels off the shoals of Cape Cod from 1910 until 1968-69. A replica of the Race Point Lifeboat Station on the Outer Cape serves as a reminder of the US Life-Saving Service, a forerunner of the Coast Guard. Dramatic oil paintings from the 1940s by Lieutenant Commander Anton Otto Fischer depict daring Coast Guard rescues at sea. A wall of photographs chronicles the Coast Guard crew of the Navy's USS Bayfield, the flagship for the Utah Beach landings on D-Day. The collection also includes personal letters and diaries, medals, and uniforms.
But it's the reminiscences of the veterans themselves that bring the museum truly to life. Jones, for example, had a lot more to worry about than the crease in his pants. "I was on the Eastwind when she was hit, 4:30 a.m., Jan. 19, 1949," he recalls of the icebreaker's collision with a tanker that killed 13 of his fellow crew members. "I did 17 or 18 weather patrols and went through four hurricanes. When you're 21, you don't mind," he says, smiling. "I'd have four heart attacks now."
The museum's prize display is a beach cart containing the full range of rescue apparatus, including a gun to fire a rope-carrying projectile out to a stranded ship, the long lines, and the breeches buoy for bringing survivors to shore, one by one. "That's what they had before helicopters," Jones says. Setting up the machinery was complex, but such an essential part of lifesaving that Guardsmen had to practice until they had the procedure down. "You had to do the beach apparatus drill in five minutes or you didn't get liberty."
In a telephone interview, Francis I. Broadhurst, a Navy veteran who serves as clerk of the museum's board of directors, says that the beach cart was last used on Cape Cod to rescue seven crew members of the Margaret Rose, a Gloucester dragger that had run aground off Provincetown's New Beach in 1962.
Broadhurst also wrote and narrated "Shipwreck at Nauset," one of several videos that the museum screens to depict dramatic rescue operations and to delineate the history of the Life-Saving Service and its successor, the Coast Guard, formed when the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service merged in 1915.
"Too many people take the Coast Guard for granted," Broadhurst says. "They're part of everyday life here on Cape Cod."
Patricia Harris & David Lyon, freelance writers in Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.