The Secret Life of Walter Handy: the man who saved the Coast Guard Reserve

Written by Chief Warrant Officer Anastasia Devlin

Author’s Note: The opportunity for this story came to us from a family member who wrote to the RESERVIST, telling us their patriarch offhandedly mentioned how he’d joined the Coast Guard 75 years earlier. This man had quietly retired in 1975 after a 33-year career. When we contacted him to discuss his time in, he wrote back with several interesting stories, and he included proof of things we were amazed to see in black and white.

During an interview at his home nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, we learned much about the quarter-century long, missing section of our story on the Coast Guard Reserve’s 75 year history: 1946-1972.

This installment of the story is just the first of two, maybe even issues needed to cover all its aspects, and it will culminate with President Nixon’s multiple attempts to disband the Coast Guard Reserve.

As we’re sure you’ll come to see, the timeliness of this story is amazing – something you’ll notice especially in the next issue. It serves as a reminder of why we at the RESERVIST continue to document the history of our prestigious Service.

As long as I’ve been writing stories about the Coast Guard, I’ve never had the honor of documenting something like this. As a rule, journalists don’t usually include themselves in their own story, at the cost of objectivity, but no matter how I tried to reword, I couldn’t stop the awe from coming through in my voice. I gave up, and re-racked the story so you, dear reader, can meet Captain Handy through my eyes.

When we received the email from his niece, I wrote to say of course we’d love to hear about what the Reserve experience was like 75 years ago. Retired Capt. Walter K. Handy, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, may have turned 99 in March, but his reply might have come from any military officer today. When I tell you this man is sharp as a tack, I have the email with subheads, itemized lists, and bullet points to prove it. I forwarded his response to RESERVIST editor Jeff Smith, letting him know this might be something even more special than we’d expected.

Retired Coast Guard Capt. Walter Handy stands outside his home in Virginia, Feb. 28, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Emaia Rise.

Retired Coast Guard Capt. Walter Handy stands outside his home in Virginia, Feb. 28, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Emaia Rise.

We made the two-hour drive out to Handy’s century-old, two-story country home. The quaint setting was complete with a large American flag posted outside the front door, and chickens chasing each other around the yard. When we shook hands, I realized how unsettling it was to meet a man who’s been a member of the Coast Guard Reserve from the very first year there was a Coast Guard Reserve.

The captain walked us to comfortable chairs in the living room, and, after ensuring we had cups of coffee, he launched into topics so detailed I had to pull out my voice recorder.
Handy was relaying memories, events, and references right down to the middle initial of each name, seamlessly spelling the last names for me as he went along (obviously from time spent in a career where he was accustomed to someone taking dictation).

I couldn’t help smiling, and I threw Jeff sideways glances, thinking how Handy irreverently defied his age. It was like he’d stepped back into 1949, and the details of each story were so specific, you’d think they’d happened yesterday at lunch.

Born in Virginia in 1918 at a now defunct Alexandria hospital, Handy grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. A bright child from the beginning, he received a scholarship to the American University, but he attended two other colleges at night to finish his bachelor’s in three years. His determination and drive were even more evident when he immediately went to work on his master’s in Economics and Public Administration, earning the respect of his professors, who saw his potential.

Armed with the right background (and quite a few recommendation letters), Handy went to work for the Department of the Treasury around 1940, where he helped isolate the finances of enemy nations – much like the financial sanctions against “bad actors” we hear so much about today. Remember, the Coast Guard was part of Treasury until 1967 before being moved to the newly-created Department of Transportation, but more on that later.

When Pearl Harbor was devastated in the attack of Dec. 7, 1941, Handy was selected to be drafted into the Army, but he was deferred for “terrible” eyesight. The bombing of Pearl Harbor deeply affected him, and Handy said he knew that with the pace of the war, it was only a matter of time before he’d “eventually end up holding a pencil or on the battlefield, not able to see what I was shooting at.” He was determined to offer his background in administration and finance in the fight against the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan), but was turned down by the Navy, again for his extreme nearsightedness. While working at the Treasury, the Coast Guard’s name came across his desk, and Handy decided to offer his services one last time.

ROBIN HOOD SIDEBAR – (Lt.) Robin Hood to the Rescue

Within the binders and binders of historical documents Handy kept over the years, I found several crinkle-edged, original letters detailing his conversations with the Fifth Coast Guard District in 1942. The idea that I was holding 75-year-old letters wasn’t lost on me.

Shortly after his 24th birthday in 1942, Handy wrote two letters to the Fifth Coast Guard District in Portsmouth, Virginia.

“Dear sir, …[I]n view of my highly specialized training and experience, I feel certain that I could be of service in the financial aspect of the Coast Guard’s work… I thank you for your consideration, and sincerely hope that I will be permitted to serve with the Coast Guard Reserve. Please telegraph me collect if any further information is desired.”

Telegraph. Me. Collect.

Because this is 75 years ago. When we still telegraphed people.

A man with the unlikely name of Lt. Robin Hood wrote back and said it was worth a shot to see if Handy could get a waiver.

Handy stops us here with a conspiratorial look.

“I made an appointment to go down for an appointment [to Norfolk] with Robin Hood, and I attempted a little bit of cheating to get in,” said Handy, eyes twinkling as he relayed the memory. “Now, I’m not a regular cheater, but I decided it was worth it to get in… so I memorized the whole chart: E-F-P-T-O-Z-L-P-E-D-P-E-C-F-D! How’s that for a 75-year-old memory? Yep, I memorized the whole thing… and then Robin Hood changed the chart on me!”

We can’t help cracking up. His memory really is sharp as a tack.

The Coast Guard eventually granted a waiver for his eyesight (ironically signed by the Coast Guard’s future commandant, then Cmdr. Merlin O’Neill), and within a month of sending his initial letter, Ens. Handy was the Coast Guard Reserve’s newest officer.

After a brief school, he went to work for the Captain of the Port of Norfolk, executing the port security program there. The security of America’s ports was designated as the Coast Guard’s responsibility with the passage of the Espionage Act of 1917. (The Captain of the Port authorities were further defined by the Magnuson Act in 1950.) Handy served on details between Norfolk and Newport News, Virginia, until the end of World War II. He established and commanded a 300-man barracks for his port security operations at the Army’s Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation. He and his teams conducted port security patrols and executed security checks aboard foreign vessels in port. They escorted vessels in and out of port, including the Port of Baltimore. Handy oversaw the cleanup of the infamous SS Montana disaster in June 1943.

Chief Warrant Officer Anastasia Devlin interviews retired Coast Guard Capt. Walter Handy in his home in Virginia, Feb. 28, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Emaia Rise.

Chief Warrant Officer Anastasia Devlin interviews retired Coast Guard Capt. Walter Handy in his home in Virginia, Feb. 28, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Emaia Rise.


The SS Montana, a naval tanker loaded with ammunition, had collided with the SS John Morgan, a cargo ship on its maiden voyage. Along with tanks, jeeps and motorcycles, the civilian ship was carrying airplane parts, which were blown through the side of the Montana into the high-octane tanks the Navy was taking overseas. The explosion produced heat so intense that the Montana’s anchor was melted onto the deck. The captain of the port authorized several loads of dry ice to be dropped onto the tanker to extinguish the fire. Handy served as the Coast Guard’s Officer-in-Charge, providing the security for the Navy while the Montana was salvaged.

When the end of the war came in late 1945, almost all the enlisted Coast Guardsmen were released from active duty, and most of the officers were transferred to the Inactive Ready Reserve. The officers met occasionally in informal settings to exchange and compare information about their war-time port security assignments. There was no training program, curriculum or coordination with the active duty, and that didn’t sit right with Handy, who’d gone back to his job at the Treasury.

“We were just a list of names,” he said. “If we were called suddenly, most of us were just rusty on everything that we had done. We didn’t know any of the newer developments in the port security area. We’d had no training since 1946.”

The Coast Guard had requested appropriations of $4.1 million and $3.6 million in the past to start a Reserve training program, but had been shut down by Congress, almost without discussion. There just wasn’t enough awareness of the Coast Guard and the Reserve’s missions.

But the underdog service was about to discover its own underdog: Lt. Walter Handy.

Now, I can’t tell who benefitted more from this, but it’s a lynch pin in the whole story. One thing the clever young officer had going for him: his office at the Treasury was located about a block and a half down the street from “the old Coast Guard building,” in downtown Washington, D.C.

Imagine exacting any kind of change amid the technology of the 1940s. You may be putting together the Coast Guard’s good fortune of having a Reserve officer with a background in administration and finance located a block and a half away. This meant that Handy was both uniquely qualified and conveniently positioned to be the squeaky wheel the Coast Guard Reserve so badly needed.

He also had a lot of confidence. Around 1948, the 31-year-old lieutenant approached Assistant Commandant Adm. Merlin O’Neill with an idea for a voluntary training program. (Side note: O’Neill would eventually be the man the reservists themselves would occasionally refer to in letters and speeches as, “the father of the Reserve” for all his backing in rehabilitating the Reserve. No slight intended toward Adm. Russell Waesche, of course.) Upon Handy’s recommendation, O’Neill authorized the formation of non-paid, voluntary training units, or VTUs. The officers in each VTU would meet for a few hours once or twice a month, in the evenings. The Washington, D.C., VTU was the first, and Handy referred to it as a “composite unit” made up of multiple job specialties. Eventually, the engineering officers broke off and began their own meetings, and soon the pay and supply officers followed suit.

While the VTU program was a start, Handy knew more formal training was needed, along with the enlisted billets to support.

At the end of April 1949, Handy and two other reservists were called to active duty for a few weeks to flesh out the idea for a real training program, which would incorporate the VTUs into port security efforts. One of the reservists, Lt. Cmdr. Malcolm McGuire, was from Seattle, and upon his return, McGuire sought support from his Washington State senator. Sen. Harry P. Cain agreed to support an amendment to secure funding for the Reserve training program and Handy pitched in to help.

Handy and Cain’s letters slowly traveled back and forth across the country as the young lieutenant prepped Cain for his upcoming statement to the Senate Subcommittee on Appropriations, including written support from the Navy for the Coast Guard’s port security mission and references to a 1947 (Congressionally-directed) survey recommending upkeep of a Coast Guard Reserve for the port security mission.

Using Handy’s materials, Cain fervently defended the Coast Guard’s mission, purpose, and importance. . Unfortunately, the request for $1 million to jump start the training program was still denied – especially frustrating given the fact it was a mere fraction compared to the other armed services’ combined requested (and approved) Reserve appropriation figure of more than $813 million.

Retired Coast Guard Capt. Walter Handy. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Emaia Rise.

Retired Coast Guard Capt. Walter Handy. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Emaia Rise.


Handy occasionally visited “the Coast Guard Building” on Pennsylvania Ave. and 13th Street in downtown Washington, D.C. (The location of Coast Guard headquarters was ever-changing over the last half of the 20th century as departments were shuffled due to administration changes over the years.) While there, he met “Lt. Cmdr. George Downing, D-O-W-N-I-N-G, he was from a New England wealthy socialite family who believed in having a lot of social contacts.”

Downing called Handy aside and suggested that what the Reserve really needed was an organization to promote itself. “He suggested that I form a chapter of the Reserve Officers Association [ROA],” said Handy.

He obtained the Reserve officers’ names and addresses from Coast Guard Headquarters, and sent them a letter informing them of the intent to form an ROA chapter to fight for a Reserve appropriation. Three hundred officers signed up. Though the first ROA charter was granted in 1949 to the D.C. chapter, Handy eventually broke the membership into smaller, more manageable chapters nationwide.

“The first thing we had to do after setting up the Washington chapter was cultivate political contacts in the House, the Senate and the Treasury,” said Handy. “So, strategically, instead of just accepting the [new] charter from the ROA, we planned a ‘charter presentation’ dinner.”

We’re almost three hours into the interview before Handy’s niece Theresa is able to convince him to stop long enough to eat half a sliced chicken sandwich. His thoughts continue shortly after , and presses on as we munch our own sandwiches and listen raptly. Jeff and I are shaking our heads at how clever and well-thought out this 1949 lieutenant version of Captain Handy is.

The charter presentation dinner, held in October 1949, would be the first of several held at the Officers’ Club in the Naval Gun Factory near what is referred to today as the Navy Yard in Washington. Handy invited Reserve and active duty officers [or ‘regulars’ as he called them], Secretaries and executives of the Departments of Defense and Treasury, and anyone else with any clout who might be able to speak on the Coast Guard’s behalf.

“The main problem we had in Congress…was 99 percent of the people didn’t know anything about the port security program, or even the Coast Guard itself,” said Handy. Each VIP was tactically assigned a chapter member as a host or hostess to “provide introductions and liquid refreshments.”

The objective of the dinner was to demonstrate support for the Reserve “all the way to the top.” He purposely coordinated his requests for guest speakers at the dinner to show support for the Reserve and “grind down opposition” in future appropriation attempts.

Curled-edge, black and white photos of the event showed men laughing and talking over cocktails and cigars, uniforms mixing with suits, presentations made over vintage microphones. (No ladies were invited, with the exception of female officers.) The dinner was a success, and Handy’s ever-ticking mind made a mental note to make it an annual event.

Coverage of the dinner was (strategically) made available in magazines and local papers. Handy himself drafted multiple articles for publication in late 1949, highlighting the reasons for having a strong Reserve force available for emergency recall, one that was trained to fight fires, supervise military outloads and protect against sabotage.

In early 1950, as part of his congressional outreach efforts, Handy and his team sent copies of his articles to key members of Congress, as well as the Coast Guard ROA chapters.

Reserve officers were instructed to educate their congressmen and senators on Reserve efforts, write opinion letters and editorials, and gain support from local stakeholders (heads of shipping companies, shipbuilding companies, drydocks, and marine terminals) for a Coast Guard Reserve appropriation.

By now, Handy was spending quite a bit of his (and the Treasury’s) time working on the Coast Guard’s behalf. Handy’s narrative would strike true with many of the Coast Guard’s reservists today:

“I had a very understanding boss, and he had a very understanding boss, and at lunch time I could walk down and meet with people at the Coast Guard office. Also, at the time, my secretary, poor girl, my secretary also had to type quite a bit of Coast Guard material in addition to our own work. … [F]requently, I’d tell my secretary, ‘Mark me down for two hours of annual leave, I’ll be over at the Coast Guard,’ and so that’s the way that worked. I used quite a bit of my annual leave in one or two hour bits like that while I went to Coast Guard Headquarters to work on all kinds of things.”

Handy’s older daughter Jean, with long gray hair flowing over her shoulders, had been listening to her father’s stories. She laughed at this point, remembering her perspective as a child.

“We had an official term, it was called ‘daddy’s Coast Guard calls,’ and what that meant was, ‘He’s on the telephone, and he’s going to be on the telephone for the next three hours, don’t bother him.’”

She and her younger sister Carol laughed at they recalled the family’s understanding of their father’s dedication to his mission.

Despite the personal cost to his family, Handy’s persistence was tireless, and he began to see a glimmer of progress.

One of contacts recommended by the “socialite” Downing was Walter P. Kennedy, the administrative assistant to a congressman from New Jersey. Kennedy, Downing and Handy worked together to get Congressman Gordon Canfield to introduce a $1 million initial appropriation.

Canfield jumped at the chance, and he and his secretary became fast friends with the officers.

They began to work in earnest, and Coast Guard Reserve officers nationwide were instructed to get as many congressmen as they could to vote for the new $1 million amendment. The National ROA instructed their leaders nationwide to contact their congressmen, and the National ROA’s lobbyists were directed to support the amendment as well.

Handy went a step further. As the time for the vote drew near, he provided lists of congressmen’s names to members of the Coast Guard ROA’s Washington, D.C. chapter. The officers were instructed to wait in the galleries and, at the correct moment, notify members of Congress to head in to vote.

Retired Coast Guard Capt. Walter Handy relates his experiences keeping the Coast Guard Reserve force alive after the end of WWII. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Emaia Rise.

Retired Coast Guard Capt. Walter Handy relates his experiences keeping the Coast Guard Reserve force alive after the end of WWII. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Emaia Rise.

In the meantime, Handy began work on the second annual Coast Guard Reserve dinner. The dinner was in honor of newly appointed commandant, but Handy received last minute news that changed the feel of the event.

In the words of one magazine: “[G]uests attending the dinner had another unexpected cause for celebration when the House of Representatives, only two hours before the dinner, tentatively approved an amendment to provide funds for training for the USCGR in its vital port security functions.”

The dinner was a resounding success. In his remarks, Vice Adm. Alfred C. Richmond, a close friend of Handy’s, said the Reserve would have to “pull itself up by its own bootstraps.”

Handy and the ROA had done just that. As Handy stood at the head table that night, he thanked Canfield for introducing the bill, but he also knew the reservists themselves had a lot to do with the day’s success.

“We could account for most of the votes by which Gordon [Canfield]’s amendment passed,” said Handy, knowing which votes had been the result of not-so-subtle Reserve reminders. The Reserve was back in business.

Now, I don’t know if I could say whether the win would be attributed to Handy’s persistence, cleverness, and education, or if it was the correct alignment of the planets that sent him to the Coast Guard when they so badly needed him. It was a win, and the start of a lot more work.

After four hours of talking with the captain, all of us were exhausted, but we promised to come back out. We still had to hear the rest of the story.

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