The History of African-Americans in Coast Guard Combat
[By William H. Thiesen, Historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area]
In 228 years of Coast Guard history, African-Americans have been the first minority group to fight and the first to sacrifice. During the early years of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, many African-American cuttermen were slaves as well as free men of color. Regardless of their status, blacks served side-by-side with their white shipmates.
In the Quasi-War with France of the 1790s and the War of 1812, African-American cuttermen were among the first to fight against Royal Navy warships. A 15-year-old black cutterman captured off the cutter James Madison in the War of 1812 is considered the youngest prisoner-of-war in Coast Guard history. Moreover, in 1836, the service experienced its first African-American combat loss when assistant keeper and freedman Aaron Carter died defending the Cape Florida Lighthouse against an attack in the Seminole War.
War often serves as a catalyst for cultural change and it did for African-Americans serving in the Coast Guard’s predecessor services. During the Civil War, blacks comprised 5 to 10 percent of the crew members aboard revenue cutters. Given the small size of cutter crews, this proved an early form of integration. As the status of countless African-Americans changed from slave to freedman, predecessor services such as the U.S. Lighthouse Service began hiring former slaves, or “contrabands.” For example, in 1863, a contraband crew operated the Fishing Rip Lightship, near the captured city of Port Royal, South Carolina.
As with the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War of 1898 spurred cultural change. For example, Congress awarded medals to minority combat heroes for the first time in Coast Guard history. Revenue Cutter Hudson’s African-American steward Moses Jones and cook Henry Savage fed ammunition to the cutter’s guns in the hard-fought Battle of Cardenas Bay, Cuba. These two men were the first minority Americans honored for heroism in combat with the Congressional Bronze Medal.
World War I found individuals from every minority group serving in the Coast Guard. Torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1918, the cutter Tampa was lost with all hands. This proved the greatest American naval loss of life due to combat during the war. Tampa’s 10 African-American crew members were the first uniformed minority Coast Guardsmen to die in combat. They were also the first minority Coast Guardsmen to receive the Purple Heart Medal.
During World War II, the Coast Guard undertook the federal government’s first official experiments in desegregation. In 1943, the Coast Guard began sending African-American officer candidates through its Coast Guard Academy-based Reserve Officer Training Program and commissioned its first African-American officers. By late 1943, the Coast Guard assigned 50 black officers and enlisted men to the Coast Guard-manned USS Sea Cloud. The experiment proved a success and set the standard for integration in other vessels of the U.S. sea services. Both the commissioning of African-American officers and the Sea Cloud experiment came a year before similar milestones in the U.S. Navy. By 1945, the Coast Guard had appointed three black ship commanders, one on the east coast, another guarding the Panama Canal and a third in the Pacific. In addition, five African-American women enlisted to become SPARS and were the first black females to don a Coast Guard uniform.
African-Americans also served heroically in wartime operations. In 1943, African-American Louis Etheridge, Jr., commanded a gun crew aboard cutter Campbell and helped sink the U-boat, U-606. He was the first minority Coast Guardsman to receive the Bronze Star Medal. In February 1943, mess attendant Charles David, Jr., aboard cutter Comanche, volunteered to rescue survivors of the torpedoed Army transport Dorchester from the freezing waters of Greenland. David was responsible for saving numerous victims of the lost ship and later died of pneumonia. He was posthumously awarded the Navy & Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart Medal. African-American war heroes received numerous honors and awards, including the Bronze Star Medal, Navy & Marine Corps Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, Silver Lifesaving Medal and Purple Heart Medal. In addition, the service has recognized five African-Americans who served in World War II as honored namesakes of Coast Guard cutters.
By the end of the war, 5,000 blacks had served in the Coast Guard with one of every five reaching petty officer or warrant officer levels. These men and women included Jacob Lawrence, a crew member aboard Sea Cloud, who became a famous modernist painter in the 1950s and 1960s. Others included SPAR Olivia Hooker, who went on to become a distinguished professor of psychology at Fordham University, retiring at the age of 87.
Alexander “Alex” Haley enlisted in 1939 as a steward’s mate and rose to become the first chief journalist in the Coast Guard. After 20 years, he retired to pursue writing and won awards as the author of such books as “Roots” and the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Later, he received the first honorary degree awarded by the Coast Guard Academy. In 1945, Lt. j.g. Harvey Russell became the fourth African-American officer to command a Coast Guard vessel. After he left the service, he joined the Pepsi Cola Company and, in the early 1960s, he broke America’s corporate color barrier when he rose to vice president of that multi-national corporation. In 1943, Russell’s friend and Sea Cloud shipmate, Lt. j.g. Joseph Jenkins, had received an invitation from the African nation of Liberia to serve as the civil engineer in charge of design and construction of that country’s infrastructure projects. However, Jenkins declined the invitation and, after the war, returned to his hometown of Detroit, where he oversaw construction of the Motor City’s rapidly expanding freeway system. After the war, Coast Guardsman Emlen Tunnel became a professional football star with the New York Giants. He was the first African-American inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame and experts rank him as one of the 100 greatest players in NFL history.
By the end of the war, all enlisted rates were open to African-American recruits. However, that advance was just the beginning as African-Americans gained greater access and equality in all parts of the service. The first black cadet entered the Coast Guard Academy in 1955 and Merle Smith became the first African-American graduate in 1966. As a cutter commander in Vietnam, Smith became the service’s second black recipient of the Bronze Star Medal.
African-Americans have served in every conflict fought by the Coast Guard and its predecessor services, and currently comprise the longest serving minority in the service. Today, the service commemorates the achievements and sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of African-Americans over the course of its 228-year history. These members of the long blue line have gone in harm’s way and many have made the ultimate sacrifice for their service and their nation.
This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.