Bobby Wilks, Coast Guard Aviator and Trailblazer
[By William Thiesen, United States Coast Guard Historian]
In the United States Coast Guard, there are thousands of highly motivated men and women doing extraordinary things. This kind of individual has helped steer the service throughout its 225-year history. The model example of such a Coast Guardsman was Bobby Charles Wilks, an African-American who led the Coast Guard toward greater diversity in the post-World War II era by breaking color barriers for African-American Coast Guard officers and blazing a trail for all minorities in the service.
Bobby Wilks was an overachiever, attending Stowe Teacher’s College in St. Louis and serving as president of his senior class. He was also head of the student choir and his fraternity, and captain of the college track team. Wilks went on to complete a master’s degree in education at St. Louis University, learning the leadership skills he would later use in his career. In a little over a year after completing his graduate degree, he had enlisted in the Coast Guard, received an officer’s commission, and earned his aviator wings through the flight school at Pensacola Naval Air Station.
Wilks rose through the officer ranks and broke many Coast Guard color barriers. In 1956, he became the first African-American to graduate from the post-WWII Officer Candidate School. In 1965, he became the first recognized African-American to achieve a rank higher than lieutenant. Coast Guard predecessor service Capt. Michael “Hell Roarin’ Mike” Healy, the son of a slave and a plantation owner, became a senior officer in the late-19th century. However, Healy appeared to be Caucasian and he never admitted his racial background to others. On the other hand, Wilks was always recognized as a man of color.
At the same time he rose through the officer ranks, Wilks became an accomplished Coast Guard aviator specializing in search and rescue missions. He qualified in over 20 different kinds of aircraft, including various fixed-wing and amphibious aircraft and single and multi-engine helicopters. Wilks served at several aviation units, including Coast Guard air stations in Italy, the Philippines, Hawaii, San Francisco, Massachusetts, Miami and New York. He received a Federal Aviation Administration award for a rescue performed out of Air Station Salem in Massachusetts and an Air Medal for a severe weather rescue flown out of Air Station Barber’s Point in Hawaii. The Sikorsky Helicopter Corporation twice recognized him with the Winged-S Helicopter Rescue Award for daring missions demonstrating skill and courage in piloting a helicopter.
Cmdr. Bobby Wilks, center, who served as operations officer as well as pilot at Coast Guard Air Station Barber’s Point. (U.S. Coast Guard Collection)
As a Coast Guard aviation officer, Wilks broke even more color barriers. He was the service’s first minority aviator and its first African-American helicopter pilot. He later became the Coast Guard’s first minority aviation operations officer and first air station executive officer. In 1977, he became the first recognized African-American in the service to achieve the rank of captain. And, in 1979, he became the first minority officer to command a Coast Guard air station.
Bobby Wilks achieved great things as an aviator; however, his greatest contribution to the Coast Guard stemmed from his skills as a leader and motivator. Throughout his pioneering career, he remained an educator at heart, mentoring many of the next generation of service leaders, such as flag officers Erroll Brown and Manson Brown. In 1986, Wilks retired from the service after a 31 year career.
In 2009, Wilks passed away at the age of 78 and was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Wilks was a member of the long blue line who blazed a trail for minorities in the service and helped steer the Coast Guard toward greater diversity in the late-20th century.
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.