The Long Blue Line: Clarence Samuels – Coast Guard trailblazer

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area historian

Photograph of crew of Coast Guard cutter Earp with a young Clarence Samuels in last row to the left. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Photograph of crew of Coast Guard cutter Earp with a young Clarence Samuels in last row to the left. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Clarence Lorenzo Samuels should be remembered as one of the most important minority trailblazers in the history of the U.S. military. Born and raised in Panama, Samuels enlisted on board the cutter Earp in 1920 when the cutter visited the Panama Canal Zone. At that time, the U.S. military categorized recruits by color alone and not ethnicity, so the service considered Samuels a “negro” rather than the Afro-Hispanic recruit that he was.

A skilled seaman and natural leader, Samuels rose quickly through the enlisted ranks. He received the rate of seaman 2nd class upon enlisting and, over the next eight years, he became a naturalized citizen and saw sea time aboard five different cutters. In July 1928, he received command of the harbor patrol cutter AB-15, home-ported in Savannah. This would be a rapid rise for any enlisted man, but Samuels was a black man serving in Georgia in the 1920s. With racism and Jim Crow laws institutionalized in the South at that time, Samuels’ rise through the enlisted ranks proved very impressive.

Some historians have credited Samuels as the first minority man in uniform to take charge of a Federal vessel due to his command of AB-15. However, famed Revenue Cutter Service officer Michael “Hell Roarin’ Mike” Healy, the son of a slave and a plantation owner, commanded cutters decades before Samuels and could claim that title. But Healy did not appear to be African American and, in the American culture of the 19th-century, he refused to admit his ethnic background to others. On the other hand, Samuels openly admitted and was recognized by others as a man of color.

Chief warrant officer Samuels serving as an instructor at the wartime Coast Guard Training Center at Manhattan Beach, New York City.  Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Chief warrant officer Samuels serving as an instructor at the wartime Coast Guard Training Center at Manhattan Beach, New York City. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the years leading up to World War II, a time when black Coast Guardsmen served mainly in food service rates, Samuels received a variety of non-food service enlisted assignments. In 1929, the Coast Guard promoted him to chief quartermaster. This was historic in more ways than one. To start, he was the first minority individual to achieve what was then the highest enlisted rank in the Service. In addition, the quartermaster rating was one of the most important and responsible enlisted positions on board a cutter at that time.

During the 1930s, Samuels left sea duty and served ashore. In 1930, he transferred to North Carolina’s famous all-black Pea Island Life-Saving Station, where he served for five years. In 1933, as part of the government-wide Economy Act, the Service downgraded Samuels’ rate to boatswain’s mate 1st class. During the late 1930s, the service advanced him to the rate of chief photographer’s mate, the first African American to do so. However, during this time, he served primarily as the personal driver for Coast Guard Commandant Russell Waesche rather than as a photographer.

In World War II, Samuels achieved several more barrier-breaking firsts in the history of the U.S. military and Federal Government. He was one of the first two black individuals in the Coast Guard to become a warrant officer. Next, he received a wartime commission as a lieutenant junior grade, becoming one of the first African Americans to receive a commission in a U.S. sea service. The Coast Guard later promoted Samuels to full lieutenant, making him one of the first blacks in a U.S. sea service to achieve that commissioned rank.

Official Service photo showing Samuels as a lieutenant junior grade. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Official Service photo showing Samuels as a lieutenant junior grade. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

During the war, Samuels received a variety of assignments. As a warrant officer, he instructed recruits in signaling at the Manhattan Beach Training Station. After his promotion to lieutenant junior grade, he received assignment as the damage control officer on board the Coast Guard-manned USS Sea Cloud, the first de-segregated Federal vessel in U.S. history. He remained on Sea Cloud for a year before he received command of Light Vessel 115, which served as an examination ship and net tender near his home in the Panama Canal Zone. This assignment qualified him as the first African-American officer to command a U.S. ship in wartime as well as the first to command a U.S. ship in a war zone.

While commanding LV-115, the Service promoted Samuels to full lieutenant. He next received command of LV-91, a lightship that was armed and served as an examination vessel at Key West. Not long after that, Samuels transferred to the armed 180-foot buoy tender Sweetgum, out of Miami, which served aids to navigation and salvage missions, as well as occasional convoy escort duty and submarine net tending.

As part of the Coast Guard’s postwar demobilization, the Service returned Samuels to the enlisted rate of chief boatswain’s mate. For his final career assignment, he transferred to command of the buoy tender Tulip, based in Manila in the newly liberated Philippines. It was there that he retired in 1947, after a twenty-seven year career. Several years later, he returned to the U.S. and made his home in Sonoma, California.

Samuels’ Coast Guard career proved very unique not only because of the varied assignments he received, but also to the many ethnic barriers he broke. Samuels’ achievements seem all the more significant in light of the fact that the first African-American officer to command a U.S. Navy ship took charge in 1962, nearly 35 years after Samuels. Samuels was a minority trailblazer and a member of the long blue line; and his barrier-breaking achievements led the way for minorities in all of America’s military services.

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