The Long Blue Line: Coast Guard’s Asian American Pacific Islander history

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
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

A rare photo showing Asian and Pacific Island personnel aboard Cutter Bear. These personnel began to serve on West Coast cutters immediately after the Civil War. Coast Guard Collection.

A rare photo showing Asian and Pacific Island personnel aboard Cutter Bear. These personnel began to serve on West Coast cutters immediately after the Civil War. Coast Guard Collection.

Asian and Pacific Island men and women have participated in the U.S. Coast Guard for over 160 years, playing an important role in the history of the service and its predecessor services.

Cultural contact with Asian and Pacific Island peoples came only as the nation’s borders expanded to the Pacific Rim. The first documented case of an Asian man serving aboard a cutter took place in 1853, when the San Francisco-based cutter Argus rescued the lone survivor of the dismasted junk Yatha Maru, fed and clothed him, and enlisted him into the crew. The cutter’s commanding officer, Lt. William Pease, phonetically spelled this first Asian recruit’s name as “Dee-Yee-Noskee.”

Photo of Chiaio-shung Soong during his years in the United States. This image was taken at his church in Wilmington, N.C. Courtesy of the 5th Avenue Methodist Church, Wilmington.

Photo of Chiaio-shung Soong during his years in the United States. This image was taken at his church in Wilmington, N.C. Courtesy of the 5th Avenue Methodist Church, Wilmington.

Cutter muster roles tell the rest of the story of Asian and Pacific Islander participation in the 19th century. Ethnically Asian and Pacific Island names began to appear on cutter muster rolls just after the Civil War. Expanded revenue cutter operations in the Pacific and the purchase of Alaska in 1867 presented an opportunity for more Chinese and Japanese men to enter the rolls on West Coast cutters. As with other minorities, these men initially filled positions in food service or non-ranking enlisted rates. By the end of the century, virtually every Pacific-based cutter employed Asian and Pacific Island crewmembers.

Two notable Asian service members defied the West Coast pattern and enlisted on the East Coast. Chiaio-shung Soong emigrated from China to Boston as a teenager to work in his uncle’s tea shop. Dissatisfied with this work, Soong enlisted on board the cutter Schuyler Colfax in 1879 and transferred to the North Carolina-based cutter Gallatin a year later. After his brief career in the Revenue Cutter Service, Soong attended Duke and Vanderbilt universities before returning to China as a missionary. He became a wealthy and influential power broker in Chinese politics and his children were among early 20th century China’s most powerful military, political and economic leaders. April 1904 saw 37-year-old F. Miguchi, of Kobe, Japan, enlist as a cook aboard the cutter Gresham. Before he left the service in December 1905, he had advanced in rate from ship’s cook to wardroom steward; saved the life of a drowning cutterman; and received the first Silver Lifesaving Medal awarded to a minority Coast Guardsman. Little else is known about Miguchi and even his first name remains a mystery to this day.

Samuel Amalu was one of many Pacific Island personnel who entered the Lighthouse Service after the 1898 annexation of Hawai’i. Coast Guard Collection.

Samuel Amalu was one of many Pacific Island personnel who entered the Lighthouse Service after the 1898 annexation of Hawai’i. Coast Guard Collection.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Asian recruits continued to serve mainly on cutters based out of the West Coast. However, the 1898 Spanish-American War altered the service’s recruiting and the early 1900s saw countless Asian and Pacific Island enlistments from captured territory, primarily the Philippines. In 1898, Congress also passed legislation annexing the Hawai’ian Islands as a U.S. territory. As a hub of Pacific commerce and culture, Hawai’i brought even more Asian and Pacific Island recruits into the Revenue Cutter Service. So when the U.S. Lighthouse Service began overseeing lighthouse operations in Hawai’i, many of the keepers and assistant keepers were native Hawai’ians. These men included Manuel Ferreira and Samuel Amalu, who joined the Lighthouse Service in 1906 and served over 30 years. He became the dean of Hawai’ian lighthouse keepers and set the performance standard for future keepers. Known as one of the “grand old men of Hawai’ian lighthouse lore,” Ferreira began his career in 1908 and retired in 1946. He served as the keeper of seven lighthouses over the course of his nearly 30-year career.

Florence Smith Finch supplied food and medicine to American POWs in the Philippines then became a Coast Guard SPAR late in World War II. Coast Guard Collection.

Florence Smith Finch supplied food and medicine to American POWs in the Philippines then became a Coast Guard SPAR late in World War II. Coast Guard Collection.

Asian and Pacific Island personnel saw advances as well as setbacks in World War II. Hawai’ian-American Coast Guardsman Melvin Kealoha Bell manned the Diamond Head radio station during the attack on Pearl Harbor warning commercial vessels that a surprise attack was underway. He later served as a member of the U.S. Navy’s intelligence office helping crack the Imperial Japanese Navy’s secret codes. Some Asian and Pacific Island men joined the Coast Guard as wartime temporary Reservists, such as Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, considered Hawai’i’s greatest athlete and the father of international surfing. On the other hand, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were excluded from participating in the Coast Guard bringing to a temporary close the 85-year record of ethnically Japanese service members. That policy was later reversed and Japanese Americans returned to the Service.

During WWII, Filipinos comprised the largest ethnically Asian and Pacific Island group to serve in the Coast Guard. Most of these men were American citizens, but many native Filipino military men personnel transferred to the Coast Guard after the Japanese captured their homeland in 1942. The exiled president of the Philippines even transferred the patrol boat Bataan and its crew to the Coast Guard for the duration of the war. Native Filipino Florence Finch worked for Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence office before the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. After the fall of the island nation, she smuggled supplies to American prisoners-of-war and Filipino guerrillas. The Japanese arrested Finch, but American forces freed her in early 1945 and she boarded a Coast Guard-manned transport bound for the U.S. She next enlisted in the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, or SPARs, becoming the first Pacific Island-American woman to don a Coast Guard uniform.

This photograph from the Coast Guard Academy yearbook “Tide Rips” shows Jack Ngum Jones, the first known minority to graduate from that institution. Coast Guard Collection.

This photograph from the Coast Guard Academy yearbook “Tide Rips” shows Jack Ngum Jones, the first known minority to graduate from that institution. Coast Guard Collection.

Asian Americans were the first minority graduates of the Coast Guard Academy. In 1949, Chinese-American Jack Ngum Jones became the first minority officer to graduate from the Academy. Native Chinese Kwang-Ping Hsu graduated from the Academy in 1962. He was the first foreign-born Academy graduate and one of the Coast Guard’s first minority Coast Guard aviators, flying missions primarily in the Arctic and Antarctic. Harry Toshiyuki Suzuki graduated in 1963. While ethnically Japanese-American, Suzuki was born and raised in Hawai’i. Japanese-American Moynee Smith become the first Asian-American and minority female graduate of the Academy in 1980 and, in 1982, Jeanien Yee became the second Asian-American graduate. In 1986, native Vietnamese Hung Nguyen became the first Vietnamese-American graduate of the Academy.

Kwang-Ping Hsu, born in mainland China was one of the service’s first minority aviators and became known for polar aviation missions. Coast Guard Collection.

Kwang-Ping Hsu, born in mainland China was one of the service’s first minority aviators and became known for polar aviation missions. Coast Guard Collection.

Ethnically Pacific Island men and women began to matriculate from the Coast Guard Academy in the 1960s. In 1968, Chamorro-American Juan Salas graduated from the Academy. He was the first known Pacific Island-American to matriculate from the Academy and the first native of Guam to graduate from any U.S. military academy. In 1986, he also became the first Guam native to command a U.S. vessel. Also, in 1986, Filipino-American Emily Salanio became the first known Pacific Island-American female to graduate from the Academy. Seven years earlier, in 1979, Filipino Wilfredo Tamayo completed the Academy’s International Cadet Program. He was the first graduate of the program and he later became the 22nd commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard.

Recent decades have seen Asian and Pacific Island service members enter senior officer and enlisted levels in all branches of the service. For example, 1958 saw Manuel Tubella transfer from the Marine Corps to become the service’s first minority Coast Guard aviator eventually advancing to the rank of captain. The 21st century has seen further Asian and Pacific Islander firsts. In 2013, Rear Adm. Joseph Vojvodich became the Coast Guard’s first Asian-American flag officer and, in 2016, Rear Adm. Andrew Tiongson became the service’s first Pacific Island-American flag officer.

In 2014, Rear Adm. Joseph Vojvodich became the service’s first Asian-American flag officer. Coast Guard Collection.

In 2014, Rear Adm. Joseph Vojvodich became the service’s first Asian-American flag officer. Coast Guard Collection.

For over 160 years, thousands of ethnically Asian and Pacific-Island men and women have served with distinction in the U.S. Coast Guard. They have been diligent members of the long blue line and they will play an important role in shaping the service in the 21st century.

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