The Long Blue Line: Merle Smith – the first African American graduate of the Coast Guard Academy

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

Merle J. Smith Jr., pictured with his father, U.S. Army Col. Merle J. Smith, Sr., and Coast Guard Commandant Willard J. Smith at the Academy commencement, 1966. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Merle J. Smith Jr., pictured with his father, U.S. Army Col. Merle J. Smith, Sr., and Coast Guard Commandant Willard J. Smith at the Academy commencement, 1966. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

“That’s not acceptable. Something ought to be done about it!” – President John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

In the quote above newly-elected President John F. Kennedy reacted to the all-white Coast Guard Academy cadet corps marching in his inaugural parade. The next day, presidential aide Richard Goodwin contacted Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon, who ordered Academy officials to scrutinize their admissions policies and ensure they did not discriminate against blacks. However, the Academy had been commissioning minority cadets and Officer Candidate School graduates, including blacks, for over 15 years before Kennedy’s inauguration.

Javis L. Wright Jr., the first African American admitted for matriculation at the Coast Guard Academy. He started his academic career in 1955 and had to resign after two years due to serious health problems. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Javis L. Wright Jr., the first African American admitted for matriculation at the Coast Guard Academy. He started his academic career in 1955 and had to resign after two years due to serious health problems. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The first African American to enter the Academy as a cadet, Javis Leon Wright, Jr., also pre-dated Kennedy’s inauguration. Wright graduated from Philadelphia’s John Bartram High School and was one of three Bartram graduates to enter the Academy with the class of 1955. For two years, Wright competed with the Academy’s track and cross-country teams and was well liked by his fellow cadets. However, in 1957, Wright experienced serious health problems and finally had to resign his appointment. Academy superintendent, Rear Admiral Frank Leamy, reluctantly accepted the resignation stating, “I regret that Cadet Wright must be separated from the Coast Guard. He has demonstrated the qualities of character, intelligence and interest that are desired in prospective Commissioned Officers of the Coast Guard.”

The second African American appointment to the Academy was Merle James Smith, Jr. Smith’s father, U.S. Army Colonel Merle J. Smith, had been a member of the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs baseball team and served as an Army officer in counterintelligence and then in ordnance, specializing in nuclear weapons. Merle Jr.’s life as a military child growing up in Germany and Japan provided him a thorough knowledge of history and politics, and proficiency in foreign languages. In his senior year, Smith attended Aberdeen High School in Maryland, where he lettered in football and served as sports editor for the school newspaper.

Photograph of Merle Smith before entering the Coast Guard Academy in 1962. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Photograph of Merle Smith before entering the Coast Guard Academy in 1962. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

When it came time to select a college, Smith could choose from several military academies and universities that accepted him. However, while living overseas, one of Smith’s guidance counselors had recommended he apply to the Coast Guard Academy; and, during Smith’s campus visit, a warm reception from professional football legend and Academy coach, Otto Graham won him over. Graham had played football and baseball for Northwestern University before serving in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he briefly played in the NBA then played nearly ten years in the NFL before receiving an officer’s commission in the Coast Guard and serving as the Academy’s football coach and athletic director. Graham had already sized up Smith’s athletic ability from his application before Smith visited campus. And, using his dynamic personality, Graham convinced Smith to accept an appointment to the Academy. It was the beginning of an enduring friendship.

Smith entered the Academy in June 1962, played football and lettered in the sport for the Academy. Unfortunately, he was sidelined by a knee injury in 1963, when the team enjoyed an unbeaten season. The football team played Western Kentucky University in the Tangerine Bowl, considered one of the Academy’s greatest sporting achievements. During his Academy years, Smith developed strong ties to the institution, cadets and staff, such as Graham. Graham even nick-named Smith “Smitty” and admired the young man for recovering from his knee injury to become a first team defensive end.

In June 1966, Smith completed a Bachelor of Science degree, becoming the first African American cadet to graduate from the Academy. During his four years at the Academy, Smith had never received a demerit for misconduct and, with his close ties to the football team and camaraderie with upperclassmen, he experienced few problems with racism. Cadets London Steverson and Kenneth Boyd would follow Smith, entering the Academy in 1964 and graduating with the class of 1968. These three graduates led the way as the number of African American cadets gradually increased to greater levels over the course of the next two decades.

Lt. j.g. Merle Smith examines the deck gun on an 82-foot Point Class cutter. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Lt. j.g. Merle Smith examines the deck gun on an 82-foot Point Class cutter. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Smith’s first assignment out of the Academy was the 255-foot cutter Minnetonka. He initially served as communications officer and, for his last six months, he served as the cutter’s operations officer. After eighteen months aboard the Minnetonka, he received command of the 95-foot cutter Cape Wash out of Monterey, Calif., where he served for two years. After Cape Wash, the service sent him to Southeast Asia to command 82-foot patrol boats in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, Smith commanded cutters Point Mast and Point Ellis and directed more than 80 naval fire support missions in Operation Market Time. In one Operation Sealords mission, his cutter accounted for the destruction of 10 enemy bunkers, four rocket launchers, 13 structures, and 19 sampans. Smith received the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device, Navy Meritorious Unit Citation, Presidential Unit Citation, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and Vietnam Campaign Medal with four stars for his service in Vietnam. As a cutter commander in Vietnam, Smith also became the first African American officer to command a U.S. warship in close quarters combat. He was also the second African American Coast Guardsman to receive the Bronze Star Medal. In Smith’s Bronze Star citation, Navy Vice Adm. Elmo Zumwalt wrote, “He combined aggressive leadership with mature and prudent judgment to make his units highly effective combatant forces.”

Vice Adm. Thomas Sargent pins the Bronze Star Medal on Merle Smith for his service in Vietnam as a patrol boat commander in operations Market Time and Sea Lords. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Vice Adm. Thomas Sargent pins the Bronze Star Medal on Merle Smith for his service in Vietnam as a patrol boat commander in operations Market Time and Sea Lords. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Merle Smith served with great merit in the Coast Guard and later in civilian life. After returning from Vietnam, he served a number of years at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. During this period, he spent 2 1/2 years on the international affairs staff, attended law school at George Washington University and served as deputy chief of the Coast Guard’s Military Justice Division. In 1975, he was assigned to the law faculty at the Academy where he was reunited with his friend and mentor Otto Graham. There, Smith helped coach the Academy football team and served as advisor for the Class of 1977. In 1979, Smith joined the Reserves and began his civilian career as legal counsel for the Groton-based submarine builder, General Dynamics-Electric Boat Company. Meanwhile, Smith maintained his connection to the Academy by teaching law classes on a part-time basis. In April 2016, the Coast Guard Academy honored Smith with a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of his graduation.

Merle Smith and Coast Guard Academy superintendent, Rear Adm. James Rendon, during the 50th anniversary ceremony of Smith’s graduation from the Academy. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Merle Smith and Coast Guard Academy superintendent, Rear Adm. James Rendon, during the 50th anniversary ceremony of Smith’s graduation from the Academy. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

During his time in the service, Merle Smith did not consider himself a pioneer of ethnic diversity at the Academy or in the U.S. military. His primary concern was to serve his country and apply his military training like any other Coast Guardsman. Smith proved a great credit to his service and country and many minority men and women have followed in his path. He paved the way for numerous African American officers and served as a member of the long blue line.

Comments

comments

Tags: , , , , ,