The Long Blue Line: Hispanic-American History of the U.S. Coast Guard

(From left) Allan Dillenbeck, Coast Guard Cutter Point Cypress’ South Vietnamese Navy liaison, a U.S. Navy medic, and Fireman Heriberto “Eddie” Hernandez aboard their Whaler Sept. 20, 1968. Photo courtesy of Allan Dillenbeck.

Written by William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

Hispanic-Americans have served in the U.S. Coast Guard for nearly 200 years – most of the lifespan of the service. During this time, they have come a long way, persevering with a dedication to the Coast Guard that has benefitted all who serve in it.

The original St. Augustine Lighthouse, first tended under U.S. Lighthouse Service control by Hispanic-American keeper Juan Andreu, is depicted in this antique postcard.

Ethnically Hispanic men and women began to serve in Coast Guard predecessor services in the first half of the 19th century. In 1821, Florida became a U.S. territory, as would several other former Spanish territories during the 1800s. From 1824 to 1845, Juan Andreu served as the keeper of the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Of Menorcan ancestry, he was the first Hispanic-American to serve in a Coast Guard predecessor service and the first to oversee a federal installation.

In 1843, Joseph Ximenez, of Key West, assumed control of the Carysfort Reef Lightship, making him the first Hispanic-American to oversee a Coast Guard vessel. After California became a U.S. territory in 1847, Hispanics also began to enlist and serve on board West Coast revenue cutters.

During the remainder of the 19th century, Hispanic-American participation in Coast Guard predecessor services increased gradually. In 1859, Juan Andreu’s widow, Maria Mestre de los Dolores, became keeper of St. Augustine Light. She was the first Hispanic-American woman to serve in a Coast Guard predecessor service and the first to oversee a federal installation; she also had the distinction of serving in both the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the Confederate Lighthouse Service during the Civil War.

1898 photo of Revenue Cutter Algonquin, which carried a 25 percent Hispanic crew while homeported in San Juan, Puerto Rico. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Many other Hispanic-Americans manned lighthouses in Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana. In 1876, the Treasury Department established the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and lifesaving stations along the Gulf of Mexico provided even more opportunities for Hispanics, such as surfmen Telesford Peña and Ramon Delgado.

The early 1900s saw greater opportunities for Hispanic-American service members. After the 1898 Spanish-American War, the U.S. Lighthouse Service began overseeing lighthouses in Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service established a base in San Juan. These installations brought greater numbers of Hispanic recruits into the Lighthouse Service and the Revenue Cutter Service. By 1915, the Puerto Rico-based Revenue Cutter Algonquin enjoyed the unusually high proportion of 25 percent Hispanic crewmembers.

Chief Boatswain’s Mate Pablo Valent, of Coast Guard Station Brazos, Texas. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

World War I saw the first Hispanic battle casualty, when Cuban-American Seaman Richard Cordova lost his life onboard Coast Guard Cutter Tampa, torpedoed in 1918 with all hands lost. In September 1919, Coast Guard Station Brazos, Texas, Boatswain’s Mate Pablo Valent and Surfman Indalecio Lopez helped rescue the crew of the hurricane-damaged schooner Cape Horn. For their heroic efforts, Valent and Lopez received the Silver Lifesaving Medal.

The Interwar Period saw still greater opportunities for Hispanic-Americans in the Coast Guard. In 1925,Chief Gunner’s Mate Joseph Aviles transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard to become the service’s first Hispanic-American chief petty officer. In his 28-year career, Station Brazos’ Valent went on to achieve the rate of chief petty officer and assumed command of the station, becoming the first Hispanic-American to oversee a Coast Guard boat station.

In 1928, Puerto Rican-born Henry Garcia received an officer’s commission to become the first recognized minority officer in the Coast Guard. And, in 1938, Garcia assumed command of Coast Guard Cutter Morris, to become the first Hispanic-American to command a cutter.

Joseph Tezanos, who distinguished himself in the 1944 West Loch explosion in Pearl Harbor, was one of numerous minority heroes of World War II. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The Second World War accelerated the advancement of minorities. The draft greatly increased minority proportions in enlisted rates and Hispanic-Americans began to fill more officer billets. Many Hispanic-Americans joined the Coast Guard as wartime temporary reservists, such as Lt. Cmdr. Juan Ceballos, who commanded Charleston, South Carolina’s mounted beach patrol division. In 1942, Juan del Castillo completed reserve officer training to become the first of several Hispanic-Americans to do so.

Hispanic-American heroes of World War II received various honors and awards. These included Joseph Tezanos, who rescued victims of the catastrophic West Loch explosion in Pearl Harbor in 1944, the largest accidental explosion of World War II. Tezanos received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, a citation signed personally by Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, and a commendation letter from the Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Russell Waesche. Tezanos received orders to begin reserve officer training at the Coast Guard Academy, after which he received his commission. He was posthumously honored as the namesake of a Sentinel-class fast response cutter homeported in Puerto Rico.

Hispanic-American men and women served with distinction in the years following World War II. Enlisted war veteran John Martinez entered the Coast Guard Academy in 1947 and became the first known Hispanic graduate of that institution followed by Carlos Garcia, who graduated

in 1955. During the Vietnam War, Larry Villareal, an Engineman on the Coast Guard Cutter Point Banks, received the Silver Star Medal for rescuing troops by boat under heavy enemy fire. He was the first Hispanic-American Coast Guardsman to receive that honor. Engineman Heriberto Hernandez died in combat and posthumously received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals and is also the namesake for an FRC, also homeported in Puerto Rico. After the war, Cuban-American pilot Alberto Gaston transferred from the U.S. Army to become the first Hispanic-American aviator in the Coast Guard. In 1987, Jose Rodriguez graduated from the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer school to become the first minority rescue swimmer.

Marilyn Melendez Dykman, the first Hispanic-American female aviator in the Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The participation of Hispanic-American women also grew over the course of the 20th century. The first Hispanic-American females to don a Coast Guard uniform began serving in 1942 as members of the SPARs, the Coast Guard’s women’s reserve corps. In 1983, the first two Hispanic females graduated from the Academy. In 1991, Katherine Faverey took command of Coast Guard Cutter Bainbridge Island, becoming the first Hispanic-American woman to command a cutter. And in 1991, Marilyn Melendez Dykman transferred from the U.S. Army to become the service’s first Hispanic-American female aviator. Since the 1990s, Hispanic-American women have reached senior officer and enlisted ranks.

Pioneering work by Hispanic-Americans in the 20th century paved the way for officers in modern times. In 2006, Rear Adm. Ronald Rábago became the service’s first Hispanic-American flag officer. In 2009, Rear Adm. Joseph “Pepe” Castillo assumed command of the 11th Coast Guard District, becoming the first Hispanic-American district commander. Castillo achieved greater seniority when he became deputy commander of the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area. And in 2015, Rear Adm. James Rendon became the first Hispanic-American superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy.

Hispanic-Americans have served with distinction in the Coast Guard since the 1820s. These members of the long blue line pioneered the way ahead for all minorities; and their efforts have benefitted all who serve in the U.S. military, federal government, and the nation as a whole.

 

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