The Long Blue Line: The Coast Guard Academy – commissioning minority officers for 75 years!

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, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

These men and women were the first known minority service members to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy. U.S. Coast Guard photos.

These men and women were a few of the first known minority service members to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy. U.S. Coast Guard photos.

The U.S. Coast Guard has had a history of ethnic diversity that rivals all other federal agencies. Therefore, it is only fitting that we should document the service’s diverse history by focusing on the Coast Guard Academy, which has commissioned minority officers for 75 years.

During World War II, the Coast Guard first opened up the Academy to minority trainees. In 1942, the service began to admit minority candidates to its Reserve Officer Training Course (now known as Officer Candidate School) then located at the Academy.

Hispanic-American Juan del Castillo, first minority trainee at the Coast Guard Academy, who completed the Academy’s Reserve Officer Training Course in 1942. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Hispanic-American Juan del Castillo, first minority trainee at the Coast Guard Academy, who completed the Academy’s Reserve Officer Training Course in 1942. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Juan del Castillo completed the Reserve Officer Training Course (ROTC) in December 1942 to become the first of several minority trainees to do so. During World War II, a number of Hispanic-American enlisted heroes received appointments to the ROTC program, including Adalberto Flores and Joseph Tezanos. Prior to his appointment, Flores distinguished himself as a beachmaster in heavily-contested amphibious landings in the Pacific while Joseph Tezanos rescued victims of the catastrophic West Loch (Pearl Harbor) explosion, the largest accidental explosion during the war. After graduating, del Castillo, Flores and Tezanos served as commissioned officers for the duration of the war.

In 1943, the African-American officer candidates entered the ROTC Program. On April 13, 1943, Ens. Joseph Jenkins graduated from ROTC. He became the first commissioned U.S. sea service officer of African-American ancestry since Revenue Cutter Service officer Michael Healy. Healy was a very light-skinned African-American cutter captain whose ethnic heritage remained unknown during his lifetime. In early 1944, African-American Harvey Russell also graduated from the ROTC program. Jenkins and Russell served on the desegregated cutters Sea Cloud and Hoquiam then went on to become the first “recognized” African-American officer to command cutters or U.S. vessels of any kind. On the other hand, the Navy commissioned its first African-American officer a year after the Coast Guard and its first African-American ship captain, Samuel Gravely, took command over 15 years later, in 1961.

Minority men began to enter the Coast Guard Academy as cadets in the last year of World War II. Asian-Americans led the way with Chinese-American Jack Ngum Jones becoming the first minority cadet to enter the Academy in 1945, graduating in 1949. 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 aviators, flying polar missions and, in 1986, piloting the first U.S. military aircraft to visit China since World War II. Harry Toshiyuki Suzuki graduated in 1963. While ethnically Japanese, Suzuki was born and raised in Hawaii.

Joseph Jenkins graduated from the Coast Guard Academy’s Reserve Officer Training Course in 1943 to become the first recognized African-American officer in the history of the Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Joseph Jenkins graduated from the Coast Guard Academy’s Reserve Officer Training Course in 1943 to become the first recognized African-American officer in the history of the Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Other minority cadets began to enter the Coast Guard Academy in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Enlisted World War II veteran John Martinez received an appointment in 1947 and, in 1951, he became the first known Hispanic graduate of the Academy. Carlos Garcia followed, graduating in 1955. That same year, Javis Wright became the first African-American admitted to the Academy. After two years as a cadet and Academy track athlete, he had to resign his appointment due to serious health problems.

Following Wright, African-American Merle Smith entered the Academy in 1962. In 1966, Smith became the first black graduate of the Coast Guard Academy. 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 the second African-American Coast Guardsman to receive the Bronze Star Medal. Cadets London Steverson and Kenneth Boyd followed Smith, entering the Academy in 1964 and graduating with the class of 1968. These four men led the way as the number of African-American cadets gradually increased over the next two decades.

45 photograph of Hispanic-American war hero Joseph Tezanos aboard the transport Joseph Dickman after receiving his officer’s commission through the Academy’s Reserve Officer Training Course. Photo courtesy of the Tezanos family.

45 photograph of Hispanic-American war hero Joseph Tezanos aboard the transport Joseph Dickman after receiving his officer’s commission through the Academy’s Reserve Officer Training Course. Photo courtesy of the Tezanos family.

In the same year, Smith completed studies at the Coast Guard Academy; Donald Winchester became the first known Native-American graduate of the Academy. Of Cherokee descent, Winchester was also the service’s first known Native-American aviator. A decorated pilot, he flew for 20 years and logged more than 5,000 flight hours in a variety of Coast Guard aircraft before retiring with the rank of commander.

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

In the 1970s and 1980s, countless minority women began to climb the Coast Guard’s enlisted and officer ranks. These women were among the first female graduates of the Academy. In 1980, Japanese-American Monyee Smith matriculated with the first female class to become the first minority female graduate of the Academy. In 1982, Chinese-American Jeanien Yee became the second minority graduate. Nineteen-eighty-three saw even more minority female graduates, including African-Americans Angela Dennis and Daphne Reese, and Hispanic-Americans Jacqueline Ball and Deborah Winnie. In 1986, Filipino-American Emily Salanio became the first known Pacific Island-American female to graduate from the Academy. Janet Emerson, from the class of 1988, was the first known Native-American woman to graduate from the Academy.

Japanese-American Moynee Smith, of the Class of 1980, was the first minority female graduate of the Coast Guard Academy. Photo courtesy of the Coast Guard Academy Tide Rips.

Japanese-American Monyee Smith, of the Class of 1980, was the first minority female graduate of the Coast Guard Academy. Photo courtesy of the Coast Guard Academy Tide Rips.

The Coast Guard Academy’s minority graduates later led the way for diversity at the service’s senior officer and flag levels. In 1998, African-American graduate Erroll Brown became the service’s first minority flag officer. Ronald Rábago followed, becoming the service’s first Hispanic flag officer in 2006. In 2013, Academy graduate Joseph Vojvodich became the Coast Guard’s first Asian-American flag officer. In 2015, James Rendon became the service’s third Hispanic-American flag officer and the first minority superintendent to oversee the Coast Guard Academy and for any U.S. military academy. In 2016, Academy graduate Andrew Tiongson became the service’s first Pacific Island-American flag officer.

While many commissioned officers have followed in their path, these men and women were the first known minority service members to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy. During their time in the service, they did not consider themselves pioneers of ethnic diversity in the U.S. military. They were members of the long blue line who used their education to implement vital Coast Guard missions and assignments.

Monyee Smith’s name was corrected. 

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