The Long Blue Line: An African-American Hero Serving in a Segregated Service

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.

William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Atlantic Area Historian
United States Coast Guard

A rare image of Charles Walter David, Jr., prior to his heroic World War II service in the Coast Guard. This is the only photograph of David in the Coast Guard’s collection.

A rare image of Charles Walter David, Jr., prior to his heroic World War II service in the Coast Guard. This is the only photograph of David in the Coast Guard’s collection.

For many individuals it takes a lifetime to learn the skills of leadership, while others come to it naturally. African-American Charles Walter David, Jr., namesake of Fast Response Cutter David, knew instinctively how to lead others despite barriers imposed by the segregated society of mid-20th century America. David served in the United States Coast Guard early in World War II, when the military services barred African Americans from the officer ranks and limited them largely to non-senior enlisted ratings.

Mess Attendant 1/c David was a unique Coast Guardsmen in every way. He reached the ripe age of 26 during his time aboard the cutter Comanche in the Coast Guard’s Greenland Patrol, making him one of the ship’s older enlisted crewmembers. He had a family at home in New York City when many of his shipmates had just learned how to shave. At well over six-feet-tall and 220 pounds, David’s stature intimidated others, but David counted many friends among the cutter’s crew of 60. He had a natural talent for music, playing the blues harmonica in jam sessions with shipmate, friend and saxophone player Storekeeper 1/c Richard “Dick” Swanson. The characteristic that set David apart was the loyalty he had for his cutter and shipmates. This fact seems surprising given the second-class status African Americans held in the Service at the beginning of the war.

David demonstrated his devotion to duty and concern for fellow shipmates in February of 1943, while Comanche served as an escort for the three-ship convoy, SG-19, bound from St. Johns, Newfoundland, to southwest Greenland. Weather conditions during the convoy’s first few days proved horrendous as they usually did in the North Atlantic winter. The average temperature remained well below freezing, the seas were heavy and the wind-driven spray formed layers of ice on the cutter’s exposed decks and superstructure.

The Coast Guard not only fought the elements, it fought an ever-present enemy lurking in the frigid waters as German U-boats hunted the convoys bound for Greenland. At about 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1943, U-223 torpedoed convoy vessel U.S. Army Transport Dorchester, which carried over 900 troops, civilian contractors and crew. Two hours later, the task force commander ordered Comanche to screen rescue efforts by the other escorts. By this time, Dorchester had slipped beneath the waves and those passengers and crew that survived the sinking had taken to the water or lifeboats. On recording the fate of the victims bobbing in the dark waters that night, Comanche’s log noted, “all men in lifejackets lifeless.” However, when the cutter’s lookouts spotted lifeboats full of survivors, the crew threw a cargo net over the cutter’s port side. Charles David, Dick Swanson and several shipmates quickly swung into action clad only in un-insulated uniforms.

Image of Coast Guard cutter Comanche, of the Greenland Patrol, shown in wartime camouflage paint scheme. Coast Guard Collection.

Image of Coast Guard cutter Comanche, of the Greenland Patrol, shown in wartime camouflage paint scheme. Coast Guard Collection.

In a race against time, with waves 10 feet high, David climbed down the cargo net to the lifeboats and hoisted Dorchester’s living yet frozen victims to his shipmates on Comanche’s deck. Swanson worked alongside his friend as they saved nearly 100 survivors from the boats. During the operation, Comanche’s executive officer, Lt. Langford Anderson, slipped and fell into the icy seas. Without hesitation, David plunged into water that could kill within minutes and helped Anderson back on board the cutter. After helping the last survivors up to Comanche’s deck, David climbed up the net. Six years younger than David, Dick Swanson lost use of his limbs and made it only halfway up the cutter’s side. David encouraged his friend, yelling “C’mon Swanny. You can make it!” But Swanson was too exhausted and frozen to go any further. David descended the net and, with the aid of another crewmen, pulled Swanson back up to the cutter’s deck.

Swanson later described Charles David as a “tower of strength” on that day of rescues. David had gone in harm’s way and risked his life to save dozens of Dorchester survivors, Comanche’s executive officer and his friend Swanny. While performing these heroic deeds, David harbored a deadly secret of his own. Days before the rescue operation, he came down with a bad cold, which the exposure to frigid water and sub-freezing temperatures turned into hypothermia.

When Comanche delivered her Dorchester survivors to an Army hospital in Greenland, doctors ordered an ambulance to retrieve David as well. It was the last time his shipmates would ever see him. He became bed-ridden as the hypothermia turned his cold into full-blown pneumonia and, within a few weeks, David succumbed to the illness. Patrolling aboard Comanche, it took a few weeks before David’s shipmates learned that their friend had died.

Official photo of the Service presenting the Navy & Marine Corps Medal to the family of Charles Walter David. Coast Guard Collection.

Official photo of the Service presenting the Navy & Marine Corps Medal to the family of Charles Walter David. Coast Guard Collection.

In the final irony of David’s story, his own family believed he was buried at sea. During the war, the Service had to bury him temporarily in the permafrost of Greenland. After the war, the military re-interred his remains in the Long Island National Cemetery at Farmingdale. For decades, his family lived in New York City, within miles of their loved one’s grave, and not knowing it. However, 60 years after his heroic end, the Service undertook a systematic search for his immediate family and notified his next of kin.

Despite his secondary status in a segregated service, Charles Walter David, Jr., placed the needs of others before his own and played a key role in the rescue of nearly 100 Dorchester survivors. For his heroic service, David posthumously received the Navy & Marine Corps Medal and, in 1999, he was recognized with the Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity in the same ceremony as celebrated South African archbishop, Desmond Tutu. More recently, the United States Coast Guard named a Fast Response Cutter in his honor. David was a true Coast Guardsman and one of the Service’s long blue line, who exemplified the Coast Guard’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.

Sharon David, granddaughter of Petty Officer 1st Class Charles W. David Jr., and Pamela Roundtree, a family friend, stand in front of the Coast Guard Cutter Flores after a Coast Guard Sentinel Class Fast Response Cutter Fleet Dedication at the Bollinger Shipyard in Lockport, La., March 2, 2012.  A Fast Response Cutter will be named after Charles W. David Jr., who died from pneumonia just days after diving into the frigid Atlantic Ocean to help rescue 93 crewmembers of the USS Dorchester after it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat Feb. 3, 1943.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Sharon David, granddaughter of Petty Officer 1st Class Charles W. David Jr., and Pamela Roundtree, a family friend, stand in front of the Coast Guard Cutter Flores after a Coast Guard Sentinel Class Fast Response Cutter Fleet Dedication at the Bollinger Shipyard in Lockport, La., March 2, 2012. A Fast Response Cutter will be named after Charles W. David Jr., who died from pneumonia just days after diving into the frigid Atlantic Ocean to help rescue 93 crewmembers of the USS Dorchester after it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat Feb. 3, 1943. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

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