The Long Blue Line: Native Americans and their Service in the Coast Guard

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.

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Written by William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian

Minority men and women have served in the U.S. Coast Guard since the service’s beginning in 1790. Native Americans from a variety of tribes and locations participated in the Coast Guard’s predecessor services since the early 19th century, representing the second earliest minority group to serve in the Coast Guard.

Photograph of the U.S. Life-Saving Service crew at Neah Bay, Washington Territory. The crew members were predominantly Makah Tribe members. (Coast Guard Collection)

Photograph of the U.S. Life-Saving Service crew at Neah Bay, Washington Territory. The crew members were predominantly Makah Tribe members. (Coast Guard Collection)

The first Native Americans to participate in the predecessor services typically came from coastal tribes whose members were expert watermen. These tribes included the Wampanoag in Massachusetts, Algonquin in North Carolina, Ojibwa in the Great Lakes, and the Makah and Quileute tribes in Washington. Native Americans from these tribes served at shore bases in the U.S. Life-Saving Service and the U.S. Lighthouse Service.

In 1815, the lighthouse keeper at the Gay Head Light on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, hired members of the Wampanoag Tribe to support lighthouse maintenance and operations.

In 1877, an entirely Native American crew and a white keeper manned the Life-Saving Service station in Neah Bay, Washington. The Neah Bay crew included Makah and Quileute surfmen, such as As-chik-abik, Que-dessa, Tsos-et-oos, and Tsul-ab-oos. With the exception of Native American scouts employed by the U.S. Army, this station was the first major¬ity Native American unit in federal service. Ironically, the Neah Bay Station was established a year after the massacre of George Custer’s cavalry by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn.

In 1942, USS Wakefield gunner’s mate George “White Bear” Drapeaux, of the Sioux Nation, helped fight off Japanese aircraft while the transport evacuated civilians from the doomed British territory of Singapore. (Coast Guard Collection)

In 1942, USS Wakefield gunner’s mate George “White Bear” Drapeaux, of the Sioux Nation, helped fight off Japanese aircraft while the transport evacuated civilians from the doomed British territory of Singapore. (Coast Guard Collection)

Native American Coast Guardsmen have also served with distinction in time of war. Carlton West, a Wampanoag citizen of Nantucket, Massachusetts, served as an enlisted man in World War I and World War II. Early in World War II, George “White Bear” Drapeaux, of the Sioux Nation, served as a gunner’s mate aboard the Coast Guard-manned transport USS Wakefield, which lost several crewmembers while evacuating civilians from Singapore before it fell to the Japanese. Drapeaux was one of the first Native American Coast Guardsmen to serve in World War II combat operations.

In 1942, Pawnee tribal member Joseph Toahty operated a landing craft from the same transport ship as Medal of Honor recipient Douglas Munro, bringing ashore Marines in the battle for the Japanese-held island base at Tulagi.

In 1943, Chickasaw citizen James Leftwich enlisted at the age of 14, becoming the youngest known Coast Guard enlistee of the war. At the age of 16, Leftwich suffered wounds in the line of duty at Eniwetok. He had a very productive career and retired a Coast Guard officer in 1964. In Vietnam, Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Hicks, a member of the Sioux Tribe, served with distinction as executive officer of Cutter Mendota and received the Navy Commendation Medal and Presidential Unit Commendation for service in support of Market Time patrols and operations Sea Lords and Silver Mace II.

In recent years, Native American Coast Guard men and women have come from a variety of Indian nations along the coasts as well as inland tribes. These include Commander Donald Winchester, the first Native American graduate of the Coast Guard Academy and Native American Coast Guard aviator. A decorated pilot, Winchester flew for 20 years and logged more than 5,000 flight hours in a variety of Coast Guard aircraft.

A photo of Wampanoag Carlton West during World War I. Native Americans served with distinction in Coast Guard predecessor services since the early 1800s. (Nantucket Historical Association Collection)

A photo of Wampanoag Carlton West during World War I. Native Americans served with distinction in Coast Guard predecessor services since the early 1800s. (Nantucket Historical Association Collection)

Today, more than 1,500 men and women of Native American descent serve in the Coast Guard, including Cmdr. William Seward and Chief Petty Officer Michelle Roberts, both hailing from the Alaskan Tlingit Tribe.

Native Americans have served in the Coast Guard and its predecessor services for over 200 years. These Coast Guard men and women have served as officers and enlisted personnel and have helped lead the way for all Coast Guard minorities. Like all other servicemembers, they walk the long blue line and their efforts have benefitted all who serve in the U.S. military, federal government and the nation.

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