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My Coast Guard
Commentary | June 25, 2021

Fair winds and following seas: Cmdr. Merle Smith, CGA's 1st African American graduate

By Nicole Bertrand, MyCG Staff

A pioneer, commander, lawyer, athlete, husband, father, and friend are words that describe Cmdr. Merle Smith, Jr.  The first African American Academy graduate from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and officer to command a U.S. war ship in close quarters combat will be greatly missed.Cmdr. Merle J. Smith, Jr. was the second African American to receive an appointment to the Coast Guard Academy and the first to graduate. Smith Jr., pictured with his father, U.S. Army Col. Merle J. Smith, Sr., and Adm. Willard J. Smith, Coast Guard Commandant at Commencement in 1966 at the Coast Guard Academy. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)

Cmdr. Smith died on June 16 in a New London, Conn. hospital from complications from Parkinson’s disease and Covid-19. He was 76.

The wake will be held at the Garde Arts Center in New London, CT on July 8 from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. The funeral service will be held at the Coast Guard Academy Chapel at 3 p.m. on July 9.

His career was filled with successful command posts in Vietnam, earning him a Bronze Star Medal. As someone who paved the way for others, Cmdr. Smith led a life of meritorious service in the Coast Guard that also extended well into civilian life.

Rear Adm. William Kelly, Academy Superintendent, said, “Cmdr. Merle Smith was a trailblazer for our service and a true friend of the Academy. He was an inspiration to so many Coast Guard leaders and his legacy will live on in those Coast Guard women and men who have followed in his footsteps. The entire Academy family sends his wife, Lynda, and his family our deepest condolences and fullest support during this difficult time.”

The Academy recently named its officers club for Cmdr. Smith. The formal dedication for the Cmdr. Merle J. Smith Consolidated Club will be held on Oct. 1. 

Cmdr. Smith was sought after by several universities and military academies, including West Point. However, the Coast Guard Academy’s football coach, legendary pro Hall of Famer, Otto Graham, encouraged Smith to come to the Academy and play. Their relationship grew strong and would last for years as Smith excelled and lettered in football while at the Academy.Cmdr. Merle J. Smith, Jr. was the second African American to receive an appointment to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the first to graduate. Smith examines the deck gun on an 82-foot Point Class cutter. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)

He graduated in 1966, earning a degree in marine engineering, paving the way for increased diversity within the service.

After graduating, Cmdr. Smith was assigned as a communications officer aboard the 255-foot USCGC Minnetonka, and later, as the operations officer. He then went on to take command of the 95-foot USCGC Cape Wash, serving for two years. This led to service in Southeast Asia, where he commanded 82-foot patrol boats in Vietnam.

Throughout the Vietnam War, he commanded USCGC Point Mast and USCGC Point Ellis and headed in excess of 80 naval fire support missions during Operation Market Time. In an Operation Sealords mission, the crew of his cutter destroyed 10 enemy bunkers, four rocket launchers, 13 structures, and 19 sampans.

For his exceptional service in Vietnam, in addition to his Bronze Star, he received a Navy Meritorious Unit Citation, Presidential Unit Citation, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and Vietnam Campaign Medal with four stars.

Cmdr. Smith graduated with a law degree from George Washington University and subsequently became an accomplished law instructor at the Academy in New London.

Cmdr. Smith retired from active duty in 1979 and later joined the legal staff of Electric Boat, a submarine builder. He also sat on several boards, including the Coast Guard Foundation, United Way, and Bodenweing Public Benevolent Foundation. 

Cmdr. Smith is featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. And on the 50th anniversary of his CGA graduation, the Academy football team wore a special helmet sticker to commemorate Smith.

He is survived by his wife, Lynda, two children, two grandchildren, siblings, and nieces and nephews.