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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Dec. 10, 2021

The Long Blue Line: Teenage Coast Guardsman Morris Dankner, the African-American experience in World War II

By Cmdr. William A. McKinstry, chief of Response Sector Buffalo

1.	African-American trailblazer, Lt.j.g. Clarence Samuels, in an official Coast Guard photograph during World War II. (U.S. Coast Guard)When the United States entered World War II, it became clear that for the nation to prevail, it would take a whole national effort. Understanding that the need to draw from all elements of society, a drive to recruit underrepresented elements of our society to the cause was of the utmost importance.

When it came to the Coast Guard and its demographic composition, African Americans had served in some capacity since the earliest days of its history. This was the case in servitude as in the instance of slave Aaron Carter during the Seminole War of 1836 or former slave Jeremiah Munden, who lost his life during a rescue as a member of the U.S. Life-Saving Service in 1876. With this in mind, the Coast Guard was already ahead of its sister services in that African Americans had been part of the organizational fabric for generations. For instance, there were segregated units before the war, such as the unique all African-American lifesaving station at Pea Island, and there would be more units of this kind created during World War II. However, unlike the other armed services, there would be opportunities for more integration within crews of cutters at sea, including leadership positions, such as the desegregated USS Sea Cloud in 1943.2.	Teenager Morris Dankner’s Coast Guard photograph published in the newspaper after his loss in the line of duty. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper)

The first notable effort to recruit and train African Americans in mass was conducted at the Manhattan Beach Training Station in Brooklyn, New York. Up until that time, training for new entrants into the service was conducted after enlistment and completed at their first permanent unit. With the surge in personnel, the old training paradigm would have to be adjusted. Early in 1943, 300 African Americans arrived at the training station. This meant for the first time, persons of color were to be trained in the basics of seamanship and navigation in a regimented and standard fashion. In another first, this basic training was conducted and overseen by African-American Coast Guardsmen. Chief Warrant Officer Clarence Samuels of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station would take on this inaugural training effort. It was Samuels’s responsibility to guide these recruits as members of Company 24, setting the conditions for their future within the service. Although Company 24 was a segregated basic training unit, it did participate in integrated activities at the training station including entertainment functions. In this sense, the training station at Manhattan Beach did have a degree of inclusiveness not often found during this time in the nation’s history. After they completed their training, the recruits shipped off near and far to conduct all mission sets including combat operations.

Upon his departure from Manhattan Beach, now Lt.j.g. Samuels dispatched to the USS Sea Cloud as a damage control officer. A position of this nature aboard a ship was not previously offered to a sailor who identified as a person of color. Operating in the North Atlantic as a weather station, the Sea Cloud was a vital part in the effort to keep shipping lines safe against German U-Boats. Upon completion of this assignment, Samuels assumed command of Lightship 115, which was converted to an armed guard ship for the Panama Canal Zone. In so doing, he became the first African-American commanding officer of a U.S. ship in a war zone. Given his leadership and dedication to duty, he continued to be assigned command positions at sea concluding with his assignment as the commanding officer of the buoy tender Sweetgum in August 1945.

While there were leadership opportunities for African-American Coast Guard officers, such as Samuels, there were leadership opportunities for senior enlisted members as well. One in particular was Chief Motor Machinist’s Mate Ernest Jackson, who was officer-in-charge of the Salisbury Beach Patrol Station in Massachusetts. Jackson enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1921, assigned as a water tender and a machinist mate during his career leading up to this assignment. Jackson’s Salisbury Beach unit was comprised of African Americans in a similar vein to Pea Island and considered “experimental” in the newspaper stories of the day. The Salisbury Beach Patrol station was charged with protecting the northern Massachusetts shoreline by keeping a lookout for enemy submarines and preventing incursions by enemy saboteurs.

During Salisbury Beach3.	Vintage image from the early 1900s showing the Salisbury Beach Station in Massachusetts with strategically placed lookout tower. (U.S. National Archives) Patrol’s brief existence, its crew was subjected to a tragic event. On March 17, 1943, a boat crew went out on what should have been a routine mission taking a smallboat into4.	The newspaper story that brought to light the loss of teenage Coast Guardsman Morris Dankner. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper) the water to saturate its dry planks and prevent leaking through the seams. In the midst of this mission, the boat capsized in the breaking surf, leading to the death of Seaman Second Class Morris Dankner. Adding to this tragic circumstance was Dankner’s young age. After researching the young Coast Guardsman, U.S. census records from 1930 and 1940 indicate that he was born in 1927. In addition, his personnel records note his highest school level completed was ninth grade in 1941. Putting this information together with a newly-found birth record showing he was born Jan. 25, 1927, one can surmise that the birth date of 1923 given in his official record was incorrect. So, with Dankner perishing at the tender age of 16 years and almost two months, he ranks as the youngest known Coast Guardsman to die in the line of duty during the Second World War.

Research of Dankner’s short life indicates that it was one of instability and it is likely that he lied about his age to enlist in 1941. Many young men of the era did the same when their nation came calling. In reviewing his record, it appears he may have been the sole provider for his family in St. Louis. After his death, Jackson, the commanding officer of the Salisbury Beach Patrol, had the unfortunate duty of conducting the initial next of kin communications with Dankner’s mother and initiate service support actions.

Since there had been a personnel casualty at the Salisbury Beach Boat Station, an investigation ensued to determine what had happened. The investigation determined that the boat was beyond its capacity with six sailors aboard and should not have been underway in those conditions. There was a lack of training involved and not all members were not wearing personal floatation gear when the smallboat got underway. This led to the boat capsizing and death of Dankner. Unfortunately, this was not the only conclusion of the investigating officers. Within the report of findings were several unfounded claims and opinions that the race of the individuals was a causal factor in the incident. As racism was on full display in this investigation the final reviewing officer ruled these facts to be opinion only and discounted the initial findings of fact.

Not all African-American experiences were as tragic as Dankner’s. Just the week before Dankner’s unfortunate demise, after the other services had rejected him, another person enlisted in the Coast Guard—Eml6.	Newly enlisted YN3 Olivia Hooker, who later became a distinguished professor at Fordham University. (U.S. Coast Guard)en Tunnell. Upon 5.	A family photo of Coast Guardsman Emlen Tunnell in dress whites with his niece Catherine Robinson. (Courtesy of Tunnell family)completing his basic training in Curtis Bay, Maryland, Tunnell shipped out to the West Coast to serve aboard the Coast Guard-manned USS Etamin. While on the Etamin, Tunnell and his shipmates were subjected to a torpedo attack by the Japanese and during that action, he would save the life of a shipmate named Fred Shaver. After returning stateside and awaiting a new assignment, Tunnell would leverage his natural athleticism to become a member of several service championship teams for the Coast Guard. Shortly after the war’s conclusion, Tunnell and his bravery were on display once more when he saved another shipmate, Alfred Givens, from the icy waters at Naval Station Argentia, Newfoundland. Always understated, Tunnell never considered himself a Coast Guard Hall of Famer. He only received recognition for his service in a posthumous fashion, including the award of the Silver Lifesaving Medal for his actions in Newfoundland, and having multiple facilities named in his honor including the Fast Response Cutter Emlen Tunnell, which was commissioned in Philadelphia October 2020.

During World War II, African Americans contributed in innumerable ways to the war effort. There are additional stories of sacrifice including the efforts of Warren Deyampert and Charles David who put themselves in harm’s way saving others during the height of the Battle of the Atlantic. These Coast Guardsmen put their shipmates ahead of their own wellbeing and made the ultimate sacrifice while saving others. One only needs to remember Petty Officer 3rd Class Olivia Hooker, a yeoman and later professor at Fordham University. becoming the first African American SPAR and understand that persons of color, from all backgrounds, played an integral role in our service during World War II. These notable African-American Coast Guard men and women went beyond what they were asked, often without question, and did their duties to an incredible degree, in spite of the prejudice they faced at home.

The African-American experience in World War II proved a microcosm, or part of the tapestry that is the American experience. Regardless of the adversity they faced in the execution of their duties, they did not allow it to define them. The names of Samuels, Dankner, Tunnell, Jackson, Hooker and so many more, should be heralded in the annals of our lore and are most assuredly, proud members of the long blue line.