The United States 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 diversity history of the Coast Guard Academy, which has produced minority officers for 80 years.
The Coast Guard first opened up the academy to minority trainees during World War II. In 1942, the service admitted minority candidates to its Reserve Officer Training Course (now known as Officer Candidate School) then located at the academy. Juan del Castillo completed Reserve Officer Training Course 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 of the war. After graduating, del Castillo, Flores, and Tezanos served as commissioned officers for the rest of the war.
In 1943, African-American officer candidates also entered the ROTC Program. On April 13, 1943, Ensign 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 officers to command cutters or U.S. vessels of any kind. Meanwhile, 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 in 1961, over 15 years later!
Minority men began entering the academy’s four-year program late in the war. Native Americans led the way. Entering in 1944 and graduating in 1948, Mohegan Tribe member Donald Chapman became the first known minority graduate of the academy. He later became the first Native American Coast Guardsman promoted to officer ranks through commander. In 1945, Chinese American Jack Ngum Jones, from California, followed Chapman. In 1949, Jones became the Academy’s first Asian-American graduate of the first academy and the first to receive a Coast Guard commission.
Other minority cadets received Coast Guard Academy appointments 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, who graduated in 1955, followed him. That same year, Javis Wright became the first African American to receive an appointment to the academy. After two years as a cadet and academy track athlete, he had to resign his appointment due to serious health issues.
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. Moreover, 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 slowly increased over the next two decades.
After Jack Jones, more Asian-American cadets graduated from the academy. Native Chinese Kwang-Ping Hsu graduated from the academy in 1962. He was also 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. In the same year Merle Smith completed studies at the Coast Guard Academy, Donald Winchester became the first Filipino-American graduate. 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. In 1979, Philippine national 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 cuard.
In the 1960s, Pacific Island-American cadets also began to matriculate from the Coast Guard Academy. In 1968, Guam native Juan Salas graduated, becoming the first Pacific Islander to do so. He was also the first native Chamorro to graduate from any U.S. military academy. He would go on to become the first Pacific Islander to achieve every officer rank up to captain and, in 1986, he also became the first Guam native to command a U.S. vessel.
During World War II, the first female officers received training at the Coast Guard Academy. These SPAR officers included Cuban-American Mary Rivero, who became a SPAR lieutenant. Decades later, in the 1970s, the Coast Guard opened its enlisted and officer ranks to women and minority women began attending the academy. In 1980, Japanese American Moynee 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. The year 1983 saw even more minority women graduate, including African Americans Angela Dennis and Daphne Reese, and Hispanic Americans Jacqueline Ball and Deborah Winnie. In 1987, Hawaiian native Laura O’Hare became the first female Pacific Islander to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy and first female Pacific Islander to receive a Coast Guard officer’s commission. In addition, in 1995, Patricia Calhoun and Octavia Poole became the first Native American women to graduate from the academy.
The Coast Guard Academy’s minority graduates later led the way for diversity at senior officer and flag levels. In 1998, African-American graduate Erroll Brown became the Coast Guard’s first minority flag officer. He was followed by Academy graduate Ronald Rábago who became 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 of any of the U.S. military academies. In 2016, 1989 Academy graduate Andrew Tiongson became the service’s first Filipino-American flag officer.
While many commissioned officers have followed in their path, these men and women were the first known minority service members to get commissions through academy training and education. During their time in the service, they considered themselves ordinary Coasties not pioneers of ethnic diversity in the U.S. military. They were members of the long blue line who used their education to serve the Coast Guard and the nation.