Post written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D, Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
In the spring of 1942, 22-year-old Joseph Tezanos, a factory worker and Spanish immigrant, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. His life would change forever. By the end of the decade, Tezanos would be a highly decorated war hero, a survivor of one of World War II’s worst accidental disasters, and one of the first Hispanic American officers in the U.S. Coast Guard. Tezanos’ story is the American dream realized.
By May of 1943, after a variety of temporary assignments, Joe Tezanos received orders to report to New Orleans to serve on board a new LST, a large ocean-going landing craft whose abbreviated letters designated it as a tank landing ship. By July, Tezanos and his shipmates on board LST 20 would be part of a convoy headed for the Alaskan theatre of World War II.
While serving on board LST 20, Tezanos became a gunner’s mate, the most dangerous rate possible on a World War II LST. Tezanos saw action and managed to survive some of the bloodiest amphibious landings of World War II, including landings on enemy held islands at Kiska, Alaska; Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands; and Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. At Tarawa, LST 20 supported the marines as they slugged their way through what noted World War II Coast Guard historian Malcolm Willoughby termed “one of the most intensely fought amphibious operations of the entire war.”
April of 1944, found LST 20 moored near an armada of transports and LSTs in West Loch, Pearl Harbor, preparing for a top-secret operation named “Forager.” Forager would support the invasion of Saipan, in the Marianas island chain, which was expected to be one of the most hotly contested amphibious landings of the Pacific Theater’s island-hopping campaign. But on 21 May 1944, before the armada could set sail, an explosion on board one of the armada’s LSTs set off a chain reaction among the fleet of heavily loaded transport vessels.
The ensuing cataclysm resulted in the largest accidentally caused explosion of the war in terms of lives lost, including approximately 600 wounded and dead. After the explosion, Tezanos scrambled on board a rescue boat along with a gang of several other hastily assembled volunteers. The small boat and its intrepid crew steamed into harm’s way despite the risk of being burned alive or blown up. Tezanos and his shipmates rescued men from the water in danger of drowning and evacuated others from the burning ships. After receiving multiple burns in the line of duty, Tezanos helped save over forty of the disaster’s survivors.
For his actions that day, Tezanos received the Navy & Marine Corps Medal, one of the highest medals awarded to Navy personnel for wartime rescue operations. He also received a commendation letter from Coast Guard Commandant Russell Waesche and a citation personally signed by the famous Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, which reads in part: “[for] distinguished heroism while serving as a volunteer member of a boat crew engaged in rescue operations during a fire in Pearl Harbor, Oahu, T.H. on 21 May 1944. Under conditions of great personal danger from fire and explosions and with disregard of his own safety . . .” Nimitz’s citation concludes, “His actions on this occasion were in keeping with the highest traditions of the naval service.”
By summer’s end, LST 20 began preparing for its next operation, but Tezanos received orders to undertake Coast Guard reserve officer training. In October, he found himself in New London, Connecticut, at theCoast Guard Academy to take the four-month program. By early spring 1945, he graduated and became the first known Hispanic American to complete the service’s Reserve Officer Training Program. His wartime commissioning in mid-January 1945 also qualified him as one of the very first Hispanic American officers in the United States Coast Guard.
In May 1945, newly commissioned Ensign Tezanos returned to the West Coast to deploy as boat officer on board the troop transport Joseph T. Dickman (APA-13) where he would spend the remainder of his tour. Most of that time saw his ship transporting troops to the front. After the August 1945 conclusion of hostilities, the Dickman returned thousands of troops to the United States as part of the so-called “magic carpet ride” back home. In January 1946, Tezanos arrived in San Francisco on the Dickman’s last trip and witnessed the ship’s formal decommissioning.
Joseph Tezanos’ Coast Guard career would end that spring, but his life was only beginning. He would go on to college and graduate school, start a family and become a successful international businessman. When he passed away in March 1985, he was interred at Arlington National Cemetery alongside many other Coast Guard heroes.