Written by William Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
In the United States Coast Guard, there are thousands of highly motivated men and women doing extraordinary things. These are the kind of personnel who have steered the service throughout its 220-year history.
The model example of such a Coast Guardsman was Capt. Bobby C. Wilks. Wilks was an overachiever, serving as president of his college senior class, student choir and fraternity and as captain of the school track team. He went on to complete a master’s degree in education and learned the skills of a leader and mentor that he would use throughout his career. Within a year of completing his education, he had enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, received a commission and started flight school at Pensacola Naval Air Station.
As a minority officer, Wilks led the service towards greater diversity post-World War II by breaking the color barrier in several areas of the service. He was the first African American to graduate from the postwar Officer Candidate School; first African American Coast Guard aviator; first African American helicopter pilot and first African American Coast Guardsman to achieve a rank higher than lieutenant.
Wilks was also a highly accomplished officer and aviator. He became qualified in over 20 different kinds of aircraft, including multi-engined land and seaplanes as well as single and multi-engined helicopters. He flew out of several Coast Guard air stations, such as Miami where he performed search and rescue missions with seaplanes and helicopters. He received an Federal Aviation Administration award for a rescue performed out of Air Station Salem, an Air Medal for a severe weather rescue flown out of Air Station Barbers Point and Helicopter Rescue Awards for two different rescue missions demonstrating skill and courage in piloting a helicopter.
While Wilks achieved great things in his specialized field of the service, his greatest contribution to the Coast Guard stemmed from his skill as a leader. Wilks served at several aviation units, first as operations officer, then as executive officer. In 1977, he became the first recognized African American in the service to achieve the rank of captain and in 1979, he became the first African American to command a Coast Guard air station.
Wilks passed away in 2009, but continues to serve as an inspiration. Aviation Training Center Mobile’s newest building, designed to house a world-class HC-144 pilot and sensor operator simulators, will be dedicated to Wilks in November 2011. Wilks Hall, used to train over 80 percent of the Coast Guard’s pilots, will also feature state-of-the-art classrooms and a 70-seat auditorium.
“This building and its location at the Coast Guard’s aviation center of excellence are most befitting Capt. Wilks’ accomplishments and will ensure his contributions are not forgotten,” said Capt. Steve Truhlar, Aviation Training Center Mobile’s commanding officer. “His pioneering spirit and legacy will inspire young leaders for generations to come.”
Wilks broke the service’s color barrier in many ways. As an African American, he blazed a trail for all minorities in the Coast Guard and throughout his entire pioneering career, Wilks remained an educator at heart, mentoring and teaching all personnel and ensuring greater diversity for all Coast Guard men and women.