This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian
Throughout the history of the United States Coast Guard, the nation has tasked the service with new missions to respond to all sorts of maritime threats and crises. Such was the case with the Great Flood of 1913, considered by many as the most devastating flood to strike the United States.
The Great Flood ranks second in number of lives lost in the history of deadly American floods. The 1889 Johnstown Flood distinguished itself as the deadliest with approximately 2,200 victims killed in the small city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania; however, the 1913 flood affected over a dozen states, wiped out between 600 and 900 civilians, caused hundreds of millions in damage and made 250,000 Americans homeless.
As a consequence of this natural disaster, Congress voted to fund federal flood relief and rescue work on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. On August 29, 1916, Congress passed a naval appropriations bill that included money for the construction of three light-draft river steamboats for the Coast Guard. Their mission was to give relief, succor, and assistance to victims of floods on the two major rivers. In addition to their specialized riverine duty, the cutters would support the usual Coast Guard missions of rendering assistance to vessels in distress, saving life and property, protecting the revenue, enforcing the navigation and motor-boat laws, and prosecuting such other work as properly may come with the purview of the service.
Of the three river cutters funded by Congress, only two were completed – the Yocona and Kankakee, constructed in Dubuque, Iowa. Both cutters were commissioned Oct. 19, 1919. The Kankakee was stationed on the Ohio River at Evansville, Indiana, and the Yocona on the Mississippi River in Vicksburg, Mississippi. As the earliest river cutter to take up her duties, Yocona became the first Coast Guard cutter of any kind to operate on the nation’s inland rivers.
The Yocona proved to be a pioneering cutter. In addition to being the first Coast Guard cutter stationed on the nation’s rivers, she was the Coast Guard’s first stern paddlewheeler.
Designed as flood response cutters, the Yocona and Kankakee incorporated the latest riverine technology. These 182-foot steel-hulled riverboats were powered by a stern paddlewheel specifically for river navigation and carried a complement of thirty-five officers and men. The Yocona’s flat hull was ideal for reaching narrow and shallow waters. The cutters were also equipped with dual searchlights, powerful pumps, advanced radio equipment and spacious cabins to house flood victims. In the event of a flood, they could support a flotilla of smallboats and river craft used to rescue and transport disaster victims.
In addition to her specialized design, Yocona proved unique in the nation’s history of racial desegregation. Yocona was the first federal vessel manned by a racially integrated crew during peacetime. Beginning in 1920, the cutter boasted an entirely black enlisted force while Kankakee’s crew was composed of white officers and men. With the exception of officers and non-commissioned officers (NCO), Yocona’s enlisted crew was entirely black, including petty officers in every rating.
By enlisting an all black force of petty officers, Yocona’s officers had set a precedent for desegregating the nation’s sea service vessels. While Yocona may be considered the first desegregated federal ship in American history, the Coast Guard never publicly recognized it as such. It’s believed the Coast Guard simply recruited the best qualified watermen near its homeport of Vicksburg. The fact that the Coast Guard operated a cutter with an integrated crew nearly 100 years ago is history making in itself. Even more remarkably, the Yocona was homeported in a state that boasted the nation’s worst record of discrimination and violence toward blacks.
Desegregation of U.S. Navy ships came over 20 years later. In the spring of 1944, the Navy desegregated its first ship using Yocona’s system of black enlisted men with white officers and NCOs. The Coast Guard’s wartime desegregated cutters, such as the USS Sea Cloud, assigned black men to every level of command. The Coast Guard’s desegregated cutters began operation a year earlier than the Navy’s first integrated warships, such as Destroyer Escort USS Mason, which has been made famous through books and movies.
Yocona’s achievements remain an important chapter in the story of the long blue line and American history.