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, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
Pacific Island men and women have participated in the U.S. Coast Guard for nearly 170 years, playing an important role in the history of the service and its predecessor services.
Cultural contact with Pacific Island peoples came only as the nation’s borders expanded to the Pacific Rim. The first documented case of Pacific Islanders serving on board a cutter took place in 1849, when the San Francisco-based cutter C.W. Lawrence recruited 17 Hawaiians to help sail the 100-foot cutter from Hawaii to San Francisco.
Cutter muster roles tell the rest of the story of Pacific Islander participation in the 19th century. Ethnically Pacific Island names begin to appear on cutter muster rolls just after the Civil War. Expanded revenue cutter operations in the Pacific and the purchase of Alaska in 1867 presented an opportunity for Pacific Island men to enter the rolls on West Coast cutters. The 1898 Spanish-American War altered the service’s recruiting with Pacific Island enlistments coming from captured territory, such as the island of Guam.
In 1898, Congress also passed legislation annexing the Hawaiian Islands as a U.S. territory. As a hub of Pacific commerce and culture, Hawaii brought even more Pacific Island recruits into the Revenue Cutter Service. During the 20th century, many Pacific islands became territories or protectorates and their inhabitants became eligible to serve in the Coast Guard. In addition, Coast Guard bases established on islands such as Hawaii, Guam and later American Samoa supported a Coast Guard presence in the Pacific.
In the early 1900s, when the U.S. Lighthouse Service began overseeing lighthouse operations in Hawaii, many of the keepers and assistant keepers were native Hawaiians. These men included Manuel Ferreira and Samuel Amalu, who joined the Lighthouse Service in 1906 and served over 30 years. He became the dean of Hawaiian lighthouse keepers and set the performance standard for future keepers. Known as one of the “grand old men of Hawaiian lighthouse lore,” Manuel Ferreira began his career in 1908 and retired in 1946. He served as the keeper of seven lighthouses over the course of his nearly 30-year career.
Hawaiian personnel saw many advances later in the 20th century. Hawaiian-American Coast Guardsman Melvin Kealoha Bell manned the Diamond Head radio station on Dec. 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, warning commercial vessels that a surprise attack was underway. He later served within the U.S. Navy’s intelligence office helping crack the Imperial Japanese Navy’s secret codes. Many Pacific Island men also joined the Coast Guard as wartime Temporary Reservists, such as Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku, also known as “The Big Kahuna,” considered Hawaii’s greatest athlete, a film star and the father of international surfing.
Ethnically Pacific Island men and women began to matriculate from the Coast Guard Academy in the 1960s. Harry Toshiyuki Suzuki graduated in 1963. While ethnically a Japanese-American, Suzuki was born and raised in Hawaii. In 1968, Chamorro-American Juan Salas graduated from the academy. He was the first native of Guam to graduate from a U.S. military academy. In 1986, he also became the first Guam native to command a U.S. vessel. Recent decades have seen Pacific Island service members enter senior officer and enlisted levels in all branches of the Coast Guard.
For nearly 170 years, numerous Pacific-Island men and women have served with distinction in the U.S. Coast Guard. They have been diligent members of the long blue line and they will play an important role in the service in the 21st century.