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
Native Americans from a variety of tribal nations have participated in the Coast Guard and its predecessor services since the beginning of the 19th century, representing the second earliest minority group to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard.
The first Native Americans to participate in the predecessor services typically came from coastal tribes whose members were expert watermen. These tribes included the Wampanoag in Massachusetts, Algonquin in North Carolina, Ojibwa in the Great Lakes, and the Makah and Quileute tribes in Washington State. These men served at shore bases in the U.S. Life-Saving Service and the U.S. Lighthouse Service. For example, in 1815, over 200 years ago, the lighthouse keeper at Gay Head Light, on Martha’s Vineyard, hired members of the Wampanoag Tribe as assistants. The keeper recommended these men as the best workers available to support lighthouse operations. Many others served in the Lighthouse Service, such as longtime keeper Charles Vanderhoop of Gay Head Light and Ted Pederson of Roe Island and Ano Nuevo Island lighthouses in California.
In 1877, before Washington Territory received statehood, a white keeper and an entirely Native American crew there manned the Neah Bay Life-Saving Service Station. The Neah Bay crew included Makah and Quileute surfmen, such as As-chik-abik, Que-dessa, Tsos-et-oos, and Tsul-ab-oos. With the exception of Native American scouts employed by the U.S. Army, this station was the earliest Native American unit in federal service. Ironically, the Neah Bay Station was established a year after the defeat of George Custer’s cavalry by Sioux warriors at the Little Big Horn.
Native American Coast Guardsmen have also served with distinction in time of war. Carlton West, a Wampanoag citizen of Nantucket, served as an enlisted man in both World Wars. George “White Bear” Drapeaux, of the Sioux Nation, was one of the first Native American Coast Guardsmen to fight in World War II combat operations. He served as a gunner’s mate on board the Coast Guard-manned transport USS Wakefield, which lost several crewmembers while evacuating civilians from Singapore before it fell to Japanese forces. In 1942, Pawnee tribal member Joseph Toahty operated a landing craft from the same transport as Medal of Honor recipient Douglas Munro, bringing ashore marines in the battle for the Japanese-held island of Tulagi. In 1943, Chickasaw citizen James Leftwich enlisted at the age of 14. He was one of the youngest Coast Guard enlistees of the war. At the age of 16, Leftwich suffered wounds in the line of duty at Eniwetok. He had a very productive career and retired a Coast Guard officer in 1964.
In recent years, Native American Coast Guard men and women have come from a variety of Indian nations located in North America’s inland regions and coastal areas. Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Wicks, a member of the Sioux Tribe, served with distinction in Vietnam as executive officer of Cutter Mendota and received the Navy Commendation Medal and Presidential Unit Commendation for supporting Operation Market Time patrols, and operations SEA LORDS and SILVER MACE II patrols. In 1966, Cherokee-American Donald Winchester became the first known Native American graduate of the Coast Guard Academy. A decorated pilot, Winchester flew for 20 years and logged more than 5,000 flight hours in Coast Guard fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. Currently, nearly 2,000 men and women of Native American descent serve in the Coast Guard, including native Alaskan service members.
Native Americans have been members of the Coast Guard and its predecessor services for over 200 years. These Coast Guard men and women have served as officers and enlisted personnel in every branch of the service and they have helped lead the way for all Coast Guard minorities. Like all other service members, they walk the long blue line and their efforts have benefitted all who serve in the U.S. military, federal government, and the nation as a whole.