William H. Thiesen, Historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area
In September 2018, Master Chief Melvin Kealoha Bell (USCG retired) crossed the bar at the age of 98. He was a patriot whose distinguished career in service of his country spanned 65 years.
A native Hawaiian, Bell was born in 1920, in the city of Hilo on the “Big Island.” In a widely practiced Hawaiian custom called “Hanai,” his parents John Kauwanui Holokahi and Annie Kahahana Bell, placed him with maternal grandfather John Bell to be raised through middle school. Melvin later returned to his parents but retained the name Bell throughout his life.
Bell’s father served as a chief wireman for the Hawaiian Telephone Company and ran a small radio repair shop in his garage. Melvin had an inquisitive mind and technical aptitude. He liked to work with his father who taught him not only how electrical and mechanical things worked, but also why they worked. Bell would often say, “My dad taught me electrical theory.” And, much to his mother’s displeasure, Bell liked to take apart toasters and vacuum cleaners then reassemble them.
In 1938, Bell graduated from Hilo High School and moved to Honolulu. There, he met sailors from the U.S. Coast Guard who told him tales of seafaring. He was sold on a life in the Service and enlisted in the Coast Guard in November 1938. He first served on board the famed 327-foot cutter Taney as a mess attendant, a rate commonly reserved for minorities before desegregation in World War II.
In 1939, Bell’s career took a new direction. That year, he struck for the rate of radioman. Bell proved his genius by repairing a broken high-frequency transmitter that had baffled everyone in the rate, including Henry Anthony, the Coast Guard’s District Radio Electrician and intelligence officer.Impressed with Bell’s acumen for radio communications and technology, Anthony became Bell’s mentor. The next year, in 1940, Bell became radioman for the cutter Reliance with the added duty of monitoring patrols of the Coast Guard’s Pearl Harbor-based seaplane using coded messages.
By 1941, the Service assigned Petty Officer Bell to the District Communications Station located at the Diamond Head Lighthouse in Oahu. While Bell served there, Henry Anthony introduced him to naval intelligence work, so Bell learned the Japanese language and tracking movements of Japanese naval units. When a powerful fleet of the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941, Bell was on duty at Diamond Head. After the air raid began, the 14thNaval District Headquarters ordered him to transmit the first radio messages warning commercial vessels and military installations of the attack.
After this surprise attack on his homeland, Bell applied his skills and intellect to the war effort, specializingin naval communications intelligence with the Navy’s Fleet Radio Unit Pacific (FRUPAC). As a member of FRUPAC, he helped break the secret Japanese Imperial Navy code that led to U.S. Naval victories in the Pacific, including the decisive defeat of the enemy fleet at Midway Island in June 1942. Bell’s wartime intelligence work helped save thousands of lives and aided in the defeat of a formidable enemies.
During his active-duty career, Bell held many distinctions. In 1944, he received a wartime advancement to Chief Radioman, becoming the first Pacific Islander to become a Chief Petty Officer. In 1945, his wartime rate reverted to Radioman 1/class, however, he advanced to the permanent rate of Chief Electronics Technician in 1949 and, at one point, held the distinction of a dual rating as Chief Radioman and Chief Electronics Technician.
In November 1958, he became the first master chief in his rate. Perhaps more significantly, he became the first minority master chief in the history of the Coast Guard.The next minority petty officer to advance to master chief did so in 1960. Bell’s decorations included the Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal (5 awards), Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Unit Commendation, National Defense Service Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, American Defense Medal, American Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal.
After the war, Bell became an instructor at the Coast Guard’s Electronics Technician School in Groton, Connecticut. There, in 1950, he met Norine Hamlin of New Britain, Connecticut, and they were married in May 1950. In 1959, after 20 years active duty, he retired and returned to Hawaii as a civilian employee of the Coast Guard. Bell later became a Quality Engineer with the Department of the Navy working for many years in the field of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, including the Polaris, UUM-44 SUBROC (submarine rocket) and Trident missile programs. In 2004, he retired a second time at the age of 84 with a combined record of 65 years of military and federal civil service. For his dedicated service, he received official recognition from President George W. Bush for one of the longest federal careers in U.S. history.
Electronics Technician Master Chief Melvin Kealoha Bell was a remarkable Coast Guardsman, citizen and father. He was survived by his wife of 68 years, as well as eight children, 27 grandchildren, 50 great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren. His life, career and work embody the Service’s core values of “honor, respect and devotion to duty.”
Master Chief Bell was laid to rest with military honors at the National Veterans Memorial Cemetery, in Riverside, California, in October 2018. He is an example of the extraordinary men and women who have served in the long blue line and he will soon be honored as namesake of a Fast Response Cutter.