Lt. Cmdr. Matthew M. Kroll, United States Coast Guard
August 11th marks the birthday of Alex Haley, considered one of the best-known and recognized members of the U.S. Coast Guard. Most service members can recite a one-line bullet point about who he was and what he accomplished. However, few know more than he served in the Coast Guard and the famous books he wrote after he retired. An online search generates a number of short biographies, most of which have little information about his Coast Guard career. Before he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, he relied on his experiences from the Coast Guard as a foundation for his later career. It was during his time in the service that Haley discovered his passion for writing and developed his “author’s voice.”
Alexander Murray Palmer Haley was born on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York. For the first few years of his life, Haley was raised by his grandparents in Henning, Tennessee, while his father attended graduate school at Cornell University. Haley began reading at an early age, a habit inspired by his father. As a little boy, he also listened to his grandmother recite her letters to family members, which she read aloud to get them the way she wanted. Academics failed to provide his father job stability, so Haley’s family had to move to new teaching positions in Tennessee and Alabama.
Haley graduated high school in Alabama in 1937, at the age of 15, and enrolled at Mississippi’s Alcorn A & M University. Meanwhile, his family moved to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where Haley moved after an unimpressive academic performance at Alcorn A & M. The following year, he enrolled at Elizabeth City College and continued to struggle with academics. Frustrated with his son’s lack of progress, Haley’s father suggested joining the military. A World War I veteran, his father thought the military would give his 18-year-old son a chance to mature. When it came time to decide which branch to join, the uniforms of the Coast Guard caught Haley’s eye and convinced him to sign up for a three-year enlistment in 1939.
Haley’s first assignment on Coast Guard Cutter (CGC) Mendota provided on-the-job training and an introduction to the service. His next assignment to CGC Pamlico advanced him through the enlisted ranks. However, he set a course toward a career as a writer in 1943, when he transferred to the CGC Murzim. As a Steward’s Mate Second Class, Haley helped his supervisor, Steward’s Mate First Class Percival “Scotty” Scott, write letters to old shipmates by typing up dictated messages in the ship’s pantry. One night, Scotty introduced Haley a distraught shipmate who just received a “Dear John” letter. Haley and his supervisor crafted a letter that helped save their shipmate’s relationship. News of this triumph spread throughout the cutter and soon Haley’s evening routine included writing letters his shipmates could send to wives and girlfriends.
Haley also began writing articles and stories for professional magazines and publications. These first attempts were unsuccessful, but they provided a library of material for the letters he continued writing. To save time he even created binders of his work so his shipmates could use his originals to write their own letters. Even though he became a celebrity among Murzim’s crew, Haley saw little recognition beyond the cutter.
Haley also started a ship newspaper called “Seafarer” as an outlet for his writing. One night, after watching the ship’s crew excitedly read letters from home; he noticed that some members received nothing. This inspired him to author a piece titled “Mail Call” to bring attention to the importance of receiving mail while in the service, which he published in Seafarer. Crew members often included a copy of Seafarer in their letters home to describe their activities. Haley’s “Mail Call” article found its way into a hometown newspaper and was later reprinted in major newspapers introducing Haley’s writing to the world.
In February 1945, Haley’s exposure from the “Mail Call” article led to his reassignment to Coast Guard Third District headquarters in New York City. Although still officially a Steward’s Mate for the district admiral, his new duties allowed him to work for the district’s public relations office. In May 1946, Haley transferred to the public relations office on a full-time basis and, in September, he was re-designation a first class Yeoman (PI). Two years later, in April 1948, Haley’s rating was re-classified as Journalist making him one of the first enlisted Journalists in the Coast Guard.
Haley’s performance in New York did not go unnoticed by the Coast Guard. The service advanced him to Chief Petty Officer in December 1949 making him the Coast Guard’s first Chief Journalist (JOC). To many reporters, he became known as “Mr. Coast Guard” for his ability to get them the information they needed. One of his biggest achievements during this time was handling Coast Guard press relations during a deadly explosion at the South Amboy, New Jersey. Approximately 420 tons of military explosives on board transfer barges and railroad cars exploded killing 31 people and injuring more than 350 others. The governor of New Jersey and the mayor of South Amboy publicly blamed the Coast Guard for granting a waiver allowing so many munitions in port. Haley’s public information ability and reputation with local media played a vital role in the successful service response to this tragic incident.
After his New York tour, Haley transferred to San Francisco. He worked in the press office for the Coast Guard Twelfth District and again found himself at the center of a major response effort. In October 1956, a Pan Am airliner suffered an engine failure over the Pacific Ocean and ditched with 31 people on board. Coast Guard Cutter Pontchartrain rescued all the passengers and crew and brought them to San Francisco, where the news media eagerly awaited their arrival. Haley worked with national outlets such as Life magazine and the Art Linkletter TV show to manage media coverage of the rescue effort.
While serving in San Francisco, Haley published very little of his personal writing. However, the city was a destination for artists and world-renowned authors whom Haley met at local cafes and bars. These contacts fueled his desire to retire from the Coast Guard and become a professional writer. Not wanting to see him leave the service, his supervisor in the Twelfth District encouraged Haley to advance to Master Chief Journalist, a newly-authorized rate for the Coast Guard. To pursue his writing career, Haley declined this advancement and retired on June 1, 1959, after 20 years of service.
Haley returned to New York, but he did not experience overnight success as a writer. The first few years tested his perseverance, much like his early years writing as a Steward’s Mate in the Coast Guard. He lived in a basement apartment in Greenwich Village, on the west side of Manhattan, where writing jobs were difficult to come by. He got a few articles published in Reader’s Digest, Cosmopolitan, Playboy and similar publications, but even with his Coast Guard retirement pay, money was tight.
Haley began writing celebrity profiles covering prominent African Americans including Martin Luther King, Jr., Miles Davis, Mohammad Ali and Quincy Jones. One of his more in-depth profiles became the celebrated work, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book that opened doors for his career. By the time of the 1976 release of his book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which was adapted into a television mini-series the following year, Alex Haley had become a household name. During the 1980’s, literary success had shifted Haley’s attention away from writing to public speaking. On February 10, 1992, while visiting Seattle for a speaking event, Haley suffered a deadly heart attack.
Today, Alex Haley is remembered for the contributions his writing made to the Civil Rights Movement and interest in African American heritage. In the Coast Guard, his legacy lives on in nearly every corner of the service. As a tribute to his early days as a Mess Attendant and Steward’s Mate, Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma’s dining facility bears the name Haley Hall. In 1989, he became the first recipient of an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy during the school’s commencement ceremony, almost 50 years to the day after he enlisted. The Coast Guard Public Affairs Division established the Chief Journalist Alex Haley Award in the early 1990’s to recognize excellence in journalism and photography, an honor still awarded today. In 1999, Haley also became the namesake of a high-endurance Coast Guard Cutter currently homeported in Kodiak, Alaska.
A legacy such as Haley’s is usually reserved for Coast Guard combat heroes or legendary senior leaders. Alexander Haley earned his accolades through a career full of achievement paving the way for minorities in the U.S. military. For that, he will continue to be honored as one of the most recognizable and influential members of the United States Coast Guard.