Asian American Pacific Islanders in the U.S. Coast Guard

A photo of Lighthouse Head Keeper Samuel Amalu

Keeper Samuel Amalu, USLHS


The first documented Asian-Pacific Americans to serve in the Coast Guard actually served in one of the service's predecessor agencies, the U. S. Lighthouse Service.  Quite a few served, with distinction, on the lonely light stations along the nation's coasts:

Manuel Ferreira

Manuel Ferreira, a native of Maui, Hawaii, served as the keeper of seven lighthouses during his career, which began in 1908 with the U.S. Lighthouse Service and ended with his retirement from the Coast Guard in 1946.  He was born on August 15, 1885, and became known as "one of the grand old men of Hawaiian lighthouse lore."  He ultimately became the keeper of the Kauiki Head Light Station on Maui.  In 1919 he rescued the crew of a Japanese fishing trawler when that vessel ran aground off Barber's Point, Hawaii, where Ferreira served as the light keeper.  He was also instrumental in saving the schooner Bianca and its crew in 1923 when the ship lost its sails and was in danger of smashing on a reef.  Ferreira was unable to launch the lighthouse skiff due to the high surf.  Instead, he ran three miles to the nearest telephone and called for help.  The USS Sunadin was dispatched and reached the wallowing schooner just in time to tow it from the jaws of destruction.  From 1927 through 1929, he served as a keeper of the Molokai Light Station, located only two miles from the Kalaupapa Leper Settlement on the island of Molokai.

Samuel Amalu

Samuel Amalu (pictured in the photo above), Hawaii's renowned dean of lighthouse keepers, was the keeper of the Kilauea Light Station.  Kilauea Light, the northernmost lighthouse in Hawaii, was built in 1913.  The last manned light in the Hawaiian Islands, it guided the first transatlantic aviators to the islands in 1927 and was the first light to operate a radio beacon.  Amalu, who had the longest tenure of any light keeper at Kilauea, took charge of the light on April 9, 1915 and served there for ten years.  Back then, efficiency pennants were awarded to the best kept station in each district, and Amalu was the recipient of one in 1920.  

Amalu joined the Lighthouse Service in 1906 and by the time he reached the Kilauea light he had served as a keeper at the Kawaihae Light on the island of Hawaii and at Barber's Point Light on Oahu.  In a 1939 interview with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, he said that being a "lighthouse keeper is a good job.  I'm my own boss.  A lighthouse keeper is master of all trades.  He works with pick and shovel in the garden.  He is a machinist to keep the timing mechanism of the light going.  And he is a carpenter, painter, and engineer."  A trailblazer among Hawaii's light keepers, Amalu laid a path of devotion to duty and discipline for Kilauea Point's successive keepers.

[Story written by Sharon Wilkerson, USCGR]

Light keepers were not the only Asian-Pacific Americans to serve in the Coast Guard.

Florence Ebersole Smith Finch

Florence Ebersole Smith Finch, a member of the Coast Guard Women's Reserve (or SPAR) during World War II, was the only SPAR to receive the Pacific Campaign ribbon.  She earned the ribbon for her service in the Philippines prior to her joining the Coast Guard.  Finch, whose mother was a Filipino and whose father was a former U.S. soldier, was in the Philippines when the Japanese conquered the islands in 1942.  When they took control of the island nation, she told enemy soldiers she was Filipino and was not imprisoned with the other Americans.  She immediately joined the Filipino underground and smuggled food, medicine and other supplies to the American captives.  However, she was eventually caught and arrested by the Japanese.  Finch said she was beaten with sabers, tortured and routed through three prison camps before the Americans liberated the Philippines in 1945.    "We were terrified; we didn't know what was going to happen to us," she said.  "We had seen the death march and the condition of the American troops.  You just can't comprehend what it was like.  I was 80 pounds when we were liberated."  Immediately following her release, she caught a ride aboard a Coast Guard transport back to the United States, where she enlisted in the Coast Guard to help "avenge the death of her late husband, who was killed aboard a Navy PT boat while running supplies to besieged Corregidor.  Finch was also awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom, one of the few American women to be so honored.

[Story by Edward Moreth, USCG]

Click here for her autobiographical account.

Lieutenant Commander Carmelo Lopez Manzano, Lieutenant Benjamin Ayesa, Lieutenant, Junior Grade Juan B. Lacson, Ensign Conrado Aguado

In December 1942, four former officers of the Philippine Army received commissions in the Coast Guard Reserve after first finishing the U. S. Navy's Submarine Chaser School: LCDR Carmelo Lopez Manzano, LT Benjamin Ayesa, LTJG Juan B. Lacson, and ENS Conrado Aguado.  They were certified as being qualified to command patrol vessels.  LCDR Manzano and LT Ayesa also held all-oceans, all-tonnages merchant marine licenses.  LTJG Lacson held a master's ticket and ENS Aguado held a chief mate's license.

LCDR Manzano had served as a major in the Philippine Army and also served as an aide de camp to MAJGEN B. J. Waldes.  He also had 14 years of seagoing experience and his last vessel was destroyed in an attempt to run the Japanese blockade of Bataan.  He was born in 1904 and held command of an ocean-going vessel for four years.

LT Ayesa was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1904 and became a naturalized Philippine citizen in 1937.  He formerly was a captain of the offshore patrol of the Philippine Army and had 21 years of experience at sea.

LTJG Lacson was born in 1898 and had 20 years experience at sea.  He also served in the offshore patrol of the Philippine Army.  During 1940 and 1941 he was a second and a chief officer of the Philippine Coast Guard.

ENS Aguado, born in 1913, attended San Beda College and the Philippine Nautical School.  He formerly was a second lieutenant of the Philippine Army's offshore patrol and had 10 years experience at sea.

San Juan Family

The Filipino American San Juan family, including the father, Vivencio, and two of his sons served in the Coast Guard.  Vivencio San Juan served on board the Coast Guard-manned attack transport USS Samuel Chase during the invasions of North Africa and then Salerno, Italy.  His son, Pedro, was stationed on board the attack transport USS Bayfield and saw service during the Normandy invasion and the invasion of Southern France as well.  Another son, Ramon, served on board four Coast Guard cutters during his career and retired from the service in 1969.  Another son, William, served in the Coast Guard in the Vietnam conflict.  He was awarded the Purple Heart for a combat injury received while under a Viet Cong mortar attack.

Captain Jeffrey Lee

CAPT Jeffrey Lee was the first Korean American to graduate from Coast Guard OCS.  He became the first Korean American to command a 95-footer, an icebreaker, and a High Endurance Cutter.  He commanded CGC Hamilton when the cutter seized more than 1.6 billion dollars worth of contraband in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and also shared in the largest drug bust in maritime history by capturing 19.5 metric tons of cocaine.  Click here for more information. 

Ensign Mark Unpingco

On March 11, 2008, ENS Mark A. Unpingco became the first Chamorro (native Pacific Islander from the Mariana Islands) Dive Officer of the Coast Guard after graduating from the Marine Engineering Dive Officer (MEDO) course at the U.S. Navy Dive and Salvage Training Center in Panama City, FL.

Lieutenant Commander Christine Igisomar

On October 1, 2019, LT Christine Igisomar was promoted to LCDR, becoming the first Chamorro (native Pacific Islander from the Mariana Islands) woman to achieve this rank.

Asian Pacific Islander Imagery

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Captain Kwang-Ping Hsu was born in Shantung Province in China and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 11 years old. In 1962, he became the first native Chinese American to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy. Hsu became an accomplished aviator, who flew in the Arctic and Antarctic and served for 30 years.
In 1958, Filipino American Manuel Tubella became the first Asian American and second minority Coast Guardsman to become an aviator in the Coast Guard. He transferred from the Marine Corps and received a commission as a LTJG in the Coast Guard Reserves. He would later become the first Asian-American officer at every rank from full lieutenant up to captain.
As per Exequiel Murallo's son, Randy: "My dad as a Filipino immigrant joining the Coast Guard in 1924, raising eleven children, (5 serving in other military services) helping his brother join the Coast Guard in 1931, (him having ten children) and finally having a grandson who graduated from the Coast Guard Academy." He initially enlisted in Seattle aboard CGC Haida in 1924, later enlisting in Staten Island, NY, and seeing service at sea and ashore (including CGA) until retiring from the Coast Guard in 1951. Scan provided by Randy Murallo.
The year 1980 saw Japanese American Moynee Smith become the first minority and Asian-American female to graduate from the Academy and the first known Asian-American female commissioned officer in the Coast Guard.
RDML Andrew Sugimoto, USCG
RDML Joseph M. Vojvodich, USCG
Rear Admiral Joseph M. Vojvodich, USCG
On 7 December 1941, Hawaiian Coast Guardsman Melvin Kealoha Bell manned the Diamond Head radio station during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, warning commercial vessels that a surprise attack was underway. In 1944, RM1 Bell advanced to a wartime rate of Chief Radioman, becoming the first Pacific Islander to make Chief Petty Officer. During this time, he served within the U.S. Navy’s intelligence office helping crack the Imperial Japanese Navy’s secret codes. In 1958, Bell advanced to ETCM, becoming the first minority Master Chief Petty Officer in the Coast Guard. He is the first Pacific Island-American namesake of a Coast Guard cutter.
As per Exequiel Murallo's son, Randy: "My dad as a Filipino immigrant joining the Coast Guard in 1924, raising eleven children, (5 serving in other military services) helping his brother join the Coast Guard in 1931, (him having ten children) and finally having a grandson who graduated from the Coast Guard Academy." He initially enlisted in Seattle aboard CGC Haida in 1924, later enlisting in Staten Island, NY, and seeing service at sea and ashore (including CGA) until retiring from the Coast Guard in 1951. Scan provided by Randy Murallo.
"U.S. Coast Guard Cutter TAHOMA, Cleveland, Ohio, 8 January, 1938. [;] SAN LUIS, Alejandro - - (206-239) M. Att. 1c. [;] VILLANZANTE, Francisco P. (202-027) M. Att. 1c." USCG Mess Attendants give, and receive, a haircut aboard CGC Tahoma in 1938. Photo by Herbert Rebman Minority Subject Files, USCG Historian's Special Collection Archive & Library.