Hispanic Americans in the U.S. Coast Guard
The history of Hispanic Americans in the U.S. Coast Guard may be traced as far back as early 1800s. Hispanic Americans performed duties at light house stations as keepers and assistant keepers, such as Keeper José A. Ramirez, who was the Head Keeper of the Windward Point Light Station in Cuba, prior to World War II. Others served on board Revenue Service cutters and as surfmen at Life-Saving Service stations along the coast. Many gave their lives in the performance of their duties and others were decorated for their heroism.
In 1914, Hispanics sailed on the Revenue Cutter Algonquin. The cutter was stationed in the Caribbean and assisted the city of San Juan twice. In 1920, after the formation of the Coast Guard, two Hispanic crewman of the cutter Acushnet, Mess Attendant First Class Arthur J. Flores and SN John E. Gomez, volunteered to save survivors of the schooner Isaiah K. Stetsen, which sank off the coast of Massachusetts during a storm. The Treasury Department awarded both of them the Silver Lifesaving Medal for their heroism.
Many served with distinction during World War II as well. The Sanjuan family, including the father, Vivencio, and two of his sons served in the Coast Guard. Vivencio Sanjuan 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.
Other Incidents and Persons of Note
- May 17, 1893: Nicholas Servas and Albert H. Cariher, both surfmen from the Cleveland Life-Saving Station, were killed in the line of duty when their lifeboat capsized during a rescue attempt.
- November 4, 1901: Bailey T. Barco, the Keeper of the Dam Neck Mills Life-Saving Station, died from a disease contracted in the line of duty.
- February 5, 1908: Francisco Silva, a surfman from the Woodend Life-Saving Station, died from a disease contracted in the line of duty.
- Two Hispanic American Coast Guardsmen, Seaman Richard E. Cordova and Fireman Julius M. Vallon, gave their lives when their cutter, the USCGC Tampa, was torpedoed and sunk with all hands by a German U-Boat during World War I.
- Justo Gonzalez became the first Hispanic-American to make the rank of chief petty officer when the Coast Guard promoted him to Chief Machinist's Mate (acting) on February 16, 1944. The promotion was made permanent on October 16, 1948.
- Valentin R. Fernandez, the coxswain of a landing craft, was awarded a Silver Lifesaving Medal for "...maneuvering a Marine landing party ashore under constant Japanese attack" during the invasion of Saipan, which began on June 15, 1944.
- Louis Rua was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for "...meritorious achievement at sea December 5-6, 1944, while serving aboard a U.S. Army large tug en route to the Philippines. He craft went to the rescue of another ship which had been torpedoed by enemy action and saved 277 survivors from the abandoned ship."
- Gunner's Mate Second Class Joseph Tezanos was awarded a Navy & Marine Corps Medal during World War II for "...distinguished heroism while serving as a volunteer member of a boat crew engaged in rescue operations during a fire in Pearl Harbor, Oahu, T.H. on May 21, 1944. Under conditions of great personal danger from fire and explosions and with disregard of his own safety he assisted in the rescuing of approximately 42 survivors some of whom were injured and exhausted from the water and from burning ships.
- Gilbert Cardenas and Thomas Cavadas were both awarded with a Commandant's Letter of Commendation for service during World War II.
- In Vietnam, Heriberto S. Hernandez, a crewman aboard the USCGC Point Cypress which was assigned to Operation Market Time, was awarded the Purple Heart medal after sustaining a wound while in combat with the Viet Cong.
- Boatswain's Mate Third Class Pedro Albino, USCG, retired from the Coast Guard after 32 years of military and civilian government service. He was stationed at six different lighthouses throughout Puerto Rico and the Caribbean during his distinguished career. He was a champion for working and salary improvements for lighthouse keepers throughout Puerto Rico during his career. His dedicated service contributed greatly to the success of the lighthouse service in Puerto Rico in the years prior to World War II. He was commended for his assistance to the crew of the grounded sloop Continente in 1929. He was born in 1886, served in the U.S. Army for three years, joined the Lighthouse Service in 1916 and he retired from the Coast Guard in 1944.
- Chief Engineman Justo Gonzalez had a distinguished career in both the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the Coast Guard that stretched over 30 years. He was born in 1906 and joined the Lighthouse Service on the tender Columbine in March 1926. After leaving the service for a year, he rejoined the Lighthouse Service. On June 29, 1937 while off duty in San Juan, Gonzalez observed three men in the water holding on to a capsized boat just off the coast near El Morro Castle. Ignoring the obvious risks he entered the water and was able to save one of the men (the other two were rescued by others). The U.S. Lighthouse Service commended him for his meritorious and selfless actions to save others. He entered the Coast Guard when the Lighthouse Service merged with the Coast Guard in 1939. He survived the sinking of his tender Acacia by a German U-boat in March, 1942. He became the first Hispanic-American in the Coast Guard to be promoted to chief petty officer when he was promoted to Chief Machinist's Mate (acting) on February 16, 1944. The rank was made permanent on October 16, 1948. He served as Officer in Charge to the Mona Island Light Station and retired after 30 years of honorable service on April 1, 1957.
- Boatswain's Mate First Class Carlos Valdivia was awarded the Coast Guard Medal (Extraordinary Heroism citation) for "...heroism on the night of 21 October 1970 while serving as a crew member in USCGC ACUSHNET, [WMEC-167] engaged in the perilous rescue of a fellow shipmate who had been washed overboard into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. Though darkness, high winds and 12-foot seas severely affected the search, the victim was sighted only minutes after the accident with the ship’s searchlight. Petty Officer MOLINA donned his wet suit while enroute to the boat lowering detail and volunteered as coxswain of the recovery boat. While the boat was almost lost in launching because of adverse weather conditions, Petty Officer MOLINA, realizing the plight of his shipmate, vaulted over the ship’s railing into the boat. Although suffering a serious fracture to his right leg, he started the motor and skillfully maneuvered the boat within 15 feet of his shipmate. A large wave then crested over the boat and disabled the motor. Disregarding his injuries, Petty Officer MOLINA began using the boat’s paddles in his continuing efforts to reach the man who was trying to swim toward him. Moments later another boat from the ACUSHNET arrived on scene and rescued both men. Petty Officer MOLINA, by his rescue efforts, demonstrated unusual initiative, exceptional fortitude, and heroic daring in spite of imminent personal danger throughout the operation. His unselfish actions and unwavering devotion to duty reflect the highest credit upon himself and the United States Coast Guard."
- Seaman Apprentice William Ray "Billy" Flores died in the line of duty while saving the lives of many of his shipmates when his cutter, the Blackthorn, collided with the tanker Capricorn, on January 28, 1980. The Blackthorn and the tanker Capricorn collided near the entrance to Tampa Bay, Florida. The Blackthorn capsized before all the cutter’s crew could abandon ship. Twenty-seven of Flores’ shipmates did escape the sinking ship. After the ships collided Flores and another crewmember threw lifejackets to their shipmates who had jumped into the water. Later, when his companion abandoned ship as the Blackthorn began to submerge, Flores -- who was less than a year out of boot camp -- remained behind and used his own belt to strap open the lifejacket locker door, allowing additional lifejackets to float to the surface. Even after most crewmembers abandoned ship, the 19-year-old Flores remained aboard to assist trapped shipmates and to comfort those who were injured and disoriented. He was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Medal. [Click here for more information.]
Seaman Apprentice William Ray "Billy" Flores
- The first Hispanic-American female advanced to E-7 was YNC Grisel Hollis, who was promoted on May 1, 1991. The second was Sonia Colon, who was promoted in 1992. Hollis was later promoted to CWO(PERS) on June 1, 1995 while assigned to the USCGC Hamilton as the YNC.
- The first Cuban-born Coast Guardsman promoted to Chief Warrant Officer (Aviation) was Angel L. Martinez, who was promoted in 1999. Click here for his biography.
- Then-Lieutenant Jose L. Rodriguez was the first Hispanic to command a TACLET when he took command of TACLET South, 1996-1998. He was also the first Coast Guardsman to command a U.S. Marine Corps unit when took command of the Riverine Training Center, Special Operations Training Group, II MEF at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in July 1999. He was also the first Hispanic-American Coast Guardsman to earn his Gold Navy/Marine Corps jump wings while in the Coast Guard and assigned to a Jump Billet (USMC Majors Billet at Special Operations Training Group II MEF). He earned his wings that same year. He also became the first commanding officer of one of the two MSSTs commissioned in the Coast Guard [see the next entry].
A photograph of LCDR Jose Luis Rodriguez, USCG
- The first MSSTs ever commissioned in Coast Guard history, MSSTs 91101 and 91102 (East and West Coast), were commissioned by two Hispanic officers: Lieutenant Commander Quique Ramon Ortiz and Lieutenant Commander Jose Rodriguez.
- In 2002, Lieutenant Junior Grade Angelina Hidalgo became the first Hispanic female to command an afloat unit.
LT Angelina Hidalgo
- Lieutenant Jorge Martinez assumed command of the USCGC Maui on June 5, 2003, becoming the first Cuban-American to command a Coast Guard cutter.
- The first Hispanic-American to be promoted to flag rank was Rear Admiral Ronald J. Rábago, who earned his first star in 2006.
- In 2006, LT Isabel Papp became the first female medical officer to be assigned to a PSU. She was also the first Hispanic female MD to be assigned to a PSU. She had also been the first Hispanic female Physician's Assistant in the Coast Guard Reserve.
- BMC Juan J. Rivera served for two tours as the OIC of the CGC Line. He had also commanded ANT Potomac in St. Inigoes, Maryland as a First Class Boatswain's Mate.
BMC (then BM1) Juan J. Rivera