By Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher P. Evanson
Fifth District Public Affairs
PORTSMOUTH, Va. – The Coast Guard today is a mirror of the true American spirit and identity. Members proudly sport the blue and orange racing stripe as a badge of honor. The Coast Guard is under funded, culturally diverse, and opportunity aplenty no matter one’s race, gender, creed or religious beliefs. The equipment is old, but the missions are as modern as ever, and members find a way to get the job done.
The Coast Guardsman of today is about as diverse as one can be. The Vice Commandant is a woman, the Commandant was raised by a chief, and the President’s landlord is an African American and soon to be retired Coast Guard flag officer who earned his stripes as a petty officer before attending officer candidate school.
But as the future looks promising, the past slowly fades into oblivion. The Coast Guard was not always the well of opportunity that it is today. The Coast Guard was once a byproduct of the racially segregated ugly America that few people like to remember. As retired veterans perish by the day, one man still remembers his experience as a black man in a white dominated and segregated Coast Guard. A service that was not full of opportunity, and not consistent with the ideals of the present.
“I remember enlisting in 1942 in Harlem, N.Y., and after I took my oath, I was sent home,” said retired Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Robert Hammond, 84, of Piscataway, N.J. He was one of the original African Americans stationed aboard the U.S.S. Sea Cloud, a vessel that was once used in a now little-known racial experiment.
“This is war time, why are they sending me home?” he asked himself then. Come to find out, blacks did not report to the same boot camp whites did, so the Coast Guard had to wait until a collective number of blacks were signed in order to begin training.
“It hit me when the bus pulled up to the training center in Manhattan Beach, N.Y., why I was sent home initially; they needed enough blacks to field a company” he said. “My bus stopped at a barracks with only black men while all the buildings next to it had white men training; I will never forget it, we were called company 24”.
Retired Master Chief Boatswains Mate Robert L. Hammond poses along side a photo of himself taken after graduation from Coast Guard recruit training in 1942.
In 1943, African-Americans in the Coast Guard were segregated, under appreciated, and their abilities squandered. After recruit training most black Coast Guardsmen manned shore billets with menial tasking – wasted during a time of war, while their white counterparts did their part in protecting America.
“I remember standing watch at my first duty station in Boston, and I stood it on a bridge,” said Hammond. If it wasn’t standing watch on a bridge, the duty of stewardship occupied their time. It was a stewardship that cleaned up after white men, officers and enlisted alike. This task featured name calling that today would get you labeled as an inhuman bigot. Second-class citizens were one-way to describe the Coast Guardsmen of color during one of the most significant wars in history.
Many questioned whether blacks had the same mental capabilities as whites. This ignorant view was commonplace at the time among the white population. A black machinist’s mate or coxswain was unheard of, and the thought of it being any other way was unimaginable.
Insert young idealistic officer here!
However, a young officer by the name of Carlton Skinner helped pioneer racial equality for blacks in the Coast Guard as the executive officer of the original Coast Guard Cutter Northland. He first questioned the troubled racial environment of the Coast Guard when a black crewman serving as a steward saved the ship during a patrol when an engine had died and rendered the ship useless at sea.
The U.S.S. Sea Cloud
While none of the white mechanics could figure out how to repair the engine, a black man who was cracking eggs and cleaning heads saved the patrol. The gentleman eventually approached Skinner asking to be advanced to machinist’s mate.
Having considered the request and aware of the man’s reputation as a skilled and motivated mechanic, he submitted a recommendation for advancement. Skinner did not, however, anticipate the response he was to receive: the crewman was black, and blacks were only permitted to be steward’s mates.
The motivated Skinner petitioned Coast Guard brass. He was worried for several reasons. According to historical documents located in Coast Guard archives, one was that he was fearful that the safety of the country was being compromised by having capable yet underutilized sailors stuck doing menial busy work ashore, when they were really needed underway.
At the time, when such radical thinking was unusual, Coast Guard Commandant Russell Waesche gave Skinner the reins on a never-before tried social experiment within the U.S. sea services-Desegregation!
In its massive arsenal of ships, the Navy owned a small little-used, German-built yacht, which had been converted into a weather patrol ship named the U.S.S. Sea Cloud in 1942. With little use for the vessel, the Navy leased the ship for one dollar to the Coast Guard. Skinner would command this ship as part of the experiment.
PISCATAWAY, N.J. – (March 29) Retired Master Chief Petty Officer Robert Hammond holds up an old press clipping featuring Lt. Carlton Skinner, Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. Sea Cloud.
“When the experiment began, I was working at a Coast Guard receiving station in Boston, and heard the Coast Guard was asking for twenty volunteers,” said Hammond.
“I wanted to get the hell out of there so I volunteered, and I had no idea what it was for because we were not told,” he said. “We were simply told to pack our sea bags.”
When Hammond and the rest of the volunteers were met at the Sea Cloud pier, a chief warrant officer told them to prepare for sea and some problems they should expect from the white crew.
“We were told that we were going to be called by every racial epithet that we knew, and at absolutely no time were we allowed to retaliate,” said Hammond.
The transition was hard and days were long during bitter cold weather patrols spanning from Boston to Greenland. Skinner and his crew were committed to the task. As blacks integrated with the white crews, tensions eased over time.
“In the beginning we were called names by some white crewmembers, but in the end we had their respect,” said Hammond.
Black crewmen’s work habits and ability were invaluable amidst nasty weather and with little room to move about on board. Skinner feverishly documented in his diary the progress between black and white crews which eventually became one.
In his observations, Skinner noticed very few differences between black and white crew members. He noted that blacks hated bad weather just as much as the whites. He observed that mind-numbing cold, bi-polar waves and undesirable food helped unite his crew. According to the Coast Guard historical archives, Skinner documented that members overall were equally miserable underway. It taught them their similarities trumped their differences.
No man was better equipped the take on the responsibility of supervising and facilitating a racial experiment such as desegregating a Coast Guard cutter than Skinner, who served as a government official in D.C. prior to joining the service through officer candidate school
Retired Coast Guard Master Chief Robert Hammond is pictured at his retirement ceremony in October 1963, as well as a photo from earlier in his career while studying in a library.
As captain, Skinner treated all races the same, whether it was for recognition or disobedience. He gave blacks authority over whites as petty officers and chiefs if they proved qualified. . “Mr. Skinner was a very nice man, and a very fair man,” said Hammond. “We were given an opportunity to strike any rate we wanted to,” he added
The experiment lasted little less than a year’s time, and soon the Sea Cloud was en route to a yard and her days as an active ship were numbered. But the mission proved successful, and the role of minorities in the Coast Guard would forever be changed. Skinner had made his point.
The irony of the vessel’s role in racial desegregation for the United States Coast Guard was that the ship was built in Nazi Germany, a society whose very values contradicted the value of racial integration. And for the cost of a cheeseburger, the Sea Cloud was more than worth the investment.
For two of the men associated with such a pivotal moment in Coast Guard history, success was on the horizon. Skinner left the Coast Guard after his commission was complete, and was tasked by President Harry S. Truman to be the first governor of Guam after Japanese occupation had ended with the war. As for Hammond, he would enjoy a long illustrious Coast Guard career that saw him begin as a steward but end as a master chief boatswain’s mate. He retired in 1963, and remains active today within community veteran chapters.
As for the Coast Guard itself, it remains the smallest of the U.S. military branches. But as history shows, it inaugurated one of the biggest changes in U.S. military history: racial equality. Not long after, the Navy followed suit, and progressive change was in place.
Now the service is not only full of opportunities for African Americans, but for immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship and women as well. The U.S.S Sea Cloud should forever be known as a baton for change, and willing players like Skinner and Hammond as important links in racial progress.
U.S.S. Sea Cloud photo courtesy US Coast Guard
Other Photos by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Evanson.