On June 7, 1942, 12 other blacks and I in the Ft. Worth-Dallas area volunteered to be among the first black apprentice seamen in the U.S. Coast Guard. We were sworn in at the old Texas Electric Building, and as we crossed Burnett Park, a passerby’s voice rang out, “Suckers.”
That echo stayed with me for a long time.
From the beginning, our racial status was in conflict with stated and democratic principles and goals. My trip to New York was in a segregated coach, and I was forced to eat in a segregated section of the dining room, where incidentally my neighbor was a waiter.
In New York, we remained in an all-black unit for our basic training. This training was an unparalleled experience for me. Our combat exercises included judo, rifle target practice, and training for safety on a battlefield.
One of my main problems was the required swimming exercise. I was not a swimmer.
The only swimming experience I had in Fort Worth was at Dixie Park, where I waded in the water but didn’t swim. So, I was, as it says on the tuna fish cans, “chicken of the sea.”
At the Manhattan Beach Training Station, we were required to go out in our boats, jump out a few feet from shore and swim to the bank. It didn’t take me long to accomplish this feat. I became a member of the Shore Patrol, and this success influenced my boldness in New York and grew into a part of my adult life.
On weekends, I had a very good time in Harlem until I had to go back to the base.
But soon after, we were sent to Florida, where racial discrimination was virulent.
As blacks, our in-town activities were restricted to “colored town,” where the nightclubs had dirt floors and residents could be observed pitching waste matter from their two- and three-story apartments. I spent most of my time at the base.
There, an officer came to us and ordered us to work in the kitchen. I said, bluntly, “No.” We were apprentice seamen and weren’t compelled to work in the kitchen, where black servicemen had always been relegated. He told us to obey his order. We refused.
The next morning when I saw him in our quarters, I knew I was in serious trouble and probably would be confined to the brig.
“Follow me,” he said. We walked in to the radio shack and he told the officer in charge, “Place him on your staff, and treat him just like the others.”
It blew my mind.
In just a few weeks, I was selected as an apprentice radioman and got sent to the Coast Guard Radio School in Atlantic City, N.J., where I was the third black admitted and graduated 19th in a class of 97.
I went on to serve in Miami and at Saipan. For more of my story, check out my book, “Born to Win.”
Reby Cary, U.S. Coast Guard