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LT Clarence Samuels, USCG (Ret.)

Clarence Samuels

"Black Trailblazer Has Colorful Past."

by Truman Strobridge & CWO Joseph Grecco, USCG

For those who served with him during his 27 years in the Coast Guard, memories vary as to kind and extent of their association with Clarence Samuels, but history will remember him because of his color, for he managed to rack up several firsts as a black Coast Guardsman.

A Panamanian by birth, he was born on June 11, 1900 at Bohio, Panama.  When LCDR C.F. Howell, USCG, swore him in as a Seaman 2nd Class on July 16, 1920 aboard the USCGC EARP at Balboa Canal Zone, he was described on his enlistment papers as 5' 2" tall, 123 pounds, unmarried, citizenship- alien, occupation- sailor, and no previous military experience.  Within nine years, he advanced to the rate of Chief Quartermaster, receiving that promotion on 10 October 1929.

Like so many Blacks before and after him, he was soon initiated into messman duty, for his first enlistment papers carry the notation: "Detailed to messmen duty 2/1/21 at $5.00 per mo."

His first decade in the Service was a sea-going one.  During these so-called peacetime years, when the Coast Guard was engaging in a constant battle against the rum runners seeking to circumvent the Prohibition laws, he served in the following cutters:

USCGC EARP (7/16/20 - 7/6/21)
USCGC SWIFT (7/20/21 - 7/27/21)
USCGC EARP (8/5/21 - 7/7/22)
USCGC SHAWNEE (late 1922 - late 1924)
USCGC MOJAVE (late 1924 - late 1926)
USCGC ARGUS (late 1926 - 1/23/28)

After spending six months assigned to Section Base Four, he assumed command of the Coast Guard Patrol Boat AB-15, operating out of Savannah, Georgia, on July 18, 1928.  Meanwhile, he had become a naturalized citizen of the United States on July 21, 1923.

Clarence Samuels' second decade in the Guard was a shore-based one.  On Sept. 8, 1930, he relinquished command of USCG Patrol Boat AB-15 and reported two days later to Pea Island Coast Guard Station on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Here, at the Service's only lifeboat station manned totally by Blacks, he served five years.  Despite Samuel's letters pleading for a seagoing assignment during these years, Headquarters seemed satisfied to leave him there.  Meanwhile, on June 16, 1933, his rating was changed to Boatswain's Mate, 1st Class (Lifesaving).

Samuels was finally detached from the Pea Island Station on July 14, 1935, reporting two days later to the Coast Guard Depot at Curtis bay, Maryland.  Over the next three years, he reported for duty at the following places on the following dates:

Headquarters (8/19/35)
Recruiting Office, Baltimore, Md. (6/30/36)
Depot (7/11/36)
Washington Radio Monitoring Station (6/12/37)
and Headquarters (11/18/37)

Despite these varied assignments, it appears evident from his personnel jacket that Samuels, during these years and until late 1941, was functioning primarily as the Coast Guard Commandant's [Rear Admiral Russell R. Waesche] personal driver.

"Effective this date," he was notified on May 8, 1936, much to his pleasure, "your rating is changed from boatswain's mate, first class (life-saving), to boatswain's mate, first class."  Just three years later, on May 12, 1939, he was appointed a Chief Photographer's Mate (Acting), a rating that became a permanent one exactly a year later to the day.  Thus, Samuels became not only the first black photographer in the Guard, but also only the second photographer in the entire history of the Service.

When World War II started, Samuel's career took a startling turn for the better.  "Pursuant to the provision of an Act of Congress approved July 24, 1941 (Public [Law] No. 188 - 77th Congress)," Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox wrote to Chief Photographer's Mate Clarence Samuels on September 1, 1942, "the President of the United States on this date appoints you a Boatswain in the Coast Guard for temporary service to rank from the First of September 1942."  Thus, Samuels had finally worked himself up through the ranks to become a warrant officer.

Just 23 days later, he was transferred to the Coast Guard Training Station Manhattan Beach, New York, where he served as Director of Visual Signaling for Recruits until August 14, 1943.  On that date, he departed for an assignment aboard the Coast Guard-manned U.S.S. SEA CLOUD (IX-99), which was operating as a Weather Station in the North Atlantic.  His promotion to Lieutenant (j.g.) came on Aug. 31, 1943.  From September 8, 1943 until July 8, 1944, he served as the Damage Control Officer on the SEA CLOUD, except for a month off in April and May of 1944 to attend the Damage Control and Fire Fighting School at the Fort McHenry Training Station.

His next assignment was another Black first for the Coast Guard.  On July 29, 1944, he assumed command of Lightship No. 115, operating in the Panama Sea Frontier.  Thus, he became the first admitted Black to command a cutter, as well as the first one to be a commanding officer of a Coast Guard vessel during wartime.

Receiving his promotion to Lieutenant on Sept. 27, 1944, he continued in command of Lightship No. 115 until May 18, 1945.  On that date, he assumed command of Lightship No. 91 and held it until August 2, 1945.  Four days later, he was assigned as commanding officer of USCGC SWEETGUM, a command he held until January 3, 1946, when he relinquished this command and departed the Panama Sea Frontier.

On June 25, 1946, meanwhile, as a part of the massive demobilization of the Coast Guard following the end of hostilities, his lieutenancy was revoked and he was dis-rated to Chief Photographer's mate.  The same date, however, he was appointed temporarily to Chief Boatswain's Mate and ranked as such from July 1, 1946.  At this time, he was aboard the buoy tender TULIP at Manila, Luzon Island, Philippines Islands.

Approximately a year later, after 27 years and 13 days of active service, Clarence Samuels retired from the Coast Guard on September 1, 1947, while still stationed in the Philippines.  Some time later, he would return to the United States and make his home in California.

[Article appeared in the Commandant's Bulletin, Issue Number 7-75 (14 February 1975), pp. 11-12.]

Last Modified 1/12/2016