When you begin researching the history of African-Americans in the United States Coast Guard, one name dominates: Alex Haley.
Dominates in a way that fills the first five pages of an online search. Dominates in a way that a ship bares his name. Dominates in that the Coast Guard’s highest honor in journalism is called the Alex Haley Award.
Most of us know Haley from his life after the Coast Guard. His mainstream fame exploding with the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Roots. ABC turned the novel into a TV mini series in 1977. 130 million people watched, sixty percent of the US population at the time. Sixty percent. Six out of ten Americans stopped what they were doing and invested their time, emotion, and thought into the story of slavery in America. In modern contrast, 115 million watch the Super Bowl. In today’s population, that means three out of ten of us will look up from our phones just long enough to watch the new commercials.
Roots didn’t merely dominate the TV ratings, it transformed the American conversation about race. Forty years later, the book and the show still stand as a hallmark in our country’s dialogue about slavery, racism, and class supremacy.
Civil rights leaders already respected Alex Haley as a journalist and partner in their cause. Haley’s interviews with Malcom X in the early 60s became a nation wide best-seller, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a seminal work of the Civil Rights movement. Haley’s interviews with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965 became the longest conversations the icon ever granted a journalist or publication.
When Alex P. Haley left the Elizabeth City State Teachers College in North Carolina in 1939, he was bored, disgruntled, and frustrated with his studies. He joined the United States Coast Guard for a greater challenge, better direction. He enlisted as a Seaman.
He couldn’t be a Seaman. He was black.
He could only be a cook or a Steward. These were the only two jobs the US Navy and USCG offered blacks. So in the Spring of 1939, Haley became a Mess Attendant, Third Class. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to picture the kinds of duties the bright, well read, exceedingly smart young man was assigned. In the pre-World War II era, the USCG had no official training facility to send him to. What the Coast Guard did have, in ’39, however, were new ships. Money was already starting to flow towards the rebuilding of the military for the foreseen apocalypse of a world at war. Haley’s training was to be on the job.
Haley transferred to his new home in Norfolk, Virginia. A floating home called the Cutter Mendota, one of the newer 250 foot “Lake” Class cutters. During the Mendota’s long patrols of the Southern coast, Haley began doing something he loves. Something he would never stop doing.
He began to write.
He wrote stories woven from the tall sea adventure tales of his salted shipmates. He penned his own experience of what life was like aboard ship. He began a lucrative side business, ghost writing love letters for his shipmates to send to their girlfriends.
By 1943, Haley was writing about war. In three years he had been promoted to Officer’s Steward, Third Class. Transferred to a large cargo vessel, the USS Murzim, he found himself part of the now raging combat campaign in the Pacific. Murzim is an ammo supplier. A floating bomb. Because of the urgency of her cargo, she would often steam without escort. Sailing the waters of Guadalcanal, Bougainville, the Solomon Islands and the Leyte Gulf.
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The Coast Guard published one of his combat articles in early 1944 — considered his first published work of many to come. He created a ship’s newspaper and continued a stream of article submissions through the USCG chain of command. Major newspapers back home reprinted a heartfelt editorial, titled “Mail Call,” depicting the disappointment of shipmates that do not receive letters from home.
In 1949 the Coast Guard finally got around to calling Alex Haley what he already was: a journalist. They also called him Chief. Not Chief Steward, but Chief Journalist. The only one in the service. For the next decade until his retirement, Haley molded and shaped the USCG’s communication and public information machine into the model it still uses today.
This is all great material when you are creating an exhibit about Black History in the USCG. Fame is an easy path to follow. Lots of photos, articles, and references. The research is a no-brainer. As a new museum exhibit, however, the issue becomes that the story has already been told.
Thanks to a grant from the Dominion Power Foundation, we have a chance to revisit the subject and search for new stories, new heroes that are hiding in the sprawling archive of African American military service. Research means wading through documents, personnel records, and combat reports. What often gets a good search started is a photograph.
The World War II image of Charles Tyner — right — is one of those photos. The black and white capture is hauntingly familiar. A very, very young man, that timeworn battle hardened blankness of expression. Tyner is looking down, away from the camera. The hole is his helmet is massive. Not clean, but ripped and jagged edged from whatever bit of white hot shrapnel that ricocheted across Tyner’s skull.
Charles Wesley Tyner was born in 1920 and raised in Portsmouth, Virginia. When America officially enters World War II in 1941, Tyner’s patriotism guided him to the Coast Guard recruiter’s office. He enlisted as a Seaman.
He couldn’t be a Seaman. Tyner was black.
Cook, Steward; two choices. Pick one.
Steward, Third Class Charles Tyner received five Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart during his wartime years. In January 1942, Tyner was aboard the Cutter Alexander Hamilton when it went down off the coast of Iceland, another grim victim of U-Boat torpedoes. In a sinking lifeboat, the young Steward held onto other men to keep them afloat, alive, until a rescue ship arrived. This was only the beginning of his wartime experience.
While serving aboard the Samuel Chase, an attack transport ship, Tyner was part of the armada that invaded North Africa and Sicily. The National Archive photograph is from France in 1944. The 24 year old Portsmouth kid took part in the initial assault on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was wounded in the attack, but choose not to be evacuated so he could remain with his shipmates.
We know Charles stayed in the Coast Guard after the war, continuing through the ranks newly opening to African Americans. No longer a Steward, Charles worked in the engine room as a Boiler Technician.
Charles didn’t write any articles. Didn’t keep a diary. Didn’t publish any books. Like many veterans, he preferred not to talk about the war. He lived quietly and raised a family in West Medford, Massachusetts. We are thankful, though, for a photograph, for a small glimpse into one man’s story. One man’s heroism.
Tyner’s portrait fuels our hunger for more Black History stories. The too often stories of African-Americans that have served with honor in the USCG are forgotten. Is it you? Is it your family member? All of us at the museum need your help. We would love to share your story, your photos, and your experience in our new exhibit. From aging tales to modern experiences, we would be honored to hear from you.
Alex Haley once said, “In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.”
Help us share that link. Build that bridge.
Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to share a story, a memory, a photograph for our upcoming “Proud Always, African Americans in the Coast Guard” exhibit.
About the sponsor of this article: The Old Coast Guard Station, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is located at 24th Street on the boardwalk in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The museum honors and preserves the history of Virginia’s coastal communities and maritime heritage.