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A Coast Guard Veteran’s story for Black History Month

“Acceptance was kind of rare and there were a lot of barriers.”



During the Vietnam War era, 18-year old males had to register with the Selective Service. Instead of simply registering, Melvin Williams, Jr., went further and enlisted in the Coast Guard.


The sea was already a part of his life. The son of a merchant seaman who grew up around water, the New Jersey native originally wanted to join the Navy, but fate intervened. After hearing about a ship rescued by the Coast Guard, he knew that would be his path in life.


“The Coast Guard was going through a transitional period of integration when I joined,” he said. “This was an interesting time. Acceptance was kind of rare and there were a lot of barriers.”

He started his military career in the medical field.


“I experienced a lot of things I never thought I would encounter. I assisted in surgeries while out to sea … appendicectomies, amputations, wounds, and five life recoveries. It was very productive.”

After his sea rotation, Williams (pictured above) was stationed in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where fate stepped in again. He had the chance to assist a flight crew during a flight. The executive officer heard about his impressive performance. That flight would mark the beginning of a long and impressive aviation career.


“Getting into Coast Guard aviation as an African American at that time was very hard,” he said. “There were only two of us in my rate. I was told if I wanted to succeed, here are the books. So, I read and read and read some more. Within time I worked my up from E-4 to E-6. It was very challenging but I overcame those barriers.”


“Getting into Coast Guard aviation as an African American at that time was very hard,” he said. “There were only two of us in my rate. I was told if I wanted to succeed, here are the books. So, I read and read and read some more. Within time I worked my up from E-4 to E-6. It was very challenging but I overcame those barriers.”


The sea was a part of his life

The job of an aviation survival technician was the combination of parachute rigger and aviation ordnance man. It also included rescue swimmer training, emergency medical training, and more. Rescue swimmer training is a difficult and strenuous course with a high drop-out rate.


Williams didn’t let anything stop him.

“I had a chance to do some jumps with the Navy and I loved it,” he added. He was the first African American to make parachute jumps at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in New Jersey.


First African American in Coast Guard occupations

Williams was also the first African American male to make chief as aviation survival man and then chief warrant officer (CWO2).


“It was hard trying to establish yourself and advance as an African American at that time,” he said. “Leadership didn’t look kindly on our position as a supervisor.”


Before becoming the first African American chief in his rate, Williams was credited with the development of the float strobe light. Versions of this floatation safety device are used today for water survival.

Williams was presented the Sikorsky Winged “S” Award in 1974 for rescues flying in a Coast Guard HH-52 while stationed in Miami.


Williams retired from the Coast Guard in 1989. He would go on to work at New Orleans VA until hurricane Katrina struck. After the devastating storm, he found his way to Shreveport and the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center. There, he not only receives his health care, but is also an employee.


“What I love about this place.”

“I was carrying around some health issues I didn’t know I had until I got to Overton Brooks,” he said. “That is what I love about this place. They informed me about my health situation when no one else did. I have seen this place come a long way.”

Williams has seen many things come a long way in his life. His extensive barrier breaking military career proves progress has been and can be made. He has not only made history but paved the way for African Americans in Coast Guard aviation.


By Jennifer Kirsop

Overton Brooks VA Public Affairs

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