CDR Merle Smith Jr – First Black Coast Guard Academy Graduate, Dies at 76

CDR Merle Smith, Jr was a swirl of firsts. He was the first black to be admitted into the Coast Guard Academy in 1962, and the first one to graduate in 1966. He was the first black commander of a Coast Guard cutter in the Vietnam War, where he earned a Bronze Star. He served 23 years of regular and reserve active duty. The odd thing is, the Coast Guard Academy didn’t know they had a black cadet at the time. He died on June 16 of complications from Covid and Parkinson’s.

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He was a really wonderful, wonderful man, who did his job as he saw fit to do his job, so therefore he considered all of his accomplishments as part of doing his job, as opposed to being a trailblazer or a pioneer. He was very self-effacing in his personality, very humble, very gracious.

Lynda Smith, CDR Smith’s wife (Stripes)

CDR Merle Smith Jr was the son of retired Army Col Merle J. Smith, Sr.. According to most sources, he didn’t really appear to be black and when people were asked, they named two others as whom they thought might be the black one in the class.

The Academy was not aware at first that there was an African American cadet at the Academy. He had not been recruited as a “Black cadet”; nor, was he recognized as one by the Coast Guard Academy Admission’s Office. He was not recognized as an African American because he did not physically resemble one. None of his school records labeled him as Black, and he had not been recruited as a minority candidate. When Black spectators came to watch the entire corps of cadets march in parade, they frequently mistook Anthony Carbone and Donnie Winchester as the possible Black cadet. Carbone was an Italian, and Winchester was a Native American. They both were considerably darker than Merle Smith.

CDR Smith’s appointment had been tendered before President Kennedy issued the directive to find and appoint Black candidates for the Coast Guard Academy. His father, Colonel Merle Smith, Senior, was the Professor of Military Science at Morgan State College in Baltimore, Maryland; and, he had formerly been an Army Staff officer at the Pentagon.

Judge London Steverson, a friend of CDR Smith
L- ) CDR Merle Smith Jr with R-) Judge London Steverson April 10, 2016 . Smith received a 13 gun salute and a full regimental parade at the event.

CDR Merle Smith Jr grew up in various places around the world due to his father’s Army career. Born in 1944, he grew up in Japan, Germany, and places in the US. He eventually graduated from Aberdeen high school in Maryland. Though he was offered an appointment to West Point, he chose the Coast Guard Academy so he could “have the chance to play football under Coach Otto Graham.”

Upon graduation from the USCGA with a degree in marine engineering, he was assigned to the cutter Minnetonka. Soon he commanded the patrol boats Point Mast and Point Ellie, where he earned the Bronze Star. His colleagues described his demeanor during the war as “unflappable.” After the war, he went to George Washington University, received a law degree, and began teaching at the Coast Guard Academy in 1975. He retired in 1979. He later served on the boards of several companies.

“You can’t always do the right thing but you should always just try, because imagine how much better the world would be if you just tried.”

CDR Merle Smith to his children

Merle Smith Jr never considered himself a “pioneer,” even though many others called him that. He didn’t seem particularly worried about racism in the ranks, even though no black Coast Guard cadets entered the Academy between its inception in 1876 and when he entered in 1962.

“Every now and then you would get something that would happen. Someone would make some remark somewhere. In the main, it was not a situation that I felt uncomfortable with.”

CDR Merle Smith Jr

His family revered his wise and humble counsel, as did many who knew him. He always told them to never give up.

“He was also just a very quietly strong man. He would often be quiet and listen to a lot of discussion, and then he would speak toward the end of the discussion and say something very meaningful or very insightful.”

Jerry Fischer, former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut (Yahoo News)

He was described as a role model for cadets, a mentor for his children and officers alike, and a presence of calm no matter what happened.


Featured photo: US Coast Guard L- CRD Merle Smith Jr, R-Army Col Merle Smith Sr

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