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Hispanic Americans in the Coast Guard

The history of Hispanic Americans in the U.S. Coast Guard may be traced as far back as early 1800's. Hispanic Americans performed duties at light house stations as keepers and assistant keepers. Others served on board Revenue Service cutters and as surfmen at Life-Saving Service stations along the coast. Many gave their lives in the performance of their duties and others were decorated for their heroism.

In 1914, Hispanics sailed on the Revenue Cutter Algonquin. The cutter was stationed in the Caribbean and assisted the city of San Juan twice. In 1920, after the formation of the Coast Guard, two Hispanic crewman of the cutter Acushnet, Mess Attendant First Class Arthur J. Flores and SN John E. Gomez, volunteered to save survivors of the schooner Isaiah K. Stetsen, which sank off the coast of Massachusetts during a storm.
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The Treasury Department awarded both of them the Silver Lifesaving Medal for their heroism.

Many served with distinction during World War II as well. The Sanjuan family, including the father, Vivencio, and two of his sons served in the Coast Guard. Vivencio Sanjuan served on board the Coast Guard-manned attack transport USS Samuel Chase during the invasions of North Africa and then Salerno, Italy. His son, Pedro, was stationed on board the attack transport USS Bayfield and saw service during the Normandy invasion and the invasion of Southern France as well. Another son, Ramon, served on board four Coast Guard cutters during his career and retired from the service in 1969. Another son, William, served in the Coast Guard in the Vietnam conflict. He was awarded the Purple Heart for a combat injury received while under a mortar attack by a Viet Cong unit.

Other incidents and persons of note:

    • May 17, 1893: Nicholas Servas and Albert H. Cariher, both surfmen from the Cleveland Life Saving Station, were killed in the line of duty when their lifeboat capsized during a rescue attempt. November 4, 1901: Bailey T. Barco, the Keeper of the Dam Neck Mills Life-Saving Station, died from a disease contracted in the line of duty.

    • February 5, 1908: Francisco Silva, a surfman from the Woodend Life-Saving Station, died from a disease contracted in the line of duty.

    • November 22, 1912: Albert Ocha, the Keeper of the Eagle Harbor Life-Saving Station, died from a disease contracted in the line of duty.

    • Two Hispanic American Coast Guardsmen, Richard E. Cordova and Julius M. Vallon, gave their lives when their cutter, the USCGC Tampa, was torpedoed and sunk with all hands by a German U-Boat during World War I.

    • Leroy A. Choina was awarded a Navy & Marine Corps Medal during World War II.

    • Valentin R. Fernandez, the coxswain of a landing craft, was awarded a Silver Lifesaving Medal for "maneuvering a Marine landing party ashore under constant Japanese attack" during the invasion of Saipan.

    • Louis Rua was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for "meritorious achievement at sea December 5-6, 1944, while serving aboard a U.S. Army large tug en route to the Philippines. He craft went to the rescue of another ship which had been torpedoed by enemy action and saved 277 survivors from the abandoned ship."

    • Joseph Tezanos was awarded a Navy & Marine Corps Medal during World War II.

    • Gilbert Cardenas and Thomas Cavadas were both awarded with a Commandant's Letter of Commendation for service during World War II.

    • Heriberto S. Hernandez, a crewman of the USCGC Point Cypress, was awarded the Purple Heart medal after sustaining a wound in combat with the Viet Cong while the cutter served in the Vietnam conflict.

    • BM3 Pedro Albino, USCG, retired from the Coast Guard after 32 years of military and civilian government service. He was stationed at six different lighthouses throughout Puerto Rico and the Caribbean during his distinguished career. He was a champion for working and salary improvements for lighthouse keepers throughout Puerto Rico during his career. His dedicated service contributed greatly to the success of the lighthouse service in Puerto Rico in the years prior to World War II. He was commended for his assistance to the crew of the grounded sloop Continente in 1929. He was born in 1886, served in the U.S. Army for three years, joined the Lighthouse Service in 1916 and he retired from the Coast Guard in 1944.

    • ENC Justo Gonzalez, USCG, had a distinguished career in both the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the Coast Guard that stretched over 30 years. He was born in 1906 and joined the Lighthouse Service on the tender Columbine in March 1926. After leaving the service for a year, he rejoined the Lighthouse Service. On 29 June 1937 while off duty in San Juan, Gonzalez observed three men in the water holding on to a capsized boat just off the coast near El Morro Castle. Ignoring the obvious risks he entered the water and was able to save one of the men (the other two were rescued by others). The U.S. Lighthouse Service commended him for his meritorious and selfless actions to save others. He entered the Coast Guard when the Lighthouse Service merged with the Coast Guard in 1939. He survived the sinking of his tender Acacia by a German U-boat in March, 1942. He became the first Hispanic-American in the Coast Guard to be promoted to chief petty officer when he was promoted to Chief Machinist's Mate (acting) on 16 February 1944. The rank was made permanent on 16 October 1948. He served as Officer in Charge to the Mona Island Light Station and retired after 30 years of honorable service on 1 April 1957.

    • SA William Ray "Billy" Flores died in the line of duty while saving the lives of many of his shipmates when his cutter, the Blackthorn, collided with the tanker Capricorn, on January 28, 1980. The Blackthorn and the tanker Capricorn collided near the entrance to Tampa Bay, Florida. The Blackthorn capsized before all the cutter’s crew could abandon ship. Twenty-seven of Flores’ shipmates did escape the sinking ship. After the ships collided Flores and another crewmember threw lifejackets to their shipmates who had jumped into the water. Later, when his companion abandoned ship as the Blackthorn began to submerge, Flores — who was less than a year out of boot camp — remained behind and used his own belt to strap open the lifejacket locker door, allowing additional lifejackets to float to the surface. Even after most crewmembers abandoned ship, the 19-year-old Flores remained aboard to assist trapped shipmates and to comfort those who were injured and disoriented. He was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Medal. He received the Coast Guard's highest service medal posthumously in a ceremony near Ft. Worth, Texas, Sept. 16, 2000.

    Source: U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office