In the U.S. Coast Guard, there are thousands of highly motivated men and women doing extraordinary things. This kind of individual has guided the Service through its 230 years of history. The model of such a Coast Guardsman was Oliver Tony Henry, Jr., an African American who led the Coast Guard toward greater diversity during World War II and the postwar era by shattering color barriers in the U.S. military.
In 1921, Oliver Henry was born in Winterville, a small town in Eastern North Carolina, near the city of Greenville. When still a child, his parents re-located to Washington, D.C., where he attended Grover Cleveland Elementary School and Shaw Junior High School. After finishing at Shaw, Henry began working at the nearby A & P Grocery Store as a clerk. However, his true calling was the field of mechanics and engineering, so he landed a job at Gordon’s Service Station & Garage, where he excelled as an auto mechanic.
Henry came from a military family. His father and namesake, Oliver T. Henry, served in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War I and two of his younger brothers would serve in the Army in World War II. Eighty years ago, in 1940, after working several years as an auto mechanic, Henry enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard at the Baltimore recruiting office. After basic training, he shipped out to New York and served aboard the cutter Manhattan and then the Champlain.
In 1941, he shipped out on Cutter Northland. Aboard Northland, Henry participated in numerous historic events and operations. In September, a few months before the U.S. entered World War II, Northland began operating in the Greenland theatre of operations. A few months later, the cutter took into custody the foreign sealer Buskoe, considered by some the first capture by U.S. forces of an enemy vessel. A month later, the Coast Guard established a unified Greenland Patrol with Northland acting as flagship under famed officer “Iceberg” Smith. In 1942, Northland rescued several aviators forced down on the Greenland icecap—the last aerial rescue resulted in the deaths of heroic Coast Guard aviators John Pritchard and Benjamin Bottoms. In 1943 and 1944, Northland played hide-and-seek with German trawlers and enemy weather stations hidden on Sabine Island and on Greenland’s eastern coast. For example, in July 1944, the cutter’s crew discovered the remains of the German trawler Coburg and, in September, chased the trawler Kehdingen for 70 miles through ice flows before its Nazi crew scuttled it and surrendered.
Captured German weather station personnel on board the Northland during Oliver Henry’s tour. (U.S. Coast Guard)
During his first cutter assignments, Henry had worked in the Stewards Branch as a mess attendant. Prior to World War II, minorities were segregated into food service positions, such as cooks, stewards and mess attendants. According to military regulations, these enlisted positions had no petty officer status. For example, an African-American Chief Steward might receive the pay of a Chief, but he held no rank over any other enlisted man on the cutter. Northland’s executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Carlton Skinner later recounted how this situation changed with Oliver Henry:
He came to me and asked if he could be examined for the rating of Motor Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class. . . . I had him examined and submitted his papers, which were of the highest caliber . . . . the response came back from [the] Enlisted Personnel [Office] at Headquarters that he could not be rated as a Motor Mechanic because he was a Negro and Negroes were only accepted in the Steward’s Branch. . . . I appealed the decision, through channels, and as a result, Enlisted Personnel reversed itself and authorized his transfer to Motor Machinist’s Mate . . . .
When Henry shipped out on board the Northland, he was a Mess Attendant 2nd Class. Within a year, he transitioned to Northland’s engineering section and rocketed through the petty officer ranks. Only a year after joining the engineering staff as a Fireman 1st Class, he made Motor Machinist Mate 1st Class. Just a few months later, at the end of 1943, Henry made Chief. By the time he stepped off the Northland in early 1946, Henry was not only a Chief Motor Machinist Mate; he was Northland’s Assistant Engineering Officer and its Assistant Damage Control Officer. It was a remarkable rise for an African American in a segregated service and proved the worth of every Coast Guardsman no matter their skin color.
During his career, Henry served on board nearly 10 cutters and as many shore bases. He welcomed additional responsibilities as part of his duty. For example, while serving aboard the high-endurance cutter Mackinac, he was Assistant Engineering Officer, Engineering Watch Officer, Maintenance Officer, Electrical Officer, After Repair Party Officer, Deck Machinery Officer, “E” Division Officer, Motion Picture Officer, Small Boat Maintenance Officer and Refrigeration Officer. He also oversaw spare parts, stowage and requisitions, and served on the Member Auditing Board and the Member Training Board.
Photo of Oliver Henry with officer corps of the high-endurance cutter Mackinac in 1952. (U.S. Coast Guard)
In 1950, while stationed in New York, Henry advanced to warrant officer, climbing the warrant ranks for the rest of his Coast Guard career. At about the same time, he met and married Jean Ellen Taylor. Jean and their daughter Jo-Ann traveled with him as he moved to duty stations in New York, Washington, D.C., the Philippines and California. Later, their daughter married Coast Guard trailblazer Merle J. Smith, Jr., the first African-American graduate of the Coast Guard Academy and a Bronze Star Medal recipient in Vietnam.
In 1966, Henry retired and moved his family to Southern California where he began a second career with the U.S. Maritime Administration. As always, Henry’s character, integrity and pursuit of excellence proved remarkable. He retired as deputy director of the Maritime Administration’s Southern California office after 20 years of distinguished service.
In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order desegregating the military services. Before Truman’s executive order and well after it, Oliver Henry blazed a trail for minorities in the Service and helped steer the Coast Guard toward greater diversity and racial equality. He was the first minority service member to move from the wardroom to the engine room and rose rapidly through the ranks of enlisted mechanics. He was one of the Service’s first minority warrant officers and served over 15 years of his 26-year career as a warrant. As a leader and role model, he mentored many of the next generation of Service leaders, including officers and enlisted men.
In 1987, Oliver Tony Henry, Jr., passed away at the age of 66 and was laid to rest in Inglewood, California. His pioneering career exemplified the Coast Guard’s core values of “honor, respect and devotion to duty” and serves as an inspiration to other enlisted men and women. Later this year, Oliver Henry will be honored as namesake of the Fast Response Cutter WPC-1140 to be stationed in Guam.
William Thiesen is the Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.