Commander proves societal, cultural hurdles couldn’t his prevent professional progress

>February is Black History Month, the annual observance to recognize the national, social, cultural, scientific and political contributions by black Americans.

“Your Great Lakes Coast Guard” would like to share the story of a retired U.S. Coast Guard Commander. His story is a snapshot of where the Coast Guard was as a service during World War II, where we are now, and how much further he feels we should go toward creating an all-inclusive environment.

During his 35-year career in the Coast Guard, he maintained our core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty during a time when those values were not always reciprocated by the service. He overcame societal and cultural hurdles, and progressed from an E-1 paygrade to become the highest ranking African-American in the Ninth District by his retirement in 1983.

Here is Cmdr. Ernest T. Maxey’s story:

In Chicago, there is a man that has cleared many hurdles and received several awards; and after 35 years of competition, he is retired. But this man is not a world-class or professional athlete, he is retired U.S. Coast Guard Commander Ernest T. Maxey…and those hurdles consisted of racism and discrimination during a Coast Guard career that began in 1942. Through it all, Maxey maintained a positive attitude and still believes the U.S. Coast Guard represents a perfect opportunity for today’s youth.

Early in the war, Maxey, an African-American and Chicago native, became attracted to the opportunities the Coast Guard afforded people of color.

“At the time, the Coast Guard was the only service that started taking minorities in ratings other than Steward’s Mate,” said Maxey.

After completing basic training at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Manhattan Beach (NY) Training Center, Maxey was discouraged to pursue a ‘right-arm rating’, one that would eventually lead to command, by several people, including fellow African-American shipmates. He was assigned to Fort Trumbull, in New London, Conn., and worked in the galley, while studying the Bluejacket’s Manual, a basic handbook to teach Coast Guard procedures and life, on his off time.

(Right: SN 2/C Ernest T. Maxey poses for an official portrait after completing 12-week basic training at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Manhattan Beach (NY) Training Center. Maxey, a U.S. Coast Guard World War II veteran, retired as a commander after 35 years of Coast Guard service.)

Maxey was promoted to working the Chief’s table, but this is not the promotion he wanted. He took an aptitude test and his score qualified him for the Academy. Unfortunately, the qualification for the Academy specifically stated, “white males between the ages of 18-22.” The U.S. Coast Guard Academy didn’t begin admitting African-Americans until 1962.

This racial setback did not sway Maxey who completed a battery of performance qualifications tests, from his 1st Lieutenant and was promoted to SN 1st Class.

“I was prepared and that’s what got me through,” said Maxey.

Maxey’s preparation earned him orders to Signalman school back in Manhattan Beach, NY. Out of a class of 140, Maxey was one of two African-American students. He finished in the top 10 percent of his class and was promoted to signalman third class. After a duty station at a lighthouse in Long Island Sound, NY, and completion of the signal/semaphore exam, he was promoted to signalman second class and received orders to Ellis Island, NY, where the crew for the USS General W.H. Gordon (AP 117) was preparing for deployment overseas.

The General Gordon was a Coast Guard-manned troop transport vessel that moved U.S troops between the United States and ports in Europe and Africa. Maxey saw limited combat during his tour, but did experience some stressful situations.

(Above: Historical photo of the USS General Gordon. In World War II, the USS General Gordon was a U.S. Coast Guard-manned transport vessel that moved troops between the United States and ports in Europe and Africa.)

“We were constantly at general quarters,” he said. “In one instance (while off the shore of France) the radarman picked up a target overhead and was trying to identifying it with the IFF (identify friend or foe) signal. If the target had the mechanism to transmit the signal, we would know it was a friend. Well, some targets could not get a signal back…and this would go on all day.”

“One night, instead of tying up to the harbor, we stayed at anchor,” he continued. “This was a fortunate decision because that night an air raid occurred and destroyed the harbor.”

After his tour on the General Gordon concluded in early 1945, he returned to New York City to work at the Seaman’s Institute as a signalman in New York Harbor. “Victory over Japan Day” (also known as VJ Day) occurred during this tour and Maxey experienced it all in Times Square.

Not long after that, Maxey transferred to Detroit where he prepared for discharge from the military. He returned to Chicago with his wife and initially worked at the Chicago Docks, but was offered and accepted a job as a hotel manager. While working he attended Wilson Junior College and Central YMCA College, which was the predecessor of Roosevelt University.

He returned to military service in the late-1950s serving in the Coast Guard Reserve program. He received orders, on accident, to the USCGC Mackinaw.

“The crew was all caucasian and they did not have berthing available for me,” said Maxey. “So they provided me a makeshift berthing area away from the crew.”

But his assignment to Mackinaw was a blessing in disguise. The British Queen visited Chicago aboard her yacht HMS Britannia. When the Canadian security vessels wanted to coordinate with the Mackinaw to escort the Britannia they used blinker lights and semaphore flags, the Mackinaw realized no one in the immediate crew understood the signaling.

“I was the only person able to read the signaling, I spared the Coast Guard some serious embarrassment,” said Maxey. I proceeded to handle all of the visual communications between the Mackinaw and the patrol vessels.”

Maxey still wanted to fulfill his dream of a command position, so he accepted a promotion to Chief Warrant Officer, but he was a Boatswain’s Warrant because there were no signalman warrants. He took correspondent courses with the U.S. Navy because the Coast Guard told him he would need that to become a commissioned officer…and when he completed them he continued his quest to receive command.

“I took celestial navigation, the watch officers’ guide, and command-at-sea/ship handling courses with the Navy, and passed all the courses,” said Maxey. “Now I wanted to complete my practical factors so I could assume command. So I asked them (the Coast Guard), ‘I’ve taken ship handling, I know how to shift ballast and dive a submarine…where can I get one? I know how to dock a four-screw battleship…where can I get an assignment on a Coast Guard battleship?’”

“I couldn’t get any of these assignments because the Coast Guard didn’t have any of the ships I was trained on,” he added.

He was promoted to Lieutenant Junior grade and assigned to a buoy tender in Toledo, Ohio. He completed additional correspondence courses and received excellent evaluations and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1980. But there, he faced his toughest discrimination hurdle.

“I was not selected for any (command) positions,” said Maxey as he reiterated his evaluations were consistently excellent. “Officers junior to me were selected to Executive Officer and Training Officer positions.”

“I was offered a position to supervise lifeboat stations,” he added. “This was more of a demotion and was unacceptable. I was insulted, offended by that.”

Lt. Cmdr. Maxey spoke to his Commanding Officer about the decision and he felt the answer he received was unacceptable and yet another hurdle of racism that he had faced throughout his career.

Maxey filed a discrimination complaint with the Coast Guard, which was reviewed by District, Area and Headquarters command and all three determinations concluded no discrimination occurred. It was not until the final review, by the Dept. of Transportation, that several occurrences of discrimination were identified.

The DOT’s discoveries of discrimination meant a review, and eventual change, of several policies in the Coast Guard, including civil rights policies. Maxey was satisfied with this decision, after a two-year battle, and accepted the position of Executive Officer of the Reserve Office in Chicago.

Maxey promoted to Commander and soon after retired, in 1983, as the highest ranking African-American in the Ninth District.

(Left: Cmdr. Ernest T. Maxey poses for an official portrait)

Although he battled what some would consider Olympic-sized, societal hurdles, Maxey does not hold a grudge against the Coast Guard. He reflects on his Coast Guard career through the Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son.”

“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” he says, as he begins to recite from memory. “Life has been rugged, the boards tore up. I’ve been going places in the dark where there ain’t no light at all. Turning corners and still climbing. So don’t you give up son…cause I’m still climbing.”

Despite the lack of crystal stairs, Maxey is still an advocate of the Coast Guard and continues to promote its benefits to young adults who are looking for a post-High School career path.

“All institutions faced those issues,” said Maxey. “It’s not a policy from the top down, but individuals that are in the service that are still living with old fashion values.”

Maxey believes (all) people need to speak up when they are discriminated against and the Coast Guard must continue its work to rid the service of this.

Today, Maxey strongly believes doors have opened for minorities in the Coast Guard; and he expresses this when he speaks to kids at Chicago’s Hyman G. Rickover Naval Academy and Senn High School. He offers kids an alternative to the Naval Academy information they receive by talking about what the Coast Guard and/or Coast Guard Academy can offer.

When asked about his final thoughts on the Coast Guard and his career, he said “The (discrimination) case festers in my mind, but the Coast Guard as a whole is a good outfit. I try to sell it everywhere I go.”

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