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FreightWaves Classics/Leaders: Garcia was a trailblazer in the Coast Guard

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National Hispanic Heritage Month

National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed annually from September 15 to October 15. It celebrates “the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.”

Hispanic Heritage Week began in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period beginning on September 15 and ending on October 15. It was enacted into law on August 17, 1988. 

September 15 is significant because it is the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September 18, respectively. Also, Columbus Day which is October 12, falls within this 30-day period.

FreightWaves Classics also celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month. A recent article profiled Federico Peña, the first Hispanic-American to serve as U.S. Secretary of Transportation. 

Henry Frederick Garcia

Henry Frederick Garcia was born in Morro Castle, Puerto Rico, on February 17, 1903. His father was a career U.S. Army officer, while his younger brother would rise to be a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. Due to his father’s service, Garcia received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1924. He accepted a commission in the U.S. Army,  serving until 1928, when he accepted a commission in the United States Coast Guard (USCG) – becoming the first Hispanic-American officer in the USCG. 

Midshipman Henry Frederick Garcia in the yearbook of the United States Naval Academy. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
Midshipman Henry Frederick Garcia in the yearbook of the United States Naval Academy. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Garcia’s USCG career 

On August 4, 1790, President George Washington signed the Tariff Act, which authorized the Revenue Cutter Service and the construction of 10 vessels (known as “cutters” to enforce federal tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling). 

In 1915 the Revenue Cutter Service was merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and was renamed the Coast Guard. It is the U.S. maritime service dedicated to saving life at sea and enforcing the nation’s maritime laws.

USCGC Shoshone underway, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge prior to World War II. (Photo: USCG)
USCGC Shoshone underway, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge prior to World War II. (Photo: USCG)

In 1936, Garcia was assigned to be the engineering officer aboard the Cutter Shoshone. The Shoshone was part of aviator Amelia Earhart’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe. In March 1937, Shoshone sailed from Oakland, California, to the South Pacific. It offloaded fuel that would have been vital to Earhart’s landing at Howland Island. Had Earhart reached Howland, the stores brought by Shoshone would have helped Earhart to continue her historic flight. Unfortunately, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island. 

Amelia Earhart at the controls of an Electra. (Photo: Everett Collection/FLYING magazine)
Amelia Earhart at the controls of the Electra. (Photo: Everett Collection/FLYING magazine)

Promoted to Lieutenant, Garcia made history in 1939 as the first Hispanic American to command a Coast Guard cutter – the Morris, which was stationed in Seward, Alaska. 

In March 1939, he led a rescue mission for a group of trappers. Lost and presumed dead, the survivors subsisted on rotten fish and were nearly incapacitated by the time they were found. The Morris and its crew searched for weeks for the missing men, locating them on Tugidak Island. However, before an evacuation could occur, Garcia and his crew had to keep the Morris afloat during a 48-hour gale. Despite the weather and high seas, Garcia launched the cutter’s small boat, rescuing the trappers before they died.

(Image: Alaska Volcano Observatory)
(Image: Alaska Volcano Observatory)

The Morris was then dispatched to oversee the evacuation of residents near the Mount Veniaminof eruption. “Garcia and his crew stood by for a few weeks to monitor the fishing fleet, while the mountain spewed fire and ash 20,000 feet into the air.” On June 17, 1939, the main eruption occurred and the Morris put in at Perryville, Alaska, to evacuate the town’s remaining people. However, they refused to leave, so the Morris sailed for Chignki and maintained constant radio contact with the people in Perryville.

Garcia and the crew of the Morris then rescued a vessel in distress. Dr. Homer Flint Kellems headed an expedition to find an ice-free Northwest Passage, but was forced to radio a distress call after making its way north for two weeks. The Pandora, the expedition’s schooner, struck a rock three miles north of St. Elias and was breaking up. The Morris steamed from Seward to find the stricken vessel. When the Coast Guard cutter arrived, Garcia and his crew rescued the shipwrecked expedition from Kayok Island.

The USCG Cutter Morris. (Photo: USCG)
The USCG Cutter Morris. (Photo: USCG)

During World War II Garcia served on assignments on both the East and West coasts. In Charleston, South Carolina, Garcia served as executive officer of Base Charleston. Following a presidential order to seize all Axis Powers’ shipping, Garcia took part in the seizure of the Italian cargo freighter Villaperosa in March 1941. The crew of the Villaperosa had sabotaged their ship, seeking to ensure that it would not be of use to the U.S. 

Garcia’s team secured the ship and its crew and then collected evidence against the saboteurs. The crew was found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to seven years. Their ship was towed to New York, repaired, and put back into service for the U.S.

Now a Lt. Commander, Garcia was transferred to Baltimore shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In Baltimore, Garcia served with the Military Sea Transportation Service until he was reassigned to the Port Los Angeles. 

A SPARS recruiting poster. (Image: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
A SPARS recruiting poster.
(Image: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

As Assistant Captain of the Port, Garcia was responsible for the port’s security. Garcia oversaw the creation of units maintained and led by Semper Paratus (Always Ready). Known as SPARS,  Semper Paratus was a female volunteer force similar to WASPs and WACs. Garcia was the ranking Coast Guard officer in Los Angeles during the last years of the war. 

At that time and for unknown reasons, Henry Frederick Garcia changed his name to Montegue Frederick Garfield.

Garfield was then transferred to Galveston, Texas, becoming the first minority commanding officer of a Navy patrol frigate, the Coast Guard-manned USS Annapolis. In September 1945, after serving as an escort for several convoys to Oran, Algeria, the USS Annapolis was shifted to Seattle. 

USS Annapolis responding to the burning SS Prince George in Ketchikan, Alaska, signed by Cmdr. Garfield. (Photo: National Archives)
USS Annapolis responding to the burning SS Prince George in Ketchikan, Alaska, signed by Cmdr. Garfield. (Photo: National Archives)

While on patrol, the Annapolis was dispatched to Ketchikan, Alaska, to rescue the passengers and crew of the SS Prince George. Arriving on scene, now-Commander Garfield and the crew of the Annapolis fought a fire consuming the Prince George. The crew of the Annapolis, under Garfield’s leadership, fought the fire while rescuing the 113 crew and passengers. The patrol frigate then towed the Prince George to Gravina Island where it was beached and later scrapped.

Garfield was transferred again, finishing his time aboard ships as the commanding officer of the high-endurance cutter Campbell, whose home port was Charleston. The Campbell carried a mascot – “Sinbad,” Chief Petty Officer-Dog. Garfield saw to it that Chief Sinbad received a hero’s welcome upon the Campbell’s arrival in New York in January 1946. Chief Sinbad was even “interviewed” by radio station WTMA in the wardroom of the Campbell.

Sinbad and some of his shipmates on board the cutter Campbell in the North Atlantic in 1943. (Photo: USCGC Campbell Association)
Sinbad and some of his shipmates on board the cutter Campbell in the North Atlantic in 1943.
(Photo: USCGC Campbell Association)

After finishing his sea career, Garfield was named Chief of Public Affairs for the Coast Guard’s Eighth District in New Orleans. In 1956 Garfield retired with the rank of captain after serving five years as the Chief of Intelligence for the Coast Guard’s 12th District in San Francisco. 

A minority trailblazer

Garcia/Garfield was the first minority officer to serve in the modern Coast Guard. “Garfield was the first Hispanic-American officer in the Coast Guard at every rank from ensign to captain.” In addition, he was the first Hispanic-American officer to serve in a variety of ashore and afloat assignments, including the first to command a medium-endurance cutter, high-endurance cutter and Coast Guard-manned Navy vessel. 

After retiring, Garfield moved to San Diego where he was in the real estate business. He died there at the age of 63. 

FreightWaves Classics thanks the U.S. Coast Guard and other sources for information and photos that contributed to this article.

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