Coast Guard Veteran Merle Smith is today’s Veteran of the Day.

Coast Guard Veteran Merle Smith is today’s Veteran of the Day.

Merle James Smith Jr. was born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1944. As the son of an Army colonel, Smith spent his childhood in Germany, Japan and several locations across the United States before attending Aberdeen High School in Maryland. Smith entered the Coast Guard Academy in 1962 and graduated with a degree in marine engineering in 1968. He was the first Black cadet to graduate from the academy.

Smith served as a communication officer and later as an operations officer on the 255-foot cutter Minnetonka (WHEC-67). In 1967, he took command of the 95-foot cutter Cape Wash (WPB-95310). After two years, he deployed to Vietnam, where he commanded two patrol boats: Point Mast (WPB-82316) and Point Ellie (WPB-82330). Smith led over 80 naval fire support missions during Operation Market Time as well as an Operation Sealords mission. His crew was responsible for the destruction of ten enemy bunkers, four rocket launchers, 13 structures and 19 sampans. During this time, he became the first Black officer to command a U.S. warship in close quarters combat and received a Bronze Star Medal with “V” device.

Smith returned from Vietnam and served at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., as deputy chief of the Coast Guard Military Justice Division. Meanwhile, he attended George Washington University Law School and graduated in 1974. The next year, he became faculty at the Coast Guard Academy, where he taught law classes and worked as an assistant coach for the academy’s football team. In 1977, he served as the presidential inaugural staff aide to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Patricia Roberts Harris.

Smith retired from active duty service at the rank of commander and joined the Coast Guard Reserve in 1979. He went on to join the legal staff of the electric boat division of General Dynamics Corporation, which built submarines, where he held the position of chief counsel of the legal department until his retirement in 1995. Smith retired from the Coast Guard Reserve in 1988 at the rank of commander. He continued involvement with the Coast Guard Academy as a member of the Board of Control of the Alumni Association and Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the Coast Guard Foundation. He also led the National Coast Guard Museum Project for 12 years and served on the Board of Directors of the Coast Guard Foundation.

Smith died on June 16, 2021, at 76.

We honor his service.


Nominate a Veteran for #VeteranOfTheDay

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It’s easy to nominate a Veteran. Visit our blog post about nominating to learn how to create the best submission.

Veterans History Project

This #VeteranOfTheDay profile was created with interviews submitted to the Veterans History Project. The project collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war Veterans so that future generations may hear directly from Veterans and better understand the realities of war. Find out more at http://www.loc.gov/vets/.


Writer: Aubrey Benton

Editors: Nathaniel Scott, Alexandra Kaiser

Researcher: Giacomo Ferrari

Graphic artist: Kiki Kelley

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2 Comments

  1. Jose Rivera April 6, 2022 at 4:32 pm

    Thank you for your service Commander Smith. We also thank you for your combat service , your bravery and your historic graduation from the United States Coast Guard Academy .

  2. Senior Veterans Care Network April 6, 2022 at 12:00 pm

    We honor the service of Merle James Smith Jr..

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