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Alex Haley: Coast Guard’s First Chief Journalist Became Pulitzer Prize-winning Author

As influential as Alex Haley was to American culture, it’s never been a Coast Guard tradition to name its cutters after literary figures; Haley is the only writer so honored. Why?

It’s literally one of a kind, the only Coast Guard cutter in the Alex Haley class of medium-endurance cutters: Affectionately called “The Bulldog of the Bering,” ideal for patrolling rough seas, the 282-foot Alex Haley (WMEC 39) began its career in 1968 as the USS Edenton, a salvage and rescue ship with the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet.

In 1997, the ship was transferred to the Coast Guard, and an extensive overhaul transformed it from salvage ship to cutter: removing the towing apparatus, crane, and gantry; installing a helicopter flight deck, retractable hangar, and air-search radar; and replacing its aging engines with four 16-cylinder diesel engines. Equipped for long-range search and rescue, law enforcement, and homeland security missions, the cutter was recommissioned into service on July 10, 1999, in Kodiak, Alaska.

The crew of Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley returned to their homeport in Kodiak, Oct. 20, 2019, following a 40-day deployment throughout the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo by Ensign Richard Zogby.

The crew of Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley returned to their homeport in Kodiak, Oct. 20, 2019, following a 40-day deployment throughout the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo by Ensign Richard Zogby)

To this day, the Alex Haley’s 100-member crew carry out the Coast Guard’s missions and serve as ambassadors to remote Alaskan communities, including those above the Arctic Circle. As maritime traffic increases in Arctic waters, the Alex Haley has become an even more important component of the service’s fleet. Originally designed to remain at sea for lengthy naval salvage operations, the cutter carries more than 100,000 gallons of fuel and weighs more than 3,000 gross tons.

In his 2010 book Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes, David Helvarg explained why the Alex Haley was the only medium-endurance cutter capable of conducting Coast Guard missions in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean: The 50-foot-wide ship was “beamy,” just a bit lighter – and actually 7 feet wider – than the 378-foot Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters that were then being replaced by the current Legend class (the last of the Hamilton class, the Douglas Munro, partnered with the Alex Haley on Alaskan patrols out of Kodiak until it was decommissioned in April 2021). Helvarg quoted Cmdr. Kevin Jones, then the cutter’s commanding officer, describing the Haley as “lower and wider and slower. We’re a turtle, but we ride through the storms.”

Alex Haley’s boyhood home

Alex Haley’s boyhood home in Henning, Tennessee, with his grave located in the grass to the right of the house. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

These words could describe the literary career of the Alex Haley’s namesake, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The book caused a cultural sensation that’s hard to relate to current generations: Within seven months of its release, Roots had sold more than 15 million copies. It spent 46 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, including 22 weeks at No.1. The 1977 television miniseries adaptation of the novel was viewed by an estimated 130 million Americans – more than half the nation’s population at the time.

In 2021, a century after Alex Haley’s birth, the USCGC Alex Haley marked its 53rd year of service as a naval or Coast Guard vessel.

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As influential as Alex Haley was to American culture, it’s never been a Coast Guard tradition to name its cutters after literary figures; Haley is the only writer so honored. Why? Like the cutter that bears his name, Haley’s professional life was divided into two distinct periods. Roots was published a week after his 55th birthday. Literature was actually his second career – and by Haley’s own telling, it was a calling nurtured during his first career, which began in 1939, when he enlisted in the Coast Guard at the age of 17.

 

FROM MESS BOY TO CHIEF JOURNALIST

He was born Alexander Murray Palmer Haley, the oldest of three brothers, on Aug. 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York, where his father, Simon, was a graduate student at the Cornell University School of Agriculture.

While he always spoke and wrote with great respect, even awe, of his father’s scholarly achievements and Simon’s efforts to help Black farmers, Alex’s poor academic performance was a constant source of tension between the two. Despite his love of books, Alex was a self-described “C” student in high school, though he excelled in composition and English, and loved writing stories.

Alex Haley in his dress-white uniform.

Newly enlisted Alexander Murray Palmer Haley in his dress-white uniform. (U.S. Coast Guard image)

His decision to go off to college at the age of 15, Haley said, was simply to please his father; he remained –first at Alcorn A&M (now Alcorn State) University in Mississippi, and then at what is now Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina – a terrible student. He withdrew from college at the age of 17 and agreed with his father that maybe a stint in the military would give him time to mature and become more disciplined. In May 1939, still weeks shy of his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the Coast Guard – because, he later claimed, the service had a three-year enlistment, compared to the other service branches’ four years.

Despite the rationale for beginning it, Haley’s Coast Guard career – he would serve 20 years on what he described as a “great adventure” – was richer and more rewarding than he’d expected. Unquestionably, it set him on a path to the writing life.

How this path materialized is garbled among online articles about Haley, which often contradict each other in attempting to summarize his Coast Guard service. In December 2020, Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll – now chief of media relations for the Coast Guard – set the record straight in a well-researched post to the Compass, the service’s official blog. Relying on Haley’s own writings and interviews, his service record, and the biography Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation, by Robert J. Norrell, Kroll lays out how each level of his service contributed to Haley’s development as a writer.

Haley’s career began with the lowliest of job titles –mess boy – on the cutter Mendota, where he waited on tables, shined shoes, cleaned staterooms, mopped and waxed floors, and made the officers’ bunks. Haley reportedly enjoyed this work: He spent much of his time on his own – following orders, but working mostly independently – and he loved the sea and swapping stories with his crewmates.

In early 1940, Haley was transferred to the Pamlico, an old revenue cutter commissioned in 1907. He was promoted to mess attendant first class, given a raise in pay, and taught to cook. Just before the United States entered World War II, he met Nannie Branch, the woman who would become his first wife.

Coast Guard personnel were put under naval command for wartime service, and in July 1943 Haley was assigned to a supply ship, the USS Murzim, which ferried ammunition to American and Allied forces throughout the South Pacific. It was during the Murzim’s long voyages that Haley began writing in earnest, composing tons of letters and receiving 30 or 40 at every mail call. These writing sessions were also the first he’d aimed at publication: At night, in the wardroom pantry, he spent his off-duty hours typing love stories he would submit –unsuccessfully, for a long time – to magazines and newspapers.

Kunta Kinte Alex Haley Memorial in Annapolis, Maryland.

The Kunta Kinte Alex Haley Memorial in Annapolis, Maryland. (Preservation Maryland photo)

Haley later recounted his Murzim service in an article published in Reader’s Digest in 1961, as an installment in the magazine’s series of features titled, “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met.” Haley profiled his boss, Steward’s Mate 1st Class Percival “Scotty” Scott, a 25-year veteran of the service who asked Haley to type letters to his friends. At first reluctant to take dictation from a man he scorned as an “ungrammatical clown,” Haley grew to enjoy their sessions and his company.

One day, Scotty brought Haley a distraught young shipmate who’d just received a “Dear John” letter from his girlfriend back home – and according to Haley, Scotty dictated a response that resulted in the girlfriend writing back and begging forgiveness. The enterprise that bloomed from this success was astonishing: Haley began writing ready-made love letters for his crewmates, many of them including passages lifted by Scotty from Haley’s unpublished stories. Demand for Haley’s services grew so great that carbon copies of these letters – around 300 –were bound into anthologies that crewmates could use to compose their own.

Haley also wrote for the Murzim’s onboard mimeographed newsletter, the Seafarer. One of his pieces, “Mail Call,” recounted the sorrow some crewmembers felt when they received no mail. It was a hugely popular piece, and many of his shipmates enclosed it in letters home. Eventually it was reprinted in a crewmate’s hometown newspaper; from there, a wire service picked it up and “Mail Call” was printed widely throughout the country.

In 1944, Haley published an article about the Murzim for Coast Guard Magazine. Along with the success of “Mail Call,” this earned him a reassignment to the Coast Guard’s Third District Headquarters, in New York City, in February 1945. “While still officially a steward’s mate for the district admiral,” Kroll explained in the Compass, “his new duties allowed him to work for the district’s public relations office.” A little more than a year later, Haley transferred to the public relations office to work fulltime, and in September 1946 he was redesignated a first class yeoman (PI). In 1948, his rating was reclassified as journalist, and in December 1949 he rose to chief petty officer, making him the first African-American to achieve the rank, and the service’s first – and for a time, its only –chief journalist.

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Kroll notes that Haley was a consummate public relations professional, deftly handling events in New York –in May 1950, for example, when 420 tons of military explosives detonated at a river port in South Amboy, New Jersey, killing 31 and injuring more than 350 others – and in San Francisco, where he was transferred in 1954. In the fall of 1956, a commercial Boeing 377 airliner, Pan Am Flight 6, suffered engine failure and ditched in the Pacific Ocean. The Coast Guard Cutter Pontchartrain rescued all passengers and crew and brought them to San Francisco, where Haley arranged and managed media coverage that included reporters from several national outlets.

In 1959, after completing 20 years of service, Haley – at the ripe age of 38 – retired from the Coast Guard and returned to New York to pursue a full-time career as a writer. His service as a journalist had made him many connections in the city, and by this time, he’d published several pieces for national publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, Reader’s Digest, and Harper’s.

Haley found life as a pensioner to be shockingly difficult; almost overnight, he’d become a starving writer, living in a basement apartment in Greenwich Village, suffering one rejection after another. The first had come from his wife, Nan, who declared him “married to your typewriter,” and moved to Harlem by herself. They divorced in 1964.

In a fit of loneliness, Haley reached out to the Black writers he knew lived in the Village, writing each of them a letter. The only one he heard from was James Baldwin, who showed up at his door for a visit. Haley later recalled being dumbstruck at meeting one of his idols. “I know we didn’t talk much about writing,” he said in a 1976 interview, “because I would have been too embarrassed to talk writing with him.”

Haley’s best work – or at least his most famous – was yet to come: His first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was a collaboration based on more than 50 interviews he’d conducted with Malcolm X between 1963 and 1965. It has been a consistent bestseller since its 1965 publication, and Time magazine has ranked it as one of the 10 most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.

The legacy of Roots has been more complicated. Translated into 37 languages, it’s one of the most widely read books ever written by an American author. As such, it was subject to intense scrutiny that raised questions – and eventually a lawsuit – about Haley’s sourcing and research. It’s fair to say that Haley, in following his family history from Annapolis, Maryland, to the Gambia, got caught up in the fables and folklore of his family storytellers – he’d never claimed the work to be anything other than “fiction,” but his entire last chapter described his intensive research, and the book was marketed as nonfiction. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has said of the novel: “Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship.” As a work of the imagination, the novel sparked an interest in African American history and genealogy that persists to this day.

The cover of a first-edition hardback copy of Roots.

The cover of a first-edition hardback copy of Roots. (Heritage Auction Scans via Wikimedia)

Within the Coast Guard, Haley’s legacy is undisputed: He is embraced as an icon and an inspiration to all. In its 1989 commencement exercises, the Coast Guard Academy awarded him its first honorary degree. Shortly after his death, the service established a new annual award, the Chief Journalist Alex Haley Award, to recognize individual journalists – authors and photographers – who have done an exceptional job of telling the Coast Guard’s story.

The dining facility at the Coast Guard Training Center in Petaluma, California, is named “Haley Hall” in his honor. The cutter bearing his name still patrols the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering and Chukchi seas out of Kodiak.

President George H.W. Bush presents the Coast Guard Academy’s first honorary degree to Alex Haley

President George H.W. Bush presents the Coast Guard Academy’s first honorary degree to Alex Haley in 1989. (Photo courtesy of Deseret News)

When Haley died in 1992 at the age of 70, he’d already made it clear that for the people of the Coast Guard – the first to recognize and later celebrate his gifts – the feeling was mutual: “You don’t spend 20 years of your life in the service and not have a warm, nostalgic feeling left in you,” he said. “It’s a small service, the Coast Guard, and there is a lot of esprit de corps.”


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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...

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