Born in 1920, Anderson Washington just celebrated his 100th birthday. A Coast Guard veteran of World War II, he’s experienced a lot during his lifetime.
Washington grew up in New Orleans during a time of deep segregation. As a Black man, it was especially difficult for him and his family. When he was asked what it was like as a young boy growing up, he shook his head in sadness. “It wasn’t pleasant,” he shared. Washington said that he tries not to think of those times because they were so bad. He continued, “I try to avoid remembering certain things. So much unpleasantness that I try to block it all out.”
Later in his life during his early 20s, World War II broke out and he watched the United States join the fight after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Washington knew that he would most likely be drafted and wanted to retain some manner of control over where he went. “The day I enlisted was a couple of days after the segregated laws were changed in the military. I chose to join the Coast Guard rather than the Army, where I felt I was sure to have disadvantages,” he explained.
Following basic training, Washington was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Comanche in 1942. Although often referred to as the “lifesaving service,” the Coast Guard was so much more than that. Much of the American public may not even realize how involved they were during World War II and how integral their service was to the nation. During the spring of 1940, Nazi Germany had taken over Denmark. Greenland, a Denmark territory, was then assigned to be a part of a defense system.
President Roosevelt put the Coast Guard in charge of it.
In Greenland, the Coast Guard was responsible for search and rescue operations, convoy assignments and defending it from Nazi invasion. One of the cutters assigned was Washington’s. One of the others, the Northland, was actually the first American unit to engage with the enemy during World War II. They would go on to support land, air and sea forces in all of the combat theaters during the war.
When Washington was asked what it was like to serve in the Coast Guard as a Black man, he was conflicted. “At the time, it was pretty bad with ups and downs throughout. Looking back, it was a good experience for me though. It was a great chance to see the world,” he said.
Washington was a Coxswain during his time in the service. “We were on troop transport, bringing troops overseas,” he explained. He remembers bringing soldiers and marines to places like North Africa and along various stops in Europe. In 1943, a German submarine launched torpedoes on the convoy his cutter was escorting. A torpedo hit the USAT Dorchester on her starboard side.
It exploded and sank almost immediately.
Washington’s cutter sped ahead alongside the Escanaba to rescue survivors. Together, they managed to save the lives of 229 men. Hundreds died in the water, mostly likely due to hypothermia. Four of the men that would perish aboard the Dorchester were Army Chaplains, who gave up their own life preservers for others. Reports later detailed this heroic act and how they came together in prayers as the ship sank.
The Coast Guard is often overlooked when discussions of the Battle of the Atlantic arise. But her fleet served a vital and important role in convoy escort and combat. Her warships not only protected allied convoys but sank enemies and captured their crews.
The Coast Guard even helped plan the naval operations for the D-Day Invasion of Normandy.
In 1945, the war was ending. The Coast Guard captured the first enemy vessel once American joined the war and then she captured the last of them as it ended. Washington left the Coast Guard in 1946 and came home to a segregated United States. “It was miserable,” he said. Despite serving his country proudly during the war, he was still looked at as less than due to the color of his skin when he returned.
Washington would become integral in the fight for Civil Rights. “I was one of three plaintiffs who fought and sued to desegregate New Orleans,” he shared. He is the only plaintiff still alive from that successful suit today.
When asked what advice he would give to activists who are still fighting for social justice and equal rights, Washington got right to the point. “Any way you cut it or talk about it, it boils down to voting,” he explained. He encouraged those championing causes to find their platforms, use their voices and vote.
Washington never dreamed he’d make it to 100 years old.
Despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the city of New Orleans and the United States Coast Guard came together to safely celebrate his big day. Washington also didn’t realize how many lives he had touched with his own. At his celebration, he was saluted by Captain Michael Paradise, the commanding officer of Coast Guard Base New Orleans and thanked for his dedicated service.
Washington is grateful for his long life and hopeful for the future for this country. He knows the best is yet to come.