Melvin Bell was a sailor who served in the United States Coast Guard, and was the first Pacific Island sailor in the Coast Guard to be promoted to the rank of chief petty officer.
Coast Guard service
Bell's father was an electronic technician with the telephone company, and his grandfather, who he lived with for several years while attending school, owned an electronics shop, and it was from them he first acquired an aptitude for electronics.
Bell worked for a few months as a mechanics assistant, but met United States Coast Guard sailors at the YMCA where he was living, and decided to enlist, in November 1938. At the time he enlisted there was no recruiting office - so he enlisted on board USCGC Taney. The Territory of Hawaii was isolated so he was not sent to the continental United States for basic training.
In a 2014 interview Bell described how he initially worked as a mess attendant. Prior to World War II the Coast Guard, Army and Navy were segregated, and non-white personnel were almost always assigned service roles, like mess attendant. In his interview he described how he was able to make the extraordinary jump from mess attendant to skilled radio technician. Due to his familiarity with electronics, he was welcome to spend his off-duty hours in Taney's radio room. In May 1939 Taney's long range radio broke down, which severely restricted her operations.
Taney's radio had been down for close to a month, the District Communication's Officer, Henry Arnold had tried to assist the ship's senior radio operator in fixing it, without success. When they left, on Friday night, Bell asked the junior radio operator who was on duty if he could try fixing the radio. Bell had been watching closely, and he avoided duplicating anything the senior officers had already tried. He was thorough, and methodical. He ended up opening up the panel in the floor and methodically tracing and testing the leads coming to and leading away from the radio, and he found that an incoming relay had a short-circuit. After he replaced the relay with a spare, and powered up the radio, he found he had fixed it. When he informed the radio operator on duty, he sent a signal to District HQ, informing them the ship was back online. Arnold, the District Communication Officer, was on duty, and asked who fixed the radio. When he was informed the radio he had tried and failed to fix had been fixed by a 19-year-old mess attendant, he took Bell under his wing.
Bell attributed his transfer to the electronics branch to Arnold's mentorship. Bell attributed his appointment as the radio operator of the small patrol boat USCGC Reliance to Arnold's mentorship. Arnold continued to mentor Bell for the duration of World War II.
When a large fleet of aircraft carrier-launched Japanese warplanes engaged in a sneak attack on US Navy forces at Pearl Harbor Bell was the radio operator at the Coast Guard Station at nearby Diamond Head. He was the one who warned civilian vessels to steer clear of the attack.
After the war Bell became an electronics instructor for the Coast Guard. In 1958 when he was promoted to master chief petty officer he was the first member of any minority to hold that rank.
When Bell retired after 20 years of active duty he started working for the Coast Guard as a civilian employee.
After a long career with the Coast Guard he began a long career as a civilian employee of the US Navy. During his career there he worked with both the Polaris and Trident ballistic missile programs.
When Bell retired from the US Navy, in 2004, he was 84 years old, and received an official recognition from President George W. Bush, honoring him for a long and distinguished career.
On July 26, 2019, Congressional Representative Luis Correa marked the 229th anniversary of the founding of the Coast Guard by addressing Congress, and noting the highlights of the careers of fourteen members of the Coast Guard, from minorities, whose accomplishments he felt merited more recognition. Bell was one of the heroes he recognized.
In 2010, Charles "Skip" W. Bowen, who was then the Coast Guard's most senior non-commissioned officer, proposed that all the cutters in the Sentinel class should be named after enlisted sailors in the Coast Guard, or one of its precursor services, who were recognized for their heroism. In 2019 the Coast Guard announced that Melvin Bell would be the namesake of the 55th cutter, USCGC Melvin Bell.
- "Asian-American and Pacific Islander Transportation History: Melvin Kealoha Bell, Master Chief Petty Officer (USCG)". Retrieved 2019-11-08.
- William H. Thiessen (2018-09-27). "The Long Blue Line: Master Chief Petty Officer Melvin Kealoha Bell – minority pioneer, Pacific War hero". Coast Guard Compass. Retrieved 2019-11-08.
- C. Douglas Kroll (2014-03-25). "Interview of ETCM Melvin Kealoha Bell, USCG (Retired)" (PDF). US Coast Guard. Retrieved 2019-11-08.
Diana Sherbs (2017-05-04). "The Long Blue Line: Coast Guard's Asian American Pacific Islander history". Coast Guard Compass. Retrieved 2019-11-08.
Hawai’ian-American Coast Guardsman Melvin Kealoha Bell manned the Diamond Head radio station during the attack on Pearl Harbor warning commercial vessels that a surprise attack was underway. He later served as a member of the U.S. Navy’s intelligence office helping crack the Imperial Japanese Navy’s secret codes.
J. Luis Correa (2019-07-26). "RECOGNIZING THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF DIVERSE U.S. COAST GUARD SERVICE MEMBERS ON THE U.S. COAST GUARD'S 229TH BIRTHDAY" (PDF). United States Congress. p. E1003. Retrieved 2019-11-08.
Master Chief Melvin Kealoha Bell, a native Hawaiian, joined the Coast Guard in 1938. Stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Mr. Bell transmitted the first radio message warning vessels and military institutions of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He then served as a member of the Navy’s Fleet Radio Unit Pacific and helped break the secret Japanese Imperial Navy code that led to U.S. Navy victories in the Pacific.
Susan Schept (2010-03-22). "Enlisted heroes honored". United States Coast Guard. Archived from the original on 2011-12-03. Retrieved 2013-02-01.
After the passing of several well-known Coast Guard heroes last year, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Charles "Skip" Bowen mentioned in his blog that the Coast Guard does not do enough to honor its fallen heroes.
"U.S. Coast Guard announces name for first Sentinel-class cutter". 2010-03-22. Retrieved 2013-02-01.
Previously designated to be named the Coast Guard Cutter Sentinel, the cutter Bernard C. Webber will be the first of the service's new 153-foot patrol cutters. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen approved the change of the cutter's name to allow this class of vessels to be named after outstanding enlisted members who demonstrated exceptional heroism in the line of duty. This will be the first class of cutters to be named exclusively for enlisted members of the Coast Guard and its predecessor services.
"FRC Plan B: The Sentinel Class". Defense Industry Daily. 2014-05-02. Archived from the original on 2014-07-07. Retrieved 2014-04-03.
All of these boats will be named after enlisted Coast Guard heroes, who distinguished themselves in USCG or military service. The first 25 have been named, but only 8 have been commissioned...
"Coast Guard releases names of next 10 Fast Response Cutters". Coast Guard News. Washington, DC. 2019-10-23. Retrieved 2019-11-07.
Continuing the Sentinel Class’ tradition of honoring women and men who distinguished themselves while serving as enlisted Coast Guard members throughout the history of the Service, FRCs 55–64 bear the names of leaders, trailblazers and heroes of the Coast Guard and its forbearers.