By Bill Derby, Publisher
Bill Coleman dedicated his life in service to his country and family. In honor of Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2019, Coleman shared a few of his naval and life experiences during his 27 year military career.
During his service he served as Executive Officer (second in command) of three vessels and was Commanding Officer of four different U.S. Navy warships.
Bill was born in Wise County, Virgiia. His father died while his mother was carrying him. She and Bill and his two brothers moved to Johnson City for her to find work.
Bill said, “She worked hard and taught us a great work ethic. I went through the school system and graduated from Langston High School in 1959.
“I enjoyed school and was a pretty good student. I got scholarships to several mostly black schools including Knoxville College in Tennessee. Although ETSU had integrated the year before, I decided to attend Dillard University in New Orleans and graduated in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in biology.”
Seeing himself as a naval officer was the furthest thing from his mind while he was growing up. Coleman said, “Since I was a kid, for some reason, I wanted to be an air force doctor. When I went to college I majored in biology to prepare me for pre-med courses. Unfortunately, I didn’t get grades good enough to go to med school but did earn a bachelor’s degree in biology from Dillard.”
About that time Bill met and married his wife, Joy, from Meridian, Miss. While looking for a job he decided to take a teaching position in her hometown. He determined that his future wasn’t going to be great in secondary education. I wanted to get into the air force and be a pilot, but I couldn’t fly because I wore glasses. That changed when Vietnam was ramping up. They needed every pilot they could get and let me know I could attend their commissioning schools but were currently filled up and couldn’t take me for another nine months. I didn’t want to stay in that school system another nine months and decided to join the Navy through the officer candidate program and was commissioned an Ensign in 1965. Bill Coleman’s career path had been determined.
That career decision spanned over 27 years of service. During that time he logged nearly 20 years at sea in eight different ships. His sea tours included duty aboard the smallest, a 780-ton minesweeper, to the largest 64,000 ton battleship Wisconsin as Executive Officer. Captain Coleman completed four deployments to the Vietnam area of operations.
Upon taking command of the Minesweeper USS Advance in August 1970, while still a Lieutenant, he became the most junior African-American ever to command a Navy warship.
Coleman said what he enjoyed most about his time in the Navy, “I found that working together and relying on your shipmates and the sense of belonging was important. During my commands nearly 90% of the time my shipmates were very supportive of me.
“Once during my early service I had been ordered initially to a guided missile destroyer, which was a new ship of the day, but my orders were changed to a smaller and older destroyer escort. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Yes. I had the greatest commanding officer that I had in my entire career. In my young career he empowered me and taught me things that served me all the rest of my time in the Navy. I’ll never forget him,” Coleman shared.
“As a naval officer being away from home for long stretches of time is part of your service and family sacrifice. My wife, Joy, and I have been married 55 years. She followed me around the country moving 11 times. The Navy kept bouncing me between California and Rhode Island and we had two sons at the time, William III and Anthony. She’s a special lady and I’m just learning how much that impacted her over the years.
“I will say the spouse has a tough road. They’re the heroes. A lot of people don’t think about that. You know, most of today’s service personnel are young. Back then the younger wives tended to go to the more senior wives to help them cope with their husbands being away on duty. For instance the executive officers and commanding officers wives do a lot of babysitting. Joy has been in that position a number of times helping the younger wives and moms,” Coleman explained.
Bill Coleman’s combat experience was aboard a number of different vessels. “I was on a destroyer in Vietnam. We did a lot of rescue work of downed pilots who had to ditch or parachute after being hit on a mission. Once attempting to rescue a downed pilot who had bailed out of his plane we took some rounds from a place called Tiger Island just off the coast of North Vietnam. It was notorious for ambushing ships.
“On my second ship in Vietnam waters I had orders for some special training. When completed I was headed back to my ship, the USS Stoddard, by helicopter. And as the helicopter came over the horizon we saw my ship was actually shooting. As we flew in closer we saw a hole in the right rear quarter which had been hit the day before.” Cpt. Coleman said.
“The depressing thing about Vietnam for me was when we were offshore deployed as plane guards. Every aircraft carrier that served in Vietnam had plane guard ships. When they got ready to launch or recover there was always a rescue ship at the stern. To me, one of the saddest things was we could hear the pilots and carrier talk and they’d take off at noon with 12 planes. And 45 minutes to an hour later they would come back and there are only 10 planes. We knew two had been hit and were missing or lost. Yeah, that was kind of hard for me to deal with. You know, we’re out here and I’m drinking a Coca Cola, under this tropical sun and these guys are going out paying the price. I’ve also seen in the distance a B-52 bomber get hit and disintegrate over North Vietnam,” Coleman shared.
A Naval Captain’s responsibility is enormous and when asked what was his biggest challenge of command, Coleman said, “I think one is being readily available and to set an example. I couldn’t do everything. I tried to determine a sailor’s best talent, or what they were most interested in so I could see where their job fit into the mission. I wanted them to know I would be there for them and let them know that I had their interests at heart.
As commander you’ve got to pay particular attention, especially in a duty shift. Our ship is a self-contained city and you’ve got to pay attention to the sailor’s safety first of all, and you’ve got to take that seriously. We can’t be a milk toast either because they’re sharp and might take advantage of you,” he explained.
Capt. Coleman’s leadership ability and academics did not go unnoticed as he was assigned to the U.S Naval Academy as an instructor for three years. “I taught leadership at the Naval Academy and ended up being the director of the course. Teaching a young officer during the course that a ship is probably the most segregated unit in the military in the sense that the officers live separately, eat separately and then the crew is totally separate. Teaching young officers and requiring officers to respect the crew and not make that differential a class issue. It was a great experience. My career went well because I had the crews. I had people who supported me.” Coleman concluded.
When Capt. William A. Coleman retired, he was one of 29 African-American naval captains in the fleet in 1992. He also holds a Master of Science degree in Personnel Management from the George Washington University and a master’s in International Relations from Salve Regina University and in 1994, was selected as head of Human Relations at ETSU, retiring from that position in 2005.
His dedication to his community includes having served on numerous boards, both civic and professional. A few are: Appalachian Christian Village Board of Trustees; ETSU Quillen College of Medicine Admissions Committee; Board of Directors Johnson City Power Board; The Pro-To Club Inc. and, for more than 11 years, Foreman of the Washington County Grand Jury.
He is still active on numerous current affiliations including: St. Mary’s Catholic Church; Unity Committee of Johnson City (UMOJA); Family Promise; and the Langston High School Interest Group which will celebrate on Nov. 17th the ribbon cutting for the new Langston Education and Arts Development facility.
Bill Coleman’s service to his country, community and family continues each and every day.