In spring 1942, 22-year-old Joseph Tezanos, a factory worker and Spanish immigrant, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. His life would never be the same.
By the end of the decade, Tezanos was a highly decorated war hero, a survivor of one of World War II’s worst accidental disasters and one of the first Hispanic-American officers in the U.S. Coast Guard.
His story is the American dream realized.
By May 1943, after a variety of temporary assignments, Tezanos received orders to report to New Orleans to serve on board a new LST, a large oceangoing landing craft whose abbreviated letters designated it as a tank landing ship. By July, Tezanos and his shipmates on board LST 20 would be part of a convoy headed for the Alaskan theater of World War II.
While serving on LST 20, he became a gunner’s mate, one of the most dangerous jobs aboard a World War II LST. Tezanos managed to survive some of the bloodiest amphibious landings of World War II, including those on enemy-held islands at Kiska, Alaska, Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands and Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. At Tarawa, LST 20 supported the Marines as they slugged their way through what noted World War II Coast Guard historian Malcolm Willoughby termed “one of the most intensely fought amphibious operations of the entire war.”
In April 1944, LST 20 was moored near an armada of transports and LSTs in the West Loch area of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, while preparing for Operation Forager, the invasion of the Japanese-held Mariana Islands. But before the armada could set sail, an explosion aboard one of the armada’s LSTs on May 21 set off a chain reaction among the fleet of heavily loaded transport vessels. The ensuing cataclysm killed 163 men and injured 396 others.
After the explosion, Tezanos scrambled aboard a rescue boat along with a gang of several other hastily assembled volunteers. The small boat and its intrepid crew steamed into harm’s way despite the risk of being burned alive or blown up. Tezanos and his shipmates rescued men in danger of drowning from the water and evacuated others from the burning ships. After receiving multiple burns in the line of duty, he helped save more than 40 people. For his actions that day, he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, one of the highest medals awarded to Navy personnel for wartime rescue operations.
By summer’s end, LST 20 began preparing for its next operation, but Tezanos received orders to begin reserve officer training. In October, he found himself in New London, Connecticut, at the Coast Guard Academy. By early 1945, he graduated and became the first known Hispanic-American to complete the service’s Reserve Officer Training Program. His wartime commissioning in mid-January 1945 also qualified him as one of the service’s first Hispanic-American officers.
In May 1945, newly commissioned Ensign Tezanos returned to the West Coast to deploy as boat officer aboard the USS Joseph T. Dickman for the rest of the war. Most of that time saw his ship transporting troops to the front.
Tezanos’ Coast Guard career would end in spring 1946, but his life was only beginning. He went on to college and graduate school, started a family and became a successful businessman.
When he died in 1985, he was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery alongside many other Coast Guard heroes.
William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., is the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian.