New London man featured in D.C. African-American museum

Among the walls marking African-American history and achievement is a picture of a newly minted ensign, Merle J. Smith Jr., on graduation day in 1966 at the Coast Guard Academy, receiving his commission from his father, an Army colonel.

Smith, the first black cadet to graduate from the academy, is featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September 2016 in Washington, D.C. It's been attracting such large crowds that Smith was not able to get into the museum when it first opened.

"It was that mobbed," Smith, who lives in New London, said in a recent interview.

Smith's dress blue jacket and the picture of him and his father is featured as part of an exhibition called "Double Victory: the African-American Military Experience." Retired Army Col. Krewasky Salter, guest curator of the exhibition, approached Smith about being featured.

When Smith and his wife, Lynda, first went to the museum, they searched the section that features the first black graduates from the various military services. When they didn't find anything on Smith, the couple figured he didn't make it into the museum. A man asked if he could help them find anything. The man turned out to be Salter, who led them to the exhibition featuring Smith.

"It was an amazing experience," Lynda Smith said. "They dedicated so much copy, space and energy to Merle," who loves the Coast Guard, and still talks about the service all the time.

A few years after graduating from the academy, Smith went on to command the patrol boats Point Mast and Point Ellis during the Vietnam War, directing more than 80 naval fire support missions. In one mission, his boat accounted for the destruction of 10 enemy bunkers, four rocket launchers, 13 structures and 19 sampans, according to an article on the Coast Guard's website.

Smith became the first African-American officer to command a federal vessel in combat and the first African-American sea service officer to receive the Bronze Star medal, both attributed to his service in Vietnam.

Smith said his recognition in the museum is also a tribute to his dad, who was drafted into the Army — "you couldn't get any lower than that" — and worked his way up to colonel, specializing in nuclear weapons for a time.

j.bergman@theday.com

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