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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Bell made history in the U.S. Coast Guard

Played a major lifesaving role during Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. Organizations across the United States are paying tribute to “generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success.” FreightWaves joins in that tribute.

Melvin Bell’s childhood and early history

Melvin Kealoha Bell was born in 1920 in Hilo, on the island of Hawaii (the “Big Island”), in what was then the U.S. territory of Hawaii. 

Following a widely practiced Hawaiian custom, his parents placed him with John Bell, his maternal grandfather, to be raised through what is now known as middle school. Melvin then returned to his parents, but he kept the surname Bell for life.

A young Melvin Bell. (Photo: transportationhistory.org)
A young Melvin Bell.
(Photo: transportationhistory.org)

Bell’s father worked as a chief wireman for the Hawaiian Telephone Company. He also had a second job, running a small radio repair shop from his home’s garage. With a “strong technical aptitude and an insatiable curiosity,” Bell helped his father in the repair shop; he learned how various electrical and mechanical devices functioned. His father taught him how to repair a variety of electrical equipment and appliances. In fact, despite his mother’s wishes to the contrary, Bell would often take apart the family’s toaster, vacuum cleaner and other household appliances and then put them back together.

The Coast Guard and World War II

In 1938 Bell graduated from high school; he then moved to Honolulu on the island of Oahu. He met several U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) servicemen, whose stories about the Coast Guard inspired him to join that branch of the U.S. military. He enlisted in the Coast Guard on November 5, 1938, and was assigned to the USCGC cutter Taney in Honolulu harbor. He enlisted as a mess steward because this was the only rating available to him as a Native American. Bell later said, “I just accepted it as a fact of life that my opportunities would be limited because of my race.” 

Because of his interest in radios and electronics, Bell spent much of his off-duty time in the Taney’s radio room. In 1939 Bell diagnosed and repaired a broken high-frequency transmitter on the Taney that the ship’s radioman as well as the District Communications Officer had been unable to fix. Bell impressed officers aboard the ship with his in-depth knowledge of radio technology and he was rewarded by being promoted to Radioman Third Class. In 1940 Bell was transferred to the Cutter USCGC Reliance as its radioman-in-charge.

Bell had additional responsibilities on board the Reliance, including monitoring the patrols of a USCG seaplane that was based at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. In 1941, Bell was reassigned to the USCG’s district communications station, which was located at the Diamond Head Lighthouse. His primary responsibility was to listen for international distress transmissions. Early on the morning of December 7, 1941, Bell was on duty when the Japanese Imperial Navy launched its surprise aerial assault on Pearl Harbor. He received a teletype dispatch from the Coast Guard District Office ordering him to transmit on the distress frequency to all ships and stations that Pearl Harbor was being bombed.  

Diamond Head Lighthouse. (Photo: Historic Hawaii Foundation)
Diamond Head Lighthouse. (Photo: Historic Hawaii Foundation)

Bell’s radio messages were the first to warn commercial vessels in the region of Japan’s deadly attack. He also transmitted similar alerts to other U.S. military installations throughout the region.

Following the Japanese attack and the declaration of war by the United States on December 8, 1941, Bell was sent to a Navy radio operating station. With other radio operators, he listened to Japanese radio code broadcasts, which he typed and sent to Navy cryptographers. Next, he was assigned to the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Radio Unit-Pacific, where he continued to log Japanese coded messages. He worked in “communications intelligence,” and with many others Bell helped to break the secret Japanese Imperial Navy code.

For their work in intercepting and recording Japanese code messages prior to the Battle of Midway, Bell and his “shipmates” were awarded the Navy Unit Commendation.

Because the U.S. was able to decipher most of the Japanese messages, the U.S. Navy was able to win one battle after another in the Pacific Theater. During the war the highly decorated Bell became the first Pacific Islander to be promoted to chief petty officer in the U.S. military.

About six months after the Battle of Midway, Bell was transferred to the Coast Guard Intelligence Unit at New Smyrna Beach, Florida. He was then transferred to a similar unit on Long Island, New York. At this location he wore civilian clothes, as this work was highly classified. He was stationed there until the end of World War II. Following the war he learned that the radio messages he copied came from a German safe house in Manhattan, and that his work was instrumental in a joint FBI/Office of Naval Intelligence operation that broke up a Nazi espionage network in New York City. 

Master Chief Melvin K. Bell (center left) at his U.S. Coast Guard retirement ceremony in 1959. (Photo: Family of Melvin Bell/USCG/Maritime-Executive.com)
Master Chief Melvin K. Bell (center left) at his U.S. Coast Guard retirement ceremony in 1959. (Photo: Family of Melvin Bell/USCG/Maritime-Executive.com)

Post-World War II

After World War II, Bell remained on active duty and next served as a radioman aboard USCGC Sagebrush, which was stationed in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was reinstated to the rating of Chief Radioman aboard the Sagebrush. His next assignment was as an instructor at the new Electronics Technician School at the Coast Guard Training Center in Groton, Connecticut.

USCGC Sagebrush. (Photo: bathymetricresearch.com)
USCGC Sagebrush. (Photo: bathymetricresearch.com)

While in Groton, Bell met the woman who became his wife; they were married in May 1950. His next assignment was as Executive Officer of USCG Loran Station, on Panay Island, Philippines. His final assignment was on the USCGC Casco, which was based in Boston. 

In 1959, Bell retired from the Coast Guard after more than 20 years of service. He was the service branch’s first Master Chief Electronics Technician and the first Master Chief Petty Officer of color. He returned to Hawaii as a civilian employee of the Coast Guard. Bell then spent the next 45 years as a civil service employee of the U.S. Department of the Navy, serving as a quality engineer. 

USCG Master Chief Melvin Bell in 1958. (Photo: navylog.navymemorial.org)
USCG Master Chief Melvin Bell in 1958.
(Photo: navylog.navymemorial.org)

He retired in September 2004. Altogether, he had served for nearly 66 years, an unprecedented length of federal service, both military and civilian. He received official recognition from President George W. Bush for having one of the longest federal government careers in American history. 

Legacy

Bell died in September 2018 at the age of 98 at his home in Westminster, California. He was survived by his wife, nine children, 26 grandchildren, and 37 great-grandchildren.

According to an article in Maritime Executive following his death, Bell was to be “honored as the namesake of a (USCG) Fast Response Cutter.”

Author’s note: FreightWaves Classics thanks transportationhistory.org, navymemorial.org and Maritime Executive for information that contributed to this article.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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