Carver Recreation Center held the annual Thomas S. Wade Veterans Program Thursday to not only remember Wade’s service in Korea and his time as a POW, but to also recognize Johnson City resident and retired U.S. Navy Capt. William A. Coleman Jr. for his 27 years in command positions on eight naval ships.
Coleman, a Langston High School graduate and former East Tennessee State University director of human resources, also served as second-in-command of three vessels and commanding officer of four U.S. Navy warships. Since his retirement in 1992, he has been involved in a number of civic and professional activities, including the Langston Educational and Arts Development Committee and the Johnson City Civil Service Commission.
The quiet-spoken naval captain was quick to give his wife, Joy, credit for keeping their home in order and raising their two sons while he was away on a ship.
“Nineteen of my 27 years were spent on a ship,” he said. Sometimes when he was home, his wife would get to a point she started asking when he’d be getting back on that ship, he said. Both chuckled at the story, but didn’t say if, or how often, it really happened.
“I was blessed to have a phenomenal woman,” he said of his wife.
During his time in service, Coleman became the youngest African American to command a ship in the U.S, Navy.
He had been second-in-command when the ship’s captain broke his back, which by Navy regulation put Coleman at the helm. He said another first for him was being the first African-American captain to command the USS Miller, a Knox-class destroyer escort named for an African-American, Cook Third Class Doris "Dorie" Miller, who was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I truly consider myself to have had a blessed life. I was blessed by a mother who had great values and deep care for her sons and passed those values on to me. I was blessed by a phenomenal woman over here,” referring to his wife, “who accepted me and who raised our two sons in mostly my absence. I was on ships for 19-and-a-half years,” of his career. “She ran the home. I was blessed to be able to finish college and become an officer in the Navy, and things just went straight on up from there.”
When Coleman retired, he was one of 29 African-American naval captains at the time.
During the event, attendees also observed a moment of silence to remember those service men and women who died while serving their country. It was one of the first events for the coming Memorial Day weekend, which will honor and remember the sacrifices of thousands of service members.