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Laurie DeWitt⁄The GazetteLt. Herbert Collins of Olney shows a copy of the book ‘‘Jim Crow Joins Up: A Study of Negroes in the Armed Forces of the United States,” published in 1945. He is mentioned in the book thanks to his chance meeting with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
He received a book autographed by first lady Laura Bush.
But it wasn’t just any old book. It was a copy of a book that held many special memories for him, and one he thought he’d never see again.
To understand the value of the book to Collins, one must understand the significance of his years in the Coast Guard.
Collins, 85, of Olney, had a distinguished career in the military, punctuated by his service at Pea Island, a lifesaving station in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Capt. Richard Etheridge, who became the first black man to command a lifesaving station, was in charge of Pea Island.
Because white men refused to serve under a black man, Pea Island became the only all-black lifesaving station in the nation, operating from 1880 to 1947.
The station earned the reputation of being the best lifesaving crew in the service and is frequently likened to having the reputation of the Tuskegee Airmen, who flew with distinction during World War II.
The Pea Island Station was decommissioned after World War II when technology improvements allowed consolidation of stations. Collins was the final keeper of the station when it was decommissioned, and is now one of only two remaining surfmen from Pea Island.
Collins says his family holds the record for the longest continuous service in the Coast Guard, beginning in 1880 with his grandfather, Joseph H. Berry.
A destiny fulfilled
When Herbert Collins was a child growing up in the Outer Banks, he admired the men who would return to his hometown in their sharp Coast Guard Uniforms.
‘‘I always said one day I would be in the Coast Guard,” he said. ‘‘That was all we knew in those areas.”
Collins wanted to go to college, but since his high school was not integrated, it only went up to 11th grade. Students then went 65 miles away to Elizabeth City to finish high school before going on to college.
Because he was one of nine children, Collins said his father was unable to send him to Elizabeth City. Instead, he joined the Coast Guard.
In 1939, he and his twin brother, Hubert, enlisted, and soon boarded a train for the first time on their way to boot camp.
Following boot camp, Collins was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Tallapoosa in Savannah, Ga.
Like the schools, the service was not integrated at that time, Collins recounted.
‘‘I was the only black person aboard the vessel and worked as a mess attendant, shining the officers’ shoes, serving food, making their bunks, folding their pajamas and placing them under their pillow,” he said. ‘‘That was about the only thing a black could do in those days.”
He was then assigned to Coast Guard Station Pea Island. Three months later he transferred to the Coast Guard Cutter Mendota in Berkley, Va., as a mess attendant.
Alex Haley, who later became well known for his book-turned-miniseries, ‘‘Roots,” was one of his shipmates.
‘‘We went on liberty together, and we chatted,” Collins said.
He later returned to Pea Island, where he remained throughout World War II, and earned the rank of surfman.
While there, he was a member of the crew that assisted in the rescue of a person on board a ship that had been hit by a torpedo between the Chicamacomico and the Pea Island stations.
A memorable encounter
After advancing to second class boatswains mate, Collins recalls eating dinner with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited Pea Island.
‘‘She visited a lot of Coast Guard stations because she was gathering information for a friend who was writing a book,” he said. ‘‘She told me that she would mention me in the book.”
He was tasked with driving the first lady from the Pea Island station to the Chicamacomico station in Rodanthe, N.C. There were no highways, and he remembers his vehicle getting bogged down in the sand.
To show her appreciation, Roosevelt told Collins that she would send him a copy of the book.
As promised, Collins received a copy of the book, ‘‘Jim Crow Joins Up: A Study of Negroes in the Armed Forces of the United States,” written by Ruth Danenhower Wilson and published in 1945.
Roosevelt lived up to her promise — the book mentions Collins by name. And she went a step further to make it memorable — she signed the book for him.
After serving in the Coast Guard for 30 years and following military assignments in Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Hawaii, Collins retired.
He returned to the federal government as a small boat procurement advisor for U.S. Customs Service, and finally as a marine accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
He earned three types of pilot licenses and became a certified flight instructor.
He and his wife Gertrude, now married 58 years, raised three children.
All the while the book remained one of Collins’ most prized possessions until it was destroyed in a house fire in 1967.
Four years ago, he began to search for the book with the assistance of the Olney Library staff. He finally located a copy at the Naval Academy Library in Annapolis. He checked the book out, and then promptly returned it.
‘‘It was really hard to give it back,” he said. ‘‘I never thought I’d find another hard copy again.”
Besides mentioning his own name, the book also mentions the names of his grandfather and great-uncle.
A priceless gift
During a Black History Month event three years ago, Rear Adm. Stephen W. Rochon of the United States Coast Guard, who was serving as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s director of intelligence and security at the time, told the story of Pea Island to the audience, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, who asked that her name not be used.
During that same event, Collins shared his story from his time at Pea Island and his experience of driving the first lady to Coast Guard stations along the Outer Banks.
Norman Y. Mineta, former secretary of transportation, was so moved by the story that he decided to do something about it, the transportation spokeswoman said.
He directed staff members to commence a nationwide search to locate a copy of the rare old book. He felt the mission gave his staff an opportunity to demonstrate some of the qualities of the Pea Island crew — teamwork and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, the spokeswoman said.
On Feb. 21 of this year, a Black History Month program entitled ‘‘The Voice of Gladdened Hearts” was held at Department of Transportation headquarters. The program included a documentary narrated by James Earl Jones, recounting the historic rescue of all hands on the schooner E.S. Newman by the only black lifesaving crew in American history. One of Collins’ ancestors was among the crew.
Following the documentary, Mineta presented Collins with an original, first edition copy of the book he thought he had lost forever, and it was signed by the current first lady.
‘‘Lt. Collins’ service and his family’s military legacy embody courage, commitment and dedication to duty,” said Acting U.S. Secretary of Transportation Maria Cino. ‘‘Replacing his lost family memento was a small token of our appreciation for what his fellow Pea Island comrades did.”
Collins was honored by the presentation and thrilled to receive the book that represented not only a chapter in his life, but also a chapter in history.
‘‘I will keep it forever, and hope to be able to preserve it,” he said. ‘‘I hope to meet Mrs. Bush sometime so I can thank her for autographing it.”