Syracuse University Magazine

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Coast Guard Honors World War II Hero

By William Thiesen

In spring 1942, 22-year-old Joseph Tezanos ’49, a factory worker and Spanish immigrant, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. His life would change forever. By the end of the decade, Tezanos, who passed away in 1985, would be 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. Tezanos’s story is the American dream realized—and in August, in honor of his heroism, the Coast Guard commissioned one of its new Fast Response Cutters with Tezanos’s name graced on it. 

By May 1943, Tezanos received orders to report to New Orleans to serve on board a new LST (landing ship, tank), a large ocean-going landing craft. 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 board LST 20, Tezanos became a gunner’s mate, the most dangerous rate possible on a World War II LST. Tezanos saw action and managed to survive some of the bloodiest amphibious landings of World War II, including landings on enemy-held islands at Kiska, Alaska; Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands; and Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

April 1944 found LST 20 moored near an armada of transports and LSTs in West Loch, Pearl Harbor, preparing for a top-secret operation named “Forager.” Forager would support the invasion of Saipan, in the Marianas island chain. But on May 21, before the armada could set sail, an explosion on board an LST set off a chain reaction among the fleet of heavily loaded transport vessels. 

The ensuing cataclysm resulted in the largest accidentally caused explosion of the war in terms of lives lost, including approximately 600 wounded and dead. After the explosion, Tezanos scrambled on board a rescue boat along with several other volunteers. Despite the risk of being burned alive or blown up, Tezanos and his shipmates rescued men from the water and evacuated others from the burning ships. Although he received multiple burns in the line of duty, Tezanos helped save over 40 of the disaster’s survivors.

For his actions that day, Tezanos received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, one of the highest medals awarded to Navy personnel for wartime rescue operations. He also received a commendation letter from Coast Guard Commandant Russell Waesche and a citation personally signed by the famous Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, which commends his “distinguished heroism” and concludes: “His actions on this occasion were in keeping with the highest traditions of the naval service.”

In early spring 1945, Tezanos became one of the first Hispanic Americans to graduate from the Coast Guard’s Reserve Officer Training Program. His wartime commissioning in mid-January 1945 also qualified him as one of the first Hispanic American officers in the Coast Guard.

In May 1945, newly commissioned Ensign Tezanos returned to the West Coast to deploy as boat officer on board the troop transport Joseph T. Dickman (APA-13), where he spent the remainder of his tour. Most of that time saw his ship transporting troops to the front. After the August 1945 conclusion of hostilities, the Dickman returned thousands of troops to the United States as part of the so-called “magic carpet ride” back home. 

Tezanos concluded his Coast Guard career in spring 1946, but his life was only beginning. He went on to Syracuse University and graduate school, started a family with his wife, Jean Allan Tezanos ’46 (they had two children, Susanne and John ’86), and became a successful international businessman. When he passed away in March 1985, he was interred at Arlington National Cemetery alongside many other Coast Guard heroes. 

William Thiesen, Ph.D., is Atlantic area historian for the U.S. Coast Guard. A version of this article was originally published as part of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association’s Cutter of the Month series, published monthly in its magazine and on its website at www.cgaalumni.org/COTM. To read the complete version, click here.



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In the aftermath of the catastrophic explosion at West Loch, Pearl Harbor, Joseph Tezanos risked his life to help save survivors.