Burlington man promoted to honorary Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer 34 years after retirement

December 16, 2014
Honorary Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Clemon Terrell and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Steven Cantrell celebrate the former’s promotion during a ceremony Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, in Burlington, N.C.

BURLINGTON, NC — A Burlington native was promoted Tuesday to honorary Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer during a ceremony in Burlington 34 years following his retirement from the service.

Clemon H. Terrell enlisted in 1950 as a steward, the only job available to African-Americans at the time in the Coast Guard, which provided limited promotion opportunities.

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Steven Cantrell read Terrell’s certificate of appointment, calling the promotion ceremony a righteous event.

“The job that Chief Terrell performed did not offer a lot of opportunities for advancement because we weren’t inclusive as a service or as a nation as we should have been,” said Cantrell, who is the Coast Guard’s senior most enlisted person. “We have the ability now to make honorary chiefs of people who have the qualities of a Chief; who demonstrated his love of country and service, and a commitment to our core values, in spite of difficult social issues at the time.”

The son of a sharecropper, Terrell enlisted in the Coast Guard shortly after he graduated from Pleasant Grove High School. Along with other Coast Guard stewards, his recruit training included learning how to wait on officer’s tables, make their beds, clean their rooms and shine their shoes.

Following an initial assignment at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, Terrell was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Absecon for the first of his 14 years of sea time – all of it in a segregated environment.

“Everywhere I went, they put all the blacks together,” Terrell told a Coast Guard historian earlier this year. “If I went aboard ship, they would have all the black stewards together. We had our own space and bath, our own area.”

The nature of the job meant that only a few, if any, stewards could or would be promoted to Chief Petty Officer. Terrell reached the rank of Petty Officer 1st Class but was never promoted beyond that.

Nevertheless, Terrell remembered his time in the service fondly at Tuesday’s ceremony: “The Coast Guard was the best years in my life, and the people I met were the best friends that I have ever met. I would have stayed in longer, but I was commuting from where my family lived in Burlington to my duty station in Baltimore. My son was growing up and I wanted to spend time with him.” 

Terrell completed his career in the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore. Following retirement, he pursued a civilian career in food management, including as a chef and food manager at Elon University.