William Goines: The First African-American US Navy SEAL Served Three Tours in Vietnam

Photo Credit: 1. PhotoQuest / Getty Images 2. MC2 Joseph M. Clark / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: 1. PhotoQuest / Getty Images 2. MC2 Joseph M. Clark / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The US Navy SEALs are among the most elite groups in the US military; only the best and toughest make it through the training. Among the first men to join the first SEAL teams was William “Bill” Goines, who also had the distinction for being the first African-American SEAL. Across his decades of service (and after), he served overseas and worked to increase the recruitment of people of color into the military.

William Goines’ early life

Still from 'The Frogmen'
The Frogmen, 1951. (Photo Credit: arrakis / MovieStillsDB)

William Goines was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1936, with his family eventually relocating to Lockland, a suburb of Cincinnati. The elder Goines worked several jobs to support them, largely in the automobile industry and at pool halls, and often had to find new positions after being fired as a result of the country’s segregationist attitudes at the time.

While attending Lockland Wayne High School, an all-Black educational institution, Goines watched the 1951 film, The Frogmen. Starring Richard Widmark and Dana Andrews, it centers around the actions of US Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) during the Second World War.

Almost immediately, the young Goines was inspired to join the military, telling The Enquirer decades later, “My fate was sealed right there. That’s exactly what I wanted to do.” But, first, he had to finish his secondary school education.

Training to become a US Navy SEAL

US Navy SEAL recruits running across a beach while superiors watch
US Navy SEAL recruits participating in “Hell Week,” 2016. (Photo Credit: Richard Schoenberg / CORBIS / Getty Images)

Following his high school graduation, William Goines enlisted in the US Navy. Prior to joining the service, the 19-year-old was told by a trusted friend that the majority of African Americans were assigned to steward duties and that he should avoid such a path for himself, as he’d essentially become a servant to other officers.

While promised the chance to undergo underwater demolition training, Goines was, instead, sent to Malta for 11 months with 85 enlisted sailors, four Navy officers, two foreign naval officers and five US Army Rangers underwent rigorous physical and mental training. Within three weeks, five, including all of the Rangers, had dropped out, and by the time their training was done, just 13 were left, Goines among them.

In 1962, the John F. Kennedy Administration established what would become the first two Navy SEAL teams: Team One, on the West Coast, and Team Two, stationed on the East Coast. Goines was assigned to the latter, becoming the first African-American SEAL. There had been one Black man in the Underwater Demolition Teams in World War II – Fred “Tiz” Morrison – but he had retired by the time the SEALs were officially established.

William Goines served three tours in Vietnam

US Navy SEALs running from a landing craft
US Navy SEALs in South Vietnam, 1967. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / Authenticated News / Getty Images)

One of 40 sailors to make up SEAL Team Two, based out of Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Virginia, William Goines’ first mission was to take place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the mission was scrapped. “We were on ships just sailing around the Cuban country waiting to make a landing there,” he later recalled.

Goines went on to serve three tours during the Vietnam War, two of which saw him with 14-man platoons. The third saw him work alongside a Vietnamese unit. The latter proved challenging, due to the language barrier. However, he was able to teach a handful of interpreters Spanish, which helped bridge the gap.

While prepared to embark on a fourth deployment to Vietnam, Goines was later sent to a “Spanish-speaking country” at the behest of his superiors, who said his proficiency in the language was needed.

Joining the Chuting Stars

Dave Baudoin jumping out of a Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight that's in flight
Hull Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Dave Baudoin jumping out of a Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight during a performance by the Navy Special Warfare Group 2 parachute demonstration team (the Chuting Stars) at the 1984 Azalea Festival Air Show. (Photo Credit: CORBIS / Getty Images)

Following his work as a US Navy SEAL, William Goines joined the Chuting Stars, a parachute demonstration team. He’d long been interested in jumping, thanks to the high altitude, low opening (HALO) training he’d undergone earlier in his career. It’s reported he performed 640 free falls and 194 static line jumps over the course of his five years with the team.

In 1987, after 32 years, Goines retired from the Navy, with the rank of master chief petty officer. For his service over the decades, he’d been awarded the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Combat Action Ribbon and the Navy Commendation Medal.

William Goines promoted the US Navy SEALs while retired

Exterior of the United States Navy Memorial
United States Navy Memorial in Washington, DC, 2010. (Photo Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Following his retirement from the US Navy, William Goines found employment with the school system in Portsmouth, Virginia, serving as the chief of police. He also spent his time promoting the Navy SEALs to potential African-American recruits, aware of the ratio of White SEALs to those of color.

For his efforts both in the military and after, Goines was awarded the Lone Sailor Award in 2023 by the United States Navy Memorial. Speaking about the nomination in a press release, Retired Rear Adm. Julius Caesar said:

“Master Chief William ‘Bill’ Goines is a towering figure who loves the Navy. He excelled as a Navy SEAL deploying on dangerous missions and was a part of the early establishment of the Navy SEALs in 1962. Master Chief Goines faced headwinds as the first African American Navy SEAL but overcame them through grit, determination, and a love of the Nation. He’s an inspiration to all through his humanity.”

More from us: The 1969 Draft Lottery Fueled Anti-War Sentiments In the United States During the Vietnam War

On June 10, 2024, William Goines passed away, at the age of 88.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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