From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Lorenzo A. Dufau, 95, died Dec. 19, 2015 and was laid to rest on Jan. 9, 2016. He is survived by a daughter-in-law, seven grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
Dufau, who served as a signalman in World War II, was the last surviving crewman from the destroyer escort USS Mason (DD 529) the first U.S. Navy ship crewed during the war by a predominantly black enlisted crew.
The story of Mason is well known now. It was the first time African-Americans were permitted to be trained and serve in ratings other than cooks and stewards. In fact, one hundred sixty black Sailors were enrolled in all fields of operational and technical training, and manned the ship at commissioning.
During his time onboard Mason, Dufau made multiple convoy escorts to Europe and Africa.
One of those trips offered the Mason crew an opportunity to demonstrate their seamanship and shiphandling skills under dire conditions. During one of the worst North Atlantic storms of the century, the 290-foot long Mason was serving as escort to a convoy of merchant ships bound for England. The strength of the storm forced the convoy to break up, and Mason was chosen to escort a section of ships to their destination. With land in sight, Mason’s deck split, threatening the structural integrity of the ship. Emergency repairs were made quickly and efficiently, and Mason returned immediately to assist the remainder of the convoy.
For saving their ship and continuing their mission, the Mason crew was recommended for commendations by their captain and the convoy commander. The commendations were never awarded.
That wrong was righted in 1994, when President Clinton awarded the long overdue commendation to 67 surviving crew members.
On April 12, 2003, the crew of DE-529 was further honored by the Navy with the commissioning of guided missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87).
Dufau and a few of his DE-529 shipmates formed a lasting bond with the crew of DDG-87. In fact he was in Bath, Maine on Nov. 22, 2002 when Mason’s builder, Bath Iron Works, officially delivered the ship to the Navy. They were also there when the ship was commissioned in Port Canaveral, Fla., and continued to visit with the ship and crew whenever possible.
In thanks for Dufau having been there for the nation, the Navy and the crew of DDG-87, the ship’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Christopher Gilbertson, sent a delegation of Mason Sailors to attend and speak at Dufau’s funeral service.
“Mr. Dufau continued to be an advocate for the Navy and the work that he and his shipmates did onboard USS Mason (DE-529),” said DDG-87 Command master Chief Ronald Shasky who attended the service. “He felt it was important for the story of his ship and shipmates to be heard, a story of an all-African-American crew taking a naval vessel into battle, serving with honor and distinction, all during a period where racial segregation was rampant in our community. He and his shipmates were trailblazers in the history of African-Americans in service to their country.”
“Speaking with his family and friends, it was quite evident that he was proud of he and his shipmates’ service and the Navy is a better place because of him, his shipmates and DE-529,” said Shasky.
The story of the Mason crew was virtually unknown until Mary Pat Kelly, Ph.d. accidentally stumbled on the subject while researching material for a documentary about American troops in World War II. Through 12 years of persistence, Kelly’s determination to tell Mason’s story was finally realized in a 1995 book “Proudly We Served” published by the Naval Institute Press. The book served as the basis for a Public Broadcasting Service documentary, and in 2004 a motion picture followed entitled Proud in which Dufau was played by actor Ossie Davis who had earlier narrated the documentary.
When the Davis movie premiered, a special screening was held aboard DDG-87 and was attended by Dufau.
“We were a part of American history,” said Dufau. “I hope someday to see our history taught in public schools. Rather than being taught one month a year, let it be a part of American history.”
Dufau most recently visited the ship for a Black History Month observance in 2012 during which he shared some of his fondest ‘sea stories’ and answered questions. “I’m so proud to be here today,” he said. “Words cannot really express my deepest feelings because I become emotional when I realize the role that I was picked to play in developing America. This is America, a combination of all people, one nation under God.” Dufau told the crew why he donated his dog tag to DDG-87, which was placed under the ship’s mast. This Navy custom, known as “stepping the mast,” consists of placing coins or other items of significance under the step or bottom of a ship’s mast during construction. “I wanted a part of me to be a part of this ship because this is a dream come true,” said Defau. “You all don’t know how beautiful it is to see young people, all together, developing a friendship, and more than just a friendship – shipmates! You grow up together and you’re gonna become so proud of your ship that you’re not going to allow anybody to say anything negative about your ship and your crew members.” Dufau also described the symbolism behind what DDG-87 and the camaraderie of the crew mean to him. “I’m at a loss for words to describe the emotion that I’m going through right now,” he said. “To see you bring life to the ship.
It was first a big lump of steel, but the crew members bring life to the ship.” At the close of the ceremony, Dufau was presented a challenge coin by the ship’s commanding officer, as well as a personalized Mason jacket and ball cap from the crew. For DDG-87’s crew, the ceremony was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to meet a living part of their naval history, but it was also a day to remember for the guest speakers. “It’s a very emotional day,” said Kelly. “And when I’m speaking and I look at these faces – the eyes of these young people and their interest – and I know that they are deployed and going into harm’s way during a very, very tough time in our nation … I’m just so full of pride in America and who they are.
The warmth that they gave to Mr. Dufau, and gave to me, it’s just amazing. Two days earlier, Dufau and Kelly were in attendance at the ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Feb. 22. The museum will tell the story of the contributions African Americans have made throughout the nation’s history. “One of the featured exhibits will be on the USS Mason (DE 529),” said Kelly. “Mr. Dufau has donated his jumper to the museum because on his jumper is his rate and he was in the first class of African American Sailors to receive rates when they graduated at Great Lakes, which was then Camp Robert Smalls.” In addition to the museum’s artifacts, such as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Harriet Tubman’s shawl, Nat Turner’s Bible, a WWII bi-plane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, and Dufau’s dress blue jumper, Kelly donated footage from the movie “Proud” and the documentary where she interviewed 15 members of the original Mason crew. “The USS Mason (DDE 87) really embodies the story – they have photos aboard, under the mast is Mr. Dufau’s dog tag and contributions from some of the other original Mason Sailors,” said Kelly. “So, any place the Mason goes now, the story is told. But even more importantly, in the Sailors themselves. As Mr. Dufau always says, ‘This is a part of American history,’ and to not have the story told would be a tragedy.”
Dufau always enjoyed visiting the ship which is itself a technological marvel. But more importantly he always enjoyed visiting with the ship’s crew and seeing how much of an impact he and his World War II shipmates had in making opportunities available for the generations of Sailors who have followed in their footsteps.
“It’s amazing to see the advances that have been made,” said Dufau, speaking about the current Mason and its Sailors. “We had hoped to make a dream come true about one nation under God–that was our dream. Now it’s up to you young people. You’ve got to carry that ball, and I wish you the best of luck.”
The Library of Congress Veterans History Project page features some biographical information about and photos of Dufau as well as a link to an 89-minute interview at this link: https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.09212/