By John R. Desselle, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
February is BLACK HISTORY MONTH, a time to commemorate the history and heritage of African Americans and for us, their accomplishments in the U.S. Navy. Here are a few notable figures from naval history.
Carl M. Brashear, while on assignment during bomb recovery operations in March 1966, a line used for towing broke loose, causing a pipe to strike Brashear’s left leg below the knee, nearly shearing it off. Brashear developed a terrible infection in that leg and it was eventually amputated. Even after Brashear‘s leg was removed he was determined to follow his dream and continue his service in the U.S. Navy. After retiring from the Navy as a master chief diver in 1979, he served as a civilian employee for the government at Naval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Va. and retired in 1993. Master Chief Carl M. Brashear died July 25, 2006. He was “THE MAN OF HONOR.”
The Golden Thirteen, were the thirteen African-American enlisted men who became the first black commissioned and warrant officers in the U.S. Navy. Before June 1, 1942 African-Americans could only join the Navy’s Messman or Steward ratings, which not only segregated them from the rest of the Navy community, but also prohibited them from becoming commissioned officers. The Golden Thirteen broke the color barrier. Read more in “The Negro in the Navy” from Kelly Miller’s book (Published 1919) History of the World War for Human Rights.
Doris Miller, for his bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 was the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross, he was also featured as the “First U.S. Hero of World War II” in Ebony magazine (Dec. 1969) Nearly two years after Pearl Harbor, he was killed in action when USS Liscome Bay was sunk by a Japanese submarine during the Battle of Makin.
Jesse LeRoy Brown, enlisted in the U.S. Navy in October 1926 and lost his life for his country on Dec. 4, 1950. He was the first African-American aviator in the U.S. Navy, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the first African-American naval officer killed in the Korean War. He died in the wreckage of his airplane on Dec. 4, 1950 with bravery and courage.
Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills, in November 1944, the two women became the first African-American female officers in the WAVES. They graduated from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (Women’s Reserve) at Northampton, Mass. By the time World War II ended on Sept. 2, 1945, Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Wills were only two black female officers among the Navy’s 86,000 WAVES.
Robert Smalls, became a ship’s pilot, sea captain, and politician. He freed himself, his crew and their families from slavery on May 13, 1862, by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor. He sailed it to freedom from Confederate controlled waters to the Federal blockade. His example and persuasion helped convince President Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army.
Michelle Howard, is not only the first woman to become a four-star admiral and Vice Chief of Naval Operations, but also the first African-American woman to hold that post.
Wesley Brown was born April 3, 1927, in Baltimore, Md. He graduated from Dunbar High School in Washington D.C. He served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War and served in the U.S. Navy from May 2, 1944, until June 30, 1969. He died aged 85 on May 22, 2012 in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Samuel L. Gravely Jr, served 38 years in the U.S. Navy from 1942–1980. He was the first African American to command a Navy ship, the first to command a fleet, and the first to become an admiral. He received the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal and Navy Commendation Medal. He died at the age of 82 on Oct. 22, 2004.
African-American Sailors progressed from Messmen and Stewards to four star admirals and the office of the Vice Chief of Naval Operations. We are grateful, thankful and proud of the achievements of African-Americans in naval history as well as the Sailors of America’s Navy who today continue to build on the tradition of excellence established by those who went before them. We dedicate this month to them and their legacy of service.
Read more in “The Negro in the Navy” from Kelly Miller’s book (Published 1919) History of the World War for Human Rights.