All-Black Crew Overcomes Racism to Save WWII Convoy
Sailors called the storm the worst of the century, perhaps recorded history. Frigid, 50-foot waves rocked Convoy NY 119, tossing Navy ships and Army tugboats alike into the air like toy boats. It went on for days in October 1944, the type of weather to make even seasoned mariners turn green while calling on the gods and patron saints of the sea for protection.
Wind speeds reached 90 miles an hour by one calculation. Waves that crashed over decks turned instantly to ice. The destroyer escort USS Mason (DE 529) documented a 70-degree roll. About 15 of the convoy's 50-odd tugboats, barges and oilers - many never designed for a trans-oceanic voyage, let alone the hostile north Atlantic - simply disappeared into the gray, swirling drink below. About 20 souls would be lost forever, according to the Warfare History Network.
Those who survived, historians said, did so out of a combination of courage and skill and a lot of luck. Many of the Sailors and merchantmen owed their lives to the Mason, which led the convoy to safety on the British coast.
A Second War
But Mason, and especially its crew, had another battle to fight: not the weather, not even the Nazi U-boats that stalked almost every trans-Atlantic Allied convoy. That insidious foe was racism. The military was highly segregated at the time. In fact, until mid-1942, black men could only serve in the Navy as cooks and stewards - officers' servants, essentially. They could also be stevedores, manual labors who unloaded cargo from ships, according to the National World War II Museum. Earlier in the 20th century, they would also have held even more unpleasant jobs, said Dr. Regina Akers, historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command.
It takes time not only to change the policy, but to change the culture of the service that's accepting and embracing that policy change. ... It started in World War II in our Navy." - Akers
It took years. African-American leaders spent much of the war fighting to get black men in combat. They struggled to overcome a stereotype that black servicemen would simply turn tail and run at the first sign of danger, even as their young men proved themselves over and over again in combat. Cook 3rd Class Dorie Miller grabbed a machine gun and defended his ship at Pearl Harbor, for example. Mess Attendant 1st Class Leonard Roy Harmon sacrificed his life to protect a wounded shipmate during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. (Both men received Navy Crosses for their actions.)
Efforts to ensure equality cumulated in the Double V Campaign, a term coined by an African-American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, to signify that there were two victories worth fighting for: victory abroad and victory over racism at home. According to the New York Public Library, Double V Clubs sent care packages to servicemen, sold war bonds, met with businessmen about nondiscriminatory hiring practices, wrote congressmen to protest poll taxes and conducted demonstrations in a precursor to the civil rights movement.
African-American activists also had an influential ally in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She worked throughout the war to ensure that black men and women had, if not equality, at least opportunities to prove themselves. That opportunity came to the Navy with the 290-foot USS Mason and PC-1264, a submarine chaser. The two ships were the only vessels to be crewed by African-American Sailors during World War II, albeit under the command of white officers and chiefs.
Named after Newton Henry Mason, an aviator lost during the Battle of the Coral Sea and commissioned in March 1944, according to Naval History and Heritage Command, Mason was nicknamed "Eleanor's Folly," and was an experiment Navy leaders expected to fail, many veterans believed.
"I said, I really don't want to go into the Navy because I don't want to be a cook or a person who makes beds and stuff like that. So just before I was called in [for the draft] ... the Navy changed and stopped discriminating so you could go in and be in the seaman branch," remembered Radioman 3rd Class Merwin Peters in an oral history for the Tacoma, Washington, Community History Project.
Signalman 1st Class Lorenzo Dufau was from New Orleans and no stranger to racism and Jim Crow. Still, he didn't let that stop him from volunteering to defend his country.
"If you call yourself a man, you defend your home and country," he said in an oral history for the Veterans History Project. "I felt that if I can get in and make it possible to be helping to protect this place, I would also help open doors for my son."