BATH, Maine (NNS) -- When the Navy commissions its newest guided-missile destroyer, USS Mason (DDG 87), April 12, it will commemorate not only the ship's namesakes, but also the accomplishments of the crew of the previous ship to bear the name.
The ship is named for John Young Mason, Secretary of the Navy during the Tyler and Polk administrations, and for distinguished flying cross awardee Ensign Newton Henry Mason, who died in aerial combat during World War II's Battle of Coral Sea.
But, the ship also inherits the legacy of the previous USS Mason (DE 529)-- the first Navy ship with a predominately African-American crew.
Most Americans have heard of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen, and the bravery and dedication to service they represented at times when many Americans were denied the opportunity to serve their country because of the color of their skin.
What many people don't know is that, like the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments and the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group, the second USS Mason (DE 529) was another military unit in which an all African-American crew distinguished themselves in the face of steep odds and a determined enemy.
Laid down at Boston Navy Yard in October 1943, the second Mason was sponsored by Mrs. David Mason, mother of Ensign Mason, and commissioned March 20, 1944. Lt. Cmdr. William Blackford was the commissioning commanding officer. The ship went on to serve as a convoy escort in the Atlantic throughout the remainder of World War II.
But the ship made history just coming out of the yard as the only U.S. Navy destroyer at that time to be manned with an all black enlisted crew. This was the first time that black Americans were permitted to be trained and serve in Navy career fields other than cooks and stewards. One hundred sixty black Sailors were enrolled in all fields of operational and technical training, and manned the ship at commissioning.
"I just wanted to get in the Navy with all those ships," said Gordon D. Buchanan, a veteran of Mason (DE 529). "All I wanted was to go to sea. I didn't know what blacks were doing at sea, I just wanted to join and fight for my country. I am a patriot."
Although known as "Eleanor's Folly" for Eleanor Roosevelt's introduction of the idea for an all-black crew, Mason served with distinction.
During the worst North Atlantic storm 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.
Mason's crew had accomplished what the Atlanta Daily Press described on the day of the ship's commissioning as an, "opportunity to show the world that they are capable."
"We were there to prove ourselves," said Lorenzo A. Dufau, another Mason veteran. "It's wonderful to know I played a small role in giving others opportunity."
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.
At the end of the war, Mason was assigned as a training ship operating from Miami, but the crew had proven what many denied: an African-American crew could do the same jobs just as well as an all white crew.
In the post-war demobilization, the ship was decommissioned and sold for scrap in 1947 - the same year President Harry S. Truman signed executive order 9981, officially desegregating the armed forces.
Through the efforts of Mason's veterans and author Mary Pat Kelly, the ship's story has been chronicled in the book "Proudly We Served."
Their persistence in telling the story paid off in 1994, when President Clinton awarded the long overdue commendation to 67 surviving crew members.
Four years later, Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton made official his decision to name an Arleigh Burke destroyer "Mason," marking the contributions of USS Mason (DE 529) and her crew to the fight for equality and desegregation in the Navy's ranks.
Although Mason's crew became dispersed throughout the Navy and America, the hardships of times past have paved the way for times present. Today, most Sailors agree, the only limitations put on any Sailor are the limitations they put upon themselves; the "sky" is the limit.
Still, the accomplishments of the Sailors of elder Mason are not lost on the crew of the newest Mason.
As they prepare their ship for life in the Navy, they are proud to be a part of the rich history that comes when they proudly bear their uniforms.
"I am a product of America's growing process," said Lt. j.g. Mical K. Crumbly. "In the military, there continues to be encouragement and guidance for every member to reach his or her full potential regardless of race, color or creed."
No matter what the cost, it would seem Mason Sailors of all generations agree that being positive and letting goals take precedence over discrimination is what makes reaching those goals so rewarding.
"It's what a person does that makes history, and we, as a crew, and I, as an African-American Sailor, feel great about the job we're all doing," said Seaman Apprentice Imani Wilson. "If I have a hard or long day, I just think back to the crew of the previous Mason and it makes me want to achieve more."
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