How the U.S. Navy’s First Black Officers Helped Reshape the American MilitaryRoundup
tags: military history, African American history, World War 2
Dan C. Goldberg, a journalist for Politico, is the author of The Golden Thirteen: How Black Men Won the Right to Wear Navy Gold, available now from Beacon Press.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the United States victory over Germany and Japan in World War II, and the celebrations, the movies and the memorials will focus on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. But one of the most consequential battles of the war did not take place overseas. It was waged about 35 miles north of Chicago—and its outcome forever changed the U.S. Navy.
In early 1944, as the United States prepared for the invasion of France, 16 African American sailors, summoned from shore installations and training schools across the country, were brought to the main office at Great Lakes Naval Training Center and told they had been selected for Officer Candidate School.
It was a startling assignment.
A black man had graduated the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1877 and the Army had its first black general in 1940. But when World War II began, African Americans were not even allowed to enlist in the Navy’s general service. They were relegated to messmen: cooks and waiters whose chief function was to serve whites. Just two years later, thanks to pressure from civil rights leaders and the black press, the Navy told these 16 enlistees — the sons and grandsons of slaves — that they would attempt to integrate the officer corps and prove wrong the prevailing wisdom, which held that their race was incapable of discipline and unworthy of rank.
The story of the Navy’s first black officers remains little known, overshadowed by the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen and Patton’s Panthers. But their success, both as candidates and as officers, forever changed what was possible for African American sailors and anticipated the coming civil rights movement.
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