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Doris Miller talking with three other sailors and a civilian, during his visit to the Naval Training Station in 1943. He is wearing the Navy Cross medal, awarded for heroism during the Pearl Harbor Attack.
Doris Miller talking with three other sailors and a civilian, during his visit to the Naval Training Station in 1943. He is wearing the Navy Cross medal, awarded for heroism during the Pearl Harbor Attack. (Credit: Photo ID 80-G-29480, U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives)
On the morning of December 7, 1941, as Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, Seaman Dorie Miller of the USS West Virginia dragged wounded sailors – including the ship’s captain – to safety.

Although Miller, a cook, had no formal training in weapons, he loaded an anti-aircraft machine gun and shot down a Japanese airplane before he abandoned the sinking ship. A celebrated American war hero, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts.

Black sailor home for the holidays.
Black sailor home for the holidays.(Credit: Library of Congress)
According to historians, blacks have served in the Navy since the Revolutionary War. African-Americans served on gunboats in the Continental Navy and in the navies of several states. Many African-Americans also fought in the War of 1812, hoping to become free afterward.

When the Civil War began in 1861, hundreds of free blacks and escaped slaves joined the Union Navy. They served as served as sailors, pilots, spies, and guides, as well as stevedores and crewmen. By war's end, blacks had served on almost all of the Union's Navy vessels, including the ironclad, USS Monitor.

The Navy's racial segregation policies limited African-Americans' participation in World War I and, after the war, barred black enlistments altogether from 1919 to 1932. When African-Americans were allowed into the Navy again in 1932, it was as stewards and mess attendants. But when the nation entered World War II in December 1941, the Navy began rethinking its policies. Navy officials had to deal with a shortage of manpower and black protest politics.

During World War II, some black seamen sailed on Liberty Ships – large cargo vessels that were cheap and quick to build. Liberty Ships were named after prominent Americans. Of 2,700 ships, only 17 were named for outstanding black Americans, with the Booker T. Washington being the first to hold that distinction.

Captain Hugh Mulzac
Captain Hugh Mulzac(Credit: U.S. DOT)
Captain Hugh Mulzac was the first black merchant marine naval officer to command an integrated crew in World War II. However, the African American experience in U.S. naval history is perhaps best told through the USS Mason, the only Navy destroyer during World War II to be manned with a predominantly black crew.

In late 1943, the Navy announced plans to place an all-black enlisted crew with white officers aboard Mason, the first time blacks were permitted to be trained and serve in jobs other than cooks and stewards. One hundred and sixty black sailors were enrolled in all fields of operational and technical training and manned the ship at commissioning.

The Mason was called “Eleanor’s Folly,” a reference to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a vocal advocate of desegregation of the armed forces. The vessel served with distinction during World War II, and Captain Bill Blackford and Convoy Commander Alfred Lind recommended the Mason crew for commendations.

The recognition never came.

 

 

 

 
 
 
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