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USS Mason

USS Mason (DE-529) Commissioning.
USS Mason (DE-529) Commissioning. (Credit: U.S. Navy Photo ID: 80-G-218856, National Archives)
Ossie Davis, legendary actor and activist, starred in the movie Proud in 2004, the real-life story of the USS Mason (DE-529) – the first Navy ship with a predominantly African-American enlisted crew during WWII.

The USS Mason (DE-529) – at 1140 tons and 289 feet long -- was an Evarts-class destroyer. At the time if her commission in 1943, it marked the first time black Americans were permitted to be trained and serve in ratings other than cooks and stewards onboard a ship of the Mason’s elite stature. When the Navy announced its plan to place an all-black crew with white officers aboard the Mason, there were 160 black sailors enrolled in all fields of operational and technical training and manned the ship at commissioning.

USS Mason crewman receives signal light training.
USS Mason crewman receives signal light training. (Credit: U.S. Navy Photo ID: 80-G-214545, National Archives)
"Our quarters were down below, just about at the waterline. Our bunks folded up against the side, and we'd sleep in tiers. So, if you came in from watch and someone was in the sack, you'd have to wake him up to pull down your bunk, said crewmen James Graham, according to ussMason.org. "When we went aboard, we didn't have hot water, we didn't have running water. There were plumbers, electricians, and lines all over the ship when we went aboard. But I was there, I was aboard the Mason."

African-American crewmembers look proudly at their ship while moored at the Boston Navy Yard in 1944.
African-American crewmembers look proudly at their ship while moored at the Boston Navy Yard in 1944. (Credit: U.S. Navy Photo ID: 80-G-218861, National Archives)
The ship's top speed was 21 knots. Hundreds of ships like her fought in the Pacific and Atlantic theaters, yet it was her crew that made her unique. According to ussMason.org , Mason’s new captain, William “Bill” Blackford, said he wasn't "trying to solve the race problem" his crew members said they would "follow him to hell and back" and "he treated us man to man" -- great praise from any crew. Bill Blackford's attitude may be best reflected in a letter to his parents, sent from Boston before commissioning, "Can't figure out why I was picked, but will do the best I can -- really quite an opportunity to do something."

The Navy would have allowed Blackford to decline the command, according to ussMason.org. He (along with the other white officers) signed a document stating, "I consent to and accept this assignment ... after having been advised of the fact that a colored crew will be assigned to the vessel."

Crewmembers relaxing on board USS Mason.
Crewmembers relaxing on board USS Mason. (Credit: Mr. Graham James, Photo ID: NH 106731, NHHC)
Although known as “Eleanor’s Folly” for Eleanor Roosevelt’s introduction of the idea for an all-black crew, the Mason served with distinction during World War II. During the worst North Atlantic storm of the Century, the Mason was serving as an escort to a convoy of merchant ships bound for England. During the storm, the convoy was forced the break up and Mason was chosen to escort a section of ships to their destiny. With land in sight, the Mason’s deck split under the strain of heavy sea, threatening the structural integrity of the ship. Emergency repairs were conducted and the Mason returned immediately to assist the remainder of the convoy.

"There has been a lot of bunk about the Negro crews,” Blackford wrote in a letter to his parents. “They are anxious to make a name for themselves and actually work harder."

The Mason was decommissioned on October 12, 1945. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded the long-overdue commendation to sixty-seven surviving crewmembers of the Mason, which marked equality for black sailors and desegregation in today’s Navy.


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