The 13 who broke naval color barrier

March 07, 1994|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,"The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers"/SUN STAFF GRAPHICSun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Samuel Barnes seems an unlikely pioneer. He is slight and soft-spoken, living a quiet retirement in a small brick home in the upper reaches of Washington.

But 50 years ago this month, Dr. Barnes and 11 other men made military history. They pulled on double-breasted coats with a star and stripe on the sleeves and became the first black officers in the U.S. Navy.

Their story during World War II is one not only of achievement but of great dignity in the face of official indifference.

They were given jobs below their skills. They were never allowed to serve aboard combat ships or to command white sailors. They were belittled by enlisted men and ignored by officers. And when the war ended, they were forgotten for decades.

Dr. Barnes, 79, still bristles when he recalls the indignities he and the others were forced to accept in the bleak, segregated world of 1944. But those memories are tempered by what he and the others accomplished -- opening the door for blacks to become admirals and generals and living to see one African-American become chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

"We didn't want to do or say anything which in some way or another would hurt the chances for someone else," said Dr. Barnes, who earned a doctorate from Howard University and became the first black member of the governing council of the National Collegiate Athletic Associa- tion (NCAA). "If you're going through the door, you should make sure the door is open to someone else. . . . Let us get in and we'll show you we can."

After a half-century, these men, known as the "Golden Thirteen" (12 became ensigns and the 13th was a warrant officer), are finally getting the attention they have long deserved.

Their recollections are the subject of a recent book edited by retired Cmdr. Paul Stillwell, a historian with the Naval Institute, a private professional society based at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Hollywood also has expressed interest. A script is being written for TriStar Pictures, which has asked actor and director Sidney Poitier to direct it.

Wednesday, the seven surviving members of the Golden Thirteen will be honored at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, where they were commissioned 50 years ago in a segregated portion of that sprawling facility.

"These guys are so little known," said Mr. Stillwell. "I've compared them to Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall. The Navy for its own reasons did not want to play these men up."

The Army commissioned black officers beginning with the Civil War. On the eve of America's entry into World War II, blacks were trained as Army fighter pilots and commissioned as second lieutenants at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. They went on to fight in segregated units in North Africa and Italy.

But the Navy never made similar moves. On board, blacks served only as stewards or messmates.

"The Navy has always been behind," said Bernard Nalty, a historian and author of "Strength for the Fight," a book chronicling the role of African-Americans in the armed forces from Colonial times through Vietnam. "It's always been a closed and clannish organization."

In the midst of war, the Navy was forced to change its segregated practices -- nudged by political expediency rather than conscience. Thousands of young blacks were entering the service, and civil rights leaders were pressuring the White House to offer them greater opportunities.

By the beginning of 1944, Petty Officer 3rd Class Samuel E. Barnes found himself standing with several other black sailors outside the commander's office at Great Lakes.

"You know why you're here?" asked the admiral's aide. "You are being considered for officer candidate's school."

"We looked at each other," Dr. Barnes recalled, "and thought he lost his mind."

Sixteen black sailors were selected because the Navy believed that with the normal attrition rate, four were likely to fail. It is still a mystery how they came to be chosen, although all but one

were college graduates who had distinguished themselves in the Navy.

They assembled in a barracks at Camp Robert Smalls, a segregated portion of Great Lakes.

From the start, the officer candidates were suspicious, believing they were being "show-dogged" for political purposes. They quickly made a pact to share their knowledge, making sure they all passed.

"We would sink or swim together," said George C. Cooper, 77, one of the Golden Thirteen. "If we had not succeeded, we would have set the progress of blacks in the Navy back an untold number of years."

They were trained by white officers in seamanship, navigation, gunnery, naval regulations and naval law for more than two months. One of those officers was Paul D. Richmond, a 1942 Naval Academy graduate, who termed the course work "U.S. Navy 101."

Study sessions lasted past lights out. "At night, we went to the [bathroom] and put our blankets over all the windows," Dr. Barnes said.

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