Archive for February, 2018

Port Chicago

Everybody knows that African-Americans served in the Navy during WWII. But like the rest of the military, they served in segregated units with many unable to advance to higher positions. A fateful day in 1944 would set in motion the integration of the U.S. Navy and would lead to the executive order that would desegregate the military.

Port Chicago is a Naval port located 30 miles north of San Francisco. The Naval magazine at the port was constructed in 1942 to help nearby Mare Island keep up with the demand for munitions for the war effort. Sailors would work day and night transferring bullets, depth charges, artillery shells and bombs from train cars to waiting ships. During the 1940’s such a grueling and dangerous job fell mainly to the black sailors in the Navy. At Port Chicago, the personnel included 1, 400 African American sailors who would work in 125- man crews loading vessels with the munitions. Many of these sailors had minimal dock training and practically none had any formal training in the proper handling of explosions and munitions. This lack of training was also evident in the officers who oversaw the crews and who placed an emphasis on speed. The sailors were often given a target goal of moving ten tons per hatch per hour. The highly trained stevedores on Mare Island only averaged 8.7 tons. While sailors would bring up safety concerns over inadequate training, they were assured that the bombs lacked the detonators needed to set them off.

Workers at Port Chicago
Image- National Parks Service

Workers at Port Chicago
Image: National Parks Service

On July 17, 1944, two ships were docked at the main pier. The E. A Bryan was packed with 4,606 tons of explosives and ammunition. The Quinault Victory was next up for loading. Shortly after 10:18pm, witnesses reported hearing a metallic clash and splintering wood – a boom followed by a burst of flames. Six seconds later, the larger of the blasts occurred. The E.A. Bryan was almost entirely incinerated. The Quinault Victory was lifted out of the water and thrown 500 feet away. Reports came in of windows being shattered all the way in San Francisco. After the fact, seismologists would report the explosion as having registered at a 3.4 on the Richter scale. Sailors who were in the barracks thought that they were under attack by the Japanese until they stepped outside and saw the devastation. These enlisted sailors were the first on the scene and quickly sprang into action. One such sailor was Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class John Andrew Haskins, Jr. based in nearby Mare Island. The 21-year old sailor originally from Alexandria, Virginia had only enlisted a year earlier and was part of the first class of African-American hospital corpsman to serve in World War II. Reports of Haskins’ actions say that upon his arrival on the scene he rushed into the dangerous gases and flaming box cars in search of survivors. He gave first aid where he could and helped to bring the flames under control while attempting to initialize any further loss of life. More than 320 sailors would lose their lives at Port Chicago. Haskins received the Navy and Marine Corps medal in October 1944 for his actions at Port Chicago that night. He was the first African-American hospital corpsman to be honored for a wartime act of heroism. But Haskins would not be the only hero to emerge from the Port Chicago Disaster.

After the explosion
Image- National Parks Service

After the Explosion
Image- National Parks Service

Out of the 320 men who perished on July 17th, 202 were African American. This number would later account for 15 percent of all African Americans killed during World War II. The black enlisted sailors were left stunned after the incident. In giving accounts of the days after the disasters, sailors commented that if someone slammed a door or dropped a tool box, the men would jump, fearing another explosion had happened. Three weeks after the disaster, 328 sailors were reassigned to Mare Island and told to go back to work loading ammunition despite their cries for proper training. At first, 258 sailors refused, too terrified of another accident. Led by Seaman 1st Class Joseph Small, the men said they were happy to obey any order- expect handling ammunition. Being treated with a charge of mutiny, most of the men returned to work except for 50 sailors, led by Smalls. In September 1944, all 50 were formally charged with mutiny and sentenced to hard labor and a dishonorable discharge from the Navy. The trial of the “Port Chicago 50” would put the institutional racism of their American military under a microscope. As public support for the 50 men rained in, the Navy adopted new standards for the safe handling of munitions and began using a mix of both white and black recruits as stevedores.

In January 1946, the “Port Chicago 50” were given clemency and released from prison. One month later, the Navy would become the first branch of the U.S. military to fully desegregate its ranks. In later writings on the explosion, the Port Chicago 50 were hailed as early heroes of the civil rights movement. Today Port Chicago is still the site of an active military base, but a memorial to more than the 700 people who were killed or wounded calls the site home. Port Chicago and the integration of the Navy would lead the way for the desegregation of the Armed Forces. Stories like that of the explosion and others came to the attention of President Harry S. Truman. Truman was outraged at the treatment of those who served our country. His passion for the cause led him to be the first American president to speak at a meeting of NAACP in 1947 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On July 26, 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9981 stating, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the president that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to races colors religion or national origin.” The order also established the President’s on Equality of Committee Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.

The Navy was the most compliant with the new order, having already started the integration process after the Port Chicago explosion. In June of 1949, Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal wrote a directive which had all jobs and ratings open to all enlisted men, black or white. In the span of five years, the Navy had moved from a policy of exclusions for African Americans to complete integration in general service. The President’s committee reported, “In this about face, the Navy had not been primarily motivated by moral considerations or by a desire to equalize treatment and opportunity. Undoubtedly, public opinion had been a factor in this reversal of policy, but chiefly the Navy had been influenced by considerations of military efficiency and the need to economize Human Resources. Equality of treatment and opportunity, the Navy had discovered, was a necessary and inevitable condition and by product of a sound policy of manpower utilization.”

The Port Chicago disaster shed light on an issue that was not only happening in the Navy, but throughout the country.  While no one wishes for such a tragic event to occur, it forced the Navy to look at its problems and do what needed to be done to right the mistakes. Sailors such as John Andrew Haskins and Joseph Smalls are only two examples of heroes that rose from the ashes of the explosion.  Both did their part to save lives either by running into the fire or standing up for those who survived to make sure it would never happen again.

Memorial at Port Chicago
Image- National Parks Service

Image- National Parks Service

               Sources for this post along with further reading can be found at

The First African American Women Officers

African Americans have been an integral part of the U.S. Navy. This includes African- American women. Women in the navy have had to fight for their place for years. This has especially been the case for the submarine force, which did not see women on submarine until after 2010.  For African American women, this fight was twice as hard. However, women of all races have always been there to step up when needed. This week we honor some of these women who stepped up when called and along the way paved the road for those who followed.


[The section about the first African American officers is By Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., Naval History and Heritage Command, Histories and Archives Division]


“Navy to admit Negroes into the WAVES,” so read the newspaper headlines Oct. 19, 1944.  For the first time black women would be commissioned naval officers as members of the Navy’s female reserve program. The program first made news July 30, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law. Their official nickname was WAVES, an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. It would be two more years before the WAVES became open to all women.

It was not an easy journey. During the Congressional hearings Thomasina Walker of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority’s Non-Partisan Political Council testified the legislation creating the Navy’s female reserve program should include a non-discrimination clause so all eligible women could volunteer to serve.  Her argument fell on deaf ears. Public Law 689 creating the program did not specify blacks could not be recruited, yet they were denied the opportunity to do so for most of the war.

Whites and blacks representing civic, religious, and civil rights organizations across the country urged the Navy to recruit black women. The black press published articles about blacks being turned away at recruitment offices and the individuals and organizations demanding the Navy reverse its policy of exclusion.  During a campaign speech in Chicago, Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate in the 1944 presidential election, accused his opponent President Franklin D. Roosevelt of discriminating against blacks by not allowing them to become WAVES. Citizens expressed their opposition to the Navy’s policy of excluding blacks from the WAVES by sending letters and petitions to President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy William “Frank” KnoxFirst Lady Eleanor Roosevelt held a meeting with military and civilian leaders to discuss the issue. Capt. Mildred McAfee, the WAVES director, supported diversity but she was well aware of Secretary Knox’s objections.  She is reported to have overheard him saying that “[Blacks] would be in the WAVES over his dead body.” James Forrestal succeeded Knox after a fatal heart attack in April 1944. The new Navy Secretary did not believe a segregated Navy was cost-effective or made the best use of naval personnel.  Under his leadership, the WAVES and the Navy Nurse Corps integrated.

Harriet Ida Pickens, a public health worker, and social worker Frances Elizabeth Wills distinguished themselves in mid-December, 1944 as the first black women to receive their commissions in the U.S. Navy. Pickens’ father, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People advocated for the diversity of the WAVES program. Interestingly, there were Japanese and Native American WAVES before Pickens and Wills. The Navy assigned Pickens as a physical training instructor and Wills as a classification test administrator at the main enlisted WAVES training facility at Hunter College in New York City, also known as USS Hunter.  More than 70 blacks joined the enlisted ranks by Sept. 2, 1945. Among them was Edna Young, one of the first enlisted WAVES to later be sworn into the regular Navy. j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ensign Frances Wills close a suitcase after graduating from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, Mass., circa December 1944.

Edna Young was the first of her race and gender to be promoted to the rank of chief petty officer.During the past 72 years, black women across the ranks, ratings and communities have had outstanding careers in the Navy, including the following:

Brenda Robinson, the first black aviator, and Matice Wright, a naval flight officer, excelled in naval aviation.

Vivian McFadden integrated the Navy Chaplain Corps.

Janie Mines was the first black woman Naval Academy graduate.

Joan C. Bynum, a Navy nurse was the first black woman naval officer to attain the rank of captain (0-6).


Lillian E. Fishburne, a communications officer, was the first of her race and gender to reach the rank of rear admiral in 1998.

Fleet Master Chief April Beldo is one of a select few men or women to become a fleet or force master chief.

Annie Anderson is the third black woman flag officer

On July 1, 2014, Michelle J. Howard reached unprecedented heights with her promotion to the rank of four-star admiral and assignment as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy’s first woman to hold that rank and position. Media outlets around the world celebrated her achievements. Howard made history and did a job that was reflective of her outstanding warfighting, leadership, and command abilities.[1]

And so marks the path of a trailblazer. Just like Pickens and Wills, Howard was in uncharted territory and was building the road for others to follow. When she was accepted into the Naval Academy at 17, it was only the third class to accept women. It was in 1980 that the Navy opened logistics ships to women, allowing for opportunities for women to serve at sea. In 1999, Howard took command of the USS Rushmore, becoming the first African-American woman in such a role. Howard would become a household name in 2009 only three days into her new job as head of a U.S. Navy task force when a cargo ship sailing under a U.S. flag was hijacked by pirates. The captain, Richard Philips was taken hostage and it was Howard’s job to get him back. The events of the incident inspired the 2013 movie Captain Philips. Howard recalls the incident saying “There certainly wasn’t anyone I could turn to and say, ‘How do you rescue someone from a life raft? How do you do negotiations with pirates at sea? It had never been done before.” For anyone who has seen the movie, we know that Howard and her team were successful in rescuing Captain Philips. It was only another first her and one that helped put her on the map and another step to her Historic promotion in 2014.Michelle J. Howard, in a 2014 interview with the New York Times, recalled a uniform issue after her promotion. When she called looking for a new insignia for her white Navy dress she said “I need to order a four-star women’s shoulder board, and there’s this silence, then the lady goes, ‘Um, I’m not seeing any in the system.’ And I said Yeah, I thought that might be the case.”[2]

Howard recalls in her early career only knowing of the possibility to become a one star. She comments that today’s sailors “have never known a life when there hasn’t been a woman admiral, women three-stars, women in command of ships, women in command of destroyers.”[3] Such a remark shows how much the Navy and the world has changed. Howard noted in 2009 that one of her keys to success and to that of today’s armed forces is diversity. The advisors who helped her come up with the rescue plan in 200 came from various backgrounds and experiences. Howard emphasized, “the value of both inherent diversity-gender, race, and ethnicity- and the acquired diversity of learned experience….we harvest their good ideas. We empower them. We listen to them. And we are successful as organizations.” Moreover, the navy has embraced these ideals and Howard is only one example of this. In 2015, we saw the first woman to serve aboard a fast attack submarine report to the USS Minnesota. These steps forward for women were taken because of women such as Harriet Ida Pickens, and Frances Elizabeth Wills .




The Navy and the Civil War

Last week we marked the beginning of Black History Month. A celebration of accomplishments, important persons and a culture that has helped shaped this country. In response to the question, “What does Black History Month mean to you?”, Admiral Michelle J. Howard said, “By taking the time to educate ourselves on our history and the people who shaped this nation, we can more fully appreciate the ideals set down by the founders….It’s a reminder that our work is to sustain freedom and ensure that rights and liberty belong to all our citizens.” Like many African Americans, those in the Navy had to struggle in the beginning to get where they are today. Those sailors who serve today proudly know the accomplishments of those who came before them. From the eight black sailors who earned the Medal of Honor during the Civil War to the 14 black female yeomen who enlisted during World War I, African American Naval history is a part of the greater Navy story. A history that all sailors can call their own and be proud of. For the month of February, we will share with you a few of the pioneering stories that led the way for sailors of today.

The Navy and The Civil War

The Union Navy’s official position on African Americans was ambivalent at the beginning of the war. Many Northern free blacks were already enlisted in the Navy at the start of the war and many more joined up when the call was put out. However, as the war raged on, an influx of African Americans from the South sought refuge among Union vessels. It reached a point where a policy had to be made. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells said of the situation, “It is not the policy of this Government to invite or encourage this kind of desertion and yet, under the circumstances, no other course…could be adopted without violating every principle of humanity. To return them would be impolitic as well as cruel…you will do well to employ them.”[1] In time, 16% of the Union Navy would be African Americans. Unlike the Army, the Navy paid equal wages, had better food rations and had more entry-level enlisted positions. Two sailors who served aboard Union Vessels were Thomas Mandigo and John Lawson.

Thomas Mandigo was born in South Carolina and spent 40 years enslaved. In March of 1862 he found his way to the blockading fleet in Bull’s Bay- his path to freedom. He was initially rated as 1st boy, then to landsman and finally to the level of seamen.  Thomas first served aboard the USS Restless and the USS South Carolina but would spend most of the war on the USS Lodona. The Lodona was a British screw steamer captured as a blockade runner in September of 1862. Lisa Y King, Ph.D., in the International Journal of Naval History comments that, “in order to attain these ratings [seamen] these men has to prove themselves skilled and able seamen to the officer’s satisfaction. More importantly they had to prove themselves the equal of their peers by following rigorous routines, adhering to the strict discipline and suffering the many hardships endured by all the ship’s crew.”[2] Mandigo would reenlist in 1864. At the war’s end, the Lodona would be decommissioned in Philadelphia and Thomas would settle in western Pennsylvania. He would marry and have a family and would die nearly thirty years later- in 1890, as a free man. Thomas Mandigo is just one of many who served proudly aboard a Navy vessel as an equal to his fellow sailor, no matter their skin color. Each sailor has a story, and this was Thomas’.

The gravestone of Thomas Mandigo, Sandy Hill A. M. E. Cemetery, Chester County, Pennsylvania. Author’s photo.

During the famous Battle at Mobile Bay, David Farragut uttered the phrase, “Damn the Torpedo’s- Full Speed Ahead.” During the battle on August 5, 1864, Farragut ordered a Union Fleet of fourteen wooden ships and four Monitors past Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay to attack the Confederacy. The battle is considered an important Union victory since it deprived the Confederacy of its last significant Gulf port. The Union saw 335 casualties during the battle with the sinking of the Monitor Tecumseh when it struck a torpedo and sank. Aboard the USS Hartford alongside Farragut was a Landsman named John Lawson.

John Lawson

Lawson was born June 16, 1837 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and enlisted in the Navy in 1863. During the battle of Mobile Bay, Lawson was a member of the Hartford’s berth deck ammunition party.  He was one of six men stationed at the shell-whip on the deck when the ship was attacked. All in his ammunition party were killed; Lawson himself was wounded in the leg and thrown against the side of ship by the blast. Once he recovered from the shock, he remained at his post and continually supplied the Hartford’s guns. Other members of the crew begged Lawson to go below decks due to his wounds. However he refused, vigilant in his mission. Twelve men, including Lawson, were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism during the battle.  After leaving the Navy in 1865, Lawson would return to Philadelphia and raise a family. He died in 1919 and was buried in Mount Peace Cemetery. Over time, his exact resting place was lost within the cemetery grounds. On April 24, 2004, a new tombstone was dedicated and placed with 72 other Civil War veterans buried in Mount Peace.

Mandigo and Lawson represent the thousands of African Americans, free or slaved, who fought during the Civil War. These two are only the beginning of a long line of men and women who stepped up when their country needed them most.



Happy Birthday Rickover!

On January 27, we celebrated the birthday of one of the most recognized names in the US Submarine Force. The Father of the Nuclear Navy – Admiral Hyman George Rickover. The story of Rickover and his contributions to the Navy are well documented. He was known for being so strict that many who knew him did not like him. He would ignore Naval traditions, leaving many to downplay his place in Naval history till after his death. These facts about Rickover are widely known but little is known about the personal life of Hyman George Rickover. Here are some short reflections based upon his relationship with his son, Robert.

Rickover was born Chaim Godalia Rickover in Makow in 1900 in what is now Poland. At the time of his birth, Makow, which is 50 miles north of Warsaw, was part of the Russian Empire under the last Russian tsar- Nicholas II. During the first five years of his life, Jews were being targeted and eliminated in pogroms. Pogroms were anti-Jewish riots that began in the 19th century as the Russian empire acquired more land with a more diverse population. It is believed that between 1903 and 1906, some 2,000 Jews were killed trying to defend their families during these riots. Rickover’s parents made the decision to flee and Rickover, his mother and his sister arrived in New York in 1904. His father had previously come to the United States to make provisions for the family. The family would eventually settle in Chicago where Rickover grew up before entering the Naval academy in 1922. He went on to study electrical engineering at Columbia University and then did submarine training in New London. After serving aboard submarines and the battleship USS New Mexico, he was given his first command on the USS Finch in 1937. After WWII, Rickover was sent to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to study nuclear physics and engineering. It was after his time at Oak Ridge that Rickover took charge of the Nuclear Propulsion Program and the rest, as they say, is history. But behind the tough exterior was a man who had fled his native land as a young boy. A man who worked his entire life to make his parents proud. And he was a father who would write letters to his son Robert from on board more than 126 nuclear-powered ships. When Rickover was asked about why he demanded such stringent safety requirements, he said, “I have a son. I love my son. I want everything that I do to be so safe that I would be happy to have my son operating it. That’s my fundamental rule.”[1]

One of the earlies letters sent was from the Sea-Wolf:

Dear Robert.

We have just returned from the first sea trials of the Sea-Wolf. The ship got underweigh [sic] from the Electric Boat Company dock, Groton, Conn. At 070 Monday, 21 January.

At first, we operated in Long Island Sound, and then steamed out into the Atlantic beyond the 100-fathom curve to have water deep enough for submerged full-power operation at submergence greater than 200 feet.

The most spectacular test was the reversal of the engines from full power ahead to full power astern. I believe we did this in record time for a large vessel. Trials included operation at full power-surface and submerged.

The trials all went smoothly, and Captain Laning and his crew are, of course elated that their ship has finally gone to sea. We returned to our mooring at Groton at 1700, having steamed 312 miles, 212 of which were submerged.

I believe it to be no overstatement to say that the Sea Wolf is the most complex machine man has ever devised.

Your father, H.G. Rickover.

Most of the letters sent to Robert were the standard kind that were sent to the permanent list of addresses of people who regularly received letters from the boat. However, Rickover requested that Robert’s name be added to the lists of other commanders as they made their Arctic voyages. One letter that stood out was the one he received in August 1958 from Commander William R. Anderson who wrote from the Nautilus, “I’m sure you realize that this historic trip was made possible by the brilliant and untiring work of your father in giving nuclear propulsion to the NAUTILUS and the Navy.”  Again in 1960, similar praise is given, this time from Commander George P. Steele from the Seadragon in 1960 where he said, “As the whole world known, your father is the naval engineering genius of our time. We could not have seriously attempted this trip without the results of his work.”[2] These letters, both from Rickover and others provide a different look at the Father of the Nuclear Navy. While many of the letters may have been somewhat mundane with simple facts of the trial, they show Rickover not just as the stern creator of the nuclear submarine, but as a father who wanted to share this journey with his son. But these letters only tell part of the story.


Rickover and Robert at age 1

In his eulogy to his father, Robert Rickover recognized, as we all do, that his father’s career in the Navy was well known. Rickover had a reputation for doing whatever he deemed necessary to see his work accomplished, and accomplished in the manner in which he wanted. He demanded the highest standards from those around him and his interviews with young officers are famous. However, to Robert, Rickover was more than the legend. He was more than the man he heard on the phone at home either yelling at a contractor or being respectful to a congressional representative. Robert proceeded to tell the story of a Rickover that the world had never seen. Robert remembered his father traveling a lot but also that Rickover would do his best to be home for at least part of the weekend. He told how his father was thrifty but at the same time generous with his money. Rickover had donated all proceeds from his books and the honorariums for his speaking engagements to a Jewish orphanage in Chicago. Rickover never forgot where he had come from. Robert recounted story after story in his eulogy of how his father would do for others. Whether it was paying for a staff member’s expenses after their death, arguing with a contractor who damaged a secretary’s car, or bringing home airline soap bars in dozens after his wife had mentioned how she was able to put them to good use. Robert also discussed the personal responsibility Rickover felt over every nuclear submarine produced. Robert said that, “When he heard the news about the Thresher, he stayed up all night hoping against all odds that she would be found and that her crew would be ok. When she was located at the bottom of the sea, broken apart into six sections, he wrote personal letters of condolence to the relatives of the 129 officers, crewmen and civilians who had been on board. He didn’t talk about it very much, but my mother told me that he agonized over this loss for years, long after it had became clear that faulty welding during repairs in a Navy shipyard-something over which he had no control-was the cause of the disaster.”[3] Robert ended his remarks speaking how much his father loved his country, the one that took him in during his youth. During the latter part of Rickover’s life, he worried about how nuclear power would affect the world and the security threats posed by the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. Robert believed that Rickover’s fear over security threats was one reason his fathers harsh demeaner could be explained, but also noted that, “He was a man who cared deeply for the Jewish values of family, charity and justice.”[4]

Today we know Rickover by his work persona, and that’s ok. If it was not for his rigid and strict direction of the nuclear propulsion program, it very well may not had succeeded. His standards are still the very ones that keep our nuclear Navy so safe today. But as we recall his birthday, let’s also remember the man who started from such humble beginnings. Let’s remember him the way Robert remembers him. Maybe with this understanding, his title as Father of the Nuclear Navy can take on new meaning. Not only did he create it, but he also protected it and watched it grow- always making sure, he was there to catch it if it fell.



[1] Naval History Magazine- October 2015

[2] Naval History Magazine-October 2015