Boston Navy Yard, Massachusetts March 20, 1944

On this date in 1944 the USS Mason, an Evarts-class destroyer escort, was com­mis­sioned at the Boston Navy Yard, five months after her keel was laid down. The next month, on April 25, 1944, the USS PC‑1264, a PC‑461-class sub­marine chaser, was com­mis­sioned six months after her keel was laid down in Morris Heights, New York. Both ships are not­able for being the only two U.S. war­ships to have a pre­dom­i­nately African Amer­i­can crew. Also not­able was that neither war­ship ever engaged the enemy in combat, Mason pulling dan­gerous con­voy escort duty in the Battle of the Atlantic, PC‑1264 assigned to “shallow-water” ser­vice escorting con­voys from North Amer­i­ca south to the Caribbean and South America.

On December 9, 1941, one day after the United States declared war on the Empire of Japan for its deadly sur­prise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet riding at Sunday morning anchor at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the pre­mier Amer­i­can civil rights organ­i­za­tion commonly known by the ini­tials NAACP sent a tele­gram to U.S. Sec­re­tary of the Navy Frank Knox, peti­tioning the Navy to accept African Amer­i­cans in ser­vice other than as lowly mess atten­dants, i.e., cooks and stewards. After all, Knox’s counter­part, Sec­re­tary of War Henry L. Stim­son, had months before autho­rized armored war­fare (tank) and flight training for black sol­diers; now it was the Navy’s turn—certainly in this time of exis­ten­tial crisis—to open higher-skilled ratings for black sailors.

Knox refused the NAACP’s request and so did an advi­sory com­mittee recom­mended by U.S. Pre­si­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt. Roose­velt, or pro­bably First Lady Elea­nor Roose­velt, who was an NAACP national board mem­ber, pushed back, instructing the Navy sec­re­tary to “find some­thing that colored enlistees could do in addi­tion to the rating of mess­man.” More push­back from Navy brass unless “so ordered,” they replied cau­tiously. “So ordered,” responded the Com­mander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. So, begin­ning on June 1, 1942, African Amer­i­cans were per­mitted to enlist for “gene­ral ser­vice” in the U.S. Navy. Which meant the way was open—on an extremely circum­scribed basis—for African Amer­i­can volun­teers (but not draftees) to serve aboard exactly two U.S. ves­sels: USS Mason (one of more than a thou­sand war­time DEs to fly the U.S. naval stan­dard) and the sub­chaser USS PC‑1264. But (and here was the rub) black service­mem­bers were not eli­gible to become com­mis­sioned naval officers, the Navy’s General Board opined, because of the para­mount need to main­tain “the highest level of the fighting effi­ci­ency of the Navy.” The General Board pro­posed several areas (e.g., shore and dock instal­la­tions, con­struc­tion bat­tal­ions, and local defense ves­sels) where black sailors could be used “with least disad­van­tage.” Rating limi­ta­tions were swept aside on May 2, 1945, when Ensign (and future Vice Admiral) Samuel Lee Gravely, Jr., reported for duty aboard PC‑1264, eventually becoming the ship’s executive officer.

Noncommissioned officers were a brighter story for the war­time navy—if only for PC‑1264 in this early, toe-in-the-water experi­ment of racially inte­gra­ting U.S. Navy ships. Lt. Eric Purdon, skip­per of the tiny 65‑man sub­chaser, ensured that white petty offi­cers, each assigned to one of eight mili­tary occu­pa­tional spe­cial­ties (navy MOS, or career ratings) on PC‑1264, train their replace­ments chosen from the non­steward enlisted ranks. Within six months of the sub­chaser’s com­mis­sion, African Amer­i­cans were trained in their new ratings and pro­moted to the rank of petty offi­cer. The redun­dant white petty offi­cers were trans­fer­red off ship in early Novem­ber 1944, which made PC‑1264 the only war­ship in the Amer­i­can navy to have a com­pletely black crew. The Mason’s skip­per, on the other hand, Lt. Cmdr. Wil­liam Black­ford, never pro­moted any of his non­steward enlistees to petty officer rank, even after he reassigned all chief petty officers off his ship for racial bigotry.

Proudly They Served: The Men of the USS Mason and USS PC‑1264

Three African American seamen serving on DE USS Mason, Boston, MA, March 1944USS PC-1264 crewmembers, November 1944 or later

Left: Three African American seamen serving on destroyer escort USS Mason (DE‑529) proudly look over their ship on a cold, wintery day in 1944. Named after the first African Amer­i­can naval pilot, the USS Mason beat sub­marine chaser USS PC‑1264 by one month for the title of being first to break the Navy’s color barrier with a pre­dom­i­nantly black crew. Skippered by Lt. Cmdr. Wil­liam “Big Bill” Black­ford (USNR), the great grand­son of an abo­li­tionist, the Mason was nick­named “Elea­nor’s Folly,” a joker’s refer­ence to Presi­dent Roose­velt’s wife, a vocal advo­cate of deseg­re­ga­tion of the armed forces. In its six trans­atlantic con­voy crossings, the Mason was tasked with en­suring that the ships it escorted deliv­ered their cargoes of food, fuel, war mate­rial, and person­nel safely to their desti­na­tions in Europe, the British Isles, the Azores, and North­west Africa. Fifty years after the end of the war the sur­vi­ving Mason sea­men were awarded letters of com­men­dation for their meri­to­rious ser­vice and stead­fast devo­tion to duty. Mason’s story is told in the 2006 feature film Proud, starting Ossie Davis. Today’s guided missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG‑87) was named in honor of the ground-breaking African Amer­i­cans of the World War II crew. Over 150,000 African Amer­i­cans out of 4,183,466 officers and enlisted per­son­nel served in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War (December 7, 1941, to December 31, 1946).

Right: Officers and crew of USS PC-1264 pose for a photo­graph. Five offi­cers are visi­ble on the bridge (center in photo but hard to see). The photo may have been taken after early Novem­ber 1944 because no white petty officers appear on the bridge, the white officers having been trans­fer­red off the sub­marine chaser in early Novem­ber. The per­for­mance of pre­dom­i­nantly black crews on PC‑1264 and USS Mason in this tiny “racial inte­gra­tion experi­ment,” as it was seen, led the Navy to reeval­u­ate its pre­con­ceived per­cep­tions of African Amer­i­cans as per­ma­nent lower rating mem­bers of the fleet. The prac­tice of segre­gated ser­vice units only ended in 1948 when Presi­dent Harry S. Tru­man issued Exec­u­tive Order 9981, which racially inte­grated the U.S. armed services.

Gunner mates on USS MasonAntisubmarine drill aboard USS PC-1264 using depth charges

Left: Gunner mates on the USS Mason pose by one of the ship’s covered 3‑in deck guns. The crew of the USS Mason never fired their guns (there were 16) in anger, sup­ported an amphib­ious assault on a hos­tile shore, or attacked an enemy sub­marine. Yet the ship’s place in U.S. his­tory is assured because it was the first Navy war­ship with a 95 per­cent African Amer­i­can crew that excelled at its expanded duties at a time when most black sailors per­formed low-level, demeaning tasks. Skipper Black­ford bragged in a letter home: “Am delighted with the colored men who are here. . . I think the crew is better than aver­age . . . They are anxious to make a name for themselves and actually work harder.”

Right: A depth charge explodes astern as an offi­cer and sea­men of the USS PC‑1264 prac­tice a simu­lated sub­marine attack during the ship’s shake­down cruise off Southern Florida in June 1944. Sub­marine chasers like PC‑1264 were used in the Pacific, Atlan­tic, Carib­bean, Gulf of Mexico, and Medi­ter­ranean. Numer­ous PC‑461-class ves­sels were used to aid in amphib­ious assaults, including the 1944 Normandy inva­sion of Nazi-occupied France. Only one of the 343 sub­chasers in the PC‑461 class ever sank a sub­marine, the U‑166 on her second war patrol on July 30, 1942, in the Gulf of Mexico. How­ever, one web­site cites PC‑461-class ships sinking or assisting in sinking up to 6 German and Japa­nese subs. Crew­mates on PC‑1264 claimed to have damaged U‑866 off New York state as evi­denced by an oil slick that surf­aced after lobbing mul­tiple depth charges at an elu­sive target. Crippled, the U‑866 was later sunk off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, but Navy records never con­firmed PC‑1264’s role in the demise of the U‑boat.

USS Mason: First U.S. Navy Warship in World War II Crewed Mostly by African-Americans