On July 17, 1944, an ammunition ship exploded while being loaded in Port Chicago, California during World War II. The blast killed 332 people and injured another 390. Approximately 2/3 of those killed were African American Sailors. Lack of adequate procedures and lack of training were seen as the primary causes of the explosion. At the time, Navy units assigned to the loading of munitions were typically segregated African American units. The men had not been trained in handling of munitions. Safety standards were also not properly adhered to due to the rush to keep pace with the loading schedules. On the evening of July 17, two merchant ships were in the process of being loaded with 4,600 tons of explosives, depth charges, and ammunition. There was also another 400 tons of explosives that were on rail cars that were nearby. A series of several explosions occurred at 10:18pm. The explosions were reportedly felt as far away as Nevada. Every single building in Port Chicago was damaged from the explosion. Continue reading “1944 Port Chicago Disaster & Mutiny”→
Carl Brashear was born in 1931 in Tonjeville, Kentucky. He was the 6th of 8 children born to a sharecropper family. At age 17, in 1948, he entered the Navy and began training in Great Lakes, IL. He experienced prejudice and poor treatment from one of his navy recruiters. This did not discourage him. He passed the Navy entrance exam and enlisted. It was during this time that he developed and interest in diving. During this era, blacks in the military were often held back from prominent roles such as diving. Instead they were often placed in steward or food service type roles. After many requests, Brashear’s commanding officer allowed him to practice in the Navy pool and begin training. As a result, he faced threats and intimidation due to his race. He continued to persevere despite the obstacles and soon became Leading Diver and Port Duty Chief.
In 1966, while aboard the USS Hoist, Brashear was badly injured in an accident while searching for a bomb. There was no doctor on board and it took 6 hours for him to receive proper medical attention. By the time he did reach a military base to receive treatment, those treating him thought he was dead and sent him to the morgue. However, another physician in the morgue checked him one last time and found a faint heart beat. While the medical team was able to save his life; an infection and gangrene had set up in his injured leg. After 2 months, he had to have his leg amputated below the knee. He was then fitted with a prosthetic leg. Due to his injuries the Navy sought to retire him; feeling that he was unfit for duty. However, Brashear was able to demonstrate that he was still able to serve and perform diving functions and other duties. He underwent grueling training to continue moving towards his goal of becoming a master diver. The training involved him carrying 290 pounds of diving equipment.
In March of 1967 his doctors finally transferred him to Second Class Diving School at Norfolk. He was then put back to full active duty and full diving status in April of 1968. He would become the Navy’s first amputee diver. It was in 1970 that Bashear finally achieved his goal and was named Master Diver, the first African American in Navy history to do so. He retired from the military service in 1979 and then worked for the government in various roles. He retired from government service in 1993. Bashear died of respiratory failure and heart failure in Porstmouth, VA on July 25, 2006. The story of his life and achievements was portrayed in the movie, “Men Of Honor” starring Robert Dinero and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in 2000.
Born in 1927, Hazel Johnson-Brown was the first African-American woman to be a Brigadier General in the United States Military in 1979. She joined the army in 1955 shortly after President Truman banned segregation in the armed services.
Hazel Johnson-Brown was one of 7 children. She was raised on her father’s farm in West Chester, PA. Inspired by a public health nurse at the age of 12, she decided that she too wanted to become a nurse one day. Her application to the West Chester School of Nursing in Pennsylvania was rejected because she was black. Undeterred, she moved to New York in 1947 and enrolled in Harlem Hospital School of Nursing. She graduated and took a job at Philadelphia Veteran’s Hospital in 1953. It was there that her co-workers encouraged her to join the Army. She initially enlisted for what she thought would be a two year tour. She excelled and quickly began to rise through the ranks.
She continued her education while in the army, eventually earning a masters degree in nursing education from Columbia University and a Ph.D in education administration from Catholic University. She retired from military service in 1983 and then pursued a second career in academia teaching at George Mason University and Georgetown University. She retired from academia in 1997. She currently lives in Washington D.C. area.