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The USS Mason Battles U-Boats and Bigots

July 2024
17min read

When the first African-Americans to crew a U.S. warship sailed into the war-tossed North Atlantic, they couldn't have known it would take fifty years to gain honor in their own country

I sometimes felt like I was swimming against a very strong tide when doing research for my book on the men of the USS Mason. Very few people had ever heard of the first ship in the U.S. Navy manned by African-American sailors.

"A black crew took a warship into combat?" a friend who writes regularly on naval subjects said incredulously. "I don't think so."

"Aren't you confusing this story with that of the Tuskegee airmen or that tank division?" an African-American historian asked. "The Navy was the worst! There was a whole separate steward's branch for black sailors; they were servants or laborers. They only went to sea as cooks."

crew of the USS Mason


"No, no," I said. "These men came in after June 1, 1942, when the Navy finally allowed black men to join the seaman's branch and compete for ratings. Most of the African-American crew members were petty officers, radiomen, sonar operators, motor machinists, and yeomen."

"And they went into combat?"

"Yes! They fought in the Battle of the Atlantic on escort vessels, and they were part of the hunter-killer groups that finally beat the U-boats," I said. "They went into Belfast and Plymouth, southern France, and Oran, Algeria. And"—at this point I deepened my voice and made each word distinct—"when the storm of the century stopped Convoy NY-119—a group of tugs, barges, and supply ships sent to build piers in Normandy—the USS Mason was chosen to escort the most vulnerable craft into port.”

“After getting those ships and other crews to safety, the men of the Mason left a safe harbor to head into a storm so bad that the British ships with them turned back. But the Mason returned to rescue the rest of the convoy. The deck split. The men repaired it at sea under appalling conditions. Afterward the commodore of the convoy, Alfred Lind, recommended them for a letter of commendation."

"We were called ‘Eleanor's Folly,’ an experiment designed to fail."

The Navy's affirmation of the skill and bravery of these black sailors would have been deeply gratifying to the African-American community whose leaders had fought so hard to bring the USS Mason into existence. Even after the Navy opened the seaman's branch of the service on a segregated basis in 1942, the fleet remained closed. Franklin Roosevelt himself had drawn the line. "Surely, we can keep these men busy on shore," he wrote to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. The Navy claimed it could not both fight a two-ocean war and move ahead of a society where discrimination and segregation were commonplace. But Eleanor Roosevelt, who joined with black leaders to press the President for fair representation in the fleet, would not be deterred.

The result was one warship: the USS Mason, the destroyer escort DE-529, commissioned on a freezing cold day in March 1944 at the Boston Navy Yard. Her white captain, Lt. William Blackford, was at Submarine Chaser School in Miami when he was notified of his new command, one that would "comprise colored personnel." Because of this unusual circumstance, he was told, he could decline. Once he agreed, he (and all the officers of the Mason) signed an official 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." Although at the beginning the officers were white, the majority of men responsible for taking one of the Navy's newest warships into battle would be black.

Destroyer escorts, nicknamed the small boys, were the little ships that could. Scaled-down destroyers, they were almost as fast as the larger ships, more maneuverable, and far less expensive to build. They were loaded with sophisticated sonar and radar equipment and first sent out to fight the U-boats that in 1942 controlled the North Atlantic. They escorted convoys of supply and troopships and eventually formed the hunter-killer groups that defeated the German submarine campaign.

Many in the Navy predicted the Mason would fail, but as Captain Blackford wrote to his parents soon after the March 20, 1944, commissioning, "There has been a lot of bunk said about Negro crews. . . . They are anxious to make a name for themselves and actually work harder."

With talk of a letter of commendation for service in Convoy NY-119, it seemed the hard work of the crew had really paid off. The ship Commodore Lind called "the plucky Mason" was to be honored. But the Navy never acted on Lind's recommendation. In fact, in spite of the Mason's war record of six convoys safely taken across the Atlantic, exemplary service in the hunter-killer groups, and impressive seamanship in the most challenging conditions, the ship's crew received no special recognition. Charles Divers, one of the crew-men, offers this explanation: "We were called Eleanor's Folly—an experiment designed to fail. When we did so well, rather than eat crow the Navy down-played all our accomplishments."

"We had traveled all this way only to find that Jim Crow was there before us."

James Warren Graham, a radioman on the ship, feared that this attitude would erase all historical memory of the USS Mason. "For years I watched documentaries on World War II," Graham says, "and I never saw a black face. It seemed a shame that the children and grandchildren of our crew would never know the part we had played." In 1971 he founded the USS Mason Association with the help of his wife and his shipmate and brother-in-law, Gordon Buchanan. Over twenty years Graham and his committee of two wrote to every Mason sailor they could find using addresses they obtained from the Navy Department. They copied photographs on file at the National Archives, and they searched through newspapers to assemble a USS Mason scrapbook. They began to receive replies.

"I got your letter after three people forwarded it to me," Divers, of Maywood, Illinois, wrote in 1983. "Sign me up!"

"I wanted to get the guys together," says Graham, "for our own sakes, so we could swap stories and laugh—just the way we had those nights on the fantail when the ship was at sea in quiet waters. But I also wanted history to re-member the Mason. I sent our story to newspapers, magazines, and publishers, but I never heard back."

Then, in 1990, at a conference on the Navy's role in World War II, James and Barbara Graham met Mark Gatlin, an editor at the Naval Institute Press. Martin Davis, the historian of the Destroyer Escort Sailors Association, introduced them. Davis knew about the Mason because it was a DE, as was his ship, the USS Pettit. After Gatlin had spent three hours with the Grahams, turning the pages of the scrapbook and listening to James Graham's stories, he said, "There should be a book." Thus heartened, the Grahams, along with several shipmates, organized the first USS Mason reunion in 1991 on Governors Island, New York. At the second, held two years later, again at the Coast Guard base in New York Harbor, ten crew members were on hand. And now, involved with telling their story in a film and a book, so was I.

Graham is not much of a talker, but when he laughs, it comes from so far down inside that it is clear that he keeps whole parts of himself below the surface. Anger can erupt from those depths, but most of the time he prefers to show an easygoing confidence. He presided over the sessions.

Graham had been trained on the cutting-edge communication systems of the World War II Navy. He told of trying to find a job in television production after the war.

"It was new. It was exciting.

I used the GI Bill to go to school to study television. I even got a job at a television studio, but when I arrived, I found out I'd be sweeping floors." So he launched his own successful business as a television repairman on Long Island, his wife's home territory.

Gordon Buchanan. is a quick-moving, fast-talking man who never rests long enough to acquire much fat or worry too much about yesterday. He spent his working life in the New York Police Department. As a teenager in Queens he loved modeling ships and planes. This self-taught skill made Buchanan especially valuable at sea as an unofficial recognitions officer.

Buchanan had been shocked by the segregation he found in the Navy. "Because I was born and raised in New York," he says, "I had no idea of this color line. I went downtown to enlist in the Navy; the war was on. I wanted to serve, and I couldn't wait to go to sea. But when swearing-in time came, they said, 'All you coloreds over there in the back.' I thought, 'What is this? No, something's wrong here.' So when they started the swearing-in ceremony, I mouthed it, I was so mad."

Other members of the crew were only too familiar with dis-crimination. Lorenzo DuFau re-calls growing up in New Orleans, where the trolleys carried signs designating the rear section "For Colored Patrons." But he also re-members good times there.

DuFau had been raised to be courteous. As a boy he walked streets so dark that he couldn't see whether the wide, recessed porches contained neighbors fanning themselves against the hot Louisiana night or were empty. "I said 'Good evening' anyway," he says. "You had to 'hello the porch' because if you passed without greeting people, you heard about it, or worse, your mother heard about it."

Charles Divers spoke at the reunion of his experiences as a quartermaster who had steered the ship. It was he who most clearly remembered the horrific rolls the Mason took during one convoy.

"We went over seventy degrees. I watched the inclinometer and thought, 'This is it.' Ninety degrees is flat over. How are we going to come back from seventy? But she held!" Divers held his course also. He returned to his native Maywood, a middle-class Chicago suburb with a long-standing black population, and in 1986 retired as the town's chief engineer.

Arnold Gordon spent his childhood in a rural Michigan town with only two other African-American families. That and his light complexion confused the Navy recruiters. "When I went into the Navy, I never thought anything about race because of the way I was raised. I went into the recruiting office, and they immediately took me in. During the physical I was among a lot of recruits, all of them white. We were in  this examining room, and we were going from doctor to doctor, taking various tests. We were given papers to fill out. One of these papers asked us to list our ancestry. And so, not thinking about prejudice or race or anything like that, I just put down my ancestry—German, Irish, Indian, and Negro—in the percentage order.

"We went over seventy degrees," recalled Charles Divers, who was at the helm at the time.  "I watched the inclinometer and thought, 'This is it.'"

"We went through the line. Each guy would examine a different part of the papers. We came to this one guy, and he was studying my papers. All of a sudden he looked up and glared at me. Then he reached over and he got out a red pen. He wrote on the front of my jacket in letters over an inch high, 'Negro.' I was immediately ushered away from the white sailors and put into a group of black sailors. Then I was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Center and put into a segregated camp."

Benjamin Garrison, his war behind him, studied at New York University and graduated from Brooklyn College.

He then worked as a corrections officer and as a minister at the Church of God in Brooklyn. Those nights in the North Atlantic stayed vivid for him.

"When the water hits the steel deck, it immediately turns to ice. That's how cold it is. And the ropes—we called them lines. If a line was two inches thick, by the time the ice hit it, it got four times as big and was difficult to handle. The decks are very slippery too. You can't walk upright.

The ship is rolling and pitching and going up and down, and you have to time it. If you fall over-board, you're finished. You can't survive."

The British author C. S. Forester chose The Good Shepherd for the title of his book about a destroyer escort. Garrison too saw the Mason's role as the shepherd of the convoy: "The Good Shepherd must be ready to give his life for his sheep. We always felt that every convoy we were escorting was important and that we had to get it there safely. We knew that if a submarine fixed a torpedo at, say, a troop carrier or an oiler or a ship in the convoy that was carrying cargo that just really had to get there, the escort commander could tell a destroyer escort to get between that ship and the torpedo. He could tell us to take the hit ourselves. We had fewer men, we were a smaller ship, and it was important that the larger ships survive."

Albert Watkins, of Chicago, had enlisted in the Navy at the age of thirty-one. His five brothers were in the Army. "I don't know why," he says, "but I always wanted to be a sailor." Watkins worked in the engine room, but eventually he became the important "oil king" who supervised the refueling of the ship. He remembers the challenge of convoy duty.

"We were constantly changing course, screening, sounding—setting off sonar patterns. In a regular convoy the U-boats were up front and alongside. If you were on a big convoy and you straggled, you were out of luck. They couldn't afford to slow the whole convoy for one ship. I remember one time when they broke up the convoy in two segments, one for the slow ships and one for the fast ships. We had to pick up the guys behind until they'd try to catch up. You couldn't afford to wait on anybody out there."

Before enlisting in 1942, Melvin Grant had been a waiter on troop trains, "taking the soldiers to San Francisco, where they'd ship out. I was making mucho money, beaucoup d'argent!" But he enlisted in the Navy rather than face an Army life that would put him in Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

"I wanted no part of Mississippi in 1942!" Grant was particularly upset when he saw the Jim Crow segregation he sought to avoid surface in, of all places, London, England. The men had finally come ashore after six weeks at sea in Convoy NY-119. Rumors of hot dogs, mustard, and Coca-Cola drew them to the USO in London.

"We hadn't had hot dogs since we left the States, but when we got there, the lady said that this was not our canteen. We had traveled all this way only to find that Jim Crow was there before us," his shipmate DuFau recalls.

Grant questioned the woman about the policy. "I asked her why. She told me it was the way the U.S. wanted it, and the U.S. paid the bills. But this is your country, I told her. You could take a stand."

The experience in England was especially galling for the men because it followed a particularly warm reception in Belfast, Northern Ireland, their first port of call. In fact it was their Irish experience that first drew me into the USS Mason story.

In 1992 I was directing a documentary called Home Away From Home: The Yanks in Ireland, about the three hundred thousand American men and women who served in the north of Ireland during World War II. Destroyer-escort sailors played a significant part in this story. They had found a friendly reception and rest from the Battle of the Atlantic in the ports of Derry and Belfast and Bangor. Derry was the headquarters for the destroyer escorts, and people there still remember the sailors fondly. While making the film, I came across a newspaper article written by Thomas W. Young, who sailed on the Mason as the first black war correspondent on a Navy warship. In the clipping one sailor is quoted as saying about the Irish welcome, "Funny how I had to come all the way across the ocean to a foreign country before I got to enjoy the feeling of being an American."

Bill Bland, seaman, first class, summed up the experience: "Here we were, all young. We were scared. We were coming from a country where we couldn't even go to the movie show in some places. We get to Ireland and the people call us Yanks. Not Tan Yanks, like we were called in other places. Yanks. Just like they called the white sailors, and it was good."

During the filming of the documentary, when I called James Graham and asked to interview crew members, he assembled six men at the Intrepid, a World War II aircraft carrier now moored in New York City as the Sea-Air-Space Museum. In the midst of this a school group from the South Bronx arrived. They were excited to meet the men, some of whose photos were in the museum exhibit. As the children—particularly the boys—asked questions and the men answered, I became even more convinced of the importance of handing on the Mason story to the next generation.

"We get to Ireland and the people call us Yanks," recalled Bill Bland. "Not Tan Yanks. Yanks. Just like they called the white sailors."

A few days later I received a letter. The crew of the Mason wanted me to write their book. My first question was, Wouldn't you prefer to have a black writer, a naval historian? But Graham wanted me. I had written another book, and I had the academic credentials. I would do. The crew wasn't interested in advancing any ideology; they just wanted the story told. They were offering me an opportunity to join their circle and write down the tale.

That was why I attended their 1993 reunion, taking notes and recording their memories. And that was why I spent New York's coldest winter putting the story together. In due course the book was completed and the documentary edited. Financing had been a problem. No grants were forthcoming until finally Martin Davis and his Destroyer Escort Sailors Association paid the production costs, and the rest of us deferred our fees indefinitely.

It seemed little enough to do especially since involvement in the project meant for me sharing in what Lorenzo DuFau calls "the luck of the Mason." For example, Mark Gatlin, at the Naval Institute Press, arranged for the men to attend commissioning week at Annapolis in 1993. That year the brigade commander, the Naval Academy's highest-ranked midshipman, was Jeff Royal, an African-American from Texas. He and his classmates and their parents welcomed the Mason crew warmly. "We're here because of you," they told the men over and over. Capt. Gene Kendall brought them to the Black Officers Association meeting and called them pioneers. "These are all our children," Terry DuFau, Lorenzo's wife, said as everyone applauded the graduates.

Soon after the Annapolis event Graham received a letter from Ron Armstead, veterans coordinator for the Congressional Black Caucus. President Bill Clinton wished to recognize the contributions of African-American men and women during World War II. So on September 16, 1994, Graham, as the president of the USS Mason Association, stepped up to a podium in a congressional committee room on Capitol Hill to receive an award from the President of the United States.

"For decades African-Americans were missing in our memories of World War II," President Clinton said. He promised that they would be "forgotten no more." He pointed out that the success of black units in the military not only aided in defeating an external enemy but redressed injustices within the United States itself: "In helping to show the world what America was against, you helped to show America what America is for. . . . You helped liberate us all from segregation."

The "luck of the Mason" kicked in again when Mark Gatlin and his colleagues at the Naval Institute Press pursued the case of the missing commendation. Commodore Lind's 1944 report, fifty years late, finally reached the desk of John B. Dalton, the Secretary of the Navy. And on February 16, 1995, at the United States Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., Graham mustered his shipmates once again as Secretary Dalton presented the long-awaited letter of commendation.

"In helping to show the world what America was against, you helped to show America what America is for," said President Clinton, in handing the men of the Mason their long-overdue award.

"It is a sad fact that it took the men of the Mason and the many African-Americans who have served in our Armed Forces—men and women—so much struggle to regain a rightful part of their heritage," said Secretary Dalton.

As family members watched, Adm. James Miller, the president of the U.S. Navy Memorial, and Adm. Walter Davis, serving in the Pentagon, called out the names of the Mason's crew.

By their actions in Convoy NY-119, the citation read, the crew of the Mason "upheld the highest traditions of U.S. Naval service." After a showing of the documentary about the ship, Proudly We Served, narrated by Ossie Davis, Admiral Miller introduced Samuel Metters, an African-American founder and CEO of a successful computer company, who pledged to raise the funds necessary to distribute the videotape to school libraries across the country. Also on hand was Mansell Blackford, the son of the Mason's captain.

Two months later members of the USS Mason Association returned to Belfast for a tribute arranged by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. The City Council hosted a dinner for them, and they attended a ceremony marking the economic revival of the very harbor they had sailed into so many years before. Queen Elizabeth was then visiting Belfast for the first time in twenty-five years, to open the new Lagan bridge. As the queen was greeted by dignitaries, she noticed the group of black Americans wearing USS Mason caps standing just behind the official party. The queen came over to them. I explained that these men had helped keep open the supply lines to Britain during the war. She replied that she remembered very well the U.S. Navy's contribution to victory. She moved down the line greeting the men and thanking them for their bravery and sacrifice.

Prince Philip spoke to the men as one mariner to another, asking about the size of the ship, how many knots she could do, and what assignments she had had. An early-to-bed plan later fell through when the musician Van Morrison, a guest in the group's hotel, invited them to attend his concert that evening.

"It was as good as meeting the queen!" said the wife of one of the men.

Among those in the audience the day President Clinton had honored the group was Mike Gibson of the National Park Service, which oversees the Charlestown (formerly Boston) Navy Yard. Gibson had been charged with creating a new historical center at the navy yard, where the Mason had been built. "I found a model of the Mason," he said, "and some artifacts relating to the ship. I thought, 'We should do an exhibit,' and after I met the men in Washington, I became even more determined to honor the USS Mason crew at the place where it all began."

The nation's most historic ship, the USS Constitution, launched in 1797, rests in the Charlestown Navy Yard, and on May 20, 1995, the USS Mason crew gathered there for the culmination of their eventful year. More shipmates than ever showed up in Boston. Among them were Horace Banks and Winfrey Roberts.

"Banks, you saved my life," Roberts told his fellow New Jerseyan when they met up again after fifty years. "I was standing watch in the engine room, and the alarm on the boiler had malfunctioned. The steam had built way up. I didn't know what to do. I hollered for Banks. He let off the steam and saved us all," he said. "Man, I've been waiting fifty years to thank you."

Another participant, Robert Johnson, testified to one of those "luck of the Mason" coincidences: "I'm here today because a year ago I married a wonderful woman I knew from my church. Her hairdresser is Mrs. Horace Banks, the wife of my shipmate. Our wives figured out we had served together. I hadn't seen him since we left the ship. He connected me to the others."

The photograph most associated with the USS Mason was taken at the Boston Navy Yard on a snowy day in the winter of 1944. Two young sailors stand at the bow of their new ship, their dress caps set at a jaunty angle. They are smiling, handsome, and confident. This image became the visual embodiment of the Mason story. Yet in all his searching James Graham couldn't identify either of the sailors.

Then one Sunday afternoon in New York City Jacqueline Davis Peters and her husband sat watching a documentary on Channel 13, a public television station. She heard music and the voice of Ossie Davis, and she saw that picture. "That's my father!" she told her husband. There was the image of young Joseph ("Jack") Davis filling the screen. "I knew that picture well," Peters says. "When I was a child, my daddy had the original magazine cover where it first appeared. We would ask him about the picture and his service on the USS Mason. He didn't talk much about it, but every once in a while he would treat us to a little story."

Peters called her father in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the news. From his local PBS station he found out when the program was scheduled to run. "I watched it," he recalls, "and there I was." He contacted Graham and was reunited with his Mason shipmates for the first time at the Charlestown Navy Yard celebration. Also for the first time, the crew heard the story of their signature photo. It turned out it hadn't been taken at commissioning day or when the keel was laid, but on a regular workday.

"Moselle White and I were down at the ship, finishing up some duty," Davis recalled. "We were in Charlestown waiting for the ship to be ready, training, practicing things like going to general quarters. We saw some women working a few piers away. We went down, got our dress caps, turned up our collars, and started over to talk to them. All of a sudden these two gold braids [officers] appeared with a camera. They asked to take our picture. We said okay, but afterward we worried. Would they use that photograph to report us?" He laughed and pointed to the photograph that this day greeted visitors to the navy yard exhibit.

"I guess things worked out all right."

Davis agreed to re-enact the scene in front of a descendant of the USS Mason, a frigate named the USS Mclnerny. At the pier he met a young sailor from Alabama who had joined the Navy only three months earlier. Today's Navy, in which opportunity is guaranteed, is very different from the one Davis had joined; this young sailor proved that the men of the Mason had made a difference. Davis invited the young man to pose with him.

"It was awfully cold fifty years ago," Davis recalled, "but the sun is out to-day!" The men went to join their shipmates in raising a gigantic American flag over the navy yard. The USS Mason had come home.

Mary Pat Kelly is a writer and film-maker based in New York City. To order the videotape Proudly We Served: The Men of the USS Mason, please call the Destroyer Escort Sailors Association at 1-800-977-3372 (price: $29.95).


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