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Home > February 2017 > Recognizing Black History Month
Recognizing Black History Month
Posted: 2/3/2017 11:00:34 AM

In honor of Black History Month, the Museum recognizes the black sailors who risked their lives defending their country on board Intrepid and the evolution of race relations in the United States military. In 1940, before the United States entered World War II, only 4,000 black men were serving in the U.S. Navy. By 1945, that number had increased to nearly 170,000.

was commissioned in August 1943, when the U.S. Navy was still segregated. The photo below illustrates the situation on board Intrepid, as well as other ships. At the time, black sailors were assigned as steward’s mates, serving white officers in the wardroom and cleaning their staterooms, with no opportunity to move into other occupations.

Dinner and cake in Intrepid’s wardroom in October 1944. Photo from National Archives and Records Administration.

On board Intrepid, some stewards were assigned to a secondary role: to serve as anti-aircraft gunners when the ship was under attack. These black gunners were assigned to their own position, called Gun Tub 10. On October 29, 1944, a Japanese kamikaze aircraft hurtled toward Intrepid. The sailors in Gun Tub 10 bravely fired at the airplane as it crashed into their position, killing 10 men. Six of the surviving gunners were awarded the Bronze Star for valor: Jonell Copeland, Que Gant, Harold Clark Jr., James Dockery, Eli Benjamin and Alonzo Swann. In the years after the war, Swann maintained that he and his shipmates had been promised a higher honor, the Navy Cross, but they instead received the lesser award because of discrimination.

President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces, on July 26, 1948. The order promised greater opportunity for black sailors. However, change was slow in the U.S. Navy, which lagged in enlisting black sailors and providing equal opportunities. The photographs featured in Intrepid’s cruise books of the 1950s and 1960s hint at changes in Navy policies toward race. Most divisions had only one or two black men---compared with none during World War II---yet many black sailors still served as stewards, as they had during that war.

Otha Lewis was a machinist’s mate on board Intrepid from 1961 to 1963. He was one of few black sailors in the
M Division. His family donated a collection of his memorabilia to the Museum.

The Navy confronted major societal shifts in the 1960s and 1970s, including the civil rights movement. Intrepid’s crew members dedicated the June 1971 issue of the ship’s newspaper, the Achiever, to “the Black man’s role in the Navy today and in the future.” The issue included articles about the Navy’s efforts toward improving race relations and enhancing opportunities for sailors of color, and it highlighted the views of black crew members.

The June 1971 issue of the Achiever addressed the subject of race in the Navy.

For some black sailors, the pace of change was too slow. Ships throughout the fleet, including Intrepid, experienced outbursts of racial violence in 1972 and 1973. These episodes exposed the depth of the Navy’s problems. In the following years, the Navy launched programs to enlist more black sailors and to provide them with opportunities for education and advancement.

In 1993, Alonzo Swann received the Navy Cross in a ceremony aboard Intrepid for the bravery he demonstrated during the kamikaze attack 49 years prior. Four other surviving gunners also received the award, and the captain of the gun tub received a posthumous award. Swann’s Navy Cross medal and citation, along with a 20mm gun like the ones used by the men in Gun Tub 10, are now part of the Intrepid Museum’s permanent collection. These items provide a physical reminder of how race relations in the U.S. Navy have changed and will continue to evolve.