PROUDLY WE SERVED
A terrible storm whipped the North Atlantic in mid-October 1944 as an Allied convoy struggled toward England. The windswere 30 to 40 miles per hour, and the seas ran at 40 to 50 feet as Convoy NY-119–an ungainly herd of yard tugs, barges,merchantmen and the big oiler Maumee–plodded along at less than 5 mph. Nineteenth-century sailing ships had made theAtlantic crossing in a week, and Queen Mary had passed the convoy four times. Convoy NY-119 was taking more than amonth to cross the Atlantic.
Swinging wildly from their tows in the heaving seas, two of the barges capsized. Five destroyer escorts (DEs), which had beenconstantly circling the convoy and listening for sonar contacts that could indicate the presence of German U-boats, scrambledto rescue the drowning men. As the ships neared England, the weather worsened, so the convoy commander ordered 20 ofthe smaller vessels to go on ahead and seek safe harbor. They were escorted by one of the DEs, USS Mason, and she turnedover her charges to the local escort in Falmouth Bay.
But in the meantime, with the shoreline in sight, the deck of the 1,140-ton, 289-foot Mason–a hastily built “throwaway”ship–had broken in two. A welded seam gave, and the deck came apart. Sailors went on deck in the teeth of wind and wavesand repaired the break. It took two hours to strengthen the deck weld, rig up a new antenna and pump out the engine room.The ship held together.
Then Mason turned back to aid the rest of the convoy still floundering in the storm. Her skipper, Captain William M.Blackford, had been ordered to take “any safe course,” but he insisted on rejoining the convoy. The DE stayed at sea for threemore days, assisting 12 ships.
Duty aboard destroyer escorts in the North Atlantic was tough, and courage was not uncommon among their crews. But whatwas unusual about Mason was that her crew was black. At a time when blacks in the U.S. Navy were either cooks or messstewards, Mason’s men were making history–although few people would know about it for many years to come.
Their opportunity to take a front-line role in the fight against fascism was due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, the nation’sfirst lady. Their experience was part of tentative Navy moves toward racial integration in the ranks.
The story of Mason and her white captain and black crew has been carefully documented by Mary Pat Kelly, a teacher,lecturer, and award-winning documentary filmmaker and screen and television writer. It is a heartening and exciting saga toldwith vigor, grace and candor. It is likely to interest many veterans, especially black veterans whose achievements have beenignored in the past.
This was the case with the men of Mason, who escorted six Atlantic convoys. Although their skipper and the convoycommander proposed letters of commendation for all crewmen, nothing happened. The Navy ignored the requests. Therewere no commendations or headlines for the Mason crew, which would have been a large morale booster for the blackcommunity.
In fact, the author writes, when the Mason crew was finally granted liberty and headed for the USO at Plymouth, Devon, forhot dogs, mustard and Coca-Cola, they were turned away. Admittance was for white servicemen only. Far from home, thesailors of USS Mason, like their brothers in other branches of service, had to defer to Jim Crow.
Kelly’s book is a long overdue tribute to “the first and then the forgotten.” It is the positive story of a brave crew, but it is also afrank examination of racial prejudice in the Navy.
Even in predominantly black British Bermuda during their shakedown cruise, the Mason crewmen were barred from makinguse of the USO and other American facilities. But when they dropped anchor in the Northern Irish ports of Londonderry,Belfast and Bangor, it was a different story. “It was like being liberated,” said one black sailor. Another said, “In the UnitedStates, we couldn’t go to a movie show or sit down at a counter in Woolworth’s even….Then we went to Ireland, and the Irishpeople didn’t look on us as our skin color. They looked on us as Americans–as American fighting men.”
Author Kelly learned about USS Mason’s crewmen when she directed a documentary in 1992 about the 300,000 U.S.servicemen and women who served in Northern Ireland during WWII. President Bill Clinton paid tribute to the Mason crew atthe Congressional Black Caucus Awards ceremony in 1994.
Belatedly, Admiral Frank B. Kelso, former chief of naval operations, stated: “The USS Mason made naval history. This shipmust never be forgotten.” With this compelling story of courage, injustice and pride, the author succeeds in giving some creditwhere it was due half a century ago.
Michael D. Hull