The 13 who broke naval color barrier

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Samuel Barnes seems an unlikely pioneer. He is slight and soft-spoken, living a quiet retirement in a small brick home in the upper reaches of Washington.

But 50 years ago this month, Dr. Barnes and 11 other men made military history. They pulled on double-breasted coats with a star and stripe on the sleeves and became the first black officers in the U.S. Navy.


Their story during World War II is one not only of achievement but of great dignity in the face of official indifference.

They were given jobs below their skills. They were never allowed to serve aboard combat ships or to command white sailors. They were belittled by enlisted men and ignored by officers. And when the war ended, they were forgotten for decades.


Dr. Barnes, 79, still bristles when he recalls the indignities he and the others were forced to accept in the bleak, segregated world of 1944. But those memories are tempered by what he and the others accomplished -- opening the door for blacks to become admirals and generals and living to see one African-American become chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

"We didn't want to do or say anything which in some way or another would hurt the chances for someone else," said Dr. Barnes, who earned a doctorate from Howard University and became the first black member of the governing council of the National Collegiate Athletic Associa- tion (NCAA). "If you're going through the door, you should make sure the door is open to someone else. . . . Let us get in and we'll show you we can."

After a half-century, these men, known as the "Golden Thirteen" (12 became ensigns and the 13th was a warrant officer), are finally getting the attention they have long deserved.

Their recollections are the subject of a recent book edited by retired Cmdr. Paul Stillwell, a historian with the Naval Institute, a private professional society based at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Hollywood also has expressed interest. A script is being written for TriStar Pictures, which has asked actor and director Sidney Poitier to direct it.

Wednesday, the seven surviving members of the Golden Thirteen will be honored at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, where they were commissioned 50 years ago in a segregated portion of that sprawling facility.

"These guys are so little known," said Mr. Stillwell. "I've compared them to Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall. The Navy for its own reasons did not want to play these men up."

The Army commissioned black officers beginning with the Civil War. On the eve of America's entry into World War II, blacks were trained as Army fighter pilots and commissioned as second lieutenants at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. They went on to fight in segregated units in North Africa and Italy.


But the Navy never made similar moves. On board, blacks served only as stewards or messmates.

"The Navy has always been behind," said Bernard Nalty, a historian and author of "Strength for the Fight," a book chronicling the role of African-Americans in the armed forces from Colonial times through Vietnam. "It's always been a closed and clannish organization."

In the midst of war, the Navy was forced to change its segregated practices -- nudged by political expediency rather than conscience. Thousands of young blacks were entering the service, and civil rights leaders were pressuring the White House to offer them greater opportunities.

By the beginning of 1944, Petty Officer 3rd Class Samuel E. Barnes found himself standing with several other black sailors outside the commander's office at Great Lakes.

"You know why you're here?" asked the admiral's aide. "You are being considered for officer candidate's school."

"We looked at each other," Dr. Barnes recalled, "and thought he lost his mind."


Sixteen black sailors were selected because the Navy believed that with the normal attrition rate, four were likely to fail. It is still a mystery how they came to be chosen, although all but one

were college graduates who had distinguished themselves in the Navy.

They assembled in a barracks at Camp Robert Smalls, a segregated portion of Great Lakes.

From the start, the officer candidates were suspicious, believing they were being "show-dogged" for political purposes. They quickly made a pact to share their knowledge, making sure they all passed.

"We would sink or swim together," said George C. Cooper, 77, one of the Golden Thirteen. "If we had not succeeded, we would have set the progress of blacks in the Navy back an untold number of years."

They were trained by white officers in seamanship, navigation, gunnery, naval regulations and naval law for more than two months. One of those officers was Paul D. Richmond, a 1942 Naval Academy graduate, who termed the course work "U.S. Navy 101."


Study sessions lasted past lights out. "At night, we went to the [bathroom] and put our blankets over all the windows," Dr. Barnes said.

While all the candidates passed, the Navy stuck to its decision to name only 12 black officers. "The Navy wasn't flexible enough to commission all 16," said Mr. Stillwell. "That was a callous disregard for the individual."

They received their commissions without graduation ceremony or fanfare.

While black men in officers' uniforms drew stares in nearby Chicago, the harshest reaction came from the Navy. The 13 were not allowed in the officers' club at Great Lakes. And they were not given the full authority of officers.

They pressed for more responsibility, and the Navy grudgingly approved. "But we never were permitted to visit the officers' club," Dr. Barnes said.

The Golden Thirteen also faced taunts and disrespect from enlisted men.


In Newport News, Va., Ensign Cooper was on a Navy base with his wife and infant daughter. A sailor walked up, came within inches of his face and called him a "black s.o.b." Only the intercession of his wife prevented a fistfight.

"It was hell half the time," he recalled in a telephone interview from his Florida retirement home.

Although commissioned in the midst of the war, the Golden Thirteen were kept from the fight and the command of white troops.

Dr. Barnes ended up in Okinawa, supervising a crew of black sailors unloading supply ships. Mr. Cooper was assigned as a personnel officer to Hampton Institute in Virginia, a naval training site for black recruits.

The others received similar assignments, serving aboard support ships or in low-level training posts. "To put in bluntly, we got menial jobs," said Frank E. Sublett Jr., one of the Golden Thirteen.

"It was the tenor of the times," recalled Mr. Richmond, an instructor at Camp Smalls. "[The Navy] didn't want to ruffle the country's feathers."


Cooper developed a technique to deal with the racism he encountered.

At Hampton, many of the base sailors were white. As a personnel officer, Ensign Cooper made sure all emergency leaves for those sailors went through his office.

He would offer solace to those who were rushing home to a dying parent or facing other turmoil. "When I would start empathizing with this guy, he began to see me as a human being and not a black s.o.b.," Mr. Cooper recalled. "It worked almost invariably."

Mr. Cooper said there is no lingering bitterness. "We went through what we went through to open the door," he said. "It was worth it."

By war's end, the Navy went on to commission nearly 50 other black officers, six of whom were women. Most of the Golden Thirteen went their separate ways. Only one, Dennis Nelson, stayed in the Navy, retiring with the rank of lieutenant commander. He died in 1979.

Mr. Nelson organized the first reunion of the Golden Thirteen in 1977 in Monterey, Calif. Spurred by those annual reunions, the Navy made retroactive heroes of its first black officers. A Navy that once didn't want to publicize their initial achievement now called upon them to aid in its own recruitment efforts.


They were invited to meet the Navy secretary, John F. Lehman Jr., and made a well-publicized trip aboard the guided missile cruiser USS Kidd in 1982.

Dr. Barnes points to the photos of these trips, with numerous commendations. There are drawings and faded newspaper photos of the Golden Thirteen from the 1940s, all framed and carefully arranged on the wall in his front entryway.

The surviving members of the Golden Thirteen have pledged any proceeds they receive from the book and future movie to set up a scholarship fund for black ROTC students.

What these men achieved a half-century ago dawns on Mr. Cooper when he attends the annual meeting of the National Naval Officers Association, a group of black officers. There are hundreds in attendance.

"It makes you feel proud you have been part of it," he said.

The men say they are not naive enough to think the hatred and discrimination they faced in 1944 has ended in 1994. The Navy, despite its strides, still has a small percentage of black officers. As of late 1993, African-Americans made up 4.6 percent of the Navy's officer corps and 17.7 percent of its enlisted force. Black people make up 12 percent of the U.S. population.


"We're not blind enough to think that racism is dead, . . . even in the services," said Mr. Cooper, noting that some association members complain to him about problems they encounter. "All of us have to fight this to every extent possible."

Dr. Barnes recalls the comments of Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., the commander of the Marine Corps, who last fall told a television interviewer that black officers lack the skills of their white counterparts.

Dr. Barnes leans forward on his couch and rubs his face with his hands. It's as if he hears the taunts of long ago. "All we want," he finally says, "is a chance."

The Golden Thirteen

1 Samuel E. Barnes: Commanded black stevedores in Marshall Islands. Phd., Howard University. Athletic director. First black on NCAA governing board. Lives in Washington.

2 Graham E. Martin: Served in San Francisco, Hawaii and Marshall Islands. Commanded black stevedores. High school teacher, coach. Lives in Indiana.


George C. Cooper: Personnel officer at Hampton Institute, Va., a training site for black recruits. Dayton, Ohio city official. Lives in Dayton and Florida.

John W. Reagan: Served at Hampton Institute. Tugboat skipper. Served in Guam and Okinawa. Worked in real estate. Active in Urban League. Lives in San Diego.

Frank E. Sublett Jr.: Served at Hampton Institute. Officer on all-black patrol craft. Served in Marshall Islands. First black GM service manager in Chicago, where he lives.

Jesse W. Arbor: Officer on shore patrol duty in Hawaii. Served in Guam. Operated a cleaning and pressing business in Chicago, where he now lives.

James E. Hair: Tugboat skipper. Officer aboard USS Mason, an all-black destroyer escort. Served in China. Earned master's degree. Social worker. Died in 1992.

William S. White: Lawyer before war. Navy public relations officer serving the Negro press. Illinois Appellate Court justice. Retired in 1991. Lives in Chicago.


Dennis Nelson: Served in the Marshall Islands. Stayed in the Navy after the war. Retired a lieutenant commander. Active in San Diego Urban League. Died in 1979.

Charles Lear: Only warrant officer of the 13. Remembered for military bearing and leadership skills. Served in Hawaii and Guam. Committed suicide shortly after war.

Philip Barnes: After the war, he returned home to Washington. Died in March 1955.

Reginald Goodwin: Assigned to Great Lakes after being commissioned. Became a lawyer in Chicago. Died in 1974.

Dalton Baugh: Earned a master's degree from MIT. Headed an engineering firm in the Boston area. Died in 1985.