Being born into the Jim Crow era in America the story I’m about to tell you is not foreign. In fact it is all too familiar.

Black Troops in the U.S. Military

During the years of the American imperialist quest the U.S. Navy was for the most part an integrated service, picking up “sailors” of any color and from any country who were willing to serve. Sailors moved from the Navy to merchant sailing continually during their life at sea. All vessels carried Blacks, although race was not always noted on the ship rosters. Naval vessels suffered from chronic manpower shortages. 

Since “The War of 1812” was principally a Naval War, a large number of African-American sailors with prior Revolutionary War experience were sought after.

The Navy began enlisting Blacks in 1861 for the Bloody Civil War… Free Blacks sought service in the Navy, because the Army would not have them until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 made enlistment possible . . . Six African-American seamen would be awarded the Medal of Honor. Robert Smalls was the African-American Naval hero of the Civil War.

From 1866-1899 the US Navy patrolled the oceans, engaged in brief conflicts and performed “good-will” visits in ports throughout the world. During this period, seven Medals of Honor were awarded to African-American seamen.

Once the Navy began “landsman training” that is, specialized training for recruits, they no longer had to depend on men from coastal communities with maritime training, and they also no longer need Blacks. The Navy preferred to have its servants be Asians and in 1919 the Navy stopped enlisting Blacks.

In the early 1930s as the United States prepared for war with Japan, Asian sailors were no longer sought after and the numbers of African Americans had dwindled to less than one percent. By 1933 the enlistment for African-American sailors had begun again. The Navy preferred “Unspoiled young Negroes” therefore recruiting men from the south was much favored over those from the Northern cities. Congressmen appointed two Blacks to the Naval Academy as midshipmen in the 1930s, but the White officers at Annapolis convinced them to seek lives outside the Navy.

Afro- A grateful Nation - pictures Hitler

Hitler espoused the theory of the “Superior Aryan Race”

World War II consumed the United States in the early 1940s. At the same time, this country was also fighting another major war: segregation. This battle permeated the Navy more than any other branch of the military. The Secretary of the Navy at that time, Frank Knox, was a major catalyst for the continued segregation within the Department of the Navy.

“Even as Hitler espoused the theory of the “Superior Aryan Race”, the United States military practiced the theory of “African-American mental inferiority.” The Army War College study of 1940 described the African-American as having ‘less developed mental capacities.” The Navy was accepting “coloreds” on a limited basis as stewards. “The Marines were accepting NO non-white men. During the first six months of 1940 the Army accepted 30 African-Americans total to all of its schools,” wrote historian Duane B. Bradford.

Jews and Catholics did not fare much better.

In the biography of Admiral Hyman Rickover “Rickover, Controversy and Genius,” authors Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen write, “Jewish midshipmen were “sent to Coventry” for all of their four years at the Naval Academy. No midshipmen could speak to him; no one could acknowledge their existence.”

The idea of “Coventry” seems to have begun around the time of the Civil War between Charles I and Parliament. Royalist prisoners were sent to Coventry, a redoubt of the Parliament supporters. Another theory holds that the townspeople of Coventry so disliked having troops quartered there that they ostracized women seen even speaking to the soldiers. So, being “sent to Coventry,” for a soldier, meant isolation. By extension, the term 4 came to mean being ostracized by one’s peers.

Carlos Bulosan

The sending of a midshipman to Coventry was unofficially tolerated at Annapolis, although the practice was not officially acknowledged in any way. A member of the Class of 1915 said, “All Jews lived in Coventry” during their time at the Academy. The all has been denied by others, but there is no doubt that anti-Semitism was at times strong enough to exile Jewish midshipmen at least to a psychological ghetto and ultimately to Coventry.”

Filipinos and Guamanians who chose to come to America following a dream after a period of untold harassment and brutality, enlisted in the Navy only to become “Messman.” Servants!

Carlos Bulosan wrote, “I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I did not commit. And this crime is that I am a Filipino in America.”

Naval Academy records indicate that Emilio Jose Olivares, USNA Class of 1923, was the first USNA graduate from the Philippine Islands. An act of Congress approved 29 August 1916 authorized the appointment of four Filipinos, one for each class, to receive instruction at the Naval Academy. Filipino midshipmen as Foreign Nationals were not eligible to be commissioned in the U.S. Navy (All graduates received a regular diploma of graduation but are NOT commissioned in the U.S. Navy.) Emilio Jose Olivares, USNA Class of 1923 commissioned 2LT US Army, Philippine Scouts. Olivares (2nd) had served through WWII and was integrated into the Regular US Army CAC, after WWII.

Filipinos in the U.S. Navy

In l903, the U.S. Navy listed 9 Filipinos in the ranks; by l905, there were 178. 5.

Filipinos were restricted to the Messman/steward rating until the late l970’s, but they were found throughout the Navy, on ships, at shore stations, and wherever senior Navy officers were assigned. Between World War I and World War II, the number of Filipinos remained more or less constant at roughly 4,000. Despite their restriction to the Messman/ steward rating, duty in the Navy was far preferable to remaining in the barrio. A Filipino steward remaining in the Navy until retirement could lump his retirement pay and savings together and live rather handsomely in his Philippine hometown.

George C. Cooper

World War II precluded the enlistment of native Filipinos in the Navy, but immigrant Filipinos in the U.S. were allowed to join both the Navy and the Army. After the allied landing in l944, native Filipinos were again recruited by the U.S. Navy, with 2000 enlistments by l946. The primary motivation for Filipinos to join the Navy was, and is, poverty at home. The 1946 wartime devastation at home left little hope for a future in the Philippines.

“Jim Crow was the name of the game. Everything was separate; nothing was equal. Segregation was in full swing. There were white and black drinking fountains, white and black sections in the railroad stations, the bus station; everything. And there was no “choice.” You had was to try to make the best of it or get in trouble. Prejudice was something we lived with every day of our lives.”

George C. Cooper, “The Golden Thirteen”

Emperor Hirohito cartoon

The Secretary of State, Cordell Hull’s total prejudice toward the Japanese and other minorities had a major impact in the pre-war negotiations in

particular and the conduct of the war in general.

This cartoon in Vanity Fair’s August 1935 issue satirizing Emperor Hirohito offended the Japanese government so much; Ambassador Hiroshi Saito demanded apologies from both the magazine’s publisher and  Secretary Cordell Hull.

The Golden Thirteen

The Golden Thirteen

In 1943 the secretary of the navy agreed to commission Black officers, and 16 candidates were chosen from the ranks to undergo accelerated officer training in the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois. Most, but not all, of the 16 had been to college, and some had advanced degrees; most of them also had been athletes, and all had exemplary service records. From January through March 1944, they went through officer training in segregated facilities at Camp Robert Small in Great Lakes under the tutelage of White officers. All passed the course, but only 13 received commissions, 12 as ensigns and 1 as a warrant officer. (The reasons for the rejection of the final three were never given. Some have speculated that the navy, accustomed to a certain failure rate among officer candidates, did not want the Blackgroup to be seen as performing better than Whites.)

The graduates were given assignments that fit within the navy’s segregated system—for instance, training Black recruits, overseeing all-Black logistics units, or commanding small vessels such as harbor tugs, patrol craft, or oilers that were mostly crewed by Black sailors. Only one made the navy his career after the war ended; the rest went on to a number of civilian careers, including education, business, social work, and the law.

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.

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.

They received their commissions without graduation ceremony or fanfare.

The Golden Thirteen’s commissioning picture was on the cover of Life magazine and you guessed it – no names.