Black History Month - Remembering the Black crew of the USS Mason

Discussion in 'All Anniversaries' started by John Ulferts, Feb 5, 2021.

  1. John Ulferts

    John Ulferts Member

    The Armed Forces were completely segregated during WW II as was much of the country. Despite that, 1.2 million African Americans served with distinction during WW II and their service helped not only to win the war but also to accelerate the civil rights movement in the war’s aftermath.

    In the Navy, African Americans were relegated to serving in roles such as cook or steward. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped to change that when she and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People urged her husband in 1944 to commission the USS Mason, a destroyer, and the USS PC-1264, a submarine chaser, as the only two WW II naval ships with predominantly African American crews.

    “We had 144 blacks and about 40 whites on board,” recalled James W. Graham of Roosevelt, New York in a Winter 1997 edition of The Bridge, a Naval recruiting publication. Black sailors filled all of the ratings and later, some of the officer positions. “This was the first ship in history that had black guys serving as radiomen, quartermasters, signalmen,” recalled Graham who served as a radioman 2nd class on the USS Mason and eventually became chairman of the association commemorating the Mason’s service.

    Lorenzo Dufau, of New York City, New York, served as a signalman on the USS Mason and understood that he and his fellow crew were making history:

    Our battle was on two fronts at that time: prejudice and the enemy of democracy. We were the first to gain rates other than stewards’ mates and cooks. The black man had been denied the privilege of serving to his full capacity because of prejudice.

    At a time when segregation ruled most of the U.S., the USS Mason was fully integrated with blacks sleeping alongside whites in the bunks and dining together in the mess hall. While aware of the historic significance of the Mason, its commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander William Blackford of Seattle Washington saw his ship as just another destroyer and not as an experiment.

    “I’m no crusader,” Capt. Blackford said, “I’m not out here to solve the race problem. I’m simply trying to run a good Navy ship.”

    But like it or not, the black crew of the USS Mason were continuously under a microscope, especially when an admiral was sent out to observe them. Dufau said the black crew was keenly aware that “If we fouled up, it would be a mark against the entire race.”

    However, in ten Atlantic crossings between 1944 and 1945, the Mason served with distinction, protecting convoys of ships by dropping depth charges on enemy submarines. The USS Mason’s tensest moments were not, however, caused by enemy submarines, but by a fierce hurricane it encountered in the North Atlantic while escorting a convoy of tugboats and barges. Dufau recalled the storm in a 1997 interview in the South Shore Record:

    The winds were 90 miles an hour, with waves 60 feet high. One minute we’d be on top of a wave, then, we’d be at the bottom. The storm was so powerful, fear went right out of me. I put my hand in the Man’s and thought, “If I survive this, I’ll live forever.”

    The tugboats were no match for the hurricane and 20 of their crew drowned. However, the USS Mason shepherded most of the convoy to safety, then returned into the storm to rescue the scattered ships that remained. The Mason steadfastly protected its convoy despite a crack that had begun to split its deck.

    “We welded it and kept moving,” Dufau recalled.

    Afterwards, the officers told the men they would receive a letter of commendation for their valor. But prejudice at the time prevented any such recognition.

    Dufau and the men of the Mason were fiercely loyal to their white Captain William Blackford who “…understood our plight and was a great influence in making our ship perform at its best. He treated us as men and demanded the best out of us at all times.”

    After the war, a second captain became commander of the USS Mason replacing Capt. Blackford. Graham told the South Shore Record this new captain did everything he could do to discredit the USS Mason’s achievements.

    When he came on board, he tried to teach us to read and write, though most of us were high school or college graduates. He wrote a lot of negative reports about us…saying we smelled, we couldn’t swim, we were hard to educate. He was also a bad captain. He rammed another ship and hit a submarine.

    The USS Mason was decommissioned in October of 1945 and was scrapped two years later. President Clinton recognized the surviving 67 crew members of the USS Mason in 1994. finally awarding them the commendations they had been promised all those years ago. Ten years later the Navy further honored the history making crew when it commissioned a new USS Mason in 2004 and deployed it in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Dufau and a few other surviving crew members of the WW II USS Mason traveled to Port Canaveral, Florida for the commissioning. Dufau became friends with the new warship’s crew and visited them whenever he could.

    The men of the USS Mason were proud of their achievements during the war on both fronts – in the sea against the Axis, and in breaking the barriers of racial prejudice. Reflecting on the role the USS Mason played in integrating the Armed Forces, Dufau wrote in his letter to the author:

    The purpose of life is to make it better for the next generation. We showed it can be done. Look at the Navy now. I’m 77-years-old. I played a role, and I feel good about it. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have a lot of pride.

    From my book Always Remember - World War II Through Veterans' Eyes. Lorenzo Dufau is on the left, and his lifelong friend James Graham is on his right. James Graham and Lorenzo DuFau by plaque.jpg
    Photo below is a young James Graham while serving aboard the USS Mason
    James Graham.jpg
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  2. CL1

    CL1 116th LAA and 92nd (Loyals) LAA,Royal Artillery

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