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History’s invisible heroes: The men of the USS Mason

They were 150-men strong, with the mission to shepherd United States naval ships loaded with weapons, fuel, troops, and machinery across the Atlantic Ocean. They were the men of the USS Mason, Destroyer 529. More importantly, the Mason  was the first Navy ship manned predominantly by an African American crew.


Their dogged determination while under enemy fire helped sustain them, while they contributed to blasting away the barriers to full military integration. Unfortunately, while thousands of black officers have followed in their wake, most navy veterans and new recruits have nearly forgotten them.

On June 14th, 1944, the USS Mason departed from Charleston, South Carolina to escort a small convoy bound for Horta Harbor, Azores. One year later in late 1945, after encountering violent storms, a German U-boat, and  Jim Crow (after docking in England), the USS Mason was decommissioned.

Earlier this year, USS Mason radioman, James Graham (90) passed away. While his soul has been laid to rest, his legacy continues to thrive through the message he and fellow sailors left behind in the film ‘Proud’, starring noted Hollywood actor Ossie Davis, and the documentary, ‘Proudly We Serve’, also starring Davis as the narrator.

“The escort commander (William Blackford) said to get between the ship that would have been hit by the torpedo,” Graham said. “We were to take the hit ourselves, because first of all we were fewer men, and a smaller ship—and it was important that the larger ship (filled thousands of troops) survive.”

Since the beginning of the US military, and long before President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9981 (issued July 26, 1948) was issued to abolish racial discrimination in the armed forces, African Americans have bravely defended their country. From the war of 1812, to today’s modern military, African Americans have laid down their lives to protect America’s right to be free.

However, in 1941, the Atlantic Ocean was under German U-Boat control, and Adolf Hitler and his Axis Power comrades were focused on world domination. Every aspect of the American military was crucial to the defeat of Hitler, including the missions of Destroyer vessels.

Destroyers were fast, maneuverable, heavily armed, built in weeks instead of months, and expected to last no more than six months. When the Nazi armies dominated Europe and isolated the free world, Britain depended on supplies from North America for survival.

Danger lurked in front and behind the Mason as Destroyer convoys were constantly under attack. On January 11, 1945, a sonar contact was made with an object that caused the crew to swing into action. “K-guns propelled shells toward the contact,” Sonar-man Gordon Buchanan said. “Depth charges were dropped into the night sea. It looked like a huge Christmas tree. I was standing up there, 40 feet off the water in a 1400 ton ship, and I felt like somebody hit me with a baseball bat under my feet—and I was stuck on top of it.”

After dropping depth charges, and making visual contact, Captain Blackford gave the command to ram the vessel. The ship’s bow crashed into the side of the vessel, causing it to go airborne, before slamming back into the sea—then everything went quiet.

While it was never officially determined what the USS Mason destroyed that night, many crew-members swear to this day that it was undoubtedly a German submarine.

From its maiden voyage to the ship’s final mission, the USS Mason led six supply convoys across the Atlantic Ocean. Many politicians, and the military elite refused to be convinced that African Americans should have an equal place in military. “We were called Eleanor’s Folly,” Graham said. “I think the powers that be that opposed integration had programmed us to fail. The USS Mason was not expected to succeed. But when we started proving them wrong, and succeeding, rather than eat crow, they down-played our accomplishments and our virtues.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, along with other notable activists such as Mary McLeod Bethune, NAACP leader Walter White, and Adam Clayton Powell fought hard for the Navy to finally open its ranks for enlistment (June 1st, 1942), and finally the full abolishment of segregation.

The most turbulent mission for the Mason was the ill-fated mission of Convoy 119, where the ship had spent the last 30 days dragging a convoy of tugs, barges, car floats, and a massive oiler across the Atlantic, at a speed of 4.5 knots. Along with its four sister ships, the USS Mason circled the slowing moving ships, patrolling sectors, listened to sonar contacts, and prodded straggler vessels.

On October 18th, 1944, the Mason encountered a sever storm in the North Atlantic. While bad weather was the norm, they were suddenly faced with a life-threatening dilemma. With winds of 30-40 miles per hour, gusts of 90 miles per hour, and ocean waves towering at 50 feet, two barges capsized, causing the small ships to swing violently against their tows.

The USS Mason quickly responded pulling most of the crew aboard. However, in light of the dense fog and violent waves, many were lost to the bottom of the ocean. In the aftermath, the crew of the USS Mason had to perform an emergency life-threatening repair on the deck of the ship. “The seam was such that water was going into the after-crew’s quarters from the deck,” Buchanan said. “We didn’t realize it then, but afterwards the damage control officer said if he had ignored the seam, the ship would have split right across.”

The USS Mason recovered long enough to make it into port, where two hours of repairs were performed.  The ship returned to the stormy seas, where it stayed for three days aiding, assisting and leading a convoy of 12 ships to safety.

The crew of the USS Mason was not awarded a letter of commendation until 1994 (50 years later), when President Bill Clinton honored the heroics of USS Mason crew for their efforts to lead and retrieve ships to safety. “It took them 50 years to recognize what we did,” signalman Lorenzo Dufau said. “That really displayed the importance of the ship and its mission. That made us really proud.”

Many, including famed Hollywood actor Ossie Davis who portrayed Dufau in the movie “Proud”, and Mary Pat Kelly, who wrote the book, “Proudly We Serve” commemorate the history efforts of the USS Mason for generations to enjoy. “When I boarded the ship in 1944, I knew then I was part of something very special,” DuFau said. “I was part of the effort to bring the races together to show that it could be done in time of war and later for peace. That is the Mason’s legacy, and I am glad to be here to see it continue.”

Thanks to the courageous efforts of military heroes such as USS Mason, Dorie Miller, 369th Regiment, 761st Armored Tank Batallion, and the Tuskegee Airmen, thousands of African American officers have faithfully followed in their wake, while history is finally giving these unsung heroes their just due.

During the month of February, the War Museum in Newport News, celebrated the heroism of the USS Mason by hosting the film “Proudly We Serve.”

 For information on exhibits, films, kids camps, educational programs, and museum events, go online to www.warmuseum.org.  

 

 

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