During World War II, 150,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Navy, including women who were accepted into the Women’s Reserve of the United States Navy (WAVES) in 1944. The Navy commissioned the first group of 12 officers in March 1944 and by 1945 a total of 60 men had been commissioned. President Truman ordered the integration of the armed forces in 1948. In 1949, Wesley A. Brown became the first African American to graduate from the Naval Academy.
Aboard the USS NORTH CAROLINA, African American men and men from the Philippines or Guam served the officers as cooks and stewards. They also had battle stations.
As of January 1942, there were 42 men in the Messman Branch: 4 Officer stewards, 4 Officer Cooks and 34 Mess Attendants. The rates of officer steward and officer cook were dropped in 1943. As of June 1945, there were 49 men in the Stewards Branch: 2 Chief Stewards, 6 Stewards, 1 Chief Cook, 5 Cooks and 35 Steward’s Mates. During the summer midshipman’s cruises in 1946 and 1947, Additional steward’s mates were assigned to the ship during Naval Academy Midshipmen training cruises in 1946 and 1947.
Learn more in the book THE MESSMAN CHRONICLES: African-Americans in the U.S. Navy, 1932-1943 by Richard E. Miller.
All men on BB55 were assigned battle stations. Steward’s Mates were part of the ammunition passing crews for all the guns: 16-inch, 5-inch, 40mm, 20mm. Others were assigned to the repair units, part of Damage Control. And there were two crews of gunners on the 20mm guns.
Steward’s Mate 2/c John Seagraves was an officer’s cook in the Wardroom Pantry. His battle station was in a 16-inch magazine along with other men in the Stewards Branch. He asked the Executive Officer if he and other Steward’s Mates could be 20mm gunners. Their petition was granted, and eight men began training on two 20mm gun mounts in the fall of 1944. The mounts were in Marine Sergeant Harry Clark’s sector.
In April 1945, the Battleship was with the task group supporting the Okinawa operation. Japanese kamikazes were a constant threat. In one engagement Harry Simpson (trunnion operator) spied the enemy flying toward the NORTH CAROLINA. When given the order to fire, John Seagraves (gunner) squeezed the trigger. The 20mm and 40mm batteries opened fire. The plane crashed into the sea narrowly missing the Battleship.
The men returned to their duty stations but were quickly called back to the mounts to stage the event but in the re-creation (photo at top) the men were not in their original positions.
“The steward mates who manned the 20mm gun mounts during enemy air attacks, [were] always the last to stop firing,” recalled Ensign Albert Dunn.
John Seagraves served on the Ship from May 1944 to December 1945. On BB55 he asked to be the officers’ breakfast cook. He began by cooking eggs any style the officers wanted and hash brown potatoes. Soon Seagraves was preparing entire breakfasts and cooking his own meals as well. Before long he was helping with the lunch menu too. Working with the head chef, Seagraves was doing a lot of cooking and learning how the food system worked.
Many years later Seagraves and his wife, Mildred, built a successful catering business in Atlanta. According to his son, David, his father “approached his life with honorable rebellion, saying no to anyone who had a plan for him when he had plans for himself.”
Learn more in the book Uncommon Hero: The John Seagraves Story by David Seagraves.
Roosevelt Flenard, Mess Attendant 2/c, officially served on the Battleship from April 9, 1941, to October 15, 1942, but he was part of the pre-commissioning crew. “Our duties were to clean officers rooms, clean all the silver, swab & buff the Wardroom floor, pantry and galley, and to clean the mess room.”
Rosie was in his berthing compartment when the torpedo hit just below them on September 15, 1942. “I was thrown against some lockers. I ran for the hatch leading to the 2nd deck. Lights were out. I was scared, shaking and praying. There were about 25 of us trapped on 2nd deck. I looked up and saw a hatch with a manhole in the center of it for emergency escaping.” They made it to the Main Deck.
Learn more: Someone Paved the Way: Roosevelt Flenard, WWII Sailor,
Discover more about the African American and Filipino experience in the U.S. Navy and the trailblazers who forged a path, from the Naval History and Heritage Command. Click here for more.