The passing of John Wesley Lee Jr. a few months ago serves as a reminder of his place in the history of the U.S. Navy. On 15 March 1947, one month to the day before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in baseball's major leagues, Lee became the first African American to be commissioned as a regular officer in the Navy, that is, no longer a reservist. Many citizens of this country made it clear that they did not welcome Robinson's arrival in baseball. He received numerous death threats and other pieces of hate mail. John Lee achieved his milestone without encountering hostility, and that was at least in part the result of how the Navy arranged things for him.
After a couple of years as a student at the University of Indiana, Lee enlisted in the Navy in April 1944. By that time, the opportunities for black Sailors went beyond the traditional ones in the steward rating as cooks and servants for officers. The range of general service ratings had opened up in 1942, and Lee aspired to be a quartermaster or signalman. But he ran into a snag: The Navy still needed stewards. After Lee enlisted he went to get transportation to his initial training site. Half the men were arbitrarily picked for general service, but Lee was among the half sent to Bainbridge, Maryland, for boot camp and training as stewards.
His benefactor was a white chief petty officer who listened when Lee talked of his preference for duty on a ship's bridge. He suggested that Lee apply for the V-12 officer training program, and the young man was accepted. He was commissioned a Naval Reserve ensign on 30 July 1945, two weeks prior to the end of World War II. When the Navy commissioned its first black officers in 1944, it sent them mostly to shore duty or to vessels that had all-black enlisted crews. The idea was that white Sailors should not serve under black officers. Toward the end of the war, the policy was eased so that a limited number of black officers could serve on board fleet auxiliaries with predominantly white crews. Beginning in August 1945 Ensign Lee served successively in three ships, the oilers Ramapo (AO-12) and Sepulga (AO-20) and the attack cargo ship Capricornus (AKA-57).
When he reported to ships, and later to shore duty, Lee was perplexed that nobody seemed surprised he was coming. He later found out that the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BuPers) had queried the commands ahead of time to learn if they would accept a black officer. Only when a skipper agreed would Lee be ordered there. The pattern continued throughout much of his career. While Lee was bothered that he was treated differently from his white counterparts, he was glad he wasn't sent where he would be unwelcome.
Some of his fellow officers in the early ships were standoffish. He never perceived hostility, but a few relationships were awkward at first. For instance, Eugene Miller from Mississippi shared a stateroom with him on board the Capricornus. Initially, they spoke to each other only when necessary. At one point Miller said to him: "You know, you're going to have to bear with me a little bit. I'm in a situation I've never been in before." What he was saying was that he had not lived in a society in which black men and white men had equal stations in life. Lee admired Miller for his honesty. In time they became close friends.
In 1946, with World War II over, Lee thought in terms of a career and requested a transfer from the Naval Reserve to the regular Navy. In the late summer of that year, though, his application had not been acted on, and the Navy released him from active duty. But just as pressure from outside organizations such as the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had compelled the Navy to commission its first reserve officers in 1944, now the service again responded to outside pressure.
In February 1947, Lee received a letter from BuPers that told him his application for augmentation to the regular Navy had been approved. As Lee explained many years later in his U.S. Naval Institute oral history, he was in the right place at the right time. BuPers summoned him to Washington for a meeting with Captain Roland Smoot, who gave him his choice of duties. On the spot, Lee said he would like to enhance his naval training by going to General Line School and then wanted to serve in a large combatant ship. Lee got exactly what he requested. After attending the line school he reported to the front-line aircraft carrier Kearsarge (CV-33).
In subsequent years, Lee served a variety of duties at sea and ashore. Included was service on board the heavy cruiser Toledo (CA-133) during the Korean War and as commanding officer of Oceanographic Detachment Two in 1959-60 on board the USNS Dutton (T-AGS-22). Lee retired from active duty in July 1966 as a lieutenant commander and afterward worked as a civil servant for many years at the Naval Avionics Center in his hometown of Indianapolis. All told, he compiled 45 years of government service by the time of his second retirement in 1989. In the process he made history.