A Destroyerman's Legacy

By Paul Stillwell

From Enlisted Sailor to Ensign

In 1922 Sam Gravely was born in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. It was a city in which segregation and limited opportunity for blacks were decreed by both custom and law. Timing and world events led him to investigate opportunities in the wider world. He tried to enlist in the Army in 1940 but was turned away with the phony excuse that he had a heart murmur. Conditions changed dramatically, though, as the United States entered World War II. Now the services needed much more manpower than in the past. In the spring of 1942 the Navy began accepting black citizens in the enlisted general service ratings; that is, they would no longer be restricted to duty as cooks and servants for officers. Thus, Gravely enlisted, went through boot-camp training, completed service school, and was assigned to San Diego.

While Gravely was serving as an enlisted man in 1943, a white officer pushed him to apply for the V-12 program, which included both college courses and midshipman training that would lead to an officer’s commission. There was no overt announcement that encouraged blacks to apply, as there had been for the general service ratings. On the other hand, nothing prevented it, and Gravely was accepted. The program was integrated, unlike the training of the “Golden Thirteen,” who became the Navy’s first African-American officers in March 1944. A point of pride with Gravely was that he was in an officer-training program before they were. He received his commission as a Naval Reserve ensign in December 1944.

In that year the Navy commissioned two warships manned by white officers and largely black enlisted crews. The destroyer escort Mason (DE-585) and the submarine chaser PC-1264 were essentially experiments to measure the abilities and performance of black Sailors. In the spring of 1945, each ship got her first black officer—Ensign James Hair of the Golden Thirteen to the Mason and Ensign Gravely to the PC-1264 .

The skipper of the subchaser was Lieutenant Eric Purdon, who later wrote of the experience in a book titled Black Company (Naval Institute Press, 2000). He and the other white officers welcomed Gravely, who soon got his first taste of the seagoing life. It was a literal one, as a wave swamped him and left him sputtering while he was sunbathing on deck. That discomfort aside, he found that he enjoyed the duty. World War II ended in Europe about the time he reported aboard, and the ship’s next assignment was training for operations in the Pacific. Plans called for the U.S. invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945.

In the meantime, the ship went to Miami during a break in training. While ashore, Gravely and other members of the crew were on liberty when a military policeman arrested him for impersonating an officer. The MP had never before seen an African-American naval officer and thus presumed that Gravely was a fake. It took some persuasion for Lieutenant Purdon to talk the staff of the local naval district commandant out of a court-martial for Gravely on trumped-up charges.

The war ended in August 1945. All of a sudden, a great many ships, including the PC-1264 , were in excess of the Navy’s postwar needs. In February 1946, by which time Gravely had fleeted up to be executive officer, the ship was decommissioned. On 12 February, he married Alma Clark, a Virginia schoolteacher whom he had met a few years earlier. There had been no real courtship, just a bombardment of daily letters that the young naval officer sent until she agreed to marriage. In time, Alma Gravely’s enthusiasm for the Navy would match her husband’s, and her enthusiasm continues to this day. Soon afterward, Ensign Gravely was released from active duty. He went back to Richmond, finished his college degree at Virginia Union University, and then took a job as a railway postal clerk.

During the time he was away from the Navy, dramatic changes were taking place within the service. In 1947 the Navy issued its first commission to a black regular officer, John W. Lee Jr., who had been a reservist in World War II. In 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order that integrated the armed forces. A year later, the Navy issued invitations for a few black officers to return to active duty to enhance the recruiting of black enlisted personnel and officer candidates. Gravely was among those recalled, with the understanding that it would be a year of service. But timing and circumstance intervened, and during Gravely’s recruiting tour, the Korean War broke out in 1950. He remained on active duty, as it turned out, for another 30 years.

Sea Duty in the ’50s

As he extolled the virtues of naval service to prospective recruits, Gravely concluded that he did not have sufficient sea-duty experience to provide an accurate picture. So he applied for a shipboard billet. Despite the advances it had made in seeking minorities, the Navy still had some reluctant participants in the process of integration. Thus, before assigning a black officer to a ship, the Bureau of Naval Personnel queried the command to see if it would accept him. The battleship Iowa (BB-61) agreed, and Gravely reported aboard. While the ship participated in the Korean War, Gravely served as radio officer and made a good impression on his superiors. When the Iowa got to her homeport of Norfolk, the officers’ wives held a luncheon in the ship’s large wardroom and welcomed Alma to the group. Times were changing.

The next step on the young officer’s path was as communications officer of the heavy cruiser Toledo (CA-133). He arrived about the time the Korean armistice was signed, so his western Pacific deployments in that ship were in peacetime. Gravely sought to be a conning officer and arranged to stand bridge watches so he could qualify as officer of the deck during independent steaming. It was a professional step forward, though he observed that he, like other black officers of the time, were often pigeonholed in the specialty of communications. There was still another reminder that he was regarded as “different.” In one of the WestPac liberty ports, Gravely and his shipboard roommate were relaxing in a bar, and he heard snickering behind him. As he recalled many years later, “My roommate said they were trying to find out if Negroes really had tails, because that was one of the stories.”

Later in the 1950s, Gravely served ashore at the New York City headquarters of the Third Naval District and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the regular Navy. He moved from there to become operations officer of the attack cargo ship Seminole (AKA-104). He served as senior watch officer and racked up considerable time on the ship’s bridge. His two commanding officers, Captain James “Bobo” Thomson and Captain Vern Allen, were both supportive of his efforts. He particularly appreciated an exchange he overheard when a new amphibious squadron commander stepped onto the Seminole ’s quarterdeck. The commodore said, “Hey, Captain, I notice you have a colored lieutenant commander on board.”

In a sincere tone and with seeming innocence, Thomson replied: “I do? What color is he?”

A Destroyerman at Heart

As Gravely continued to grow in experience, he set his sights on destroyers. With his Seminole tour nearing its end in 1959, though, he faced an obstacle. Many of the officers in destroyers had been there since they were ensigns. Nearly 15 years after being commissioned, he had no destroyer background at all. When he applied to BuPers, he received a response saying that he would be assigned to shore duty. He wrote again and got a favorable endorsement from his skipper, Captain Allen. This time he was accepted for a sort of do-it-yourself program of training on the job. He concluded that the decision to give him the opportunity had to do not with race but rather with providing opportunities for ex-reserve officers who had entered the service in World War II and later decided to make careers of it.

The program called for Gravely to visit various destroyers to see whether they would take him aboard temporarily as a trainee. Some were more welcoming than others, but he did get a chance to learn. He shadowed the execs of those ships to see how they operated, and he went from department to department to build up his professional knowledge in weapons and engineering, since his background had been almost exclusively in operations up to then. As 1959 neared its end, Gravely still had no permanent billet, but then in January 1960 he got what he had been waiting for. The destroyer Theodore E. Chandler (DD-717) had encountered a number of problems, and a new exec was needed. Gravely got orders to report immediately, within 24 hours. The next morning Alma drove him to the pier, and he stepped aboard.

As the ship operated, including a deployment with the Seventh Fleet, Gravely picked up more seagoing experience, and then things changed. The ship was due for a FRAM (fleet rehabilitation and modernization) overhaul, which would involve a long shipyard period at Hunters Point in San Francisco. Gravely was initially concerned that he wouldn’t amass enough sea time to qualify for command. Instead, BuPers ordered the skipper to other duty, and Gravely was assigned as the temporary commanding officer for the yard period.

When he took over, he was the first African-American to command a U.S. Navy ship since Robert Smalls had done so during the Civil War. To be sure, the Theodore E. Chandler was not operating at the time, but it was a noteworthy achievement. Moreover, the shipyard commander, Rear Admiral Charles Curtze, was impressed by Gravely’s work during the overhaul and told him that good things were going to happen. Not long before the destroyer was to return to service, an assignment officer told Gravely that he was due for his own command, the radar picket destroyer escort Falgout (DER-324), based in Pearl Harbor. Gravely described his reaction on hearing the news: “I was so happy I’m not sure I heard anything else he said after that, because I was really, really overjoyed.”

The Falgout and her sisters in the DER fleet were spawned by the Cold War. They were destroyer escorts that had been built in World War II with the primary mission of antisubmarine warfare (ASW). Beefed up with improved height-finding radars, their new mission was to detect Soviet bombers approaching the United States. Under Gravely’s command, the Falgout made one patrol to the North Pacific as part of that mission. She was charged with steaming around in rough seas, keeping a lookout, and communicating with aircraft that had a similar mission. The duty took its toll on ship and men alike, emphasizing that destroyer duty is largely for the young and the fit.

During another patrol, this time south instead of north, the Falgout had a role in connection with live testing of U.S. nuclear weapons near Johnston and Christmas islands. The challenge was to fend off interlopers, partly to keep them from being exposed to the weapons’ blasts and partly to keep foreigners from learning too much. The Falgout used her radar to detect approaching ships, and the crewmen had to wear special dark glasses so their eyes wouldn’t be harmed by intense light generated by the blasts. Gravely did a test and found that the glasses were so effective that he couldn’t see the light of a match right in front of his face. But there was no trouble seeing the nuclear explosions through the lenses because of the dazzling brightness.

One incident from the period especially stuck in his memory. A Japanese fishing boat was in the area and seemed impervious to signals sent to warn her away. When she got particularly close to the destroyer escort, Gravely called on the services of a signalman in the crew. The petty officer had a Japanese wife and thus was listed as an interpreter. The signalman shouted at the boat: “ Mushi-mushi. Get the f— out of here.” It worked.

Duty in Washington and Newport

Two happy interruptions came during the course of Gravely’s command of the Falgout . First, he was selected for promotion to commander, the first black line officer in the history of the U.S. Navy to reach that rank. Second, soon after he had gotten his blues restriped, he reported to a White House reception in January 1963. The event was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by which President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in the Confederate States during the Civil War. During the reception, Gravely was in awe of the assembled guests and especially impressed when he met President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson, both of whom had been naval officers during World War II.

Later that year, Commander Gravely and Lieutenant Commander George I. Thompson became the first two black students at the Naval War College in Newport. It was a break in Gravely’s sea service and also an opportunity to expand his professional background beyond its previous concentration almost completely on shipboard duty. As he prepared for a new assignment in the Washington, D.C., area, Gravely had a call from a real estate agent who said he could arrange housing there. He and his wife were invited to a meeting in Newport. Gravely was reluctant, but Alma pushed him to go. As soon as they arrived, the real estate agents saw that the couple was black and began bailing out. Gravely later found a place to rent on his own.

In the Pentagon, Gravely again returned to the specialty of communications, this time in a joint-service command, the Defense Communications Agency. His responsibilities included the renovation of the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon and testing of the National Airborne Emergency Command Post. The latter was an airplane that would presumably be capable of taking the nation’s leadership aboard during a war and running the country from aloft—as unlikely as that scenario sounds in retrospect. The duty involved frequent flights to check communications, and a fellow officer suggested to Gravely that he ought to apply for flight pay. Gravely did so, even though he presumed the Navy would probably not be willing to provide flight pay for a destroyerman. His presumption was correct. Instead of flight pay, BuPers was willing to give him command of a full-fledged destroyer, the USS Taussig (DD-746).

Service in the Taussig

Gravely delighted in the duty. He took the ship on two deployments to Vietnam, where she served in a variety of roles, including acting as plane guard for aircraft carriers, filling a search-and-rescue station, and bombarding the shoreline of Vietnam. He loved being on the bridge during high-speed maneuvers and using the Taussig ’s guns in wartime actions. The ship exercised in ASW with a U.S. nuclear submarine. Another mission involved interruption of a port visit to Australia. The U.S. diesel submarine Tiru (SS-416) ran aground on Frederick Reef in November 1966. The Taussig sped to the scene and then served as the Tiru ’s escort to Brisbane after she was refloated.

Once the deployment to WestPac ended, the destroyer spent much of 1967 in ASW training exercises built around the carrier Yorktown (CVS-10). Later in the year, the Taussig deployed again, this time as part of the Yorktown ’s antisubmarine group. In January 1968 Gravely’s ship was rerouted to the Sea of Japan, part of a U.S. show of force in the wake of the North Koreans’ capture of the intelligence ship Pueblo (AGER-2). The frigid weather was quite a contrast to the operating climate off Vietnam. Gravely was promoted to captain during his command of the Taussig . Chaplain Dave Parham had been the first black naval officer to reach that rank, and Gravely was the first line officer.

In 1970, after more communications service ashore, Gravely became skipper of the guided-missile frigate Jouett (DLG-29). Later in her career, the ship was reclassified as a cruiser, but she was still essentially an overgrown destroyer and thus dear to Gravely’s heart. While on the West Coast, she served as flagship for the commander of the First Fleet during an exercise and put on an impressive show with her missiles. Later she deployed to the Seventh Fleet during Gravely’s watch and served as PIRAZ (positive identification radar advisory zone) ship to monitor flights of carrier planes into and out of Vietnam on their bombing runs.

The Jouett stopped briefly at Pearl Harbor on her way back to her homeport of San Diego in May 1971, near the conclusion of the deployment. Gravely went ashore to confer with his commodore before getting under way for the final leg. As he approached the ship following the visit, he heard an announcement over the public address system. Bong-bong, bong-bong, bong-bong , “ Jouett arriving.” It was customary to honor the skipper’s arrival with four bongs. When he heard six, the number rated by a rear admiral, Gravely figured someone had screwed up. Instead, when he stepped aboard, his exec, Zeke Newcomb, said: “Congratulations, admiral. You made it. You made it.” The now-experienced destroyerman thus found out that he had just been selected as the first black flag officer in the history of the U.S. Navy. The soon-to-be-commissioned namesake destroyer honors his achievement. Thousands of individuals for whom Gravely served as mentor or inspiration are his legacy.


Paul Stillwell is an independent historian and retired naval officer. He worked for thirty years at the U.S. Naval Institute as an oral historian and editor of Naval History magazine. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including four on battleships and an award-winning volume on the Navy's first African American officers, The Golden Thirteen.

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