James Hair Oral History Available
James Edward Hair (1915-1992), whose father and grandparents were born slaves, grew up in the South and encountered more than his share of racial prejudice. His candid recounting of his life story includes the tragic lynching in 1935 of a brother-in-law who had been his mentor. In 1944 he was among the U.S. Navy’s first group of African-American officers, known as the Golden 13.
Hair enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and was serving as a quartermaster in a tugboat crew when he was selected for officer training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station. After his commissioning, he commanded the yard tug YTB-215, then joined the crew of the USS Mason (DE-529), a ship with an all-black enlisted crew and, until he came on board, all white officers. He later served as first lieutenant in the tank landing ship LST-1026.
Hair left the Navy in 1946. He later earned his master’s degree from Fordham University and was a social worker for more than 30 years. After his naval service, Hair lost touch with his fellow Golden 13 members. In the following excerpt from his oral history, he recalls how he reconnected nearly 40 years later:
I was sitting at my home in Hollis, New York, on Wednesday, 14th of April 1982—I remember it so well—reading The New York Times, and I saw a picture of all these buddies of mine, the Golden 13, out to sea on a cruise. The headline said, “First Black Navy Officers Hold Reunion at Sea.” It said there were only eight surviving members, and they were all at the reunion. So I pinched myself and said, “I know damn well I’m alive.”
Right away I tried to call the guy at the Times. But then I thought, “I’m going to call the Navy. Not just the Navy, but Navy Intelligence.” So I did, and told them about the article in the paper and how I wasn’t with them. They questioned me for a little bit, then took my name and address and all that. I guess they did some checking to make sure I wasn’t a crackpot.
For the rest of that day, I must have gotten 15 or 20 calls, each wanting to know the same things: where I was born, where I entered the Navy, what ships I had served in. It turned out that I came to be “lost” from the group because for a period of time, my last name had been recorded as “Hare.” After all these calls, I got one from someone who said, “By golly, you are James Hair, aren’t you?” And then, “Can you travel? Can you be ready in three hours? We’ll have someone there to pick you up.” Sure enough, within three hours a Navy car pulled up and took me to LaGuardia. I flew down to Norfolk, and they put me up in a motel. The next morning I was flown out to meet my buddies on the destroyer Kidd (DDG-993) at sea.
They had just told the guys I was coming—and there weren’t many serious moments after that. As soon as I left the helicopter, my buddies started hugging and back-slapping and all that stuff. The Navy had been getting the group together regularly since 1977, but I hadn’t seen some of these guys since 1944. We had a grand time—it was good to be back in the fold.
In 1986 historian Paul Stillwell began interviewing the surviving Golden 13 members for the Naval Institute’s Oral History Program. The last of the group, Frank Sublett, died in September 2006. With the availability of James Hair’s volume, all but one history—that of Jesse Arbor—has been completed.
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