By Elizabeth M. Collins, Defense Media Activity
Sailors called the storm the worst of the century, perhaps recorded history. Frigid, 50-foot waves rocked Convoy NY 119, tossing Navy ships and Army tugboats alike into the air like toy boats. It went on for days in October 1944, the type of weather to make even seasoned mariners turn green while calling on the gods and patron saints of the sea for protection.
This story was originally published in February.
Produced by Willie C. Kendrick III, Defense Media Activity
Wind speeds reached 90 miles an hour by one calculation. Waves that crashed over decks turned instantly to ice. The destroyer escort USS Mason (DE 529) documented a 70-degree roll. About 15 of the convoy's 50-odd tugboats, barges and oilers - many never designed for a trans-oceanic voyage, let alone the hostile north Atlantic - simply disappeared into the gray, swirling drink below. About 20 souls would be lost forever, according to the Warfare History Network.
Those who survived, historians said, did so out of a combination of courage and skill and a lot of luck. Many of the Sailors and merchantmen owed their lives to the Mason, which led the convoy to safety on the British coast.
A Second War
But Mason, and especially its crew, had another battle to fight: not the weather, not even the Nazi U-boats that stalked almost every trans-Atlantic Allied convoy. That insidious foe was racism. The military was highly segregated at the time. In fact, until mid-1942, black men could only serve in the Navy as cooks and stewards - officers' servants, essentially. They could also be stevedores, manual labors who unloaded cargo from ships, according to the National World War II Museum. Earlier in the 20th century, they would also have held even more unpleasant jobs, said Dr. Regina Akers, historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command.
It takes time not only to change the policy, but to change the culture of the service that's accepting and embracing that policy change. ... It started in World War II in our Navy." - Akers
It took years. African-American leaders spent much of the war fighting to get black men in combat. They struggled to overcome a stereotype that black servicemen would simply turn tail and run at the first sign of danger, even as their young men proved themselves over and over again in combat. Cook 3rd Class Dorie Miller grabbed a machine gun and defended his ship at Pearl Harbor, for example. Mess Attendant 1st Class Leonard Roy Harmon sacrificed his life to protect a wounded shipmate during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. (Both men received Navy Crosses for their actions.)
Efforts to ensure equality cumulated in the Double V Campaign, a term coined by an African-American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, to signify that there were two victories worth fighting for: victory abroad and victory over racism at home. According to the New York Public Library, Double V Clubs sent care packages to servicemen, sold war bonds, met with businessmen about nondiscriminatory hiring practices, wrote congressmen to protest poll taxes and conducted demonstrations in a precursor to the civil rights movement.
African-American activists also had an influential ally in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She worked throughout the war to ensure that black men and women had, if not equality, at least opportunities to prove themselves. That opportunity came to the Navy with the 290-foot USS Mason and PC-1264, a submarine chaser. The two ships were the only vessels to be crewed by African-American Sailors during World War II, albeit under the command of white officers and chiefs.
Named after Newton Henry Mason, an aviator lost during the Battle of the Coral Sea and commissioned in March 1944, according to Naval History and Heritage Command, Mason was nicknamed "Eleanor's Folly," and was an experiment Navy leaders expected to fail, many veterans believed.
"I said, I really don't want to go into the Navy because I don't want to be a cook or a person who makes beds and stuff like that. So just before I was called in [for the draft] ... the Navy changed and stopped discriminating so you could go in and be in the seaman branch," remembered Radioman 3rd Class Merwin Peters in an oral history for the Tacoma, Washington, Community History Project.
Signalman 1st Class Lorenzo Dufau was from New Orleans and no stranger to racism and Jim Crow. Still, he didn't let that stop him from volunteering to defend his country.
"If you call yourself a man, you defend your home and country," he said in an oral history for the Veterans History Project. "I felt that if I can get in and make it possible to be helping to protect this place, I would also help open doors for my son."
Unfortunately, racism followed him. The Navy set up a segregated training facility, Camp Robert Smalls, near Great Lakes, Illinois. Later, the Mason's crew was housed in primitive Quonset huts with stewards' mates, far from the mess hall, while other DE men had brand new barracks. Nor were African-American Sailors allowed in the almost-empty base movie theater one night, simply because all of the black seats were already filled. Some of the Mason officers put a stop to the unfair treatment, declaring "they'll be treated as any DE Sailor on this base," and had the men moved into new quarters, Dufau remembered.
But it still stung. To avoid confrontations with white crews, Mason Sailors sometimes couldn't get liberty, and when they were allowed ashore, they were forbidden from using USO clubs. Instead, they were repeatedly told at the door, they had to make do with far more Spartan "Negro" clubs nearby. "If you were black, forget it, get back," Peters noted.
While the men loved their captain, Lt. Cmdr. William Blackford, some of their own chiefs subjected the Sailors to treatment that was straight out of the old South. Dufau remembered that Blackford eventually kicked most of the chiefs off the ship, telling colleagues he would match his crew against anyone. He wasn't there to solve a race issue, he told his men, but to run a Navy ship.
"He said, "As long as you do your jobs and keep your nose clean and don't get in any kind of trouble ... everything will be fine,'" Dufau recalled.
Veterans remembered only one place where they felt like Americans and not second class citizens: Belfast, Northern Ireland, where they had pulled in to refuel and resupply after their first convoy. They danced with Irish girls and downed pints down at the pub with local blokes. And they reveled in a new nickname: not, "N---rs" or even "Tan Yanks," but simply "Yanks," like any other American servicemen.
"A lady apologized because the sun wasn't shining. ... We couldn't believe it. ... The people were so nice to us. We had to go 3,000 miles from home to be treated like humans," said Dufau. It was like being liberated, agreed Peters.
Storm of the Century
Both men were aboard Mason for Convoy 119. Dufau called it "the strangest convoy we had ever seen," explaining that the far-from-seaworthy tugboats and barges restricted the convoy's speed to about five knots. Tensions were high, he remembered. Intelligence reports warned that German submarines intended to intercept the convoy. At one point, Mason's crew stood on general quarters for 24 hours, expecting an immanent attack.
The weather, Dufau said, saved them. Then it turned on them.
"That was an ordeal. I've never been on the ocean in such a storm," said Dufau. "The vessel was lifted up by one wave and you'd be on top of that wave and ... you'd slide down the wave. You could hardly imagine the size of that wave. ... I think about three or four tugboats were swallowed. The water would just take them down."
Quartermaster 2nd Class Charles Divers remembered the storm as one of the scariest experiences of his life. "We went over 70 degrees," he told historian Mary Pat Kelly, author of Proudly we Served: The Men of the USS Mason. "I watched the inclinometer and thought, 'This is it. Ninety degrees is a flat over. How are we going to come back from 70?' But she held!"
It proved impossible to keep the convoy together. USS Mason received orders to take the first group into Falmouth, England. They made it, but the ship's deck plate split from the constant pressure of the surging sea. Two damage controlmen braved the icy deck and lashing rain in lifejackets to weld the deck together.
"If they neglected to take care of it, the storm would cause that ship to split," explained Dufau. "The water was going down to the motor rooms, so they had to get that job done."
Then Mason returned to the storm to gather about a dozen more of Convoy 119's scattered ships, even as two British warships turned back due to the conditions. It took days, but most of the boats eventually made it to port, their crews lucky not to join almost 20 shipmates on the ocean floor.
"Every day we would go down to chow and usually talk about which ship had gone down and how many people had been lost," said Peters, explaining it was a practice the crew maintained for the rest of the war. "They were all young and nobody ever thought they were going to die. Everybody had the attitude that they were going to survive this."
Lost then Found Again
Impressed with the crew's bravery, both Blackford and the commander of Convoy 119 recommended the men receive Navy commendations. Instead, they were forgotten, the Mason sold for scrap within two years of victory.
It was a common refrain for black World War II veterans who, more often than not, found their bravery downplayed at best and buried at worst, according to historians. In fact, it wasn't until the men of the Mason reconnected in their 70s and 80s and Kelly told their story that people remembered they ever existed. The men themselves didn't even know they should have been honored. They were simply doing their duty, holding themselves to the highest of standards to prove that black men were just as good as anyone else.
"It was real noteworthy to even tell people that you were on a ship and that your ship had the same kinds of responsibilities as all the other ships in the Navy," remembered Peters.
In the mid-1990s, survivors of the crew finally got their commendations, presented by then-Secretary of the Navy John Dalton, who said, "It's an important part of Navy history that needs to be told."
Can you imagine? The secretary of the Navy, on camera, apologizing to us?" - Dufau
President Bill Clinton also honored them as part of a ceremony commemorating African-American contributions during the war, according to news reports. (In 1997, Clinton also awarded Medals of Honor to seven black, World War II Army veterans, hoping to partially undo half a century's wrongs.) There was a book and a documentary and a movie and, in 2003, another USS Mason (DDG 87), named in honor of the little destroyer escort that could, according to Naval History and Heritage Command.
"I become emotional when I realize the role that I was picked to play in developing America," Dufau, who donated his dog tag to DDG 87, told crewmembers of the modern Mason during an African-American History Month observance in 2012. "You all don't know how beautiful it is to see young people, all together, developing a friendship, and more than just a friendship - shipmates."
"I would do it all over again if I had the choice," he said in the oral history. "I never did develop any bitterness or hatred or anger toward anyone. ... Hate is a sickness and it will destroy you."
Editor's Note: To learn more about African-Americans in the Navy, read "Remembering a Lost Hero: Black Medal of Honor recipient discovered after some 130 years and "Breaking Down the Walls of Segregation: Veterans Remember First All-Black Navy Band."