The Golden Thirteen – First Black Men to Be Made Officers In The United States Navy

This is another of the 20th-century American stories about the realities and difficulties that were part of the history of segregation and racial prejudice and how it was experienced, challenged, and corrected in our nation’s military services. It is specifically the story of how the United States Navy was challenged to face the issue and how 16 men helped to change the Navy and the prospects for Black people to serve both in the general ranks and in the officer ranks, forever.

Most of us have heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, or the Montford Point Marines, or maybe even General Patton’s Black Panther tank unit, but as a Navy Hospital Corpsman who went to Great Lakes Naval Training Center (GLNTC) for both boot camp and Hospital Corps School, I had never heard about this group of dedicated, courageous, and accomplished Black men who were chosen to become the first to be trained as officers in the United States Navy and who went through Officer Training School at GLNTC just 25 years before I was there.

Photo: Wikipedia/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
“A Company of Negro recruits which has been entered in the ‘Hall of Fame’ at the Great Lakes, Illinois Naval Training Station”

The United States Navy had long been negative toward letting Black people serve in its ranks. Black sailors had fought on Navy ships during the Civil War and WWI, but from 1919 to 1833, the Navy suspended their enlistment. When they were again allowed to enlist in the Navy in 1933, they were not allowed to be trained in ratings like electricians, or machinists, because the Navy insisted that they only be allowed to work as messmen, limited to serving meals and shining shoes.

But by the late 1930s, the military was getting a lot of pressure from civil rights groups and others to give Black people fairer opportunities and treatment. An article on the website Politico revealed that they were met with the difficulties of an intransigent bureaucracy that was concerned more with “efficiency” than with equality. The Navy Secretary at the time was “certain that integration would bring disaster,” and most of the admirals were “adamant that worthy Black men could not be found in the whole of the United States.” They even used the excuse that problems and difficulties would arise between Black and White men, given the close living quarters on a typical Navy ship.

In January of 1942, only a month after the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, the Navy’s General Board, made up of admirals, met with the Navy Secretary in Washington, D.C., to discuss the possibility of Black men being allowed to be trained for general service ratings. President Roosevelt overruled their findings, and, over the next 18 months, thousands of Black men were trained as quartermasters, machinists, and electricians.

Photo: Wikipedia/U.S. Navy

Toward the end of 1943, there were still no Black officers in the United States Navy. Adlai Stevenson, a U.S. Senator, convinced the then Navy Secretary Frank Knox, who was known to be a man who loved efficiency, “that keeping Black men out of the officer corps was now unquestionably inefficient.” In January of 1944, a group of 16 Black men were brought together at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, though, at the time, none of them knew why they were being brought there. Some of them even thought that they might be in trouble but could not figure out why.

A white officer by the name of Daniel W. Armstrong met them and asked them a simple question: “Do you know why you are here?” That question was met with silence. He went on, “Well, the Navy has decided to commission Negroes as officers in the United States Navy, and you have been selected to attend an officer introduction school.” According to Paul Stillwell, who had collected and edited oral history from the original 16 men, “That was one of the most radical decisions the Navy ever made.”

These original 16 candidates were gathered together from training schools and shore installations from around the country. They did not know each other before then, but it became universally felt and known among them that they were given both a privilege and a heavy burden, and if Black men would ever be given the chance to lead or command a ship in the U.S. Navy, they would have to succeed.

Photo: Picryl/The U.S. National Archives
Jesse Arbor of the “Golden Thirteen” addresses crew members and guests during a Black History Week celebration aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS CARL VINSON (CVN-70).

A book written by Dan Goldberg entitled “Golden Thirteen: How Black Men Won the Right to Wear Navy Gold” drew upon the oral history compiled by Paul Stillwell, along with original interviews, archival records and news clippings. It tells the full story of these men for the first time.

These 16 men succeeded brilliantly in their battle against racism in the Navy. They were united in their desire to win that battle. For example, “lights out” (bedtime) was at 10:30 every night, but these 16 men would go to the “head” (Navy term for the bathroom), and they would study that day’s lessons and prepare for the next day before “hitting the rack.” They weren’t going to “be a party to tokenism,” according to Ensign Samuel Edward Barnes, one of the 16.

These men proved to be self-disciplined and self-restrained, though they encountered many events of actual racism from White officers and enlisted men during their training. They did not “take the bait” and lose their self-control or their dignity. In fact, their grades at the end of the training school were higher than their White counterparts in officer training. This disturbed the higher-ups so much that they required them to take the final exam over again. They did, and they scored even higher the second time, passing it with a 3.89 out of 4.0.

Photo: Picryl/The U.S. National Archives
Members of the “Golden Thirteen” prepare to cut a cake during a Black History Week celebration aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS CARL VINSON (CVN-70).

In the end, the Navy decided to commission 12 of the original class as ensigns and one as a warrant officer. No reasons were given for not commissioning the other three men or for why one was made a warrant officer. These men, who had been given the opportunity to open a door for service as officers in the United States Navy to future Black officers, could now wear Navy Gold like their White counterparts, but without the same privileges. There were no integrated officers’ quarters for example. But they had accomplished a monumental goal in the history of the United States Navy and torn down another barrier to equality in the long struggle for full equality in the military and in American society.

In 1977, the original group gathered together for a reunion in Berkeley, California. It was there that one of them coined the term “Golden Thirteen.” That term now has entered history along with the “Red Tails” of the Tuskegee Airmen and the “Montford Point Marines” and the “Black Panthers” of General Patton’s tank corps.

As a Navy/Marine Corps veteran, I am honored to be able to pass on this story about the Golden Thirteen. We owe those original 16 men our honor, our respect, and our eternal thanks for their contribution to the Navy and to American society. Bravo Zulu, Golden Thirteen!

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