During World War II, 150,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Navy, including women who were accepted into the Women’s Reserve of the United States Navy (WAVES) in 1944. The Navy commissioned the first group of 12 officers in March 1944 and by 1945 a total of 60 men had been commissioned. President Truman ordered the integration of the armed forces in 1948. In 1949, Wesley A. Brown became the first African American to graduate from the Naval Academy.
Aboard the USS NORTH CAROLINA, African Americans served the officers as cooks and stewards and also had battle stations
The Messman Branch was responsible for feeding and serving officers. It was a racially segregated part of the U.S. Navy, where white men could not serve.
Mess attendants served meals to the admiral’s, captain’s, wardroom, and warrant officers’ messes.
As of January 1942, there were 42 men in the Messman Branch on the NORTH CAROLINA: 4 Officer stewards, 4 Officer Cooks and 34 Mess Attendants.
The rates of officer steward and officer cook were dropped in 1943.
As of June 1945, there were 49 men in the Stewards Branch: 2 Chief Stewards, 6 Stewards, 1 Chief Cook, 5 Cooks and 35 Steward’s Mates.
During the summer midshipman’s cruises in 1946 and 1947, additional steward’s mates were assigned to the ship. Midshipmen are Naval Academy students who will become commissioned officers upon graduation.
Learn more in the book THE MESSMAN CHRONICLES: African-Americans in the U.S. Navy, 1932-1943 by Richard E. Miller.
The NORTH CAROLINA had between 40 and 60 Swiss Oerlikon 20mm anti-aircraft guns. Four men operated each air-cooled gun: gunner, spotter, trunnion operator, and loader.
All the guns required ammunition handlers during battle. Sailors from different rates were assigned to the guns to supply the ammunition from the magazines and/or clipping rooms. Battle stations for Stewards Mates were in the 16-inch and 40mm gun magazines, the 20mm clipping rooms, and in Damage Control Repair Units.
Steward’s Mates 2/c John Seagraves was an officer’s cook in the Wardroom Pantry. His battle station was in a 16-inch magazine along with other men in the Stewards Branch. He asked the Executive Officer if he and other Steward’s Mates could be 20mm gunners. Their petition was granted, and eight men began training on two 20mm gun mounts in the fall of 1944. The mounts were in Marine Sergeant Harry Clark’s sector.
In April 1945, the Battleship was with the task group supporting the Okinawa operation. Japanese kamikazes were a constant threat. In one engagement Harry Simpson (trunnion operator) spied the enemy flying toward the NORTH CAROLINA. When given the order to fire, John Seagraves (gunner) squeezed the trigger. The 20mm and 40mm batteries opened fire. The plane crashed into the sea narrowly missing the Battleship.
The men returned to their duty stations but were quickly called back to the mounts to stage the event. But in the re-creation (photo at top) the men were not in their original positions.
“The steward mates who manned the 20mm gun mounts during enemy air attacks, [were] always the last to stop firing,” recalled Ensign Albert Dunn.
John Seagraves served on the Ship from May 1944 to December 1945. On BB55 he asked to be the officers’ breakfast cook. He began by cooking eggs any style the officers wanted and hash brown potatoes. Soon Seagraves was preparing entire breakfasts and cooking his own meals as well. Before long he was helping with the lunch menu too. Working with the head chef, Seagraves was doing a lot of cooking and learning how the food system worked.
Many years later Seagraves and his wife, Mildred, built a successful catering business in Atlanta. According to his son, David, his father “approached his life with honorable rebellion, saying no to anyone who had a plan for him when he had plans for himself.”
Learn more in the book Uncommon Hero: The John Seagraves Story by David Seagraves, available from the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA Ship’s Store (call 910-399-9163 or visit the Battleship) and online.
Roosevelt Flenard, Mess Attendant 2/c, officially served on the Battleship from April 9, 1941, to October 15, 1942, but he was part of the pre-commissioning crew. “Our duties were to clean officers rooms, clean all the silver, swab & buff the Wardroom floor, pantry and galley, and to clean the mess room.”
Rosie was in his berthing compartment when the torpedo hit just below them on September 15, 1942. “I was thrown against some lockers. I ran for the hatch leading to the 2nd deck. Lights were out. I was scared, shaking and praying. There were about 25 of us trapped on 2nd deck. I looked up and saw a hatch with a manhole in the center of it for emergency escaping.” They made it to the Main Deck.
Learn more in the book Someone Paved the Way: Roosevelt Flenard, WWII Sailor, available from the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA Ship’s Store (call 910-399-9163 or visit the Battleship) and online.
Discover more about the African American experience in the U.S. Navy and the trailblazers who forged a path, from the Naval History and Heritage Command. Click here for more.