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UNCOMMON HERO, The John Seagraves Story.

On May 21, 2012, I had the opportunity to read the latest CHINFO CLIPS. As I was scrolling down to the last headline (before my in-depth reading of each story), I saw an article written by Martha Quinn, with the Raleigh, N.C. "News and Observer."

The title of her story was, "USS North Carolina Reunion Brings Back Memories of Segregation." I credit her for such a well-written article because it was my introduction to a fellow shipmate that had not only gone before me, but also paved the way in a segregated Navy so a future generation would not have to endure any of the blatant disadvantages that minorities endured during World War II.


Martha Quinn's article stirred such an interest that I had to purchase the book while deployed. In today's Navy, leadership pays tribute to all those who have gone before us. Unfortunately, there was no collective "Us" during World War II. African Americans, Filipinos, and other minorities were extremely limited in their duties as Sailors. About 95 percent of them could only enlist as Boatswain's Mates, Stewards, Messman, Cooks, and other duties within the Messmen Branch ratings. During this time period not only was the Navy separate and not equal, but we had very limited records or key-eyed witness accounts relating to those Sailors who served within the Messmen Branch ratings that displayed, "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty." These disenfranchised Sailors were forced to operate in the background, and learned to maneuver around segregated shipboard customs. In their own right, we should recognize them as heroes per these conditions that challenged their commitment in fighting for their country and for their Navy.

David Seagraves paints a vivid picture of the challenges his father faced as a young 16-year-old boy in the segregated south of the United States. " The U.S. Navy had labor issues in the midst of the war effort and they needed black enlisted men to replace Filipinos in their Steward's ranks." A fact and a story well documented from the chapters of, The Messman Chronicles, by Richard Miller, whose work is cited in the author's bibliography.

Today's young Sailors cannot relate or comprehend all of the challenges that John Seagraves had to face as a Navy Messmen, a Steward's Mate, and as a Navy Cook. His boot camp experience alone could be equally viewed as that of a Prisoner of War (POW). In fact, even the German POWs ate first and enjoyed other privileges than Sailors who were that of African and Asian-Pacific ancestry, but in most cases were full-fledged American citizens.

As a Steward, John had to report "to the officer's quarters, the officer told him what his duties would be. The list included shining his shoes, making his bed, ironing his uniforms, and delivering fresh water every day, everything a servant would do."

John's frustration at the Navy and its customs that were imbedded with the same segregation he left the south for became an everyday struggle. On one end of the spectrum, this Sailor stood the watch proudly as he was able to provide for himself and see the world. On the other end of the spectrum, it was becoming increasingly difficult for John to see a future in his current enlistment let alone a career in the Navy. As he looked up within the enlisted ranks to the Chief Petty Officers, he couldn't ignore the negative stigma of working towards becoming "The Chief."

"Black Chief Petty Officers directly supervised black stewards, who worked for the officers individually in most cases, and Messmen who served in the dining areas. No matter how smart or how well educated they were, black chiefs could only command black stewards and black mess attendants and could not give a command to a white Sailor even if the white Sailor was below him in rank." Therefore, a large percentage of Sailors within the Messmen branch were deeply discouraged in thinking they could make the Navy a career equal to their Caucasian counterparts.

When Steward's Mate Seagraves reported aboard the USS North Carolina (BB 55) on July 11, 1942, he realized that this was not just any old type of ship. He had orders to "THE SHOWBOAT," and the beginning of a journey within the elite "Battleship Community," better known as "The Muscle of the Fleet." It was the aboard North Carolina where John was impacted by "Profound Navy Leadership." A leadership that able to produce a cohesive unit that never felt their "actions were the result of desperation or danger. Instead, the feeling was more like quiet urgency, professionalism, excellence." In this Sailor's eyes, the Executive Officer (XO) was the most respected officer on the ship, and made one of the biggest impacts to John Seagraves.

Cmdr. Stryker was the XO. "Stryker didn't see color. He saw Navy personnel and he led with an even keel." It was under Cmdr. Stryker that Steward's Mate Seagraves was proficiently trained to support the ship during General Quarters (GQ). During GQ, one could find John not in the galley or running errands for officers, this Sailor was decks below in the powder handling room, supporting the Battleship's big guns.

John didn't stop there, he wanted to be a part of the fight, and later was able to become the triggerman on the 20mm guns. Note: "John's request led to the first black Sailors to ever fire any kind of armament in the ship's history." We learn that not only did a small group of Stewards and Messmen fire guns, but Steward's Mate Seagraves and the rest of his team shot down a Japanese plane who was heading directly towards the North Carolina in which these heroes preserved the ship and saved more than 2,600 lives in the line of war-time duty.

Shipboard stories that are detailed in, Uncommon Hero: The John Seagraves Story show the reader, Navy leadership and Sailors that in addition to Navy Cross recipients Cook Third Class "Dorie" Miller, Cook First Class William Pinckney, and Mess Attendant First Class Leonard Roy Harmon, there are countless others who displayed a variety of heroic actions whose stories were never fully recognized by leadership, never acknowledged due to the lack of documentation, and could not be whole heartedly supported due to the negative impacts of segregation per the design of the Messman Branch.

Even to this day, historians and our elected officials still often debate and have submitted several proposals to upgrade the awards given to those Sailors (similar awards that were lesser in statute than their Caucasian counterparts). In addition, there have been a couple of proposals submitted to fully recognize all Navy Messmen and Stewards in honoring their service and commitment. A recent honorary celebration was conducted on Sept. 17, 2008 at the Naval Academy for all Sailors who served as Messmen and Stewards. The Naval Academy presented a bronze plaque marker within King Hall, the place in which these Sailors once served the Brigade of Midshipmen.

As a Navy Culinary Specialist, I am in awe of the trials and tribulations our unique rating has undergone, and I have the deepest respect for the "Trailblazers" who sacrificed so much for their country, their loved ones, and who have made an instrumental impact for those that have the opportunity to serve after them in our great Navy.

I hope that we, who currently serve, learn to respect and honor these heroes like John Seagraves, a Sailor who mistakenly was labeled "Uncommon," like so many others, due to the color of his skin and the thankless jobs he performed. The Navy will always be indebted for John Seagraves' service and sacrifice. We will honor him and countless others daily as we recite the Sailor's Creed as one body, one diverse team, and as one voice in unison as we close the Sailor's Creed with, "I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all."

By CSCM (SW) Thaddeus Wright

Assistant Food Service Officer, USS Enterprise (CVN 65)
COPYRIGHT 2012 U.S. Department of the Navy, Supply Systems Command
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Author:Wright, Thaddeus
Publication:Navy Supply Corps Newsletter
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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