Warship Wednesday Feb.1, 2017: The proud (and almost forgotten) Mason
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday Feb.1, 2017: The proud Mason
Here we see the only World War II U.S. Navy destroyer escort with a predominantly black enlisted crew, USS Mason DE-529, with two of her smiling bluejackets at the Boston Navy Yard, Massachusetts, 20 March 1944.
In recognition of Black History Month, which begins today, I give you the Mason‘s story.
While African-Americans served with honor in the Navy going back to the time of Washington, and even earned the Medal of Honor, per a 99-page 1947-era history of “negroes” in the Navy complied by the service:
Following World War I, enlistment of Negroes seems to have been discontinued by BuNav. Recruiting of Negroes as messmen may have been kept open formally, but at least in practice only Filipinos were recruited for this branch from about 1919-1922 until December, 1932. About December 1932, active recruiting of Negroes for the messman branch began and this was the only branch in which Negroes could enlist until recruiting for general service was opened to them as of June 1, 1942,
It should be noted that on 30 June 1942, there were just 5,026 African-Americans in the regular Navy– almost all of them mess attendants.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Mess Attendant Doris Miller earned his Navy Cross the hard way– carrying stricken fellow Sailors to safety on the battleship USS West Virginia, helping aid the mortally wounded Captain of the ship, and finally manning a .50 caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun until he ran out of ammunition and was ordered to abandon ship.
Commended by SECNAV Knox himself, Miller went back to sea, first on the carrier Enterprise, then the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (!) and was later killed when the jeep carrier USS Liscome Bay‘s magazine went up in 1943 following a Japanese torpedo strike.
With all this in mind, on 16 January 1942, Knox– prodded by FDR, FLOTUS, and the director of the NAACP– asked the General Board to submit a plan for taking 5000 African-Americans for billets other than in the messman branch, requesting further that the Board state their ideas as to the type of duty, assignments, etc., “which will permit the Navy to best utilize the services of these men.”
The study came to the conclusion that, barring mess rates, blacks should not serve in the general fleet but could be utilized in “service units throughout the naval establishment (including shore activities of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard); yard craft and other small craft employed in Naval District local defense forces; shore based units for other parts of District local defense forces; selected Coast Guard cutters and small details for Coast Guard Captains of the Port; construction battalions; composite Marine battalions”
For instance, the 20th, 34th and 80th Naval Construction Battalions (Seabee) were almost all-black, with white officers and SCNOs.By December 31, 1943, there were 101,573 blacks on active duty in various rates, 37,981 of whom were Stewards Mates (about one in three), and the service moved to expand their “experiment.”
In late 1943, the Navy decided to trial a pair of segregated warships, the 173-foot PC-461-class submarine chaser USS PC 1264, with 65 officers and men; and the subject of our tale, the 289-foot Evarts-class destroyer escort, USS Mason (DE-529), with the much more significant complement of 198– 160 of which were to be African-American, including one officer, Lt.(.j.g) James Hair.
Envisioned to be a class of a staggering 105 vessels, the Evarts-class DE’s were plucky 1,360-ton ships referred to at the time as the “battleships of the anti-submarine war.” Equipped with a quartet of GM Model 16-278A diesel engines, they weren’t especially fast (just 19-knots when wide open, though they were designed originally for 24), or especially well-armed (just a few 3″/50 Mk22 guns, some smaller pieces for AAA defense, and an array of depth charge devices), but they didn’t have to be to escort convoys and chase off German and Japanese subs.
Mason was named after Ensign Newton Henry Mason, D.D.S., U.S. Naval Air Corps, who gave his last full measure at the ripe old age of 23 when he flew his F4F Wildcat from the deck of USS Lexington during the Battle of the Coral Sea and was never seen again.
He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (posthumously) and was remembered by a memorial service at Columbia University, his alma mater. Mason’s mother, Mrs. David Mason, was at the launching ceremony for our destroyer escort, 17 November 1943 at Boston Navy Yard.
Commissioned 20 March 1944, Mason‘s crew was mainly African-American, who had been trained in the months leading up to manning the rails.
“I just wanted to get in the Navy with all those ships,” said Gordon D. Buchanan, a veteran of Mason (DE 529). “All I wanted was to go to sea. I didn’t know what blacks were doing at sea, I just wanted to join and fight for my country. I am a patriot.”
By 30 June 1944, a total of 142,306 African-Americans were in the Navy, of whom 48,524 were Steward’s Mates (about 33%).
Following her shakedown cruise, Mason escorted an Eastbound convoy to the Azores in July.
Crossing back to the West, she arrived in New York and helped escort Convoy NY119 in September into October, where she encountered a terrible storm at sea and the Mason carried her 20 merchantmen to Falmouth, England, though she was barely afloat herself.
According to the Navy:
During the worst North Atlantic storm of the century, the 290-foot long Mason was serving as escort to a convoy of merchant ships bound for England. The strength of the storm forced the convoy to break up, and Mason was chosen to escort a section of ships to their destination.
With land in sight, Mason’s deck split, threatening the structural integrity of the ship. Emergency repairs were made quickly and efficiently, and Mason returned immediately to assist the remainder of the convoy.
Mason’s crew had accomplished what the Atlanta Daily Press described on the day of the ship’s commissioning as an “opportunity to show the world that they are capable.”
“We were there to prove ourselves,” said Lorenzo A. Dufau, another Mason veteran. “It’s wonderful to know I played a small role in giving others opportunity.”
For saving their ship and continuing their mission, the Mason crew was recommended for commendations by their captain and the convoy commander. The commendations were never awarded.
Repaired, she was soon back to work.
By December, she was part of Task Force 64, headed to the Med and called at Oran in January 1945. Just four days out of that port, Mason had a contact, to which “She rang up full speed with all battle stations manned to attack the presumptive submarine, rammed, and dropped depth charges.”
Though the contact proved to be an abandoned derelict, the surface action showed the benefit of training– scores of other ships during the war plastered the marine life of the day chasing ghost contacts.
Escorting two more convoys to Europe before VE Day, Mason was later used briefly for sonar testing in Bermuda before being decommissioned at Charleston, 12 October 1945 and placed in mothballs there.
Stricken the next month, she was sold for scrapping at Charleston, S.C. to Mr. Thomas Harris of Barber, N.J.
As the war reached its climax, by 30 June 1945, the Navy counted on active duty 165,500 African-American enlisted personnel. 75,500 of these were Steward’s Mates (about 45%).
Mason‘s cousin, PC-1264, was honored by being selected as one of 47 warships for a review of the fleet by President Truman on Navy Day, 27 October 1945 and remained in service until 7 February 1946, when she was decommissioned.
On 26 July 1947, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, officially desegregating the Armed Forces.
The tale of these two ships was almost lost to time, with 67 surviving crewmembers of USS Mason only being issued a citation for their harrowing storm at sea in 1994 at the hands of President Clinton.
In 1995, author Mary Pat Kelly chronicled the Mason and some of her crew in the book, Proudly We Served: The Men of the USS Mason.
Kelly went on in 2004 to write and direct a film version of the book, Proud.
In 2009, Signalman First Class Lorenzo DuFau, the last surviving crew member, introduced the screening of the film at the Buffalo International Film Festival. Actor Ossie Davis, in his last screen role, played an older DuFau.
As for Hair, one of the “Golden Thirteen” black officers in WWII, he left the Navy in 1946 and became a social worker of some note in New York, dying there in 1992. The U.S. Naval Institute has some 220 pages of transcripts from interviews done late in his life with archivists.
Though the Mason herself was not preserved, in 1998, SECNAV John H. Dalton named an Arleigh Burke Class destroyer the USS MASON (DDG-87) “in order to mark the contributions of USS MASON DE 529, Sailors’ equality and desegregation in Today’s Navy.”
Displacement: 1,140 short tons (1,030 tonnes)
Length: 289 ft. 5 in (88.21 m)
Beam: 35 ft. 1 in (10.69 m)
Draft: 8 ft. 3 in (2.51 m)
Speed: 19 knots (39 km/h; 24 mph)
Complement: 156 officers and men (as designed)
3 × 3″/50 caliber guns
4 × 1.1″/75 caliber guns
9 × Oerlikon 20mm cannon
2 × depth charge tracks
8 × depth charge projector
1 × Hedgehog-type depth charge projector, up to 160 depth charges of all types could be carried.
If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International
They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find http://www.warship.org/membership.htm
The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.
With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.
PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.
I’m a member, so should you be!