A chat with my dad about being one of the first black USN weapons officers

USN LogoThis post follows on from yesterday’s post, Joseph Sheffey – one of the first African American weapons officers in the US Navy.

I had a great conversation with my dad today about his early years in the USN. I’ve finally achieved the knack of framing questions in a way that he can answer them. Again, much of what I’d like to know would be deemed as ‘classified’ and, as such, he wouldn’t be able to provide an answer. It is certainly a challenge when trying to ask a question in such a way that a person can not only answer but answer in a meaningful way.

So this is what I learned:

  1. I asked my father what it was like being an African American in a position of authority that commanded respect on board a submarine in the 50s and the 60s – and then being treated as second class citizen as soon as he stepped foot onto American soil.Answer: It was a twilight world. There was life on the base and that was an extension of life on board the sub. The respect and authority you had on board a sub extended to life on the base and in the housing compound provided by the navy. That respect was extended to your mother because she was a Chief’s wife. Not everyone would have been happy about that but that respect and authority had to be given.

    It would have been easy for me to simply stay in that world. It would have been an easy thing to do. I don’t think people would have blamed me for it. But that wasn’t the real world. You kids needed to live life outside of that protective cocoon.

    Now life in the civilian world, well, that was something else. It was what it was. I remember when I was in training in Norfolk, Virginia in the 50s. I would be in uniform and I would refuse to sit in the back of the bus. Why should I? I was helping defend my country and I just refused to do it. I didn’t care that people threatened to beat me or call the police. I simply wouldn’t do it. It didn’t matter if I was with white crew members or not. In the end, those people just let me be. I sat where I wanted to sit. I knew then and there that I didn’t want to stay in the South.  I didn’t want to be stationed at a base in the South. I didn’t want my family growing up in that environment.

    [My note: This last part was understandable. He’d been born and raised in New Jersey. The 30s and 40s neighborhood he’d grown up in was a close and tight-knit working class community of Italian, Irish, Jewish and African American families living and working together. He has fond memories even now of everyone simply getting along together with the kids playing and dashing in and out of each others houses and the adults with their  gatherings, looking out for each other’s children, gossiping and all the other usual stuff that adults do in any neighborhood. ]

    I earned the respect from my peers in the navy. It wasn’t easy, far from it. But I was a Chief and I couldn’t allow that position to be disrespected. All of the other Chiefs were white and they wouldn’t have tolerated any chief who didn’t insist on maintaining the respect and authority of that position. Sure, I had to make examples of some of my men. In the end it was how I carried myself, my expertise and my conduct that won respect from the vast majority of men under my charge.

    I asked my dad about some of the ways he achieved this. His answer was classic and totally him: I bet the officers and my fellow Chiefs a weekend’s leave that I could disassemble and reassemble a torpedo blindfolded. You see, they didn’t think I was smart enough to do it. So I wanted to show them. It was a hard enough thing to do without a blindfold. So I wanted to go that extra mile to prove my point.

    Well, he did it. And, apparently, became something of a legend afterwards.

  2. I still don’t know how difficult it was to serve on a nuclear sub in those early days of nuclear powered submarines. I tried to ask what qualities the navy looked for but couldn’t frame the question in a way that he could answer (this is still relevant today). Nor do I know how competitive such a posting was. However, I did ask my dad if he asked to serve on a nuclear sub or if he was invited to do so. And found out some pretty amazing information that I don’t think my dad has told anyone before.

    My father was more or less headhunted in High School in New Jersey. His eldest brother, Emmet Thomas (who was a military man at the time), had an acquaintance who was a military recruiter. The USN was looking to increase the number of minorities and his brother Emmett recommended that this man have a chat with my father, who was a junior in high school at the time. After chatting with my dad, the man arranged for my father to enroll in the Junior Cadet programme.

    When my father graduated from high school, he went straight into the USN’s bootcamp and was immediately called up to serve when he completed that training.

    At first he was offered one of the traditional USN postings offered to minority servicemen, and that was a posting as an officer’s steward (the other traditional posting was as a cook). He point blank refused, which took the southern commanding officer who interviewed him by surprise (anyone who serves in the military can kind of guess why). However, the same officer offered him a posting as a torpedo man and, as the saying goes, the rest was history.

    He took a series of exams which he passed and was offered a posting on his first nuclear submarine.

    My father credits much of his early accomplishments to his mother, Susan Julia Roane Thomas Sheffey, and the advice she gave him shortly before he was called up for service: “Do your best at everything you turn your hand to. Don’t you ever accept second best; not from yourself or from anyone else. And always remember that you are a Sheffey and a Roane. You represent both families everywhere you go and in everything you do; never forget that.

I look forward to finding out more when I see him over his birthday weekend.

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