Joseph Sheffey – one of the first African American weapons officers in the US Navy

Joseph Sheffey, Jr in uniform. Cira 1948
My Dad in uniform. Circa 1948

My father has always been something of a trailblazer. While I’ve never taken this for granted, he’s my dad, so I tend to forget the significance of some of the things he’s achieved in his life.  A recent article about him reminded me of some of the more important aspects of his naval career. It’s only through an adult’s eyes and personal experiences that I can connect to to his achievements on a deeper level.

Born at the height of the Jim Crow era in New Jersey, he was never one to allow race to deter him from what he wanted to achieve in life. A recent article, Greenbelt Submariner Broke Barriers: Submariner Broke Barriers, Served Country brought his achievements into sharp relief.

My father can only speak about his career in the US Navy in the most oblique and circumspect way. While he’s been retired from the USN for decades, details about the missions he served on are still classified.  For instance, he is forbidden from naming the specific submarines he served on. Nor can he discuss or mention any specific incidents or events experienced while on mission. What he can say, nonetheless, is still quite evocative and inspirational.

So what can he say? Well, that he was a weapons officer on nuclear submarines. He would have been part of a corp of men who were the first to handle nuclear missiles in the US Navy. And he wasn’t just a weapons officer – but one of the first African American weapons officers and torpedo chiefs who served on nuclear submarines. He was a person of color who gave orders to American men of European descent in a time before civil rights. I know how well that must have been received in some quarters. I’m sure that a number of men under his command had genuine ‘WTH’ moments – and expressions – when he gave them an order for the first time. But he did it and, considering his commendations, he did it well.

To put this into context, this was an era when the traditional occupation for an African American mariner aboard a submarine was as part of the kitchen staff. When my father joined the Navy full-time in 1951, it was an era in which blacks and whites had separate everything…from water fountains to schools to medical care to separate seating on buses, trains, trams, restaurants and other public spaces. It must have been a surreal experience and existence. He would have had unquestioned authority over his weapons team aboard a submarine. Yet, he would have been a second class citizen as soon as he stepped off that sub onto American soil. It’s something I’m definitely going to chat with him about soon.

He was also something of an unofficial minority affairs liaison for many of his commands. He would assist the captain in addressing racial problems and in improving race relations.

Nuclear subs were still fairly new when he served on his first one. So naturally I’ve had plenty of questions about what day to day life was like on board them. I remember asking him once about how his crew felt about the catastrophic accidents involving the USS Thresher (sank in 1963 with 129 killed) and the USS Scorpion (sank in 1968 with 99 killed). Frustratingly, but understandably, he couldn’t comment.

He began serving at the dawn of the Cold War Era. And you can probably guess I’ve had a multitude of questions about that! Again, a kindly silence on the subject.

I won’t steal the article’s thunder. You can read more about my father’s career here: Greenbelt Submariner Broke Barriers: Submariner Broke Barriers, Served Country – 

Of course I’m biased, but it is a pretty interesting read.

Update dated 14 May 2014

I had a great chat with my father about his early years in the USN.  You can catch his answers in the following post: A chat with my dad about being one of the first black USN weapons officers

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