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Forgotten Heroes No More: The Golden Thirteen Who Broke the Navy’s Color Barrier

A Q&A with Dan C. Goldberg

Recently commissioned black officers: front row (left to right): Ensigns George Cooper, Graham Martin, Jesse Arbor, John Reagan, and Reginald Goodwin; back row (left to right): Dennis Nelson, Phillip Barnes, Sam Barnes, Dalton Baugh, James Hair, Frank Sublett, and Warrant Officer Charles Lear. William Sylvester White was commissioned but is not pictured in this photo. February 1944.
Recently commissioned black officers: front row (left to right): Ensigns George Cooper, Graham Martin, Jesse Arbor, John Reagan, and Reginald Goodwin; back row (left to right): Dennis Nelson, Phillip Barnes, Sam Barnes, Dalton Baugh, James Hair, Frank Sublett, and Warrant Officer Charles Lear. William Sylvester White was commissioned but is not pictured in this photo. February 1944.

At the start of World War II, Black men in the Navy could only hold menial jobs as cooks and cleaners. A relentless civil rights campaign forced the Navy in 1942 to reconsider a Black man’s role. It would take another two years before the Navy would reluctantly select the first Black men to undergo officer training. Facing prejudice and discrimination as civilians and on duty, thirteen courageous men broke the color barrier and set an example that would inspire generations to come. But they were given little accord once commissioned, and their story has too often been overlooked when recounting the saga of World War II and the coming civil rights movement. Until now.

Award-winning journalist Dan C. Goldberg brings these thirteen forgotten heroes out from the margins of history in The Golden Thirteen: How Black Men Won the Right to Wear Navy Gold. Isabella Sanchez, our assistant to the director of sales and marketing, caught up with Goldberg to chat with him about it and to ask what we can learn today from this hidden history.

Isabella Sanchez: How did you initially come across the Golden Thirteen?

Dan C. Goldberg: I stumbled upon an obituary for one of the men, and it mentioned the Golden Thirteen. It was not something I had ever heard of before, and I was curious. I had passing familiarity with the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo soldiers but never heard of the Golden Thirteen. I looked for a book on the subject and realized that the only substantive work was Paul Stillwell’s oral history. That’s a fascinating book but it didn’t answer the question that gnawed at me. Namely, how did the Navy go from only allowing Black men as messmen in March 1942 to commissioning Black ensigns in March 1944? The president was the same, the Navy secretary was the same. What changed? And why? I wanted to answer those questions so that these men could be placed in the context of their time.

IS: You researched the Golden Thirteen for eight years, digging through military records and newspaper clippings. What was that process like? Were there any roadblocks along the way?

DCG: I often liken the process to making whiskey: there is a lot of distilling. I would spend days researching an event, a conversation, a moment, so that it could turn into one paragraph, or maybe even one sentence in the book. Sometimes it was cut entirely. The biggest roadblock was often my own ignorance. I didn’t always know where to look but kept trying different approaches, and one opened door led to another and, hopefully, that led to a worthwhile finished product.

IS: You write about how many Black Americans found the role of the US in World War II incredibly hypocritical, considering the racism, violence, and discrimination they faced at home. Tell me more about that.

DCG: In the course of my research, I came across Lee Finkle’s Forum for Protest, in which he describes a survey of Harlem residents that found most African Americans said they’d be treated better or the same under Japanese rule while only eleven percent believed conditions would improve for Blacks if the US won the war. These sentiments have been reported on and written about before, but it was distinct from the history I, a white kid from New York, was taught in school. We learned that everyone rallied around the flag, because the Nazis were so evil and the Japanese so treacherous. Well, that popular history isn’t the whole truth.

James Baldwin, in Notes From a Native Son, spoke of the “peculiar relief” Black families felt when their sons went overseas, because it meant that if they died, it would be by the hands of the enemy instead of from being lynched by their own countrymen.

I really wanted to explore that theme and remind readers that segregation and humiliation were having real effects on morale, which pushed the question of equality in the Navy to the fore. This wasn’t an academic debate. Black men burned draft cards and wondered why they should care all that much who won the war and why they should fight for a country that treated them as inferior. These were the arguments made by civil rights leaders and white liberals, which eventually persuaded the Navy to change its course.

IS: The Golden Thirteen had to fight an uphill battle in order to become commissioned officers. What discrimination did they face in training, and how did their experience differ from those of white recruits?

DCG: Discrimination, of course, didn’t start when they enlisted. Many of these men had lived with it their whole lives. James Hair’s brother-in-law was lynched in Florida, beaten to death by a white mob. The FBI told Syl White that they had no need for Black agents. Graham Martin grew up in segregated Indianapolis. When they first enlisted, they were segregated during boot training and during their service school training. The uniform gave them no protection from racism. Racial slurs were common.

Even after the Navy decided to send them to officer candidate school, they were segregated. The Navy wasn’t ready to integrate the station where they trained. George Cooper described it as a “letdown off the bat.” Then, they had to deal with instructors who, in the eyes of Graham Martin and Frank Sublett, seemed certain that training Black men was a waste of time. The racism they faced came in many forms. There was even physical abuse but often it was far more subtle. George Cooper said it best: “There are so many subtle ways of demonstrating prejudice, but as a black person, you just have antennas out, and you sense it and you feel it instinctively.”

IS: After these men became officers, their treatment didn’t change overnight. They were still disrespected on a daily basis, and white men refused to acknowledge their authority. Describe what the Golden Thirteen faced once they completed their training.

DCG: The Navy, at first, didn’t know what to do with these Black officers. Commanding white men in battle still seemed too radical. So, for the first few months, they were given menial chores. They ran drills, lectured on venereal diseases, patrolled the coast in a converted yacht. They were denied housing on base and prohibited from entering officers’ clubs. White men would cross the street to avoid saluting. Through it all, these thirteen officers never lost their cool. They knew that they were being watched. Excelling during officer candidate school was only the first step.

IS: The Golden Thirteen recognized their position in history and felt a personal responsibility to be successful in order to integrate the Navy. You describe the camaraderie these men felt toward each other, and their mission to succeed as a group. What were their relationships like and how did they support each other?

DCG: They decided the very first night that they would work together and swore off any competition. They figured that the only way to succeed was to help one another, so they took turns sharing their backgrounds and determining who was most fit in every discipline. And that person volunteered to help the others. In a sense, they were fortunate the Navy chose such a variety of men. White was a lawyer, Sublett a mechanic, Baugh an engineer. Martin, Cooper, and Barnes were natural teachers. Yes, they pushed each other to study hard, but the real benefit was in how they were there for one another when times got tough, when the pressure seemed too intense to bear. That’s when Jesse Arbor or James Hair might tell an off-color joke to break the tension. The bond they forged remained strong until the day they died.

IS: The United States Armed Forces is still an organization that is frequently criticized for their lack of inclusion and unequal treatment of its members based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and other factors. How have things changed or not changed today? What lessons can we learn from this hidden history?

DCG: Every generation has a version of this fight. Blacks, women, gays, and transgender people are told that their inclusion in the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the military, will hamper efficiency and morale. It just can’t be done, they are told. Time and again, that’s been proven false. There are a couple lessons I take away from the Golden Thirteen. The first is that the nation is only as democratic as its least democratic institution. The second is that capability and honor aren’t limited by color. The third, and my favorite, is that, in the midst of struggle, the road can seem impossibly long and arduous, but if you keep pushing and fighting you can change the world.


About Dan C. Goldberg

Dan C. Goldberg is an award-winning journalist for Politico. Goldberg has researched the Golden Thirteen for eight years to restore these men to their rightful place in history. Follow him on Twitter at @DanCGoldberg.