Navy’s first black crew proves heroic during storm
The big storm sank 16 ships with Convoy NY-119, but the USS Mason wasn’t one of them.
Its hull cracked under the stress of 90 mph winds and the heaving North Atlantic. But with England’s coast in sight, the Mason’s crew welded the hull together and helped guide the rest of the ships to safety.
In late October 1944, the U.S. Navy’s first predominantly black crew proved that Americans of all colors could serve the country at sea.
“The sea was cresting at 60 feet,” said James W. Graham, a radioman second class at the time. “You could look up and the water looked as tall as the Empire State Building. You’d look down and it looked like a bottomless pit.
“I wasn’t even afraid then. I was too young to be afraid.”
Graham was 22. He was one of 160 blacks chosen to serve on the Mason, a destroyer escort assigned to shepherd convoys of Army barges and tugs from the United States to England.
Before then, blacks worked on Navy ships only as cooks or cleaners. They weren’t allowed to operate radios, man the engine room and guns or steer the boat.
But World War II was draining the United States of its resources. The Allied forces needed constant replenishment to support the battle in France to expel the Nazis. In particular, ports, bridges and roads needed to be rebuilt.
German submarines were busy trying to sink U.S. convoys.
First lady Eleanor Roosevelt was calling for blacks to be allowed to serve in the Navy. “Eleanor’s Folly,” some called it, claiming that Negro Americans would cower at sea during battle.
Lorenzo A. DuFau of New York City was an Army cook who volunteered to train and serve on the Mason.
“We did all the things that Americans were expected to do and we did it from the heart,” DuFau said. “Despite the prejudice I lived under, the country was at risk and a man always did defend his home.
“It don’t take no magician to see I’m black. Yes, I’m black, but I’m an American.”
The ship was launched in Boston in March 1944. Soon its crew began to help shuttle supplies to Europe to support the war.
Respect for the dark-skinned sailors did not come easily.
Graham, who is now 81 and lives in Roosevelt, N.Y., said that sometimes they had to fight for it. He recalled a time in Boston when he was confronted by another sailor.
“He asked me what ship I was on,” Graham said. “I told him I was on the DE 529.
“He told me, ‘Oh, that’s the nigger ship.’
“I had on a white uniform; he had a white uniform and we fought like cats and dogs. A Marine just stood there holding his carbine. We both got up bloody.
“We had fights in Cape May [N.J.], fights in Norfolk [Va.],” Graham said. “It was just things you grow up accepting, a part of life. Looking back I think, ‘What the hell was this?’”
Convoy NY-119 set out from New York City in late September 1944. Its destination was Portsmouth on the southern coast of England.
There were small, coastal vessels in the convoy as well as tugboats pulling massive barges. The barges were to be used as temporary piers in Normandy. Some questioned the wisdom of towing the barges — 300 feet long and 45 feet wide, designed to transport railroad cars — across the Atlantic.
The Mason, with its mostly black crew, and three other warships were to escort the convoy.
DuFau, who is now 84 and lives in the Bronx, said he couldn’t question the seaworthiness of the convoy “because we were green sailors ourselves.”
During the first two weeks the convoy faced 10-foot seas and 20 mph winds, according to the report filed by convoy Cmdr. Alfred L. Lind, as described in the book “Proudly We Served,” by Mary Pat Kelly.
The sea was rough, he noted, but not unusually so for the North Atlantic in October.
“However,” Lind wrote, “from Oct. 10-23, the wind persisted without abating from 20-40 mph with gusts reported to 90 mph, and the seas built up to 40-50 feet, with an average of 23 feet for the 14-day period.”
One tug capsized and two of its crew perished. Four were rescued from the ocean.
The storm grew into what was called at the time the storm of the century. The convoy was moving so slowly, the crew could see the English coastline for five days before the ships reached it.
“The waves were 40 to 50 feet high,” DuFau said. “I never thought we’d come out of that thing.
“We’d come sliding down a wave like a kid on a sliding board. The next wave would pick us right back up.”
The Mason was 290 feet long but also very narrow, so it was a relatively nimble ship. In “Proudly We Served,” one sailor reported that the Mason survived a 70-degree roll.
But the convoy was breaking up and boats were sinking.
“Some were trapped in one of the tugboats,” Graham said. “You could hear them over the radio screaming.”
The Mason was ordered to lead a detachment of vessels buoy-to-buoy into port, even though its hull had begun to crack. After leading a group of ships to harbor in Falmouth, miles short of the original destination of Portsmouth, the Mason’s crew welded its cracked hull closed and returned to sea to help the others.
British navy ships sent to help the convoy turned back to shore because the storm was so severe.
For days, the Mason shuttled stranded ships from the convoy to the safety of English harbors.
The storm sank three tugs, eight car floats and five cargo barges in the convoy’s final days. Nineteen men died, some when one of the destroyer escorts crashed into another vessel. Finally, on Oct. 27, the Mason tied down in Plymouth harbor.
Convoy NY-119 had traveled 3,539 miles at an average speed of 4.74 miles per hour, according to Lind’s report.
Lind nominated the crew of the Mason for commendations, but they weren’t processed for unknown reasons. Fifty years later, Kelly discovered the nominations while researching “Proudly We Served.” President Clinton honored the surviving crew at the White House in 1994.
A movie, “Proud,” was made starring Ossie Davis, Stephen Rea and Albert Jones and is undergoing final editing, Kelly said. Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger helped pay for the film.
“I loved the story,” Hilfiger said in a written response to Stars and Stripes. “These men were heroes in every sense and I was tremendously inspired by their story.”
Kelly said that while interviewing crew members she was struck by their dignity.
“They had a very informed patriotism, not a knee-jerk patriotism,” Kelly said. “… They had a love of country that persisted despite obvious injustices.”