The Messman Chronicles African Americans in the U.S. Navy, 1932-1943
By Richard E. Miller
Naval Institute Press Copyright © 2004 Richard E. Miller
All right reserved.
Captain Claude's Initiative
In late 1932 Capt. Abram Claude decided it was time for the U.S. Navy to reopen its doors to Americans of African descent. As the navy's director of enlisted personnel it was his prerogative to do so, but his motivation for pushing ahead with his unpopular proposal to recruit blacks for duty as navy messmen remains problematic. Today, the inequities inherent in the program he conceived are striking and nothing less than an embarrassment to boosters of the modern, equal-opportunity navy. Still, Claude must be recognized for initiating the pivotal change in policy that would ensure the heroic and vital (albeit racially restricted) participation of African Americans in the victory at sea more than a decade later.
Captain Claude belonged to a prominent and politically well-connected Maryland family. He had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1904, and his career was distinguished by his service during World War I. Many officers received high decorations during that conflict although few actually came under enemy fire. Claude, however, received his Navy Cross for saving his ship, the destroyer USS Cassin (DD-43), after a widely publicized clash with the German submarine U-61 on 15 October 1917. He was a bona fide hero of the Battle of the Atlantic, and he had been at his post with the navy's Bureau of Navigation (BuNav, predecessor to the Bureau of Naval Personnel) since 1930; his tenure at the beginning of the Great Depression corresponded to a period of nationwide hard times. Government belt-tightening cut the navy's active-duty enlisted strength from 85,321 men in 1929 to 79,243 in 1933. Congress would cut the pay of all federal personnel by 15 percent in 1933, but the few vacancies available had no shortage of applicants. The qualification test scores and educational levels of new recruits rose as disciplinary problems declined, navywide.
The navy's controversial messman branch (by then all nonwhite) had an authorized strength equivalent to 5 percent of the navy's enlisted force, but a complete moratorium on the enlistment of new messmen was imposed on 4 December 1930 "due to a slight excess existing and to very slow attrition." BuNav projections indicated that the branch would again be undermanned by December 1932. Simultaneously, it was determined that ongoing monthly enlistment quotas would be required as ambitious new plans for fleet expansion came to fruition. Abram Claude would insist that these new enlistments "should be made in Continental United States from men of negro [sic] blood," U.S. citizens rather than noncitizen U.S. nationals from the Philippine Islands who had been virtually the exclusive source of messman recruits since 1919.
The captain's son, Abram Claude Jr., was six years old in 1932. Here he describes his childhood home in Washington, D.C., and speculates on his father's agenda:
We came from an old Maryland family that had been slave-owners. When I was growing up we always had black household servants. I remember Maude (the laundress), Lillian (the cook), Charley (the yard man), and "Nannie" (my nursemaid).... My father's [racial] perception was typical-that blacks were servants. He was kind and supportive of his servants, but blacks definitely had their place.
My father certainly had no ill feelings toward Filipinos. He had one Filipino messman who had served with him aboard ship [and] who came with him to Washington when he was assigned to shore duty, which he hated. I can't remember the messman's name. I was so young then.
My father had spent a lot of time in the Far East. He and my mother lived in Manila before I was born. They were always fond of the Philippines and Filipinos. My father belonged to an organization called the Carabao Wallow-made up of officers (army, navy, and marines) who had served there from the Spanish-American War forward. I remember going with him to a Wallow dinner in the 1950s. I imagine the group no longer exists.
My father's order to start recruiting black Americans and stop the Filipinos must have come out of his sense of practicality and fairness-that the blacks should have a chance to serve, even if they were only deserving of a servant role-and they were available.
The notion must have arisen in some quarter that the country's young citizens of color should have at least a token opportunity for economic relief in the form of employment in naval service. However, no documentation exists that Congress or anyone in government pressed for reform, and except for a vague suggestion in surviving correspondence that the national black community would be pleased by the proposed action, no evidence exists that African-American leaders demanded specific policy reform in 1932.
According to Chief Steward (SDC) Ulpiano Santo, USN (Ret.)-one of the last surviving Filipino veterans from that period-a number of messmen had written letters to authorities in their native islands in 1930 or 1931 protesting the U.S. Navy's discriminatory practices. Seven decades later, he would recall that Manuel Quezon, the Filipino nationalist who became the first president of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, formally rebuked the United States on his countrymen's behalf. As president of the colonial senate in 1932, he declared that the indigenous government would prohibit all recruitment in the Philippines if the navy could not guarantee equal treatment for Filipino enlistees. "Quezon was prepared to offer as many college graduates as the U.S. Navy might require to fill its needs," Santo remembered, "but he promised an independent Philippine government would never allow a system in which its citizens were subjected to a permanent under-class status." Quezon died in 1944. During the 1950s, the government of the new Republic of the Philippines would of course sanction a program permitting the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard to recruit its citizens for "steward duty only."
When the United States acquired the Philippines from Spain in 1898 under the Treaty of Paris, it classified Filipinos uniquely as "nationals" rather than citizens of the United States. By the early 1930s, Filipinos were at a critical juncture in their decades-long struggles for political independence and equal privileges of immigration to and naturalization in the United States. West Coast politicians were pressuring the U.S. Congress to bar further entry of any "orientals." Simultaneously, Filipino and other Asian-American veterans of World War I were lobbying for the same opportunities to become naturalized U.S. citizens that had been extended to aliens of European descent based on their wartime service.
Nothing in the existing naval records suggests that these fractious domestic issues concerning the Philippines and Filipinos guided Captain Claude in his decision any more than the concerns of African-American activists might have. The records do not mention unrest among the Filipino messmen then on duty, threats of action by Quezon, or debates in the legislatures of either the Philippines or the United States. Nevertheless, Ulpiano Santo's contentions regarding the issues of 1932 ring true, and reading between the lines of existing documentation leads to ambivalent conclusions.
by 1932 the U.S. Navy's black population had shrunk to its twentieth-century nadir, with only 441 individuals in a total enlisted force of 81,120. Among these were 115 nonmessmen, most of whom were musicians assigned to the station band at St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, most regarded the small number of "holdover" petty officers in general service as reminders of by-gone days, before the navy had introduced "reforms" that had by this time eliminated various categories of undesirables from its ranks. The black seaman and artificer had become naval anachronisms that white sailors could look forward to seeing eliminated as the holdovers eventually retired. Even in the nonwhite messman branch, the 326 blacks represented less than 9 percent of a 3,778-man total.
The U.S. Navy's unique system of recruiting citizens of China for messman duty continued until 1941, when the exigencies of war halted the practice. All but 3 of 134 non-Filipino Chinese enlisted men in 1932 were in the messman branch, serving with few exceptions aboard units of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, the fabled organization that had been maintained west of the international dateline in some form since the 1850s. At the same time, only two of the navy's once preeminent Japanese messmen (both holding the rating of officer's steward, first class) remained on duty along with six Guamanians, six Puerto Ricans, four Samoans, and two Hawaiians, men whose service dated from the World War I period and/or who had been enlisted in their home islands to attend to local navy officials.
Of the navy's 4,133 Filipino sailors, an undetermined number-presumably less than the 1,000 authorized-belonged to the U.S. Navy's "insular force" in the Philippine Islands where, like a small number of counterparts on Guam, they had been permitted to serve in general ratings since 1901 but at half the navy's regular base pay. Enlistment contracts for the insular force limited these men to duty in the islands and adjacent waters aboard locally based units of the Asiatic Fleet. Another talented few had been recruited prior to the world war as "regular" U.S. Navy musicians and continued to play around the fleet in all-Filipino ensembles or in racially integrated bands. While a handful may have qualified and been allowed to transfer to general ratings over the years, the great majority of Filipinos (3,301 in 1932) had always had contracts limiting them to service in the regular navy as messmen. These men were by far the dominant element in every rate and rating of the branch and could be found everywhere.
In 1932 blacks were relatively noticeable only in the senior messman ratings of officer's cook and officer's steward, first class, filling 62 out of 253 and 78 out of 197 such billets, respectively. Captain Claude realized that the navy's officer corps was quite satisfied with the existing state of affairs, but in his initial memorandum (addressed to the chief of BuNav on 18 October 1932) he proposed nothing less than the branch's complete transformation. He recommended that the Chinese contingent be retained in the Asiatic Fleet, but he called for the Filipinos to be replaced with African Americans through attrition. Initially, he offered two reasons to justify this radical change: (a) In case of war, supplying messmen would depend on keeping open an extremely long line of communication, which would be out of the question during any war involving Pacific areas; (b) should Congress free the Philippines as seemed likely at the time, the United States certainly could not continue to enlist a foreign people.
The negative reaction to Claude's proposal was immediate. On 19 October 1932 Cdr. (later Rear Adm.) Robert R. M. Emmet, the head of enlisted personnel training, sent a memo to Capt. (later Vice Adm.) Leigh Noyes, the BuNav director of training, in which he commented rather crudely as follows:
1. As an officer of considerable experience with Officer's Messes, using both Colored and Filipino servants I feel we ought to hang on to the Filipinos till the last. They are cleaner more efficient and eat much less than negros [sic]. Negros are capable of being better cooks though even the best require very close supervision or you will find yourself drenched with grease in the cooking.
2. I can't believe that for a number of years to come, the Philippines will rate as a foreign country.
3. Going back to colored men would be a distinct step backward.
In turn on 21 October Captain Noyes responded to Captain Claude:
The question presented undoubtedly deserves serious consideration. Believe, however, that Filipinos are superior on the whole to negroes [sic] as mess attendants. They can both be usefully employed, provided they are not mixed-that is, that an entire mess at least is manned by one or the other. To carry this a step further, it would be even better to have ships manned by one or the other.
In regard to the independence of the Philippines, it seems to me that we should have sufficient warning to replace our Filipino personnel before this occurs, particularly in view of the fact that the higher ratings-stewards and cooks-would undoubtedly serve out their time in spite of independence. Was not this the case in regard to Japanese and Chinese when first enlistments were stopped?
I suggest a compromise would maintain a nucleus of negro messmen without dispensing with the services of Filipinos until necessary.
With this input in mind, Claude made a somewhat revised "Recommendation relative to first enlistments of Messmen Branch" on 24 October 1932. In this memo to the chief of the bureau, he conceded that most officers might object to his proposal, but he reinforced his reasoning by raising "the question of the loyalty of Filipinos in case of war in the East." He further suggested that objections to the blacks were attributable to the lack of training previously provided, and he emphasized his confidence that henceforth "we could get a high type of Negro and train him in his duties before sending him out to the Service and the result would eventually be improvement in officers' servants." For the first and only time in the archived discussion, this memo also mentions the national interests of black America: "Enlistment of Negro messmen," Claude declares, "would enable us to answer the criticism that Negro citizens are not allowed to enlist in our Navy."
Although these policies regarding messman-branch recruiting were fundamental responsibilities of the civilian secretary of the navy (SecNav) and the chief of the Bureau of Navigation (ChBuNav) regarding military manpower, neither man commented in writing on the policy, which suggests that the men holding those offices in 1932 were typically aloof. SecNav Charles Francis Adams belonged to the illustrious family from Massachusetts that included two nineteenth-century U.S. presidents known for their abolitionist sentiments. With such antecedents the secretary would presumably be sympathetic to advancing African Americans during his administration, but his name does not appear in any documentation concerning the 1932 messman recruiting controversy, and nothing in his record as SecNav confirms any personal interest in the status of his black sailors-with regard to their condition in the messman branch or in any other context.
Adams appears to fit neatly into the mold described by Frederick S.
Excerpted from The Messman Chronicles by Richard E. Miller Copyright © 2004 by Richard E. Miller. Excerpted by permission.
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