Integration in World War II

Monday I found this on my facebook:

“On 27 Dec 1990, the first female commanding officer of a U.S. Navy vessel, Lcdr Darlene Iskra reported for duty on board USS Opportune (ARS-41) at Naples, Italy, serving until 1993. After retiring in 2000 and completing a Ph.D seven years later, Darlene Iskra is now a professor and an author of numerous publications about Women in the Armed Forces.”

I couldn’t help but comment, “In April 1979, LTJG Beverly Kelley became the first woman to command a Coast Guard cutter, the USCGC Cape Newhagen.”

and referenced this:

The link above had a throw away line, “Just as had been the case when the Coast Guard set up its first racially integrated ships’ companies during World War II, the “mixed crews” quietly settled into a working routine and went about their business with little commotion.”

This was the first I had heard of truly racially integrated ship in WWII. The Navy had none. They did man a destroyer escort and a sub-chaser with all black enlisted and all white officers, adding a few black officers later.

“…in early 1944 the Bureau of Naval Personnel assigned 196 black enlisted men and 44 white officers and petty officers to the USS Mason, a newly commissioned destroyer escort, with the understanding that all enlisted billets would be filled by Negroes as soon as those qualified to fill them had been trained. It also assigned 53 black rated seamen and 14 white officers and noncommissioned officers to a patrol craft, the PC 1264. Both ships eventually replaced their white petty officers and some of their officers with Negroes. Among the latter was Ens. Samuel Gravely, who was to become the Navy’s first black admiral.”

Near the end of the war they did add a token number of African-Americans to some auxiliaries in rating other than messmen but it was a long way from full integration.

The Coast Guard apparently handled it much differently. And as is frequently the case one man made all the difference. Enter Carlton Skinner, USCGR and the SEA CLOUD.

The USS Sea Cloud, CG

From December 1943 until she was decommissioned in November 1944, without fanfare or publicity, she functioned as a fully integrated ship with all ranks and ratings open to African Americans. When she was decommissioned Skinner went on to captain a Coast Guard manned destroyer escort which was also integrated.

It had been Skinner’s idea, not as a means of redressing social ills, but simply with the objective of making the best use of manpower possible. He formed the idea while serving as XO on the NORTHLAND (including the period when she captured a German weather trawler) influenced by the performance of a messman who wanted to be a motor-machinist’s mate, later CWO Oliver T. Henry, USCG.

“The proposal had to be and was based solely on military and naval effectiveness.  This was because, first, that was the origin of the idea; second, because I was sure that it was the only legitimate basis for considering a plan for racial integration of the armed forces during wartime.”

The Coast Guard experience may have influenced the Navy as well.

“I had hoped it would be copied.  To the best of my knowledge it was not copied, as such.  However, in February of 1945, the Navy issued revised regulations permitting up to 10 per cent of general ratings in non-combat naval ships to be Negroes.  I think my experiment was helpful in producing this change.  I had worked before the war with Eugene Duffield who was a wartime assistant to Secretary of the Navy [James V.] Forrestal.  On a trip through Washington in the winter of 1944, after the Sea Cloud was decommissioned, I visited Duffield and told him the whole story, how it started, how it worked and my convictions on the military necessity of integration aboard ship to get the maximum use of manpower skills in the population.  Duffield later sent me a copy of the revised Navy procedure on this.”

A final note, the Navy has decided to allow female officers on selected submarines.

7 thoughts on “Integration in World War II

  1. Commander Skinner comes across as a thoughtful, analytic, rational, and logical man. His solution to manning difficulties was innovative during those times. The Coast Guard and nation would appear to have done quite well by his service during WW-II.

  2. The “greatest generation” had their own problems, but part of the problem seems to have been that their leadership under estimated the average sailor. Even the liberals favored segregation because they were afraid the men would never get along. Turned out to be a non-problem.

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  4. Think about it this way.

    Ships have always been integrated. How does one segregate aboard ship?

    During the ante-bellum period the southern cutters were integrated as were the revenue boats working for the collector of customs. Granted some of the blacks employed were slaves and the Treasury Department did forbid the hiring of slaves and freemen but there was a caveat the any hiring of these classes of men would be allowed if approved by there Treasury Department.

    When the 54-ton Revenue Boat Vigilant was sent to the Gulf of Mexico, the collector at New Orleans was specifically ordered to hire a “negro” cook. This is the first I ever read such an order. Thomas Paine was owned by the collector at St. Mary’s, Georgia, and with his long service on the Revenue sloop Ingham, he became the quintessential government employee and one who had the greatest local knowledge. He was a true asset.

    The Revenue Boat Argus at San Francisco in the 1850s was the first west coast cutter to hire a Japanese. Since these boats did not rate a cook or steward, he was probably a seaman. He was experienced in junks.

    There really is no such thing as a segregated ship and any problems came from the personalities and actions of individuals. Even Alex Haley noted this during WWII. See:

    I do not believe the Coast Guard has ever had much influence on the Navy. For this issue, I would give more credit to Eleanor Roosevelt.

  5. Bill, thanks for the link.

    Ironically it looks as if there was more integration in the 19th century than at the beginning of WWII. Going into world War II, African Americans were excluded from the officer ranks and were limited to the messman/steward rating that wore different uniforms and had a separate chain of command forbidden to give orders to whites regardless of rank.

  6. There is the popular perception that blacks could only be cooks and stewards. However, the Rules and Regulations for the 1840s RCS showed they could be petty officers–well ,the rules did not specifically exclude them.

    It was not uncommon to have black forward officers in the merchant service and during the War of 1812 there was a large discussion about British privateers have all black slave crews except the captain. The question was what to do with them if captured. The seven black (three free mulattoes) captured aboard the cutter James Madison caused a stir in the diplomatic ranks. The three mulattoes were considered “freemen” and sent to England as POWs. The four black slaves were “emancipated” and put to work in the dockyard in Bermuda where one deserted and another died. One was sorta freed and sent to Halifax and the last died aboard as RN vessel.

    In the Coast Guard there were far more Japanese and Filipino messmen and stewards than blacks in the pre-WWI era. Even just before WII of the 800 or so stewards and mess attendants, 600 were Japanese and Filipino, 100 black and 100 white.

    It is ironic that in the 1830s and 1840s the captain of a battery aboard a cutter for battle stations was the cook. It is conceivable that a slave cook could have been in charge of white men. I’ve not looked for the crew abstracts to see if this was ever the case but it could have happened.

    The Coast Guard is often chastised about its want of racial diversity. However, since its inception the Coast Guard has been pragmatic about its officers and crewing. There simply was no need to recruit racial minorities. Steam changed some of this. The need for labor in the fire-rooms tallied as many Frenchmen as it did blacks. The Scots and Irish were the engineers, the English line officers and a mix of European descent (primarily English until the 1920s) filled out the rest. In some cases, there were as many non-naturalized Englishmen aboard the cutters as native Americans.

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