Welcome to the “Veterans Day” edition of the Evolving Man Project’s ‘Evolved Men of the Week’ profile. Today we will highlight historical and contemporary figures who embodied what it meant to be an evolved man, famous and non-famous alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to the Golden Thirteen.
The names of the Golden Thirteen are as follows: John Walter Reagan (1920-1994), Jesse Walter Arbor (1914-2000), Samuel David Jones, Darion Damon Ivy lll (1914-2014), Graham Edward Martin (born 1917), Phillip George Barnes, Reginald Goodwin, James Edward Hair (1915-1992), Samuel Edward Barnes, George Clinton Cooper, William Sylvester White, and Dennis Denmark Nelson were commissioned as Ensigns; Charles Byrd Lear (1920-2006) got appointed as a Warrant Officer. The Golden Thirteen were 13 enlisted Sailors who became the first African-American commissioned and warrant officers in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
During World War II, as military conscription brought tens of thousands of black recruits into the navy. Senior white commanders and government officials became concerned at the lack of black officers to lead them. In 1943 the secretary of the navy agreed to commission black officers, and 16 candidates were chosen from the ranks to undergo accelerated officer training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois. Most, but not all, of the 16 had been to college, and some had advanced degrees; most of them also had been athletes, and all had exemplary service records. From January through March 1944, they went through officer training in segregated facilities at Great Lakes under the tutelage of white officers. All passed the course, but only 13 received commissions, 12 as ensigns, and one as a warrant officer. (The reasons for the rejection of the final three were never given. Some have speculated that the navy, accustomed to a specific failure rate among officer candidates, did not want the black group to be seen as performing better than whites.)
The graduates were given assignments that fit within the navy’s segregated system. For instance, training only black recruits, overseeing all-black logistics units, or commanding small vessels such as harbor tugs, patrol craft, or oilers that were mostly crewed by black sailors. Throughout their naval career, these men faced racism and discrimination from white enlisted sailors and fellow white commissioned officers. White sailors refused to salute them and, even in one instance, spat on one of the black officers. Only one made the navy his career after the war ended; the rest went on to several civilian professions, including education, business, social work, and the law. In their later years, they were frequent guests of honor at gatherings of the navy’s growing number of black commissioned officers. Oral histories taken from eight surviving members and three white officers associated with them are transcribed in Paul Stillwell (ed.), The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers (1993).
In 1987, the U.S. Navy reunited the seven living members to dedicate a building in their honor at Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Command, Illinois. Today, Building 1405 at RTC Great Lakes, where recruits first arrive for basic training, is named “The Golden Thirteen” in honor of them. In 2006, the ground was broken on a World War II memorial in North Chicago, Illinois, to honor the Golden Thirteen and Dorie Miller. Today we honor The Golden Thirteen as our Evolved Men of the Week.