Officer positions in the U.S. Navy had previously been off limits to black men, and these 16 enlistees had been summoned from training schools and shore installations across the United States to break that color barrier.
The story of the Navy’s first black officers—told in full for the first time in my book The Golden Thirteen: How Black Men Won the Right to Wear Navy Gold, drawing from Stillwell’s oral histories, original interviews, archival records and news clippings remains little known, overshadowed by the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen and Patton’s Panthers.
When civil rights leaders demanded fairer treatment they were confronted with an intransigent bureaucracy that was far more concerned with efficiency than with equality, by a Navy secretary who was certain that integration would bring disaster and by admirals who were adamant that worthy black men could not be found in the whole of the United States.
In January 1942, one month after Pearl Harbor, the Navy’s General Board, a group of admirals who advised the secretary of the Navy, met in Washington to discuss the possibility of black men training for the general service-ratings, allowing them to do more than cook meals and clean floors.
Just six days after the General Board released its report saying it could not comply with a request to enlist 5,000 black men into the Navy’s general service, Roosevelt, criticized in recent years by historians who believe he could have been more aggressive on civil rights, overruled his admirals and his Navy secretary.