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    Reader asks about photo of WWII African American Navy men

    Friday at Auction Finds is readers’ questions day. I try to guide readers to resources to help them determine the value of their items. I’m not able to appraise their treasures, but I can do some preliminary research to get them started. So, these are market values based on prices I find on the web, not appraisal for insurance purposes that I suggest for items that have been determined to be of great value.

    Today’s question is about a World War II photo of African American men enlisted in the Navy.

    World War II African American Navy men

    Left section of a photo of World War II African American Navy men.


    I found a photo of CO.OMDR-RJ.KRIEG-SP. 1/C CO C 21 FEB 16, 1944 US NAVAL TRAINING STATION GREAT LAKES, IL. It is an all black cadets photo.


    I found the photo intriguing because a few years ago at auction, I found photos of African American soldiers in the U.S. Army during World War II, and reader inquired about a photo of a company of soldiers at Camp Robinson in Arkansas.

    The recent email was my first Navy inquiry, and I was excited at the chance to find out who they were and the history of African American men in the U.S. Navy during the second world war.

    Blacks in the Navy fared no better than those in other branches of the military, but like the others, some of them made history by being the first. In the Air Force, they were the Tuskegee Airmen. In the Marines, they were the Montford Point Marines. In the Army, it was Benjamin O. Davis Sr. (the first African American general officer whose son Benjamin Jr. would become the first black general in the Air Force and commander of the Tuskegee Airmen). In the Navy, they were called the Golden 13, the first recruits who were allowed to train to become naval officers.

    African Americans have served in the Navy since the Revolutionary War, when free and enslaved Africans were among those recruited to fight the British. They were recruited because many had served in the British Navy and on merchant ships. They manned gunboats and were pilots, along with doing other subservient jobs.

    World War II African American Navy men

    Center section of a photo of World War II African American Navy men.

    They also served in subsequent wars, including the Civil War, but they were relegated solely to cooks and stewards. They were almost nonexistent in the Navy during World War I and when that war ended, the Navy prohibited black enlistment from 1919 to 1932. Those who had been in the Navy prior to 1919 were allowed to remain until retirement.

    When the Navy opened up again to African Americans, they still served as cooks or mess-hall attendants. One of the most famous was Dorie Miller, who took hold of an anti-aircraft machine gun aboard the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and started firing a gun that he had never manned before. He received the Navy Cross for his bravery. Another attendant, Leonard Roy Harmon, showed valor the next year when he was killed while shielding an officer during an attack aboard the USS San Francisco at Guadalcanal.

    Thousands of African American men joined the segregated Navy when the United States entered the war. In 1942, the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago was designated as the first site to train the new recruits, 277 men who would be led by white officers. The first one arrived at Camp Robert Smalls, located within the training center, in June. The camp was named after Robert Smalls, an African American naval hero during the Civil War.

    World War II African American Navy men

    Right section of a photo of World War II African American Navy men.

    There were 60,000 African Americans in the Navy and 12,000 enlisting each month, Adlai Stevenson, assistant secretary of the Navy, wrote in a message to his boss in 1943 urging commissioning of black officers. Blacks were also being trained at Norfolk, VA, with advanced training offered at Hampton Institute in Virginia.

    In January 1944, the Navy began two months of accelerated officer training for 16 men at Camp Robert Smalls/Great Lakes. All passed the course but only 13 were commissioned as officers on active duty: 12 as ensigns and 1 as a warrant officer. They became known as the Golden 13 (the last of whom died in 2006). As customary, they were assigned menial tasks.

    The African American men in the reader’s photo were likely among the thousands that Stevenson mentioned in his message. This is the inscription on the photo:


    They are all wearing Navy enlisted men uniforms, and the photo was probably taken at Camp Robert Smalls since it was dated 1944. They are members of Company 21.

    Presumably, the white man in the center with the insignia on his uniform is Spec. First Class R.J. Krieg, the company commander.

    World War II navy men

    Inscription on photo of World War II African American Navy men.

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