Today in African-American Transportation History – 1946: The Decommissioning of a US Navy Legend

A World War II ship that played an important role in African-American history was decommissioned by the U.S. Navy. The submarine chaser USS PC-1264, which had been launched during the fall of 1943, was one of only two Navy ships during the war to have a predominantly African-American crew. (The other vessel with this distinction was the destroyer escort USS Mason, which was likewise launched in 1943 and remained in service until 1945.)

The officers, crew, and mascot of PC-1264. The photo was taken sometime after 2 May 1945 as Ensign Gravely reported aboard on that date and, in the photograph, he is seated to the left of the other officers. All the white Petty Officers were transferred off the ship in November 1944. The canine mascot, seated front center, was named “Gizmo” after a vote by the crew. U.S. Navy photo from book “Black Company: The Story of Subchaser 1264” by Eric S. Purdon

Submarine chasers such as PC-1264 filled a vital need when it came to protecting the Atlantic coast of the United States against German U-boats. This was because these submarine chasers were faster and less costly than destroyers as well as destroyer escorts and required smaller crews.

After being commissioned in April 1944, PC-1264 formally entered service with a white officer named Eric S. Purdon as the commanding officer. Purdon remained commander until being replaced in September 1945 by another white officer named Ernest V. Hardman, whose service as skipper lasted only about a month. Hardman’s successor was a white officer named Lieutenant Jack W. Sutherland, who remained commander of PC-1264 until her decommissioning just a few months later.

Along with having an all-white officer complement throughout most of her service at sea, PC-1264 started out with a total of eight white petty officers on board. These petty officers were eventually transferred, however, after eight members of the African-American crew had been promoted to that non-commissioned officer rank. These promotions made PC-1264 the only Navy ship up to that time with a completely African-American crew; the white petty officers on board USS Mason never were replaced with African-Americans.

During the course of her military service, PC-1264 served as an escort for other vessels and engaged in anti-submarine warfare both along the Atlantic coast and in the Caribbean Sea. One especially noteworthy assignment involved having PC-1264 help patrol the areas between Long Island south and Virginia-based Cape Charles in response to reports that the Germans were planning to launch V-1 and V-2 rockets via U-boats against major U.S. ports.

Despite the ways in which they effectively served on board PC-1264, these African-Americans were still subjected to racial discrimination in various parts of their own country. The government of Miami Beach, for example, refused to allow the crew of PC-1264 to take part in training exercises on that Florida city’s shoreline. Ultimately, however, the performance of this submarine chaser earned widespread respect for her crew and helped persuade the Navy to expand opportunities for African-Americans within that military service.

Samuel Gravely, United States Navy photograph circa 1970

At the time of the decommissioning of PC-1264, the members of the ship’s crew gathered at the Witoka Club in New York City to collectively pay their last respects to the ship. “Sorrowful Crew Members Bid Farewell to PC-1264,” announced a headline in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. Among those in attendance at this gathering was Ensign Samuel L. Gravely Jr., who had become the only African-American officer on board PC-1264. “It was a good little boat and we all liked our job,” he said in an interview with the Baltimore Afro-American.

Gravely’s pioneering accomplishments did not end with his service on board that ship. He went on to become the first fleet commander and the first flag officer in the Navy. Gravely retired from the Navy as a vice admiral in 1980.

For more information on USS PC-1264, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_PC-1264 and http://www.navsource.org/archives/12/011264.htm.

Additional information on Henry S. Gravely Jr. is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_L._Gravely_Jr..

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