February 08, 2017 | Karl’s Korner

The U.S. Navy’s Golden Thirteen


I’m Karl, the Staff Historian for the USS Midway Museum.  I first joined in 1996 when we were still a voluntary organization striving to bring the Midway to our home town as a public attraction. One of my first tasks was constructing a 20-foot long model of the Midway to help promote our dream among our neighbors and visitors in San Diego. The model went on display at Lindbergh Field in 1998 and until 2007, graced the terminal at the Santa Fe Depot downtown. She’s now an exhibit at Petco Park.  After establishing the Exhibits Department upon the Midway’s arrival in 2004, I have extended my training in history to our Education Department, particularly each summer with our Midway Teachers’ Institute on behalf of high school history teachers from across the nation. I also assist our Marketing Department in hosting our annual Flag Day celebration each June, bringing new life to a forgotten patriotic holiday.  Now in this second year of Karl’s Korner, I look forward to bringing more aspects of history to everyone’s attention as we share in the legacy of naval history.

Today, in recognition of Black History Month I will tell you more about a group of men that paved the way for many others in naval history.  Golden Thirteen  Although African-Americans served on U. S. naval vessels from the very beginning, options for individuals dwindled rapidly after steam power replaced sail in the decades after the Civil War. By 1893, the only service African-Americans performed, by regulation, was mess duty as cooks and stewards. In fact, it was in this capacity that Navy Cross recipient Dorie Miller officially worked when he manned a machine gun during the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. 

However, six months earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially barred racial discrimination in Federal employment. But, it took pressure from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Adlai Stevenson to force the Navy to commission African-Americans as naval officers. Accordingly, Camp Robert Smalls was established in January 1944 outside Chicago. After passing an unusual FBI background investigation, a class of sixteen enlisted men, most with college backgrounds, formed the pioneering class.  Working as a team, all the students passed two months later, with one becoming a Warrant Officer, and thirteen receiving commissions as Ensigns. 

In 1948, President Harry Truman officially desegregated all the armed forces. One of the thirteen, Dennis Nelson, made a career of the Navy, while the others eventually returned to civilian life. Two earned post-graduate degrees, two became businessmen, and the rest served in the public sector, including William White, who became an appellate judge.  Because of the pioneering work of the Golden Thirteen, Jesse Brown received his wings in 1948, becoming America’s first African-American naval aviator, and in 1975, Lawrence Chambers assumed command of the USS Midway, making him the first African-American to command an aircraft carrier, just prior to the evacuation of Saigon. Today, a building at the Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, is called “The Golden Thirteen” in commemoration of these men who paved the way.  Thanks for continuing to look back in to U.S. Navy history with me, look out for the next Karl’s Korner next month! 

Launch em’... until next time, 


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