Monday, July 28, 2014

The Golden Thirteen: The Navy's First African American Officers and the Hampton Roads Connection

The Golden Thirteen were put into a consolidated training program that compressed four years of courses into three months. “We decided early in the game that we were going to either sink or swim together – even to the point of studying together after we were supposed to be in bed,” George C. Cooper stated in Paul Stillwell’s book, The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers.

George C. Cooper, a member of the Golden Thirteen, has a personal connection to Hampton Roads. Cooper graduated from Hampton Institute with an undergraduate degree in vocational education. In 1942 Cooper applied for a position teaching metal smiths at Hampton Institute and through this position Cooper met Commander E. Hall Downes, who ran the naval training school in Hampton, Virginia. 
George Cooper is directly in the center, bottom row.
Cooper joined the Navy in 1943 as a petty officer, and Commander Downes used his influence to get Cooper transferred back to Hampton. Soon Downes had another opportunity for Cooper. An opportunity of a lifetime at Great Lakes Naval Training Station awaited him. After a few rigorous months of training, Cooper became a member of the Golden Thirteen and was transferred back to Hampton Institute, where he became personnel officer for Downes. 

After one year in his new position, Cooper received orders to go to the Pacific. Before going to the Pacific, Cooper was sent to Norfolk, Virginia. While receiving his first real medical exam, the doctors in Norfolk discovered a back injury that Cooper had received while undergoing training in the Great Lakes. They refused to send Cooper to the Pacific and he was released from the Navy on medical discharge.

Cooper and the other members of the Golden Thirteen have left their mark on not just U.S. Naval history, but on American history. “I was the only one of the 13 who could go into the Navy store and put on a uniform and walk out with it,” Cooper explained to Paul Stillwell for his book, The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers. He further stated, “I was the first black man to wear a naval officers’ uniform because my size was just right.”  

(This blog post was written by HRNM Public Relations Coordinator Susanne Greene.)

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