Thursday, June 29, 2023

African American Sailors in the Silent Service during World War Two

By Zach Smyers
HRNM Educator

Throughout the early 20th century, segregation in the U.S. armed forces significantly limited the roles in which African Americans could serve in the military. Prior to the Second World War, Black Sailors were only permitted to serve in the Navy as mess attendants and stewards. Despite many restrictive policies, African Americans and other minority groups continued to enlist in the Navy when permitted. This was especially true during the latter stages of the Great Depression, as military service meant food, shelter, and at least some degree of financial stability.[i]

Steward rating badge (

When the United States officially entered World War Two in December 1941, enlistment in all branches of the armed services increased tremendously. Americans were eager to fill the ranks. This recruitment surge included a significant number of African Americans. When the Second World War began, African Americans made up only 2.3% of the U.S. Navy. Even with segregation still deeply entrenched across the United States and discrimination rampant, many African Americans fought to do their part for the war effort.

Joseph Cross, a steward who made eight war patrols during WWII and received the Bronze Star (Naval Undersea Museum)

After June 1, 1942, African Americans could enlist for jobs outside of service ratings, although their options were again limited. Even with recruitment policy changes, the Navy was still heavily segregated, and African Americans serving on combat vessels were still primarily stewards. In addition to the surface fleet, the Navy’s submarine force was comprised only of volunteers, and it became an option for Black Sailors. Due to the hazardous nature of submarine duty, those who volunteered received additional pay. This included Black Sailors, which in turn motivated many stewards to volunteer for submarine duty. For African American stewards serving on submarines, there were many additional responsibilities. Stewards in the submarine fleet also served as ammunition passers, were assigned to gun crews, manned the helm, bow, or stern planes, and assisted with reloading torpedoes. 

However, life was much different on a submarine compared to a warship in the surface fleet. Submarine crews were typically very close, and despite the dangers they faced, they had high esprit de corps. Leonard Rozar, a Black Sailor who served aboard USS Tuna, referred to his shipmates as “a heck of a crew.” Alfred Hall, who served on USS Pomfret, had a similar experience, describing his crew as “like a family.”[ii] Typically, incidents of racism involving white and Black Sailors on a submarine crew resulted in the instigating Sailor being transferred off the submarine.

Sailors aboard USS Argonaut (NHHC)

During the war, 975 stewards served in the submarine force, and from 1941 to 1945, 785 stewards made war patrols. A war patrol could last anywhere from seven to fifty days, depending on the mission as well as the area of operation. Submarine Sailors prided themselves on earning their dolphin pin, which meant they were qualified as a Submarine Sailor. Submarine Sailors could also earn the combat patrol pin, which reflected their submarine’s number of war patrols. Black Submarine Sailors served with distinction and would often stay with the same submarine and crew as long as possible. For example, Officer’s Cook 3rd Class Arthur Brown made 12 war patrols with USS Narwhal (SS 167) from 1942 to 1944. Brown, who was 16 years old when he volunteered for the Navy, referred to the crew of Narwhal as “very good people.” He shared in a 2007 interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting how the CO of Narwhal emphasized the importance of the entire crew getting along due to the close quarters living conditions. Reflecting again on his life aboard Narwhal, Brown said, “I never had any trouble.”

Enlisted Sailor dolphin pin (Naval Undersea Museum)

The allied victory in World War Two came with a cost. Of the 3,505 U.S. Submariners killed in World War Two, 74 were African American stewards. Despite the limitations and discriminatory policies these men faced, they served with distinction and dedication. Ultimately, Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, officially ending segregation and discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin” in the Armed Forces.

Crew of USS Seahorse (U.S. Navy)

Even though Executive Order 9981 had been issued, the opening of additional rates for African Americans in the Navy was still a slow process. It wasn’t until June 7, 1949, that the Navy allowed any man serving as a steward to change his rating. Throughout the 1950s, many Black stewards from World War Two began to make the change to other ratings, including among submarine crews. Popular choices included engineman, electronics technician, radioman, and yeoman. This decade included many firsts for African American Submariners. Among them was Chief Storekeeper James Owens, Jr. He became the first Black chief storekeeper in the submarine force, serving on the world’s first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN 571). Chief Electrician’s Mate Roscoe Pennington, who made six war patrols during World War Two, was one of the first African Americans selected to attend nuclear power school. After completing his training, Chief Pennington received orders to USS Thresher (SSN 593), where he served as leading chief reactor technician.

ETC Roscoe Pennington (Naval Undersea Museum)

The 1960s was a decade of continuing change in the United States, with the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam. Young Americans, both Black and white, spoke out and protested for change. In the submarine force, change came in the form of nuclear-powered attack submarines, ballistic missile submarines, and leadership positions for Black submarine Sailors in both the senior enlisted and officer ranks. This change, however, continued to be a slow process considering that there wasn’t an African American officer commanding a submarine until 1983, when Captain Chancellor A. Tzomes became the CO of USS Houston (SSN 713).

Captain Chancellor Tzomes (U.S. Navy)

As of 2022, 6.4% of officers serving in the submarine force are African American. The enlisted ratings in the submarine force continue to be filled by Black Sailors, and the list of “first” achievements continues to grow. The hard work, determination, and dedication to duty of these Sailors is a fitting tribute to all of the African American stewards who served on submarines during World War Two. 

Several African American Sailors who have had a "first" in their career as members of the submarine force.[iii] (

[i] In 1932 there were only 441 African Americans serving in the U.S. Navy. Prior to 1932, enlistments of African Americans had been frozen which began in 1919. In January of 1942, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox ordered the Navy’s General Board to develop a plan for increased recruiting of African Americans which would include a variety of duties. The General Board reached a decision in February of 1942 to have the Bureau of Navigation supply a list of potential duty assignments for African Americans. In April of 1942, the Navy announced that general service as well as service in the Messman branch would be available to African American enlistees starting on June 1, 1942.
[ii] Glenn A. Knoblock, Black Submariners In The United States Navy, 1940-1975 (London: McFarland & Company, 2005), 96-97.
[iii] From left to right: HMC(SS) Retired, James Mosely (First African American “Nuke” in submarine force); EMCM(SS) Retired, Early Vincent (One of the first African American nuclear electrician’s mates); Vice Admiral (SS) Retired, Bruce Grooms (Member of the “Centennial Seven”); STCM (SS) Retired, Ronald Ross (First African American to qualify as an Acoustic Intelligence Specialist earning the NEC ST-0416); and Lieutenant (SS) Nsombi Roberts (First African American woman selected for the submarine force from NROTC)

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