By Mike Manning – Chair, Friends of the Boston Harborwalk
The USS Mason, an Evarts-class destroyer escort, was ordered by the US Navy in early 1943. Her keel was laid down on October 14. Mason was launched off Boston Navy Yard (Charlestown) Shipways within a month, completed at Pier 8, and commissioned on March 20, 1944. As the name implies, destroyer escorts were designed to escort trans-Atlantic convoys supplying the Allied nations – Great Britain and the Soviet Union – with essential war materiel. These were extremely hazardous voyages for the convoys as they were susceptible to German Navy (Kriegsmarine) U-boat attacks throughout the entire journey. Additionally, on the approaches to the European mainland, the convoys were also preyed upon by German Air Force (Luftwaffe) attack aircraft.
Escort vessels, in order to protect the convoys and themselves, carried a formidable array of anti-submarine sonars, anti-aircraft radars, and weapons. Weapons included cannon and guns of various calibers, depth charges, and hedgehogs. (A “hedgehog” was an anti-submarine weapon fired in similar fashion to a mortar. Typically, multiple hedgehogs were launched from the deck of a surface warship).
The Mason was named after a US naval aviator, Newton Henry Mason, who served as a Hellcat fighter pilot onboard the carriers USS Saratoga and USS Lexington in the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO). On May 8, 1942, during what would become known at the Battle of the Coral Sea, Ensign Mason flew from Lexington for his first and final combat mission. Only a few hours into the action, he was shot down when he encountered a group of Japanese fighters from the Japanese aircraft carrier Shōkaku. He was posthumously award the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that day.
What distinguished Mason from other warships in the US Navy during World War II was the fact that her crew was composed primarily of young African-American sailors. She had a complement of six officers and nearly 200 enlisted crewmen. The captain and officers were white as no Black officers were commissioned until very late in the war. The only other vessel with a similar crew composition was the USS PC 1264 – a submarine chaser. These were the only two US warships in the entirety of World War II naval operations to have predominantly African-American crews.
In the early 1900s, Black sailors were confined to roles as messmen, stewards, barbers, and laborers. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) petitioned President Roosevelt to expand the roles of African-American sailors on-board warships. Along with the passionate advocacy and public prodding of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the president ordered naval leaders to accommodate more Black seamen aboard fleet vessels. However, the Navy Department initially resisted this order citing potential lack of efficiency and order aboard warships. Eventually, a compromise was reached, where African-American sailors were assigned duty at shore commands, aboard coastal defense vessels, with construction units, and aboard select US Coast Guard cutters. It was not until June of 1942 when this policy became official. Incredibly, it took nearly two additional years before any US Navy warship was assigned Black crewmen beyond roles as messmen or stewards.
USS Mason was commissioned on a snowy March day in 1944, under the command of Lieutenant Commander William M. Blackford, a descendant of abolitionist Mary B. M. Blackford of Virginia. (Mary B. M. Blackford (1802 – 1896), a native of Fredericksburg, Virginia was a staunch abolitionist. Her anti-slavery work began in 1829 and included the funding of a girls’ academy in Liberia in 1837 as part of the controversial Colonization Movement). Affectionately known by the crew as “Big Bill”, Blackford steadfastly defended his men from the naval establishment’s low expectations, including the derisive name “Eleanor’s Folly” because of the First Lady’s desegregation efforts.
Despite this denigration, over the next eighteen months, the men served competently in the final stages of the Battle of the Atlantic guarding and guiding convey vessels in the midst of lone German U-boats or in some instances wolfpacks. (Wolfpacks were groups of German U-boats designed to intercept and attack Atlantic convoys). Mason escorted six convoys in trans-Atlantic crossings.
In one incredibly monotonous and stressful crossing, Mason escorted Convoy NY-119 from South Brooklyn, New York to Falmouth in Great Britain. The convoy was made up of 14 civilian merchant ships, four Navy vessels, and a small flotilla of tugboat-towed barges. The average speed was a meager 5 knots (approximately 6 miles per hour) for nearly the entire duration of the voyage. Compounding this low speed, the convoy encountered a fierce storm with torrential rain and mountainous waves. The force of the gale was so powerful that the Mason’s steel decking split. In the midst of the storm, with heaving 50 foot high seas, two damage control crew members welded a seam between the cracked steel plates and made a critical and durable repair.
Despite the storm and the subsequent damage, she was able to lead the battered convoy to the port of Falmouth. Incredibly, Mason immediately set back out to the Atlantic to search for a few strays that could not keep up with the main body of the convoy. She was accompanied by two British vessels – HMS Rochester and HMS Saladin. Not far into the westward voyage, the British ships signaled that they were returning to port due to the deteriorating weather conditions. However, Mason continued alone in a fruitless search for any stragglers.
Following this particular convoy mission, Lieutenant Commander Blackford made an official request for a commendation for his crew. Additionally, the Commodore of Convoy NY-119, Alfred Lind, was so impressed with the Mason’s performance during the Atlantic-crossing; he recommended that the Navy place a letter of commendation in the files of every crewman aboard. The Navy did not act on either officer’s request for 51 years. Finally, in 1995, at the Washington, D.C. Navy Memorial, the few remaining survivors of the Mason’s crew received their official letters of recommendation from Navy Secretary John Dalton.
Despite her crew’s heroic contributions to the overall war effort being ignored or completely forgotten, the war service record of the Mason did contribute to new opportunities for African-Americans in the post-war Navy. Eventually, the US armed forces were formally desegregated in 1948 with an executive order from President Harry S. Truman.
For more about USS Mason, stop by the interpretive sign along the Charlestown Harborwalk, at Charlestown Navy Yard (summer of 2021).
There are two books and a documentary film about the USS Mason:
•Proudly We Served: The Men of the USS Mason (1999) by Mary Pat Kelly
•Onboard the USS Mason: The World War II Diary of James Dunn (1996) by James Dunn
•Proud: Produced (2004) by ThEntertainment based upon the Mary Pat Kelly book