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Among Heroes, Part VII: U.S.S. Mason

The latest installment in a series of reports from the 2009 American Veterans Center Annual Conference.  Scroll down for the other posts....

This panel followed the Band of Brothers, and in some ways it was a bracing reality check.  There is so much to be proud of in how America conducted itself--both home and abroad--during World War II, but when we hold the entire panorama up to scrutiny, it makes the failings of that time seem even starker.

While the men of Easy Company were being held to the highest standards of training, with the expectation that they would play a vital role in the war, another group of men were being held to the sidelines with the intention of their skills never being put to the test... 

Prior to 1943, black sailors in the U.S. Navy were limited to roles as laborers or stewards.  In late 1943, with the encouragement of Eleanor Roosevelt, a plan was begun to man the U.S.S. Mason with black sailors trained in technical and operational fields and led by white officers (there were two black petty officers).  They had to push for it, but they were finally deployed in convoy escort duty to the North Atlantic.  They never lost a ship to the Germans, and their performance in "the storm of the century," during which they nearly sunk but repaired the ship and had everything functioning within two hours, was an astonishing accomplishment.

On the panel were author/producer Mary Pat Kelly, who wrote Proudly We Served (a book turned into a documentary of the U.S.S. Mason and her crew), and 1st Class Signalman Lorenzo DuFau, a crew member featured in the documentary.

Kelly was very passionate and enthusiastic about the story of the Mason, though it was DuFau who made the strongest impression.  He was an elderly 91 years old and spoke slowly in phrase-bursts, his deep bass voice warmed by the tones of his Mississippi upbringing.  His words and actions demonstrated the powerful dignity and self-possession that is so often found among Americans his age who had to fight for basic respect and civil rights.  When people applauded after the emcee introduced him, DuFau rose from his chair with difficulty and remained standing tall as conference attendees cheered.

The story of the U.S.S. Mason had been all but forgotten when Kelly stumbled across it in the early 1990s while doing some research in Ireland--she found reports of black American sailors who had stopped there during WWII.  It had been the Mason's first port of call and her sailors had been embraced by the Irish locals.  Heartbreakingly, the men said it was the first time they were treated as Americans.  Kelly was instantly captivated by the story and made contact with the surviving crew members, leading to her book and ultimately the documentary.

DuFau's first words on the panel were about how much he liked to see "the young people," as he gazed up at the stadium-style seats that contained a number of schoolchildren and ROTC students of a variety of races.  He was pleased "because what begun must continue... bringing all people together, one nation, under God."  Dufau repeated these themes of unity and religion many times during the panel.

"Segregation was a fact of life," DuFau said with the air of someone who was simply stating the historical record.  But it was that segregation that drove him to participate in the U.S.S. Mason project.  "I went through this with one determination," he said with fierceness, "to fight the hate."  He had been "quite upset" about Pearl Harbor and saw an opportunity to both strike a blow for equality and serve his country in its wartime need.  DuFau was classified 3A--he was married and had a child (had just lost another child to death)--and so wouldn't be subject to draft but, as he explained with passion, "my homeland was being attacked.  A man will always defend his home."  And so he volunteered.

Like many a sailor, DuFau's strongest memories seemed to be of the food.  "You could tell the day of the week by what food was served," he remembered.  He then looked at the audience with an impish smile and added, shaking his head at the memory, "Some of the cooks... I think they worked for the enemy."  The sailors in the audience cheered.

It seemed hard to keep DuFau on the subject of WWII itself, as he kept exclaiming over the modern progress in racial equality.  He looked again at the audience and said with a smile, "It is so rewarding today to see how far we have come."  In reference to President Obama and the breakdown of racial barriers he added, "It's a dream come true" that he didn't expect to see in his lifetime.  "I'm so glad to see our youngsters mixed up," he exulted a few minutes later as he again focused on the JROTC and ROTC in attendance.  "Cherish the opportunity you have," he told them.

A thread of idealism was never far from DuFau's thoughts, reaching it's highest intensity in his fervent statement that "If we work together, there will be no war."  He applied this principle to race relations when during the Q&A section he was asked by a female African-American ROTC cadet, "How important is diversity?"  It was fascinating to consider current issues of "diversity" in the Navy come crashing up against a man of such idealism who obviously saw country above all.  He replied, "We are Americans, one nation under God... When our home is threatened, we must stand together."  In an impassioned voice he added, "Division is now within hearts, not on the outside.  Don't let hate keep you apart." 

The next questioner asked "Who was your greatest influence while in the military?"

DuFau replied that it was a combination of people--Eleanor Roosevelt, the NAACP, "many groups working to knock down that barrier."  He seemed to be once again overwhelmed with the joy of a multi-racial society, pointing to the integration of sports as an example of how much has been accomplished and exclaiming with a smile, "Everywhere you turn, they workin' together!"

In response to a question about where he was when he heard the war was over, DuFau said he was happy to be stateside, manning the ship as it was training naval officers for their technical ratings.  "I was happy because the captain was trying to get us to the Pacific,' but "I'd had enough of the ocean."  He mentioned in an aside that he didn't like the second captain as much as he had the first because the first had been more professional--"He made no issue about race, he simply ran a navy ship."  The warmth and respect for that first captain was obvious in DuFau's voice.

Upon returning home, "reality hit," said DuFau.  Due to racism, there were no jobs available as a signalman in civilian life.  He first pushed a cart around the garment district in New York City, then spent a career as a construction laborer there.  He said he was proud to be able to point to a number of NYC buildings and know that he'd had a role in building them. 

Hearing that conclusion to Mr. DuFau's story was a terrible letdown.  DuFau and his fellow soldiers of both races had done much on the Mason to further freedom and racial harmony, but they had affected the military much more than America at large, and there was a lot of work still to be done. 

And yet, what was striking about it all was once again the complete lack of bitterness on DuFau's part, despite the horrible treatment he had received and the ways that racism had limited his options.  But as he said several times, he had determined "not to let hate play a part in my life."  His earnest patriotism and his belief in America's value and potential reminded me so much of Kanaya and Westbrook, two more heroes who deserved far better than they got, who served America even when she did not embrace them. 

America has been startlingly blessed by the service of extraordinary people who, instead of taking the natural path of anger and resentment, rose above their mistreatment in the belief that America would someday live up to the truth of her founding principle: "...that all men are created equal."  And in a testament to their faith, it was their very service that has helped make that dream possible...

[Part I: WWII, racism and courage; Part II: General Petraeus; Part III: Band of Brothers; Part IV: Seabees; Part V: WWII Heroes of the Air; Part VI: Iwo Jima; video excerpts from various sessions are posted at]


To all of them, *Thank you*, for your SERVICE!