WILMINGTON — As a seaman on the USS North Carolina during World War II, John Seagraves weathered a Pacific typhoon and helped shoot down a Japanese kamikaze bent on attacking the battleship. But his most harrowing memories of his days as a sailor are of the way the Navy treated black soldiers such as him.
I thought it would be an adventure, Seagraves said this week, recalling why he enlisted in the Navy just before he turned 17, when so many people he knew were heading off to war.
Only in the past few years has Seagraves, 85, had any desire to visit the ship that was his home at sea from 1944 to 1945. Hes here this week for the annual Battleship Association Crew Reunion, which, as World War II veterans die or become unable to travel, is down to just a couple dozen regulars.
Many veterans have stories they dont like to tell; Seagraves, too, stayed mostly silent about his wartime experience of exclusion and discrimination until his son, David, began asking questions a couple of years ago. Their conversations and David Seagraves research into U.S. Naval history resulted in a book, Uncommon Hero: The John Seagraves Story, released this week.
What Seagraves didnt know when he volunteered for service in June 1943 was that life in the Navy would be no different in some respects than the life he had known growing up around Atlanta under Jim Crow laws. He knew many opportunities would be closed to him in Georgia, as off-limits as white schools, restaurants and movie theaters had been. He hoped that in a military uniform, he would be regarded just like everybody else.
To improve his chances of being treated fairly, he asked to be assigned to a Northern naval base.
But the day after he signed up, he was sent off to basic training at Jacksonville, Fla., where he was given a bunk in a barracks with 40 other black men. The white man assigned to train them told them outright he didnt think it worth his trouble to try to teach them anything, Seagraves said.
Even German POWs held at the post were given more respect, Seagraves said. They were allowed to eat in the dining room with the white sailors, while the black recruits had to eat somewhere else.
The Navy had just begun to recruit black sailors, whom it sought to fill undesirable jobs as servants and manual laborers. Once out of basic training, Seagraves said, black sailors were generally assigned to be flunkies for the officers. Shining shoes, making beds, doing laundry.
Seagraves would have none of it. The oldest of several children, Seagraves had developed early a sense of self-reliance and ambition, taking on an after-school job delivering produce when he was just 10 years old.
I didnt join the Navy to be somebodys flunky, Seagraves said. I told them they could put me in the brig, but I wasnt making nobody elses bed.
At St. Simon Island, Ga., he was assigned kitchen work. He had to get up at 5 a.m. and wash dishes, But I didnt let it break my spirit.
From there, he was sent to Shoemaker, Calif., and put on a troop ship headed for New Caledonia in the Pacific. There, he was given his assignment: the USS North Carolina, considered the greatest weapon on the sea when she was commissioned in April 1941.
Seagraves boarded the ship in Hawaii in May 1944, awed by its size and power and excited to finally be headed into action. But the Navys segregationist policies extended to the oceans. Though the ship had more than 2,300 men on board, Seagraves was one of just 60 blacks, and they were set apart in every way, from their sleeping and eating arrangements to their battle station assignments and daily duties.
Again, Seagraves was told he was needed as a servant, to take care of a lieutenants stateroom.
I dont care if you put me in the brig forever, he told his supervising officer. Im not cleaning nobodys room.
Instead, he was put in the officers kitchen, where he prepared breakfast. He liked to cook, which he had learned from his mother back in Georgia, and hoped eventually to make a career of it.
He stayed at his job through smooth weather and wild, including when the ship went through one of several typhoons it encountered in the Pacific.
I was bouncing around like a rubber ball in that kitchen, making coffee, he said. You just do what you have to do.
Gordon Knapp, whose time on the battleship overlapped with Seagraves, didnt know his fellow Georgian in those days. But as the ships yeoman personnel officer he saw how black recruits were treated.
Im ashamed, said Knapp, who is 90 and has attended perhaps a dozen crew reunions, including this years. His voice broke as he described the rules that governed black sailors lives on ship. They couldnt be on deck except during an emergency. White sailors didnt talk to them, except to harass them.
They were completely isolated, Knapp said. It bothered me then. It bothers me now.
Seagraves and other black sailors had a chance to prove themselves in April 1945. The ship had at least one compassionate officer, Joe Stryker, who had reassigned Seagraves with seven or eight others from a battle station in the hot turret below deck to the 20 mm guns. They were at their station on April 14 when one of the men saw a Japanese plane in the distance. They asked for, and got, permission to fire, and once they started, so did other gunners. The plane kept coming until Seagraves could see the two men in the cockpit. Finally, it crashed into the ocean, 40 yards from the ship.
Later, Stryker made sure the crew that had spotted the plane was photographed, noting the importance of their defensive action. The picture is at the Battleship Memorial now, where 230,000 visitors a year might see it.
Seagraves left the Navy in 1945 and launched a career as a cook and caterer. He lives in Phoenix now with his wife, Mildred, and still travels to Atlanta to run a catering operation there.
Seagraves knew about the crew reunions, but he refused to come until 2009. He doesnt know why he came then, except, he said, You cant hold onto things forever.
When they have time, John and Mildred do like to travel.
They especially like ocean cruises. Theyve been on at least 50.