golden-13-black officers us-navy

Members of the Golden Thirteen, the first African-American Navy officers, who were commissioned in 1944. Courtesy of Surface Warfare Magazine, 1982. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Golden 13 – The First Black Officer Training Course

Editorial
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February 3, 2021

In January 1944, there were nearly 100,000 Black Sailors in the United States Navy, but none were officers. That would change when a group of sixteen Black enlisted men were assembled at Recruit Training Center, Great Lakes, in Illinois for officer training that month.

The odds were initially stacked against them as there was still a strong sentiment within the Navy that African Americans could not succeed as officers. The normal officer training course was sixteen weeks, however these men were expected to complete it in eight – a move that they believed was an attempt to set them up for failure.

The Navy also expected a twenty-five percent attrition rate, similar to that of white officer candidates. However, the group of sixteen were determined not to fail, and supported one another throughout the brutal pace of the training. Though lights out was at 2230 each night, the group placed blankets over their windows and studied together by flashlight, each man bringing his expertise to help strengthen the skills and knowledge of the others.

When the course was over, all sixteen passed their exams. In fact, their marks were so outstanding that some in Washington were certain that the men had cheated. When the group was forced to retake certain exams, they scored even higher, with an average grade of 3.89 out of 4–the highest average of any class in Navy history at the time.

Despite the fact all sixteen had passed the course, the Navy still wished to only commission 12, or seventy-five percent, as officers. Twelve were selected, and a thirteenth was made a chief warrant officer, hence the nickname “The Golden Thirteen.” The other three were sent back into the enlisted ranks with no explanations given. Here are brief biographies of all sixteen men.

Click on each link to read the full bios of the US Navy’s Golden 13:

Jesse Walter Arbor

Phillip G. Barnes

Samuel Edward Barnes

Dalton L. Baugh, Sr.

George Clinton Cooper

Reginald E. Goodwin

James E. Hair

Charles Byrd Lear

Graham E. Martin

Dennis Denmark Nelson

John W. Reagan

Frank E. Sublett, Jr.

William Sylvester White

Three Sailors successfully completed the training, but were returned to enlisted ranks without explanation:

Augustus Alves

J.B. Pinkney

Lewis “Mummy” Williams

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