Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The USS Mason - Fighting Jim Crow

Most of America fought two different enemies in World War Two. That was hard enough. But the men of the USS Mason- DE 529, a Destroyer Escort, had the added burden of fighting a third enemy, Jim Crow.

At the outbreak of World War Two the Armed Forces were segregated, just like half the country was. This would not change until after the war was won, but during the war there were some courageous efforts on the part of some, to integrate America's fighting force. The story of the USS Mason is the story of one of those efforts.

Built in the Boston Navy Yard and launched in 1943, she was commissioned in March of 1944 under the command of Lt. Commander William Blackford, a white officer. He would command the Mason with a handful of white officers and an all-black crew.

After a successful shakedown cruise off Bermuda in the spring of 1944 the Mason headed into action. They escorted a convoy from Charleston, SC to the Azores, arriving on July 6th. The ship then put into Belfast; Northern  Ireland, for Liberty ashore. The crew was astonished at how well they were received by the locals. Even in England they were denied access to many facilities, but the Irish, albeit neutral in the war, welcomed these men as "Yanks" rather than "Tan Yankees" as they were referred to by the British.

But her greatest story was yet to come. On September 19th, 1944 the USS Mason left New York City with Convoy NY 119. They were to protect her from the German U-boats which had been sinking ships as close as 10 miles off the coast of the United States.

This convoy was done during one of the worst months of severe weather that the North Atlantic would experience in the 2oth Century. In less than a month the weather had claimed 16 of the convoys vessels. The only way to prevent more loss was to send the smaller, faster ships ahead with an escort. The USS Mason was the ship chosen for this duty.

Attempting to lead the ships into Bishop Rock, England the ship was beaten by severe weather that actually split her deck and collapsed main beams. The Mason was a step away from sinking.

Calls for assistance were ignored and the crew of the Mason were left to their own devices to stay afloat. And stay afloat she did. Within 2 hours the ship was repaired and leading the convoy safely into port. She then turned around again and returned to the remaining ships. The two British ships assigned to help in this endeavor turned back, leaving the Mason to struggle alone to bring the convoy in. It would take three more days, and nights, in harrowing weather to accomplish this task.

The ship and its crew were recommended for Unit and Individual Commendations for these efforts by their Captain, Lt. Commander Blackford, as well as Convoy Commander Alfred Lind. The crew would not learn of these nominations for almost 50 years, during research for the book "Proudly We Served."

As a result of the book the crew was awarded the Citations in 2003. Former President Bill Clinton would present the awards on the deck of the latest USS Mason in New York City.

A movie was made of this story with Ossie Davis as Signalman First Class Lorenzo DuFau. The movie was riveting, especially the storm scenes. The story is told from Mr. DuFau's perspective when his grandkids wake him up late at night with some loud music. He tells them the story in a flashback that encompasses not only the story of the Mason, but of the segregated makeup of our nation, even as we were fighting to liberate the world at large.

The Mason story has been told in other books about the war, but never so vividly as in the book and movie. And for a real quick look at what these guys did you can drop in on them at their web site

That this crew, made up of city kids and farm boys, some of whom had never seen an ocean, banded together in facing the Germans, as well as the forces of the sea, and won, make this one of the greater sea stories ever told. That they did it while under the thumb of Jim Crow is simply incredible.

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