USNA honors Black, Pinoy navy ‘messmen’
|Posted by Manila Mail under US News|
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland – Blacks and Filipinos recruited by the US navy through the years and limited to serving white officers and members of the messmen’s branch as stewards have finally won recognition and were honored at the Naval Academy September 17.
Dozens of old veterans with flags and their lapel with word “veterans” on their caps sat at the stairway of the Naval Academy’s Bancroft Hall rotunda to receive their long-delayed honor. Once, they were all in the Navy’s messmen branch, which for decades was restricted to African-American and Filipino men. On land and sea, at war and at peace, the sailors dutifully prepared and served food and tended to officers’ living quarters.
The story said that even when the navy officially became desegregated during the time of President Truman, the black and Filipino stewards had few opportunities to advance because of their race.
Before 4,500 midshipmen, the assembled messmen and their family members, a plaque was dedicated in the King Hall dining facility.”
“If you had told me that they would give a plaque to messboys in 1940 when I was here, I would have thought you were insane,” said Chester A. Wright, 86, who had traveled from California to witness the
unprecedented event. “It’s awesome.” Wright, who retired from the Navy after 21 years as a master chief steward, stood tall in a white cap and gold cummerbund as the plaque was unveiled. It reads: “This marker is dedicated to all of our shipmates and unsung trailblazers of African and Asian-Pacific ancestry who proudly served with honor and distinction as Messmen and Stewards in the Naval Academy midshipmen’s mess, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice as American Sailors in war and peace.”
The idea of honoring the stewards was first suggested by Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina in a letter to the academy’s superintendent, and was promoted by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings who gave a speech at the dedication. The superintendent, Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, who has been emphasizing diversity at the academy, took up the cause.
“History forgotten is history relived,” said Cmdr. John Fuller, the academy’s 4th battalion officer. “We have to educate the current generation about how the past generation was.”
The Naval Academy’s willingness to talk about its discriminatory policies of yore and make such symbolic gestures is unusual and significant, several academics said.
In the first part of the 20th century, African-Americans and Filipinos were alternately recruited into the Navy and then shut out, depending partly on the military’s wartime manpower needs and the status of the Philippines, which gained independence from the United Sates in 1946, Knoblock said. They were only permitted to be mess attendants.
Because they were not citizens, Filipinos continued to serve exclusively as messmen – later, they were called stewards, then mess management specialists, then culinary specialists – until 1974. The lot of
African-Americans in the Navy, on the other hand, had already begun to change by 1948, when President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the military.
Angelito Gregorio, who is Filipino, joined the Navy in 1970 and was a steward at the Naval Academy in 1973. For five years, he could not advance despite his best efforts, he said, but at the end of the decade
- around the time civilians took over the mess hall duty at the academy
- he saw a turnaround, he said. He retired after 20 years as a chief
“I only suffered for five years. After that, things were given to me because of my ability,” he said at the ceremony. “It’s good to see all these folks, especially the older ones, because they suffered the most.”
“It was very hard duty,” said retired Master Chief Mess Management Specialist Cesar Cabrera, who served as a Steward at the Naval Academy from 1958 to 1960, as his very first duty station.
According to Cabrera, the Messmen lived aboard berthing ships tied up along the seawall. Each morning, the Messmen were inspected before marching over to Bancroft Hall to start their day. Cabrera explained that each Steward was responsible for 24 Midshipmen. They started their
day at 5 a.m. preparing for breakfast, and their workday didn?t end until King Hall was completely cleaned after dinner.
“These people are so important, in a demanding job that wasn?t always looked highly upon,” said Master Chief Culinary Specialist Thaddeus Wright, Force Master Chief for Afloat Food Service. “To see them get their just dues, and to see leadership acknowledge that these people were not just hired help, is a good thing for the Navy.”
The event at the large Bancroft Hall was described as resembling a Hollywood party with waiters and waitresses carrying trays of hors d’oeuvres while everyone was dressed in their best. The occasion was an opportunity for the naval academy to show their appreciation to the messmen.
Up until 1975, Messmen and Stewards were responsible for cooking, serving, and cleaning up King Hall for all the Brigade’s meals. For many years, being a Commissaryman or Steward wasn’t necessarily a choice, as African Americans and Filipinos were restricted to serving only within the Navy’s Messman Branch. In the mid-1970s, the Navy merged the various ratings of the Messman Branch into the Mess Management Specialist rating to address issues of racial tension. The Naval Academy began contracting food service responsibilities to civilian organizations.
“This is very interesting. To be invited back here [when I used to be] a Steward, and now having retired as a captain is just a once in a lifetime [experience],” said retired Capt. Cris Toledo, who served at the Academy early in his career, was later accepted into a commissioning program, and retired in 2002 after 38 years of service.