The United States Navy’s first African-American Master Navy Chief, Master Navy Diver and fully active Navy amputee will be visiting Temple University’s Ambler campus on Feb. 6.
Carl Brashear is visiting Ambler to deliver his presentation, “Journey to Success.”
He said he hopes to impress upon Temple students the “perseverance and positive attitude” which fueled his determination to overcome the obstacles he faced in segregated America.
The event, to be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Bright Hall Lounge, is free and open to the public in honor of Black History Month and is one of several to be held at the Ambler campus.
Brashear’s life, the subject of the movie Men of Honor, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Brashear, took him from a Southern farm to the depths of the ocean.
As a child born to sharecroppers in rural Kentucky in the early 1930s, Brashear dealt with crushing racism.
He said the most poignant memory of racism and dehumanization was when he attended school in a one-room segregated schoolhouse, forced to read hand-me-down books from white students with pages missing.
“It was the hardest time in my life,” he said, “but I knew who I was, and I wasn’t going to let [racism] get me down.”
Despite his misgivings and an eighth-grade education, Brashear maintained a dauntless will to succeed, and joined the U.S. Navy at age 17, just before President Harry Truman integrated the armed forces.
Brashear said that he expected an egalitarian environment, but encountered the same racism he did as a civilian.
“[African American sailors] were only allowed on the docks but half a day, had separate quarters and there were signs [on the base] to tell us where we could and couldn’t go.”
After Truman integrated the military, new avenues for service and advancement opened for men of color.
Brashear, impressed after witnessing Navy divers on the USS Tripoli retrieve a submerged airplane, entered the Navy Diving and Salvage Training Center.
There, Brashear asserts he was persistently expected to fail and was mentally and physically tested by his superior officer.
“You have to have thick skin to be a diver… it’s a test, it wasn’t racist,” he said.
“After it was over, they weren’t racist and didn’t treat me meanly, and guys still get this treatment today.”
On January 17, 1966, while on a rescue mission to retrieve a nuclear weapon 2,500 feet underwater, Brashear lost his leg after a hydrogen bomb collided with a fueling tanker.
Brashear said he initially thought that his career was over, but he fought to recover and received a prosthetic limb.
In 1968, he was restored to full active duty, and completed 11 years as an active amputee.
In 1970, he earned the titles Master Chief and Master Diver, and retired from the Navy in 1979.
Brashear said that successful years of service and eventual promotion was not only a personal victory, but was a gateway for other African Americans and historically marginalized persons to enter into elite ranks of the U.S. military.
“I have been thanked by many for what I have done,” he said. “I have been told that my life has paved avenues for all minorities.”
“[The Military] has improved significantly, but we still have some work to do… we don’t have a level playing field.”
Despite this, Brashear said, “I loved the Navy when I joined it in the 1940s, and I love it today. I admire what it gives to people, and especially what it gave to me.”
Katie Bashore can be reached at email@example.com