A little over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, 15 sailors assigned to the USS Philadelphia wrote a letter to a black newspaper detailing the abuse and indignities they had experienced on the warship solely because of the color of their skin.
When they enlisted, the Navy promised training and assignments that would lead to advancement, but black sailors soon found those opportunities didn’t exist for them. They were forced to serve the ship’s officers, « limited to waiting tables and making beds » as so-called mess attendants, they wrote.
For daring to speak out, some of the men were jailed, and all were expelled from the Navy with discharges that forever labeled them unfit for service.
The plight of the group, which became known as « the Philadelphia 15 », faded from public attention when World War II broke out. But the injustice they faced and the stigma their discharge papers carried have endured for more than 80 years.
In a ceremony Friday at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, four surviving family members of two of those men, brothers John and James Ponder, accepted a formal apology from the Navy for the racist treatment their loved ones suffered when they were sailors aboard their ship. .
The service also presented the family with the newly issued honorable discharges for the Ponder brothers and announced that the leave for the rest of Philadelphia 15 had also been updated.
“This is something – an injustice that shouldn’t have happened,” Larry Ponder, 72, son of John Ponder, said in an interview. “My father and the Philadelphia 15 were just informants. All they did was inform the public that they were being mistreated. »
« They tried to do what was right through the chain of command, but it didn’t go anywhere, so they wrote that letter. »
Mr. Ponder said his father never spoke about his time in the Navy. He learned what had happened when he discovered the discharge papers following his father’s death in 1997.
Years later, Mr. Ponder found out an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about a black veteran granted an honorable 75-year discharge after being wrongfully forced out of the military. He contacted a lawyer, Elizabeth Kristenwho had handled that case, and agreed to assist Mr. Ponder in seeking justice for his late father.
Mrs. Kristen helped Larry Ponder file a request to correct his father’s discharge papers in 2021. It said that John Ponder and the other black sailors had experienced « sanctioned abuse and retaliation from colleagues and officers of the USS Philadelphia. »
“My father was born and raised in Alabama,” Mr. Ponder said. “So he went through many things. He mentioned some of the things they had to deal with, discrimination, you know, so that wasn’t new to him. He grew up in that environment. He went to the Navy hoping he could have a career to build himself up. He came in there to serve like everyone else.
The Ponder brothers were among only 18 black men in the crew of 750 on the Philadelphia, according to one account.
Second a history of the ship’s navythe cruiser was engaged in fleet operations off Pearl Harbor when the 15 men signed the letter, attesting to their treatment and advising black mothers and fathers not to support their children enlisting in the military.
Instead of being able to choose their branch of service like their white peers, blacks were « restricted to waiting tables and making beds for the officers » on their ship as so-called mess attendants, they wrote.
In the previous six months, the letter said, nine black sailors on mess duty had received one of the Navy’s most arcane and brutal punishments: three days in confinement with nothing to eat but bread and water. The reason was to argue and argue with other enlisted men, which the punished sailors felt was a result of the ill-treatment they received.
“We sincerely hope to discourage any other black kids who may have planned to join the Navy and make the same mistake we did,” the letter says. « They would just become shipboys, chambermaids and dishwashers. »
“We take responsibility for writing this letter, regardless of any action taken by the naval authorities or whatever the consequences. We only know that it could not overcome the mental cruelty that was inflicted on us on this ship.
The consequences for the 15 black sailors were severe indeed: « undesirable » discharges – a term for what the US military now call a « less than honorable » discharge – which barred men forever from veterans’ benefits and signed their paperwork with an indelible stigma that caused many future employers to stay away.
The cruiser Philadelphia was decommissioned in 1951 and the brothers did their best to move on with their lives. Both raised families and had sons who served in the military.
The brothers signed the 1940 letter as John William Ponder Jr. and James Edward Ponder, along with Ernest Bosley, Arval Perry Cooper, Shannon H. Goodwin, Theodore L. Hansbrough, Byron C. Johnson, Floyd C. Owens, James Porter, George Elbert Rice, Otto Robinson, Floyd C. St. Clair, Fred Louis Tucker, Robert Turner and Jesse Willard Watford, according to the Navy.
Based on their birth dates, all 15 men are believed to be deceased, and the Navy is trying to find their surviving family members so leaders can also apologize to them.
Franklin Parker, the assistant secretary of the Navy who approved the discharge updates, presided over the Hall of Heroes ceremony and addressed the Ponder family with emotion evident in his voice.
« To you and the other families of the 15 Philadelphia sailors, I wish to extend my sincere regret for their treatment while in uniform, and also for the decades of delay in taking these measures, » Mr. Parker told the members of the Ponder family sitting in the front row.
« The standard for decision that we’re recognizing today was whether there was a mistake or an injustice, » he said. “Make no mistake: Injustice has occurred here. And today, to some extent, we try to deal with it.
The abuses suffered by the men were not an aberration to the Navy or the wider military of the time.
In December 1944, US Marines threw smoke grenades into an encampment of black sailors on Guam to cause a riot, in an incident that was not widely disclosed to the public until months later.
Approximately 1,000 black sailors serving in a construction battalion in Port Hueneme, California went on a two-day hunger strike in March 1945 to protest their commanding officer’s refusal to promote any black member of the unit to the rank of chief petty officer , even though many met all the requirements for advancement.
It wasn’t until 1948 that the military was desegregated through an executive order issued by President Harry S. Truman, although racial strife in the services continued through the Cold War and beyond.
This summer Congress is expected to consider appointing General Charles Q. Brown to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who would become only the second black officer to serve as the most senior uniformed officer in the nation.
If confirmed, the Pentagon will be led by two black officials for the first time in history. In January 2021, Lloyd J. Austin III, a retired U.S. Army general, became the first black secretary of defense.
« My dad was proud, » Larry Ponder said. “He was proud of his time in service. He never said anything negative. »
« He would be proud to see other people of color being able to have the opportunity to have a career and be promoted into those positions. »