The Naval Station Great Lakes became the focal point for racial issues both in the military sphere and in the national public eye. The fort was not only the pioneer in the recruitment and training of African American troops for the Navy, but also served the home to the first African American Officers, a group named the Golden Thirteen (“Naval Station Great Lakes”). The Golden Thirteen became a symbol for the other armed forces to emulate, as well as, a torch for young African Americans to follow.
At the turn of the twentieth century, President Theodore Roosevelt proposed the idea for the Naval Station Great Lakes, a Navy training facility located on the south shore of Lake Michigan. The idea of a naval station located thousands of miles away from the ocean, was unheard of. Even the formal training of troops was a bizarre concept at the time. Traditionally, new recruits would be sent to the first assignment and expected to learn on the fly. The station began its career as a pioneer, a reputation that would stick and even grow with time.
The Naval Station Great Lakes, was officially opened to recruits on July 1, 1911. At its conception, the station moved slowly only training about 2,000 recruits per year. However, with the appointment of President Woodrow Wilson to office in 1917, America declared war on the Central Powers and joined World War I. The pace at the station sped up dramatically. By the end of the war 45,000 Sailors were currently in training and another 125,000 sailors had already cycled through the fort (Duis). With the end of the war, the brakes were pumped on the station and the Navy was downsized in the pursuit of peace.
By the onset of World War II and, especially, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America needed a surge of more soldiers and sailors. The Naval Station was again ramped into high gear and began cycling out many sailors. To meet the high demand for sailors, the Navy opened technical fields to African Americans. Although, training at the time was still segregated, the Great Lakes station was appointed as the site for an African American boot camp. Though African American recruits were proud to train and serve, the training was severely strained. The policy of segregation caused training classes to be extremely small and ineffective for real world application. A dramatic change in the training structure was inevitable, if the program was to continue. As a trial run, in 1944, a small portion of the station was desegregated. After the experiment proved to be a success, the Bureau of Naval Personnel required all Recruit training to be integrated (Naval Station Great Lakes).
As well as enlisted recruits, the Naval Station was the training site for the first African American Naval Officers. 12 ensigns and one warrant officer were sent to the Station for training. Although the training was fully integrated by the time the thirteen arrived, they endured much scrutiny and racism from their peers and officers. The thirteen were determined and prevailed through their training, nonetheless. When they completed their training and the day of their Officer Candidate School final exam arrived, the thirteen scored an average of 3.89 out of 4.0 (Encyclopedia Britannica). These were highest marks ever achieved, a record that still stands today. The 13 were dubbed the Golden 13 after their achievement.
History of racism and years of Jim Crow had seeped into the minds of the American public. The Pentagon officials were in disbelief, it was impossible that African Americans could outscore their white counterparts, let alone pass the test itself. The officials concluded that the scores must have been incorrect and ordered the test be re-administered. The Golden Thirteen again took the final exam and, again scored the highest marks. The Thirteen, though still experiencing a lot of resistance from some of the officials, were allowed to graduated and commissioned as Naval Officers.
Unfortunately for the Thirteen, although their time at the Great Lakes had come to an end, the racism they faced had not. Many of the Thirteen were assigned to menial tasks and any command time they received was on small, decrepit vessels. “It was a good-faith, bad-faith effort because they became officers, which was a good thing and a very big step in the right direction, but they were generally assigned to fairly menial commands (qtd. in Flink),” said Paul Stillwell, the author that wrote The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers, a biography of the Golden Thirteen. Though the Navy was supposed to be completely desegregated by the time, the officers were given assignments such as commanding all-black logistic units, or leading small harbor tugboats or patrol boats. White military officials still had great aversions to assigning African Americans to roles of any real significance, viewing them as incompetent or inferior, despite what their test results would otherwise imply.
Perhaps more important than the actual tangible contributions the Golden Thirteen made for the Navy, was the legacy they left in their wake. Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown in a keynote address said about the Golden Thirteen, “They had a dream, a dream which united them and became a very powerful engine in the creation of social change. They showed it is people who make history (qtd. in Price).” The Thirteen were an inspiration for young black sailor, an example that with hard work and determination anything can be achieved. “These guys were the Jackie Robinsons or Thurgood Marshalls of the naval profession. The Navy had been around since 1775, one year longer than the United States had, and by 1944 there were still no black officers (qtd. in Flink),” said Stillwell. The Thirteen were the first black Naval Officers appointed to the United States Navy, and in essence paved the way for all future African American sailors. They were viewed as heroes and legends in black communities, almost larger than life. At the fiftieth anniversary of the appointment of the Thirteen as Officers, a ceremony was held to honor the thirteen. Sidney Poitier, an actress in attendance to the ceremony remarked on the visible legacy these men left behind. “I was fascinated by the story,” Poitier said after the ceremony. “If you look at the present configuration of the U.S. Navy and in this room today, you see very high ranked (black) officers. That is the result of the Golden Thirteen (qtd in Price).
Stephen C. Evans can contribute some of his success in the Navy to the pioneering spirit of the Naval Station Great Lakes and the legacy of the Golden Thirteen. In 2015, Evans became one of the highest ranking African Americans in the United States Navy, holding the rank of Rear Admiral, the Army equivalent of a General. Rear Adm. Evans was also, simultaneously, appointed as commander of the Naval Station Great Lakes. As commander of the Stations, Rear Admiral Evans now oversees roughly 98 percent of the country’s naval recruits (Parish). Though the Thirteen may have never served in any significant naval positions, they were invaluable in paving the path for future African Americans, like Rear Admiral Evans.
The Golden Thirteen also cleared a path for female sailors. When the Thirteen proved the viability of integrating black and white personnel, the Navy’s options were broadened. In 1948, four years after the Thirteen reported to the fort, the Naval Station opened the first WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) boot camp. The WAVES program allowed women to become commissioned officers or enlisted sailors for the duration of the World War II and six months after (“NS Great Lakes”). Although these women were confined mostly to administrative jobs or health services during the war, it was still an important step in attaining equality for women in the military.
Though African Americans and women still racism and sexism by their fellow recruits and trainers in the military sphere as well as the public eye, the Golden Thirteen and the programs initiated by the Naval Station Great Lakes were huge steps forward in the progression of equality in the military. The policy of integration opened new opportunities for African Americans and set an example of integration in the civilian world.
Flink, John. “Jesse Arbor Of `Golden Thirteen’.” Chicago Tribune, 14 Jan. 2000.
Price, Stephen. “Navy Honors Golden Dream Of 13 Pioneers.” Chicago Tribune, 10 Mar. 1994.
Duis, Perry R. “Great Lakes Naval Training Station.” Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Encyclopedia of Chicago.
Encyclopædia Britannica. “Golden Thirteen.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 Nov. 2013.
Parish, Norman. “African-American Becomes Top Officer at Naval Station Great Lakes.”Chicago Citizens Newspaper, The Chicago Citizen, Aug. 2015.
“Naval Station Great Lakes.” Commander, Navy Installations Command.
“NS Great Lakes.” History, 6 June 2013.
For Further Reading
Hettinger, Jim. “Hettinger: The ‘Golden Thirteen’.” Battle Creek Enquirer, Battle Creek Enquirer, 18 Feb. 2017.