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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Daily TWiP - USS Harmon, the first Navy ship named after an African-American, is commissioned today in 1943

Week in Preview

Welcome to Daily TWiP, your daily dose of all the holidays, historical observances, etc., we couldn’t cram into The Week in Preview.

When trouble’s cooking on the high seas, who better to come to the rescue than a mess attendant? Mess Attendant First Class Leonard Roy Harmon, who worked in the kitchens on the USS San Francisco, earned several posthumous honors for his bravery during the Battle of Guadalcanal, including a naval ship named in his honor. The USS Harmon, commissioned today (Aug. 31) in 1943, was also the first Navy ship named after an African-American.

Harmon was born Jan. 21, 1917, in Cuero, Texas. He enlisted in the Navy in 1939 and trained at the Navy Mess Attendant School in Norfolk, Va. At the time, this was the only Navy career path available to African-Americans and people of Asian-Pacific Island heritage. All job categories were opened up to all applicants regardless of race a few years later in 1942.

After completing his training, Harmon was assigned to the USS San Francisco, where he worked his way up to mess attendant first class. It wasn’t until the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in 1942, however, that Harmon was able to demonstrate what he was truly capable of.

The battle commenced on Nov. 12, when U.S. warships assigned to protect transport ships carrying reinforcements were attacked by Japanese planes. One plane was intentionally crashed into the radar and fire-control station of the USS San Francisco, resulting in the death or injury of 50 men.

The next day, almost every officer on the ship’s bridge perished in a spray of enemy gunfire. Harmon sprang into action, working to evacuate the injured and tend to their wounds without regard for his own safety. He was killed in action that same day, after protecting a wounded shipmate from additional gunfire by shielding him with his own body.

For his selfless bravery, Harmon was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the highest medal the Navy is able to bestow. On May 21, 1943, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox announced that a warship would also be named in Harmon’s honor.

It would take two tries. The first USS Harmon (DE-72) was transferred to the British Royal Navy in June of 1943, before she had even been fully constructed. The ship was renamed the HMS Aylmer.

The second USS Harmon (DE-678) was launched July 25, 1943, and christened by Harmon’s mother, Naunita Harmon. The ship was commissioned Aug. 31, 1943, and served as an armed escort ship for merchant marine conveys during World War II prior to her decommissioning on March 27, 1947.

Like her namesake, the USS Harmon was not without her own awards for bravery. She earned three battle stars for her service.

Harmon has also been honored with Harmon Hall, a residence for unmarried enlisted men at the U.S. Naval Air Station in North Island, Calif., and a state historical marker at the municipal park in his hometown of Cuero, Texas.

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- Teresa Santoski