On Board the USS Mason: The World War II Diary of James A. Dunn, edited by Mansel G. Blackford, Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 1996, $26.95.
The story of On Board the USS Mason takes place in the Atlantic Ocean during the last year of World War II. It is not so much about the war–though Mason and her crew saw plenty of sea duty during her short lifetime–but rather about the U.S. Navy’s early efforts to bring African Americans into the Navy in positions other than messmen or stewards. The rest of the military services at that time were segregated, and the Navy followed this pattern by manning Mason with an entirely African-American crew of 160 men, commanded by 44 white officers and petty officers. As the African Americans advanced in rank, some of the white petty officers were reassigned off the ship.
James Dunn served aboard Mason as a signalman, and his daily entries in his diary show that the men always had a keen sense of being on display as the first all-black crew of an oceangoing U.S. naval warship. The Mason crew responded positively to the social challenge inherent in breaking this new ground and to the military challenge of performing convoy duty in the unforgiving waters of the North Atlantic. In belated recognition of their service, the surviving crewmen were awarded letters of commendation in February 1995 for their “meritorious service” and “steadfast devotion to duty.”
While the main part of On Board the USS Mason is made up of the actual daily entries James Dunn kept in a personal diary while on convoy duty, a historical introduction by John Sibly Butler, chairperson of the sociology department at the University of Texas in Austin, gives a concise overview of the participation of African Americans in the U.S. military services throughout their histories and contains a number of surprising facts. Interestingly, the editor, Mansel G. Blackford, is the son of the captain of Mason, Lt. Cmdr. William M. Blackford.
John I. Witmer