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Black sailor's World War II heroism commemorated in San Francisco

Black sailor's World War II heroism commemorated in San Francisco
Black sailor's World War II heroism commemorated in San Francisco 02:56

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- On Memorial Day weekend, a San Francisco tradition was revived after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.  The annual ceremony was held to honor the memory of the USS San Francisco in the battle of Guadalcanal during World War II.  The event also honored a sailor who was commended for his bravery, even as he battled racism in the military.

The memorial to the USS San Francisco sits in a quiet spot next to Land's End, its flagpole flanked by what's left of the ship's battered bridge, filled with holes from the attack it endured on Nov. 13, 1942.

"The USS San Francisco and its ships filed right into the center of a Japanese armada," said John McKnight, president of the USS San Francisco Foundation. "And in the middle of them, with ships surrounding them on all sides, they opened fire in the pitch dark and it was a brawl -- there's no better way to describe it."

Miraculously, the ship was not sunk but 77 sailors died in the battle, including most of the command staff. At Sunday's ceremony, their names were read aloud and a bell was rung to honor their passing.  

One fallen sailor, Petty Officer Leonard Roy Harmon, made history in another way.  He was a kitchen attendant -- one of the few jobs that African Americans could hold on a ship back then -- but, during the battle, he began helping move wounded soldiers including the ship's executive officer.

"Shots were ripping through the wall while he's carrying this guy down. He stands between him and the doorway where the bullets are coming through and he takes the full brunt of the machine-gun fire," said Dr. Jim Armstead, a retired Naval War College professor.

Professor Armstead, who gave the ceremony's keynote address, said Harmon probably should have received the Medal of Honor for his actions but instead the Navy granted him an honor that was even rarer -- they named a ship for him.

Dr. Armstead said that was unheard of at the time.

"First of all, an enlisted man -- there's not many ships named after enlisted men and there were no ships that had ever been named after a Black sailor," Armstead said.

World War II Recruiting Film
Scene from a World War II era recruiting film titled "The Negro Sailor." 

The Navy used Harmon's heroic story in promotional films as a way to placate African Americans who may have been feeling angry about the limited role they were given in the war.  In one newsreel titled "The Negro Sailor," a hesitant Black sailor is told stories about how Harmon and other mess attendants performed courageously in battle.

"Don't ever forget this about Steward's Mates," the film's narrator says. "They may pour soup between battles but in battle they pour lead with the best of them!"

"This is wartime," Dr. Armstead said. "So making sure African Americans are going to be loyal to the country when you've got the Japanese on one side and Hitler on the other -- it's important to hold the country together."

Harmon was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and the ship named for him served from 1943 to 1947.  His was just one of 77 lives lost in the horrific battle but his valor was remarkable considering his war was on two fronts.

"The double V for victory," Dr. Armstead said, twisting his two fingers back and forth. "If you were Black, you turned your fingers the other way.  It's one victory over segregation, the other is over our enemies and that was prevalent in the Black community in the second world war." 

He said that's why it was so important for the Navy to extend the honor to Harmon. 

"It demonstrated that the country understood that everybody was fighting for it."

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