Master Chief Carl Brashear, the US Navy's first black master diver

Kaylah Jackson
February 05, 2020 - 12:57 pm
Black History Month: Master Chief Carl Brashear, the first African American master diver in the U.S. Navy

Courtesy of Philip Brashear

To be the first to achieve anything requires a special type of attitude, one that isn’t discouraged by naysayers. And for the late Master Chief Petty Officer Carl Brashear, that’s the type of dedication he possessed.

The sixth of eight children, Brashear was born in 1931 to a sharecropper family in Kentucky. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1948 as a steward, performing chores for officers. While assigned to aircraft carrier Palau in 1950, Brashear witnessed a diver jump into the ocean to recover an aircraft from then on was inspired to pursue one of the most challenging military jobs available.

He penned hundreds of letters to the Navy diving school and eventually was admitted to the course, but it wasn’t without some obstacles.

Brashear joined the service just three years after former President Harry Truman announced military desegregation. Previously,  African Americans were relegated to support roles in the military -- diving unheard of for a black sailor.

According to historical records, having only finished the seventh grade, Brashear failed the education portion of divers training. Determined to succeed he balanced studying with his regular sailor duties and eventually was readmitted to the diving course, becoming the first African American to attend and graduate from the U.S. Navy Diving & Salvage School. As a result, he became the first black diver in the U.S. Navy.

“My father was able to endure five hurdles to make it in this life: racism, poverty, illiteracy, physical disability, and alcoholism,” said Phillip, Brashear’s son, in an interview with Connecting Vets.

While Brashear endured grueling training, Phillip recalls his father never shared any of his negative experiences.

He truly came to understand the breadth of his father’s influence only after a movie detailing his life premiered in 2000, called “Men of Honor.”

Cuba Gooding Jr. portrayed his father while Brashear served as a consultant on the film. He was very careful to be as accurate as possible, even depicting a real-life scene that would change his life forever.

In 1966, two Air force planes, one of which was carrying a hydrogen bomb, crashed. The hydrogen bomb was lost at sea. As a diver, Brashear was assigned to recover it. But while on board, a line broke and sent a steel pipe across the deck of the ship. In an effort to save the sailors in its path, Brashear moved them out of the way. His leg was left severed by the pipe.

Black History Month: Master Chief Carl Brashear, the first African American master diver in the U.S. Navy
Courtesy of Philip Brashear

Brashear endured multiple blood transfusions and was eventually transferred to Portsmouth Naval Hospital, Virginia, where he decided to have his leg amputated in order to continue diving.

Fitted with a prosthetic leg, he refused to comply with medical boards' attempt to retire him as "unfit for duty." Instead, he signed his own orders for a transfer back to school where he continued diving. Pictures of him training with the prosthesis were sent to the Navy to prove his case. As a final test, he was required to lift weights and walk up a series of steps in full gear.

Black History Month: Master Chief Carl Brashear, the first African American master diver in the U.S. Navy
Courtesy of Philip Brashear
Master Chief Carl Brashear, the first black diver in the U.S. Navy
Courtesy of Philip Brashear

He passed the exam and became a master diver, the highest enlisted diving position in the Navy, in 1970.

“It’s not a sin to get knocked down, it’s a sin to stay down,” Phillip said. These words were a mantra Brashear ingrained in his son at a young age.

Following 30 plus years of service, Brashear retired from the Navy in 1979. 

A bridge in Kentucky, a cargo ship and two watches have been named in honor of his legacy. He died of heart failure in 2006 but his son keeps his father’s legacy alive. He followed in his footsteps and while not a diver, he's an Army aviator. When Phillip shared his early aspirations to become a helicopter pilot, his father was nothing but supportive.

"Son, that's one of the most difficult career fields and there's not a lot of black people in it ... go in there and do your best,'" Phillip recalls.

With 38 years of service under his belt, Phillip is the Chief Warrant Officer at 80th Training Command in Richmond, VA. Through speaking engagements at various military bases, the White House and the Pentagon, he's been able to continue sharing the contributions of Master Chief Brashear to the military community and beyond.

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