Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Shoe Shine Hero

Since 1883, the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts launched naval ships into the open sea.  After a brief introduction of dignitaries followed by an impassioned speech, a champaign bottle was broken on the ship’s hull.  The vessel slipped stern first off her moorings and went crashing into the water.  Unlike previous launchings, this one was different.  For the first time, the U.S Navy was paying homage to an African American sailor by naming a warship after him.  The young sailor’s mother, Naunita Harmon Carroll, christened the new destroyer U.S.S. Harmon.  Like many who made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II, Texas native Leonard Roy Harmon made his with an unflinching sense of duty to his country; a country where discrimination was still practiced in the military.

Leonard Roy Harmon was born on January 21, 1917 to Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Harmon.  Leonard grew up in the small Southeast Texas town of Cuero.  Like many Texas boys, he loved to hunt and fish.  He also had his own horse named “Chicken.”  To earn money, young Harmon did yard work and shined shoes on the downtown streets.     
                                                                                                 Leonard Roy Harmon
Few opportunities existed in the late 1930’s for small town, African American men.  Paying jobs were scarce due to the Great Depression and college tuition was out of reach.  For those seeking a way out, adventure and opportunity could be found in the military.   Harmon joined the Navy on June 10, 1939.  He served as a mess attendant, one of the very few positions available to African Americans on naval ships back then.  Not many honors and recognition came your way; you prepared food, served food, washed dishes, and maintained the ship’s galley.  You also served the officers by making their beds, cleaning their quarters, and like Harmon’s job in Cuero, shining their shoes.  For most enlisted personnel, mess hall or K.P. (Kitchen Police) duty was something you tried to avoid or were punished with for committing an infraction.  For Harmon, it was a full-time job.

Harmon’s ship was the heavy cruiser U.S.S. San Francisco.  While docked at Pearl Harbor, she miraculously avoided the bombs and torpedoes.  On October 31, 1942, she was dispatched to the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal, the beginning of the U.S. island hopping campaign against Japan.  The Japanese were building an airfield on the island and were not willing to give it up without a fight.  U.S. Marines secured the airfield and fended off a series of desperate Japanese counterattacks.  The U.S. Navy, however, received a painful lesson in Japanese naval tactics; they were driven away from the landing areas after the “Battle of Savo Island.”  For awhile, the Marines had to consume captured Japanese rations until supply ships could return.

The San Francisco was part of a naval task force of 5 cruisers and 8 destroyers commanded by Rear Admiral David Callaghan, a former naval aide to President Franklin Roosevelt. The task force was sent to protect the U.S. landing beaches and airfield on Guadalcanal.  To counter U.S. efforts, a Japanese task force of warships and troop ships was dispatched to shell the airfield and reinforce Japanese troops already on the island.  Japanese battleships were armed with high explosive shells designed to destroy U.S. planes on the airfield with massive bursts of shrapnel.  The attack was to commence during the late evening of November 13, 1942.  Equipped with huge searchlights, the Japanese Navy had mastered the art of naval warfare at night.  Unlike their U.S. adversaries, they drilled extensively at it.  

In one of the most confused naval battles in U.S. History, the Japanese task force of 2 battleships, 1 cruiser and 12 destroyers sailed head-on into the American naval force north of Guadalcanal.  Firing was at point blank range.  One U.S. Navy officer recalled, “It was like a barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out.”  The ships became so intermingled that U.S. ships sometimes fired on each other.  Admiral Callaghan became so confused he ordered, “Odd ships fire to starboard, even ships fire to port.”  The problem was none of the ships had received a numerical designation.  How do you know if you are an even number ship or an odd number ship, especially at night?

The San Francisco took a pounding from four Japanese warships. Admiral Callaghan and most of his staff were killed.  Shrapnel was flying everywhere because of the Japanese shells.  It was suicide to go out on deck.   As San Francisco’s wounded began piling up, Harmon assisted in carrying them across the deck to the infirmary or dressing station.   While assisting Pharmacist’s Mate Lynford Bondsteel, he spotted a shell heading toward them.  “Look out Doc!” he shouted while pushing Bondsteel through an open deck hatch to safety below.  Harmon followed, but he was too late.  Riddled with shrapnel, he later died from his wounds.  Harmon was buried at sea the following morning.

The battle lasted 40 minutes.   Afraid of being attacked by American planes at daylight and having expended most of their ammo to bombard the airfield, the Japanese withdrew.  Guadalcanal would eventually fall to U.S. forces.

Mrs. Carroll said, “Oh, I just know my son is dead,” when she first heard about the battle.  Official notice came a few weeks later along with a medal, the Navy Cross - the Navy’s highest decoration for valor.  Because of Harmon’s courage, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox authorized the naming of a U.S. destroyer after Mess Attendant First Class Leonard Roy Harmon.  Harmon’s mother, stepfather and two sisters boarded a train for Quincy to dedicate the ship named after their Leonard Roy. 

The U.S.S. Harmon served out the war and participated in the invasion of Iwo Jima.  She was awarded three battle stars for service in the Pacific.