Director: Mary Pat Kelly.
Starring: Reggie Austin (Dubois), Vernel Bagneris (Larry's Father), Marcus Chait (Lieutenant Westin), Michael Ciesla (Yeoman Of The Flagship), Ossie Davis (Lorenzo DuFau), Eric LaRay Harvey (Kevin / James Graham), Rashad Haughton (Hank Fields), Janet Hubert (Larry's Mother), Albert Jones (Larry / Young Lorenzo DuFau), Kidada Jones (Gordon's sister), Jeffrey Nash (Marcus / Gordon Buchanan), Denise Nicholas (Gordon's Mother), Edward O'Blenis Jr. (Watkins), Aidan Quinn (Commodore Alfred Lind), Stephen Rea (Barney Garvey), J.R. Robinson (Chief Potts), Michael Scott (Captain Blackford), Keisha Whitaker (Collette), Darnell Williams (Thomas Young).
the USS Mason, with an African-American crew, was the only such ship to sail into combat, fighting Nazi U-boats
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
USS Mason, Commissioning Day, March 20, 1944. African-American sailors are aboard the ship. As a young sailor, Lorenzo DuFau, came up to Harlem when his ship came up to New York. Old man Lorenzo is awakened by loud music. He goes out to the living room to investigate. He yells at his grandson Larry for being awakened at 1 a.m. He reminds his grandson that the rule is "no partying". Grandfathers says: "This is not working." Larry's friend Marcus says that the music is his. Grandfather says: "That wasn't music." He says he remembers back in 1944 when he and his friends would go to the Mandalay Club and listen to the blues singer there. He adds that the blues is "what sees you through the worst times."
Grandfather sends Larry to get his scrapbook of the old days. He tells the three friends that up to 1943 a black man could not be anything but a steward in the navy. But in '43 African-Americans could finally sign up as a seaman. He signed up with 159 other black men. They underwent training for combat. Grandpa says: "We were good; were were proud."
Flashback. Boston, March 20, 1944. Grandpa DuFau says that his nickname was "SnaFu". His best buddies were the skinny Gordon Buchanan and the southerner James Graham from South Carolina. They are returning to their ship when they run into some hostile white sailors who say they can't believe there are "nigger" sailors. As things heat up between the two groups, Lorenzo and his buddies appeal to their own chief Potts, a white man, who tells the white guys that the black sailors are just niggers on a nigger ship. A fight starts that lasts for a short while.
The USS Mason is to be a destroyer escort. The guys expect to go right into combat, but instead are sent to Charleston, South Carolina. And the order for combat never came. Things finally started to change when a black war correspondent named Thomas W. Young came on board to investigate and report on how things were going on the ship. The white Captain Big Bill Blackford was very skeptical of the "experiment" because some in the navy were saying that the experiment was designed to fail. The Captain puts on a little show for the men. He does a tap-dance then three pretty white women come out in skimpy outfits and do a kind of rockettes' routine for the men. This upsets the white dock workers and they demand that the white women be taken off the ship: "Get them girls off that ship!" they shout. The men start to use force to come aboard, but they stop when the Captain gives the order to prepare to repel all boarders. Rifles and machine guns are pointed at the white men and they suddenly have a change of mind.
The war correspondent writes a report and sends it to Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the US President. She sees to it that the ship gets a mission. The Captain announces that the ship and men are to proceed to combat. There are hundreds of German U-boats in what was called the Battle of the Atlantic. Graham reports that there are possible U-boat operations in wolf packs, but Chief Potts does not believe it and ignores it. Graham himself takes the report up to the bridge. The Captain wants to know why didn't the Chief report the incident. The crew is given the commands: "Battle stations!" and then a shout goes out "Torpedoes starboard". But a U-boat saw them first and sent a torpedo their way. The Captain and crew are able to outmaneuver the torpedo and escape damage. They then drop their depth charges and the U-boats run away. Mr. Young is very impressed with the crew.
After three days at sea they reach the coastline of Northern Ireland. Potts has a lot of fun telling the men expecting liberty that the crew will not be able to go ashore. "Prudence dictates" he quotes. The crew is very angry and one man suggests that they walk off the ship. But Mr.Young tells them that it would be deemed mutiny. So another fellow says that they should act like a union and negotiate with management. Northern Ireland is an all white part of Great Britain. The Captain at first defends the decision of no liberty, but then relents and grants liberty. The men are very happy to get off the ship.
They are in the town of Derry. The crew is somewhat wary of what the reaction of the whites will be to them. They expect trouble and are very surprised that the Northern Irish treat them well. The men buy our three heroes drinks even though they saw the men flirting with the white women. One of the Irishmen asks if they know about Joe Louis. They sure do. Then the Irish take the three seamen to a "session" -- music and a dance. The musicians even sing "Danny Boy." Graham complains about how the navy treats the blacks and the friendliest Irishman tells him that he could go into the Irish Republic which is neutral in the war. He tells Graham that they can get him over the border with no bother.
The fellows dance until dawn. When it comes time to go, Graham is no where to be found. The two buddies go to look for him. They finally cross over into the Irish free state and there they find Graham. But now they are lost and it is about time to be back on ship or they will be declared officially AWOL (absent without leave). They have to run as fast as they can in order to get to the ship. One of the guys notes that they "had to come all that way to be treated as Americans."
There is now a real lack of any action. One day Chief Potts throws the ship's mascot, a bulldog, overboard. They have to backtrack to pick up the dog. Buchanan jumped into the sea to save the dog. They sail into New York Harbor and are stationed at the Brooklyn Navy yard. The Captain finally gets rid of the racist Chief Potts.
Graham meets Buchanan's sister Barbara and he really likes her. The friends go to the Mandaly to listen to the blues. Lorenzo gets the blues for his wife and son in New Orleans. The friends attend church and the reverend tells everyone that they are proud of the sailors.
Out to sea again, the ocean gets very rough. All the ships have to slow down. They worry about ships colliding with each other. The winds get up to 60 m.p.h. They find and retrieve the body of a dead sailor (not from their ship). Their job is get the ships of a convoy into port. During the trip they lose all communications with other ships. (They lost their aerial.) Furthermore, the deck is split apart. So the crew starts welding the decks together. The British ships say they are heading back. The USS Mason makes it through the storm. Commodore Alfred Lind decides to recommend the USS Mason crew for a commendation. The ship heads into Plymouth, England. On liberty the guys decide to go to a local club. A white officer tells the guys they can't go in. The men get angry, but the officer explains: "It's not the English, it's the Americans" asking for racial segregation.
Back in New York Lorenzo goes to see his wife Collette and his son in Connecticut. The family she worked for moved there from New Orleans and they brought his family north with them. Talking with his wife and son, Lorenzo realizes that he is a stranger to his own son. His wife explains that his son doesn't really know him. When dad tries to give his son a model of the USS Mason, the boy refuses to take it.
By New Year's Eve they are back at sea again. Later Captain Blackford decides he wants to continue in the navy. But his superior officer brings up some things that he does not like about the captain. For instance, the granting of liberty to the crew in Northern Ireland. And then his "exaggerated" reports praising the crew "too" much. Blackford gets angry and tells his superior about the lies told about the black crew and that he (his superior) justifies such vile nonsense. He walks out saying: "And I was even thinking of staying in the navy." Things were just not the same on the USS Mason after Blackford left.
The crew hears that Germany has surrendered. Everyone is really ecstatic to hear the news. Several months later they learn that the war in the Pacific has ended also. Then in 1948 the armed forces racially integrated.
Back to the present. The young fellows tell Grandpa that he should get together with his old friends. But Grandpa says that he does not know where they are. But the boys do not give up. They arrange a reunion of the three main buddies and Barbara. Grandpa is very happy to see everyone. He learns that Graham has kept on trying to get that commendation for which the Commodore recommended them. While talking together, the young men say they need some pull in Washington. Grandpa's son is a big-shot politician, but they are not on good terms. So his grandson says he will approach his father. The two men travel to Washington to see the father/son. Dad shows them a desk, one like John D. Rockefeller had, that he purchased for $100,000 dollars. The guys tell Dad what they want and he asks them if they are crazy. And Dad brings up once again that Grandpa never really loved him. He says: "You made my mother into a servant." But son and Grandpa keep working on dad. When Dad says the only color that counts is green, Grandpa states his preference for red, white and blue and the 160 men who defended the nation in the name of those colors.
The three young friends go to Washington, D.C. to check for the files of the USS Mason. The archivist has to inform them that the files are gone. And there are no records of the Commodore recommending the USS Mason crew for a commendation. The archivist tells them that lots of documents got lost after the war.
One day Larry comes in to speak with Grandpa. He tells him that the project has been approved. Dad, son and Grandfather get together. Grandpa explains to grandson that Charles (his son) and him always had to lock horns. Charles says: "You never just talked to me." Grandfather asks his son if he would now take the model of the USS Mason that he tried to give him many years ago. Charles does accept the ship this time.
The commendation for the USS Mason is presented to the assembled members of its crew.
The newly commissioned USS Mason DDG 87 makes a port call at New York City to honor the WWII veterans of the USS Mason DE 529 June 5th, 2003. On board the new USS Mason, the wealthy businessman Thomas Hilfiger welcomes the men of the first ship and then he presents President Clinton to make some remarks: "Thank you, very much. Sailors of the United States ship Mason, you saved a convoy in one of the worst storms in the history of Atlantic sailing in a magnificent, magnificent effort". Quite a few of the crew represented in the movie were there at the ceremony.
"Dedicated to the Men of the USS Mason (DE-529) and all Americans with ancestors from Africa who have served with distinction in every branch of the Armed Forces of the United States of America from the Revolutionary War through the present."
Good, uplifting movie. The men of the USS Mason not only performed their duties magnificently, but persevered in the face of heavy prejudice and discrimination. Despite all the nay-sayers in the navy and elsewhere, the men came through showing that black sailors could perform as well or at times even better than white sailors.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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