The U.S. Navy’s first African-American master diver was born close to where President Abraham Lincoln came into the world.
After struggling to overcome racism, Master Chief Petty Officer Carl Maxie Brashear faced another hurdle: how to return to active duty after a shipboard accident seriously injured his left leg. He asked doctors to amputate and give him an artificial limb.
A year later, he was back. He became the Navy’s only amputee master diver.
Brashear’s story seemed made for Hollywood. Ultimately, it inspired “Men of Honor,” a 2000 feature film starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Brashear.
“The African-American community lost a great leader…” an Associated Press (AP) wire story quoted Gooding after Brashear died in 2006 at the age of 75 years. “His impact to us as a people and all races will be felt for many decades to come.”
Dubbed “the Great Emancipator,” Lincoln led the Union to victory in the Civil War, which resulted in freedom for millions of slaves, including Brashear’s forbears. Brashear, the son of sharecroppers, might have visited Lincoln’s 1809 birth site, a national shrine near Hodgenville, Ky. Brashear was born less than five miles away, in Tonieville, Ky., in 1931.
With the movie came local recognition. Brashear is the subject of a special exhibit at the Hardin County History Museum in Elizabethtown, Ky., a short distance from Tonieville.
Brashear joined the Navy in 1948 soon after President Harry S. Truman ordered the armed forces desegregated. Brashear was barely 17 years old.
“When I saw the divers for the first time, I knew it was just what I wanted,” the AP story quoted Brashear upon his induction into the Gallery of Great Black Kentuckians in 2002. “Growing up on a farm in Kentucky, I always dreamed of doing something challenging.”
He applied for the Navy Diving and Salvage School and was the first African-American accepted for training, though three black sailors were divers in World War II. The AP story said he battled discrimination daily. Hate notes were left on his bunk and there were death threats.
In the movie, Brashear’s chief instructor, played by Robert DeNiro, tries to fail Brashear but he perseveres.
He graduated from diving school in 1954. Almost 12 years later, Brashear helped search for a hydrogen bomb that fell into the Atlantic Ocean after a multiple-fatality air accident off Spain.
On January 17, 1966, a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber carrying four nuclear bombs collided with a tanker plane during mid-air refueling. Three bombs fell on land. One failed to go off. Non-nuclear explosives detonated in the other bombs.
The Air Force called the Navy to find the bomb in the sea. The Navy sent several vessels, including a small, deep-diving submarine and the U.S.S. Hoist, a salvage ship, whose crew of divers included Brashear.
Brashear was aboard the Hoist on March 23, 1966 when a stern mooring line attached to a landing craft yanked a steel pipe out of the salvage ship’s deck, according to a story about Brashear’s death published in the Virginian-Pilot, a Hampton Roads newspaper. The pipe hurtled toward Brashear and another sailor. He pushed his shipmate out of the way but the pipe hit Brashear’s left leg below the knee, almost tearing the limb off.
Doctors in U.S. military hospitals in Spain and Germany tried to save the leg. But the wound was deep and would not heal.
Brashear ended up stateside at the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va.
“Doctors gave Brashear the option of fixing the leg with pins and braces, which would take years,” the Virginian-Pilot story said. Brashear requested an amputation.
“I can’t be tied down that long,” the story quoted from an interview with Brashear that the U.S. Naval Institute published in 1989. “I’ve got to get back to diving. They just laughed. ‘The fool’s crazy. He doesn’t have the chance of a snowball in hell of staying in the Navy.”
Doctors did amputate Brashear’s leg. Rear Admiral Joseph H. Yon, commandant at the Portsmouth hospital, became personally interested in Brashear’s case. He worked out a special exercise program for the sailor, according to the Virginian-Pilot.
Fitted with an artificial leg, he began a grueling regimen that included diving, running and calisthenics, the AP story reported. In addition, “Brashear…had to walk up and down a flight of stairs with 114 pounds strapped on his back to simulate scuba tanks,” the Virginian-Pilot said.
The AP story said he shed sweat and blood if not tears.
“Sometimes I would come back from a run, and my artificial leg would have a puddle of blood from my stump,” he also said in the 2002 interview. “I wouldn’t go to sick bay because they would have taken me out of the program. Instead I’d go hide somewhere and soak my leg in a bucket of hot water with salt in it – that’s an old remedy I learned growing up.”
Yon was impressed with Brashear’s progress. He recommended that the diver be kept on active duty. “Brashear first had to … convince the Bureau of Medicine in Washington, which he did, diving every day for five days in simulated depths of more than 200 feet,” the Virginian-Pilot story said.
He was judged fit for active duty in March, 1967. He was promoted to master chief petty officer and in 1970 became the Navy’s first African-American master diver, according to the newspaper.
Brashear retired in 1979 after earning many medals and decorations. His highest honor was the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, which he received for saving his fellow sailor from the flying pipe on the Hoist, the Virginian-Pilot added.
After the movie came out, Brashear received the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service from William Cohen, defense secretary in President Bill Clinton’s administration. Brashear watched “Men of Honor” at the White House with Clinton and his staff.
Brashear was living in Virginia Beach, Va. when he died of respiratory and heart failure in the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. He was buried in a Norfolk, Va. cemetery.
“I ain’t gonna let nobody steal my dream,” is the epitaph on his tombstone.
Brashear’s dream lives elsewhere. A Newport News, Va., fireboat and a Navy cargo ship are both named the Carl Brashear. He is remembered, too, by his numerous amputee pen pals, many of whom wrote him seeking to be cheered up.
“His advice to them was simple,” the Virginian-Pilot reported. “The limbless need not be listless.”