Monday, November 29, 2010

New destroyer honors a black naval pioneer

When Samuel Gravely Jr. was born in segregated Richmond 88 years ago, he never could have imagined a career as a U.S. naval officer - not to mention becoming the first black officer to command a warship and, eventually, the service's first black admiral.

Gravely died in 2004, but this month marks yet another first: The first warship named for a black admiral was commissioned over the weekend. On Wednesday, the brand-new destroyer pulled into Norfolk, its new homeport.

The guided-missile destroyer, built for about $1 billion, is the 57th in the Arleigh Burke class. Its crew of 276 is led by Cmdr. Douglas Kunzman.

As the ship made the turn toward Pier 6 at Norfolk Naval Station on Wednesday afternoon, Gravely's widow, Alma, said her husband undoubtedly would have been proud to have a ship named after him. But he probably wouldn't show it, because he was remarkably humble.

"It's really an honor to sit here and watch it come in," she said.

Gravely enlisted in the naval reserves and was soon selected for officer candidacy. He was the first black officer commissioned through a reserve officer training course. After a stint aboard a submarine chaser with an all-black crew - a way for the Navy to prove to the nation that black sailors were as competent as their white counterparts - Gravely left active service and finished his history degree at Virginia Union University.

It was a short break from what became his career. In 1949, he was recalled to active duty. He quickly rose to command four ships: the Theodore Chandler, Falgout, Taussig and Jouett. His final sea assignment was commander of the Navy's 3rd Fleet.

Alma Gravely recalled some of the early discrimination her husband faced. Once, while in Florida with the crew of a submarine chaser, he decided to accompany some enlisted crew members to an enlisted club, knowing the officers club was off- limits to black officers.

Someone at the enlisted club tried to have him arrested for impersonating an officer - a charge quickly dropped once the boat's commanding officer confirmed he was, in fact, a naval officer.

Gravely said having a ship named for her husband is the highlight of his naval career, although she also was pleased that Prince William County named a school for him.

The Gravely is the second new destroyer to make its home in Norfolk in as many days. Sitting across the pier was the Jason Dunham, named for a warrior from a more recent era. Dunham threw himself on a grenade in Iraq in 2004, an action that resulted in him becoming the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor since Vietnam.

The Gravely arrived, aft first, as docile as a lamb, nudged into place by a tug boat. Make no mistake, though: It has the capabilities of a lion, which graces the ship's official crest. The Gravely is armed with an array of firepower: dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles, as well as surface-to-air missiles, torpedoes and a close-in weapon system.

Kunzman, the commanding officer, touted the ship's modern, multi mission capability. But he was also mindful of the past, and the legacy Gravely left. The ship's motto, "First to Conquer," pays homage to Gravely being the "first to do so many things," he said.

And it's just flat out fun to be skipper of a brand-new ship.

"It still smells new," he said. "Like it's just out of bubble wrap. It's a brand-new Cadillac to myself and my sailors."

Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629,


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