Just over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, 15 sailors assigned to the U.S.S. Philadelphia wrote a letter to a Black newspaper detailing the abuse and indignities they had faced on the warship solely because of the color of their skin.
When they enlisted, the Navy had promised training and assignments that would lead to advancement, but the Black sailors soon found that those opportunities did not exist for them. They were forced to be servants for the ship’s officers, “limited to waiting on tables and making beds” as so-called mess attendants, they wrote.
For daring to speak out, a few of the men were jailed and all of them were kicked out of the Navy with discharges that forever labeled them as unfit to serve.
The plight of the group, which became known as “the Philadelphia 15,” faded from public attention as World War II erupted. But the injustice they faced, and the stigma their discharge papers carried, lived on for more than 80 years.
On Friday, in a ceremony at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, four surviving family members of two of those men, brothers John and James Ponder, accepted a formal apology from the Navy for the racist treatment their loved ones had endured as sailors aboard their ship.
The service also presented the family with newly issued honorable discharges for the Ponder brothers and announced that the discharges for the rest of the Philadelphia 15 had been upgraded as well.
“This is something — a wrong that shouldn’t have happened,” Larry Ponder, 72, son of John Ponder, said in an interview. “My dad and the Philadelphia 15, they were just whistle-blowers. All they did was inform the general public about them being mistreated.”
“They tried to do what was right through the chain of command but it didn’t go anywhere — so they wrote that letter.”
Mr. Ponder said his father never spoke about his time in the Navy. He learned what had happened when he discovered the discharge paperwork after his father’s death in 1997.
Years later, Mr. Ponder found an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about a Black veteran granted an honorable discharge 75 years after being unjustly forced from the Army. He contacted an attorney, Elizabeth Kristen, who had taken on that case, and she agreed to assist Mr. Ponder in seeking justice for his late father.
Ms. Kristen helped Larry Ponder submit a request to correct his father’s discharge paperwork in 2021. It said John Ponder and the other Black sailors had suffered “sanctioned abuse and retaliation from peers and officers on the U.S.S. Philadelphia.”
“My father was born and raised in Alabama,” Mr. Ponder said. “He experienced a lot of things back then. He used to mention some of the things they had to go through, discrimination, you know, so that wasn’t new to him. He grew up in that environment. He went to the Navy hoping that he could have a career to be able to build himself. He went into there to serve like everybody else.”
The Ponder brothers were among just 18 Black men in the crew of 750 on the Philadelphia, according to one account.
According to a Navy history of the vessel, the cruiser was engaged in fleet operations out of Pearl Harbor at the time the 15 men signed the letter, which attested to their treatment and recommended that Black mothers and fathers not support their children enlisting in the military.
Instead of being able to choose their own branch of the service like their white peers, the Black men were “limited to waiting on tables and making beds for the officers” on their ship as so-called mess attendants, they wrote.
In the previous six months, the letter said, nine Black sailors on mess attendant duty had received one of the Navy’s most arcane and brutal punishments: three days’ confinement with nothing to eat but bread and water. The reason was fighting and arguing with other enlisted men, which the punished sailors said was a result of the mistreatment they received.
“We sincerely hope to discourage any other colored boys who might have planned to join the Navy and make the same mistake we did,” the letter says. “All they would become is seagoing bellhops, chambermaids and dishwashers.”
“We take it upon ourselves to write this letter, regardless of any action the naval authorities may take or whatever the consequences may be. We only know that it could not possibly surpass the mental cruelty inflicted upon us on this ship.”
The consequences for the 15 Black sailors were indeed severe: “undesirable” discharges — a term for what the U.S. military now calls an “other than honorable” discharge — that forever cut the men off from veterans’ benefits and inked their paperwork with an indelible stigma that caused many future employers to steer clear.
The cruiser Philadelphia was decommissioned in 1951, and the brothers did their best to move on with their lives. Both raised families and had children who served in the military.
The brothers signed the 1940 letter as John William Ponder Jr. and James Edward Ponder, along with Ernest Bosley, Arval Perry Cooper, Shannon H. Goodwin, Theodore L. Hansbrough, Byron C. Johnson, Floyd C. Owens, James Porter, George Elbert Rice, Otto Robinson, Floyd C. St. Clair, Fred Louis Tucker, Robert Turner and Jesse Willard Watford, according to the Navy.
Based on their dates of birth, all of the 15 men are believed to be deceased and the Navy is trying to find their surviving family members so that leaders can offer their apologies to them as well.
Franklin Parker, the assistant secretary of the Navy who approved the discharge upgrades, presided over the Hall of Heroes ceremony and addressed the Ponder family with evident emotion in his voice.
“To you and the other families of the Philadelphia 15 sailors, I wish to extend my sincere regret for their treatment while wearing the uniform, and also for the decades’ delay in taking these measures,” Mr. Parker said to members of the Ponder family seated in the front row.
“The standard for the decision we are acknowledging today was whether an error or injustice occurred,” he said. “Make no mistake: Here, injustice did occur. And today, in some measure we seek to address that.”
The abuse the men suffered was not an aberration for the Navy or the wider military at the time.
In December 1944, U.S. Marines threw smoke grenades into an encampment of Black sailors on Guam to provoke a riot, in an incident that was not widely revealed to the public until months later.
Approximately 1,000 Black sailors serving in a construction battalion in Port Hueneme, Calif., went on a two-day hunger strike in March 1945 to protest their commander’s refusal to promote any Black members of the unit to the rank of chief petty officer, even though many met all the requirements for advancement.
It was not until 1948 that the armed forces were desegregated though an executive order issued by President Harry S. Truman, although racial strife in the services continued through the Cold War and beyond.
This summer Congress is expected to consider the nomination of Gen. Charles Q. Brown to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who would become only the second Black officer to serve as the nation’s most senior uniformed officer.
If confirmed, the Pentagon will be led by two Black officials for the first time in history. In January 2021, Lloyd J. Austin III, a retired U.S. Army general, became the first Black defense secretary.
“My father was proud,” Larry Ponder said. “He was proud of his time in service. He never did say anything negative.”
“He would be proud to see other people of color to be able to have the opportunity to have careers and be promoted into those positions.”
John Ismay is a Pentagon correspondent in the Washington bureau and a former Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer. @johnismay