Ohio’s Black World War I Sailors: Forgotten U.S. Servicemen

Published: 15 January 2023

By Paul LaRue, member of the Ohio WWI Centennial Committee
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site

USN black mess attendants 1918

U.S. Navy Officer’s Mess Attendants at Naval Air Station, Key West, Florida, December 27, 1918. U.S. Navy photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

The service and sacrifice of Black World War I sailors is often overlooked. Black History Month provides an excellent opportunity to discuss these forgotten servicemen, including those who came from Ohio.

6,750 Black sailors served in the US Navy in World War I (1.2% of the US Navy). In 1917 there were more Filipino than Black enlistments in the US Navy. (Black sailors made up closer to 20% of the Union Navy in the Civil War, though the exact number of Black Civil War sailors is unknown.) A lesson from the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places examines World War I Naval enlistment data. The lesson plan is “World War I and the Philadelphia Naval Yard,” and the first optional activity, titled “African American World War I Sailors, You be the Historian: Interpreting World War I Naval Enlistment Data,” examines interesting enlistment data.

Ohio supplied the U.S. Navy with 17,686 Sailors in World War I. 55 of these 17,686 Ohioan sailors were Black, which represents less than 1% of sailors from Ohio. Ohio’s Black sailors were from across the state, from Cleveland to Cincinnati.

The Ohioan Black sailor data is revealing. For context, Black World War I sailors served in the backdrop of the Jim Crow Era, and so, opportunities for Black sailors were limited. Most served in roles such as mess attendants, stewards, cooks, or coal heavers, but their jobs and service were no less important than the other sailors. Twenty-nine sailors, or 53% of the 55 Black Ohioan sailors, served as mess attendants. Fourteen sailors, or 25% of Ohio’s Black sailors, served as seaman 2nd class (after serving as apprentice seamen). In addition, three sailors were rated engineman, one a fireman, and one a carpenter’s mate. Five were ship cooks, one a wardroom steward, one a cabin steward, and one a warrant officer’s steward.

236 Ohio sailors made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in World War I. Two Black Ohioans were among those 236. Officer’s Steward William Ewing died of pneumonia October 1, 1918. Ship’s Cook First Class Lynn Cochrane died by drowning September 30, 1918, when the USS Ticonderoga was torpedoed and subsequently sank.

Black History Month is a great opportunity to honor these forgotten heroes: Black World War I sailors. Their service and sacrifice were no less important than any other group of sailors.

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