By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
There’s been a lot of publicity today as Adm. Michelle Howard becomes the Navy’s first female 4-star admiral, who also happens to be African-American. Her special moment in history is shared with another stellar officer, as today marks the 43rd anniversary of then-Capt. Samuel Gravely Jr. becoming the first African-American to achieve the rank of rear admiral. By the time he retired in 1980, he had earned the rank of vice admiral. His 38-year career was peppered with firsts as an African-American: first to command a combatant ship, to be promoted to flag rank, and to command a naval fleet.
During a series of interviews with the National Leadership Visionary Project, Vice Adm. Gravely described himself as a mild-mannered but strong man who takes the time to determine several courses of action to complete a mission and then pick the best one. “I always try to do the best job I know how,” he said. “I’m scared to death of failure, so I don’t let myself fail.”
He also described himself as “neat.”
Anyone who served with Gravely will remember he had a strong propensity for his ships being, well, ship-shape. After all, it was a desire for cleanliness that guided Gravely to the Navy after Pearl Harbor was bombed Dec. 7, 1941.
As the military sought more bodies to fill billets, Gravely was sure he would be drafted – but not by the Navy. “I didn’t want to go into the Army,” Gravely said, explaining his father had a 3-4 year stint in the Army and didn’t enjoy it. And there was something about the Navy that appealed to Gravely.
“Most people tell you the Navy slept in clean beds at sea, while the Army slept in mud holes and tents,” Gravely said. “I thought it would be a better life in the Navy.”
At the start of World War II, the Navy became semi-segregated, opening the door to African-Americans to be something other than mess man or stewards. Gravely joined the Naval Reserve in 1942, but “I refused to go in and cook.” He was sent to Great Lakes, Ill., as a seaman apprentice.
Gravely’s first duty station was San Diego, a segregated base where he lived in a hut with seven other guys that was made for “five-foot guys and not six-foot guys.” He was the only one who couldn’t stand up straight in his living quarters.
After a couple of months, he heard someone was picking people to be mess cooks. Gravely was determined not to be on that list.
“I’d been running away from that for years,” Gravely said. So he volunteered for compartment cleaning.
“Every day I got up, put on my clothes and would go outside after breakfast and pick up cigarette butts and do other odd jobs” in the areas where enlisted black men spent their time.
One day, the chief master of arms asked Gravely if he and another black Sailor wanted to run the pool hall in order to expand job opportunities for blacks.
“There were no blacks up there and whites didn’t want them up there, but I took over the pool hall along with another fellow and we ran it for four months,” Gravely said. “We changed the music a little bit and picked up a bunch of extra quarters in that juke box, and then we picked up more money playing pool because blacks started coming into the pool hall.”
Along the way, Gravely was asked to take the V-12 officer test. Out of the 120 who took it, only three passed, with Gravely the only African-American. He attended V-12 officer training camp at the University of California at Los Angeles. Combined with his credits from Virginia Union College, after two semesters at UCLA, Gravely went to midshipman’s school at Columbia University. On Nov. 14, 1944, Gravely was the only black officer among 1,000 graduates at St. John’s Cathedral.
“I felt proud, really, that I had accomplished something else that no one else had under the same constraints,” Gravely said. “My old dad could stand up and say ‘That’s my boy’ and feel proud, too.”
And speaking of his father, Gravely credited his hard work ethic and desire to do things right to Samuel L. Gravely Sr., a stern but loving disciplinarian.
“I was spanked for everything, but at the same time, it never killed me,” Gravely said. “I had a happy, fun-loving childhood. Dad wasn’t cruel, I could take it, but there were very few things I didn’t get a whipping about.”
And just like George Washington, there is a tree that factors into the childhood legend of Samuel L. Gravely Jr.
At his Richmond childhood home, a huge tree loomed in the back yard that had family members concerned about a lightning strike taking it down. Gravely and a cousin decided they would hasten its demise by putting a chip in the tree every day Gravely didn’t get a whipping over the summer.
“We didn’t get far on cutting that tree down,” he said. “As far as I remember, they had to saw it down.”
The discipline was just part of Gravely’s childhood, and nothing that bothered him. “My dad was a really good, loving man, but you had to do things right, it’s as simple as that.”
As proud Gravely was of his achievements, there were times when he wished the media focus had been more about his accomplishments as a naval officer rather than as an African-American naval officer. He admitted some of the early media attention on him was embarrassing and frustrating.
He described reporters who came onboard his ship, USS Falgout (DER-324), at Pearl Harbor, and set up in the ward room to take pictures. But they didn’t get the pictures they wanted.
“They didn’t want a picture of a black guy eating at a table with white guys, they wanted to see a black guy served first,” Gravely said. But in his ward room, the determination on who would be served first was not based on rank, but instead it was rotated around chair placement.
It would be a mistake and disservice to think Gravely’s rise in rank was just too convenient a coincidence at a time when the Navy was working so hard to prove it was desegregated, he was determined to be a destroyerman.
But he had never spent time on a destroyer thus far in his career. “I heard if you wanted to be on a destroyer, but you’ve never been to a destroyer, you can’t go to a destroyer. You have to work your way up as a junior officer.”
Gravely wasn’t about to let a bureaucratic catch-22 unravel his dream of commanding a destroyer. He wrote to the Naval Office of Personnel asking to be allowed to command, not just be second in command, and he wanted a destroyer. As it happened, the Chief of Naval Personnel at the time was Gravely’s former skipper on USS Iowa.
He had established a school and training program for those who had never been and never qualified for destroyer duty. So Gravely got orders to Destroyer Squadron SEVEN.
“They looked at me like I dropped out of the woods,” he said after reporting aboard.
Gravely decided if he would ever command such a ship, he needed to ride all eight ships and attend all of the training courses. Once all of that was done, just when he thought he would get his own destroyer, he was sent to another destroyer squadron, DESRON FIVE.
The skipper told Gravely the only way he would learn the ship from bottom to top was through the inspection process the ship commander held every year. And he handed him the manual.
“I went through the dumb thing chapter by chapter,” Gravely said. After finishing the book, the skipper agreed Gravely was qualified to command a destroyer. Shortly afterward, Gravely got word he would be in charge of the destroyer USS Theodore E. Chandler (DD 717).
“That was like going to Heaven,” Gravely said.
Gravely and his wife drove to its pier in Northern California to admire “the beautiful lines on that ship.” But that trip to Heaven required a detour to a shipyard. “Turns out (Chandler) wasn’t meant to be an operating member of the fleet, it was going to Hunters Point at the San Francisco shipyard for one whole year to be completely modernized,” Gravely said. “I saw the bucket cut down from the bridge right straight down to nothing but the waterline. Then I saw it being built again.”
Gravely never got the chance to command Chandler at sea. History was made when he got orders to be the commanding officer of USS Falgout (DER 324), then based at Pearl Harbor.
“I could have cried,” Gravely said. “I wanted to be a commanding officer of a destroyer.”
As luck would have it, the destroyer escort wasn’t in port when Lt. Cmdr. Gravely and his wife and children arrived at Pearl Harbor in December 1961. But when the ship arrived, the first thing the perfectionist noted was the gun mount was a-kilter due to bad weather. One of his first priorities as the ship’s commanding officer in January 1962 was get the gun mount fixed.
By 1966, then-Cmdr. Gravely was skipper of USS Taussig (DD 746), a destroyer that provided weapons and aerial support in Vietnam. Then in 1967, he earned the rank of captain, the first African-American to do so. On July 1, 1971, Gravely was appointed a rear admiral at age 48 while he was in command of USS Jouett (DLG 29), a guided-missile frigate also based at Pearl Harbor. At the time, he was also named director of naval communications.
Five years later, Rear Adm. Gravely was in command of the Navy’s Third Fleet based in Hawaii. After two years at the helm, he accepted shore duty in Northern Virginia as director of the Defense Communication Agency. Two years after that, in 1980, Vice Adm. Gravely retired from the Navy, worked in an engineering firm; volunteered in his church and community; sat on boards, earned an honorary doctorate — and dabbled again in his childhood hobby of raising pigeons. He died after suffering a stroke at the age of 82 on Oct. 22, 2004.
“Leadership is being able to take one man or a group of men and convince them on a course of action that you think is the best course of action you can take under the circumstances,” he said in the Library of Congress’ National Visionary Leadership project.
Faced with myriad obstacles that littered his path to success and overcoming them all, Vice Adm. Samuel L. Gravely Jr. proved he had the qualities he claimed it took to be a leader: to be ready; lead with integrity, professionalism and care; take pride and excel in your work, no matter the job; creatively address challenges; have the right attitude to earn respect, and perseverance.
Read more about Vice Adm. Gravely’s naval career. Listen to the interviews by Vice Adm. Gravely with the Library of Congress’ National Visionary Leadership project. Or read a previous blog by one of NHHC’s historians.
Please click the hyperlink to read Adm. Michelle Howard’s bio.