By Vice Adm. Michelle Howard
Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Operations, Plans and Strategy (N3/N5)
I count among my heroes an anonymous Officer of the Deck. He’s a real person, but I don’t know his name. In fact, I know very little about him. I’m fairly sure that he was in the Navy during World War II and that he is (or more likely was) white. Please bear with me, his race is important to this story. More importantly is that the anonymous OOD had moral courage to step in when wrong was being done.
Years ago, I met LCDR Wesley Brown, USN, retired. He was the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1949. We met infrequently at events or sat on history panels together. He talked to me of his experiences at Annapolis and his years in the Navy. All I can say is that I wish I had his grace.
We can easily forget how arduous life was in the 1940s. Our social norms were completely different. Our country was segregated and states had varying degrees of Jim Crow laws. In Maryland that included segregated transportation (public conveyance), to interracial marriage, a white person could not marry someone who was of third or less descent from a Negro. The condition was “forever prohibited”.
Then Midshipman Brown started Annapolis in 1945. He was the sixth Black man to attempt to get through the school, and the first to endure the hazing and to make it to graduation. I think how die- hard the Officers and the brigade of midshipmen had to be over the first century of the institution. West Point’s first African American graduate was in 1877.
Wesley had a room of his own because no one would room with him. That meant he had no one to rely on for four years. He told me and others that he thought about quitting every day. But he also shared a story of hope. He recalled getting up early one morning to get his room ready for inspection. He rushed back from class to present his room, and he was stunned. The room had been trashed. He felt his world reeling, and did not think he could take any more. Then the Officer of the Deck, my hero, showed up.
Wesley came to attention. There was silence. And Silence. The Officer of the Deck looked around. He finally spoke. “Midshipman Brown, I suspect this room did not look like this this morning.” Wesley said, “No Sir.” With a carry on, the Officer of the Deck departed. Wesley felt shaken with relief. He went to bed thinking about what had happened, and by the next morning, decided he could make it through at least one more day.
From the first time I heard this story, I have continued to think about the anonymous Officer of the Deck. Every colleague, every midshipman, except Wesley looked like him. There had to be pressure or worse still, a presumption of righteousness in conspiring to get Wesley to quit. In one simple act, the OOD broke ranks. In doing the right thing, he may have incurred hostility or censorship from his friends and the campus wardroom. The pressure would not have just been from the school, his workplace, it was probably in the local community.
The Officer of the Deck demonstrated our core value of courage and in a few words set a wrong right. I believe that was at some cost. We do not have his side of the story, so we don’t know if there was more that he did. We do know that his one act made a difference in Wesley’s life. I know that meeting and talking with LCDR Wesley Brown, made a difference in my life.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. We should consider the Officer of the Deck and his taking on a wrong. Let us remember him and the gift of example that he gives us. Should the opportunity to act come our way, we must have the courage to do the right thing.