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The Golden Thirteen
Golden Thirteen 1944.jpg
The Golden Thirteen, photographed on 17 March 1944. Top row: John Walter Reagan, Jesse Walter Arbor, Dalton Louis Baugh, Frank Ellis Sublett. Middle row: Graham Edward Martin, Charles Byrd Lear, Phillip George Barnes, Reginald E. Goodwin. Bottom row: James Edward Hair, Samuel Edward Barnes, George Clinton Cooper, William Sylvester White, Dennis Denmark Nelson.
Active 1944 -
Country United States of America
Branch Navy

The Golden Thirteen were the thirteen African American enlisted men who became the first African American commissioned and warrant officers in the United States Navy.


Throughout the history of the United States until the end of World War I, the Navy had enlisted African Americans for general service, but they were barred from joining from 1919 to 1932. From 1893 onwards, African Americans could only join the Navy’s Messman’s and Steward’s branches, which not only segregated African Americans from the rest of the Navy community, but also precluded them from becoming commissioned officers.

In June 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the executive order (8802) that prohibited racial discrimination by any government agency.

In April 1942, thanks to protests and pressure from civil rights leaders and the black press, the Navy allowed black men into the general service ratings for the first time.

Responding to pressure from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Adlai Stevenson, in January 1944, the Navy began an officer training course for 16 African-American enlisted men at Camp Robert Smalls, Recruit Training Center Great Lakes (now known as Great Lakes Naval Training Station), in Illinois.

To ensure their failure, the normal training period of 16 weeks was reduced to 8 weeks for the black cadets. When they realized that someone in the Navy wanted them to wash out, the cadets covered up the windows of their barracks and studied all night. When they were tested, the entire group passed with high marks. Disbelief in the chain of command that an all-black cadet class could achieve higher scores than an all-white one meant that the black sailors had to suffer the indignity of retaking their tests. Again, all 16 passed; the class average at graduation was 3.89.

Although all sixteen members of the class passed the course, only twelve were commissioned in March 1944: John Walter Reagan (1920-1994), Jesse Walter Arbor (1914-2000), Dalton Louis Baugh, Sr., Frank Ellis Sublett, Graham Edward Martin (born 1917), Phillip George Barnes, Reginald E. Goodwin, James Edward Hair (1915-1992), Samuel Edward Barnes, George Clinton Cooper, William S. White, and Dennis Denmark Nelson were commissioned as Ensigns; and Charles Byrd Lear (1920-2006) was appointed as a Warrant Officer.

Because Navy policy prevented them from being assigned to combatant ships, early black officers wound up being detailed to run labor gangs ashore.


President Harry S. Truman officially desegregated the U.S. military in 1948. At the time of the Golden Thirteen's commissioning, there were approximately 100,000 African-American men serving in the United States Navy's enlisted ranks.

Frank E. Sublett, the last living member of the group, died in 2006.

The Golden Thirteen's Legacy

In 1987, the U.S. Navy reunited the seven living members to dedicate a building in their honor at Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Command, Illinois. Today, Building 1405 at RTC Great Lakes, where recruits first arrive for basic training, is named "The Golden Thirteen" in honor of them.

In 2006, ground was broken on a World War II memorial in North Chicago, Illinois to honor the Golden Thirteen and Dorie Miller.

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