There are times in our lives when we set our eyes to something and thought we’d do anything to get and achieve that. And then life decided to throw all sorts of adversaries along your way to knock you off your feet and throw you off your balance. Carl Brashear was no stranger to that, as he fought his way despite all odds to achieve his dream: to be a Navy diver. While it was already difficult enough being black at that time, he did so and more, even after losing one of his legs. Here’s his inspiring story.

Getting Into The Navy

Carl Brashear was photographed onboard USS Hunley (AS-31) while at sea, circa April 1971. (Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command)

Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Carl Brashear spent his childhood on a farm in Kentucky with his sharecropper family. He got his education in segregated schools— a common practice at that time. In 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, stating “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” Four months before the desegregation, Brashear enlisted in the Navy and underwent recruit training. It was not easy pursuing your dreams when everyone around you was saying you couldn’t do it. No black man had ever been a Navy diver at that time yet. But Brashear was not the type of person to ever give up, so he kept on pushing despite all the racism and hostilities he was experiencing, receiving notes of threats on his bunk that they would drown him. Apart from that, he also struggled to pass the science component of diving, all because his education in rural Kentucky was just equivalent to an 8th-grade education. Despite all that, he completed and graduated from the US Navy Diving & Salvage School in 1954.

Shattered Bones, But Not Shattered Dreams

In January 1966, Brashear was onboard for a recovery mission on a nuclear weapon off the coast of Spain after two Air Force planes collided while attempting to link up during aerial refueling, known as the Palomares incident. Both the B-52G Stratofortress Bomber and the KC-135A Stratotanker went down after the collision. The four MK28 Hydrogen bombs the B-52 was carrying were of major concern, as three of them fell and were immediately found in a Spanish fishing village, while the fourth was believed to have plunged into the Mediterranean.

Carl Brashear (1931 – 2006) US Navy master diver. (US Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Brashear, at that time, was serving aboard USS Hoist (ARS-40) when it was dispatched to search and retrieve the missing bomb. On March 23, 1966, he was on recovery operations when a line being used for towing broke loose and caused the pipe to hit his left leg just below the knee, shattering his bones. He was immediately evacuated to Torrejon Air Base in Spain, then to the USAF Hospital in Germany, and finally to the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. There, he was informed that the persistent infection and necrosis set in, and they had no other choice but to amputate his leg. Later on, Brashear was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his service during the bomb retrieval.

“It’s not a sin to get knocked down…”

Everyone was expecting that this would be the end of his diving career, and understandably so. But not for Brashear. For him, it was just another obstacle that life threw in his path, one that he must and would definitely overcome. And so he refused to show up for his med-board meeting and instead went on proving to them that he could go back to the service, despite having one prosthetic leg. He was able to convince them and was allowed to return to active duty. In an article written by LA Times in 2006, he shared,

“Sometimes I would come back from a run, and my artificial leg would have a puddle of blood from my stump… In that year, if I had gone to sick bay, they would have written me up. I didn’t go to sick bay. I’d go somewhere and hide and soak my leg in a bucket of hot water with salt in it — an old remedy.”

As if performing his duty while rehabilitating from the amputation was not a challenge enough, he became the first amputee diver to be recertified as a US Navy diver in 1968 and then a master diver in 1970, becoming the first one (although there was a debate if it was him or John Henry Turpin.) After a year, he achieved the master chief boatswain’s mate rating and then served for nine more years.

As he had always believed, “It’s not a sin to get knocked down; it’s a sin to stay down.”