Sailors that served and gallantly fought for the country were usually buried at Arlington National Cemetery and were given the highest honor that they rightly so deserved. The Tomb of The Unknown Soldier, as we know, is one of the most heavily guarded sites in the whole world. Well-trained sentinels of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard, watch the tomb 24/7 regardless of the weather to demonstrate the respect that we have for these fallen heroes. While there are some 400,000 service members and their families buried at Arlington, there are only 249 Sailors buried there. This is because, for so many Sailors, their tomb is often their ship when it is sunk, or if the ship survives, the centuries-long tradition is for a Sailor to be buried at sea. Mostly this occurs far away from home deep in the vast ocean, but sometimes that tomb can be a short walk to shore right here in the U.S. Ships are also buried at sea as well or stripped to their bones in Breaking Yards ashore. Some more famous ships are preserved as monuments and museums and live on. A submarine chaser that served the US Navy during World War II called PC-1264, made history in its humble role and deserved a better graveyard than on a stretch of water called the Arthur Kill off of Staten Island in New York.
Laying The Keel of USS PC-1264
USS PC-1264’s journey started at Consolidated Shipbuilding Company in Morris Heights in New York in October 1943 and was launched the month after. PC-1264 was a US Navy PC-461-class submarine chaser intended to intercept and destroy German U-boats that were lurking off the United States’ coast. The less expensive and easier to construct coastal patrol boats augmented ocean-going destroyers and destroyer escorts while requiring less crew. These sub-chasers played an important role in filling the need for coastal convoy protection and anti-submarine warfare. How important? Well, the navy built almost 350 of the PC-461 class boats during the war.
Manning The Ship
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in December 1941 sent a telegram to US Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox in December 1941 to ask that African Americans be accepted into the Navy more than just Messmen. This was rejected, so they instead wrote a letter to President Roosevelt for their request, who did not ignore it and turned the matter to then chairman of the Fair Employment Practice Committee Mark Ethridge. They received the same negative response from the Navy.
On April 7, 1942, despite the anticipated backlash, President Roosevelt wrote his memo to the US Navy ordering that blacks would be enlisted in general service and the Messman branch beginning June 1, 1942. As a result, both the USS Mason and USS PC-1264 were manned by African American crew. Initially, PC-1264 was manned with 53 African Americans and commanded by a white officer Lieutenant Eric Purdon, who had trouble obtaining permission to dock with their ship’s crew. They were finally granted a permit from the US Military Academy at West Point to dock, opening its doors to the crew, and even providing buses and tours to the men.
When they sailed to Miami in the Submarine Chaser Training Center, that’s where they experienced forms of harassment like lengthy inspections of the sailors’ identification cards whenever they came back on base. There were also rumors that they were planning to shoot up the ship. Another chaser crew overheard the plan, so they armed themselves and stood at the gate to stop the civilian guards from whatever they were planning to do.
PC-1264 began to serve its escorting duty in 1944 after completing Fleet Sound School and returning to New York. She provided escorts to shipping and protected the French submarine Argo from New York to Key West to make sure that the US air and sea anti-submarine forces would not confuse it with a German submarine.
In February 1945, the ship was on duty to make an anti-submarine run against a North Atlantic buoy when it spotted a submarine when a conning tower briefly rose. It was believed that the U-Boat was sunk by PC-1264, although later on, it was confirmed that another anti-submarine sunk the U-Boat identified as U-866.
In May 1945, Ensign Samuel Gravely became the new African American officer aboard the ship to serve as second in command and eventually as the Commanding Officer. While in Miami, the Shore Patrol accused Ensign Gravely of impersonating an officer, so he was detained(Black officers in the Navy was a very new thing) His crew defended him in a heated confrontation and was let go after it was made clear that he was, in fact, a US Naval officer. The base Admiral demanded that the sailors who came to Gravely’s defense in that confrontation be taken court-martialed, but then-Commanding Officer Lt. Purdon bravely refused the Admiral.
After the war, PC-1264 was decommissioned and transferred to the Maritime Commission for final disposition. She was then transferred to the Arthur Kill graveyard on Staten Island. She’s still there today, where the elements slowly rotted her away. Her contribution to opening up the Navy fully to African Americans in the post-war Navy should never be forgotten.