Celebrating maritime, marine engineering and shipbuilding across the globe, we take a look at the iconic people and locations that are instrumental to the industry – This week and as part of Black History Month, we take a look at the incredible contribution of Leonard Roy Harmon, this first black man to have a warship named after him.
Leonard Roy Harmon was a Texan born in 1917 into a poor southern African-American family. Harmon faced the same barriers that other black men in the United States faced during this period, he was educated at a segregated school and despite joining the U.S Navy in 1939, he was limited to which roles he could carry out.
One of the positions that black men could take in the navy at that time was in the mess facilities onboard ships. Harmon himself became a Mess Attendant and was promoted to Mess Attendant First Class by the time the United States had entered the second world war. His role consisted of serving food to the officers and the crew aboard the ship. Despite only being tasked with menial jobs, Harmon was trained in damage control like every member of the ship’s crew and had his own specific station to report to during general quarters (action stations).
Serving aboard the U.S.S San Francisco, Harmon was involved in the famous naval battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. Following a Japanese attack that killed nearly all of the officers on the ship’s bridge – Harmon rushed in to care for and evacuate the wounded, standing between them and enemy gunfire and ultimately giving his life to protect his shipmates.
For this act of bravery, Harmon was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously. In the citation that went with the awarding of the Navy Cross, the President’s Office paid tribute to Harmon:
“Mess Attendant First Class Harmon rendered invaluable assistance in caring for the wounded and assisting them to a dressing station. In addition to displaying unusual loyalty in behalf of the injured Executive Officer, he deliberately exposed himself to hostile gunfire in order to protect a shipmate and, as a result of this courageous deed, was killed in action. His heroic spirit of self-sacrifice maintained above and beyond the call of duty, was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Leonard Harmon’s name lives on to this day as the first black man to have a U.S warship named after him. The U.S.S Harmon was active until the end of the war and remained a fitting reminder of the bravery of the man it was named after. To this day Leonard Harmon is recognised as a true trailblazer for BAME member of the U.S armed forces.