Carl Maxie Brashear: One of Kentucky’s “Men of Honor”

Story by John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard Command Historian

Carl Brashear Navy photoFRANKFORT, Ky. — It may surprise you to know that the motion picture Men of Honor, based on the life of Carl Maxie Brashear, has a Kentucky connection.  Brashear was born on January 19, 1931, in Tonieville, Kentucky, to sharecroppers McDonald and Gonzella Brashear. In 1935, the family settled on a farm in Sonora, Kentucky. Brashear attended Sonora Grade School from 1937 to 1946.

Brashear enlisted in the U.S. Navy on February 25, 1948, shortly after the Navy had been desegregated by President Truman. He graduated from the U.S. Navy Diving & Salvage School in 1954, becoming the first African-American to attend and graduate from the Diving & Salvage School and the first African-American U.S. Navy Diver. Brashear was also the first African-American U.S. Navy Master Diver and the first amputee diver to be certified or re-certified as a U.S. Navy diver.

While attending diving school in Bayonne, New Jersey, Brashear faced hostility and racism. Determined Brashear pushed on receiving encouragement to finish the training from First Class Boatswain’s Mate Rutherford, and Brashear graduated.

Brashear first did work as a diver retrieving approximately 16,000 rounds of ammunition that fell off a barge which had broken in half and sunk to the bottom.

On his first tour of shore duty in Quonset Point, Rhode Island his duties included the salvaging of airplanes, including one Blue Angel and recovering multiple dead bodies.CMB dive helmet

In 1957, Brashear was assigned to escort the presidential ship the Barbara Ann to Rhode Island. He met President Eisenhower and received a little knife that said, “To Carl M. Brashear. From Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957. Many, many thanks.”

After making chief in 1959, he stayed at Guam for three years doing mostly demolition dives.

Brashear, on the responsibility of being Master Chief, said “You have a tremendous amount of responsibility, too, because the welfare and lives of all those divers are in your hands. You’re supposed to have the expertise that you can look at a man, and know if there’s something on his mind that would mean he’s not supposed to dive. Or if he’s not acting himself, you’re supposed to question him and see if he’s in a frame of mind to dive. In other words, they’re just your children. You have to look out for them because they belong to you. When I was at the safety center, I have found on diving accidents that I’ve investigated that the guy shouldn’t have been diving because of his last night’s activities. But the master failed to think about them.”

In January 1966, in an accident now known as the Palomares incident, a B28 nuclear bomb was lost off the coast of Palomares, Spain after two United States Air Force aircraft of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), collided during aerial refueling. Brashear was serving aboard the USS Hoist (ARS-40) when it was dispatched to find and recover the missing bomb for the Air Force. The warhead was found after two and a half months of searching. During recovery operations on March 23, 1966, a line used for towing broke loose, causing a pipe to strike Brashear’s left leg below the knee, nearly shearing it off. He was evacuated to Torrejon Air Base in Spain, then to the USAF Hospital at Wiesbaden Air Base, Germany; and finally to the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. Beset with persistent infection and necrosis, his left leg was eventually amputated.

Brashear remained at the Naval Regional Medical Center in Portsmouth from May 1966 until March 1967 recovering and rehabilitating from the amputation. From March 1967 to March 1968, Brashear was assigned to the Harbor Clearance Unit Two, Diving School, preparing for return to full active duty and diving. In April 1968, after a long struggle, he became the first amputee to be certified as a diver. In 1970, he became the first African-American U.S. Navy Master Diver, and served ten more years beyond that, achieving the rank of Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate in 1971. Brashear was motivated by his beliefs that “It’s not a sin to get knocked down; it’s a sin to stay down” and “I ain’t going to let nobody steal my dream”.

 BMCM (MDV) Brashear retired from the U.S. Navy on April 1, 1979 as a Master Chief Petty Officer (E-9) and Master Diver. He then served as a civilian employee for the government at Naval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia and retired in 1993.

 imagesCAU0Z1QPIn 2000, Cuba Gooding, Jr. played the role of Brashear in Men of Honor, a movie inspired by the true story of Carl Brashear.  In October 2000, Brashear was honored with the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service for 42 years of combined military and federal civilian service. The award was presented by Secretary of Defense William Cohen.

Brashear died of respiratory and heart failure at the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, Portsmouth, Virginia on July 25, 2006. He is buried at Woodlawn Memorial Gardens in Norfolk, Virginia.

After his death, his sons DaWayne and Phillip Brashear started the Carl Brashear Foundation in his honor.

On October 24, 2007, the Newport News Fire Department dedicated a 33-foot high-speed fireboat named Carl Brashear to be used by their Dive and Marine Incident Response Teams.

The Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship USNS Carl Brashear (T-AKE-7) was christened in his honor in San Diego, California on September 18, 2008. General Dynamics delivered the completed ship to the Navy on March 4, 2009.

On February 21, 2009, Nauticus, a science and maritime museum in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, opened a new exhibit called “Dream to Dive: The Life of Master Diver Carl Brashear.”

About kentuckyguard