Brashear's Daredevilry Got Him into Hot Water, Deep Water
By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 24, 2000 Carl Brashear's mama always said he was a daredevil. But even she would never have guessed just how right she was.
Brashear, the subject of the new film "Men of Honor," starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert DeNiro, left his roots as a sharecropper's son in Kentucky and went on to become a true American hero.
He was the first African-American Navy diver and eventually became the first African American to earn the title "master diver," but not before losing part of his left leg saving another sailor.
When Brashear joined the Navy in 1948, the same year President Truman desegregated the military, he was assigned as a steward, cooking and cleaning for senior naval officers in Key West, Fla.
"In the '40s most blacks were given the job as steward," Brashear said. "I figured out it wasn't for me from the get-go." Ironically, it was bucking the social system that elevated him out of that position.
"In those days, 'colored' could only go swimming one half a day a week in Key West," he said. "I took it upon myself to go swimming when I wasn't supposed to. This chief saw me swimming and thought I was a very effective swimmer."
That chief eventually helped pave his way into a beach master's unit. At the time, many Navy seaplanes didn't have retractable landing gear and were fitted with removable wheel sets when hauled around on land. Brashear said it was beach masters who had to swim to the planes and retrieve the wheels.
It was his swimming when he wasn't supposed to as a child that made his mother think he was such a daredevil in the first place. "I would go swimming in the ponds and the creeks and miss church and come home and get a whippin' from my mother," he said.
Brashear said he had always admired the deep-sea divers, but the urge to become one hit him strongly after he saw a seaplane roll off a flight deck into the sea in 1953.
"They brought a barge up alongside the ship and dressed a deep-sea diver, and I thought that was the greatest thing since sliced bread," he said. The diving bug had bitten, and Brashear immediately started putting in requests to attend diving school.
But it wasn't an easy path from there. Segregation was illegal by 1953, but discrimination was alive and well. "My special request wasn't making it through the chain like it was supposed to," he said. "It would get lost. It would get washed in somebody's shirt. Various things would happen to it."
Brashear kept submitting requests, and eventually one was accepted. He attended the Navy's diving school in Bayonne, N.J., and the rest, as they say, is history -- history that's being brought to life in the new movie, set to open Nov. 10.
Brashear doesn't necessarily think he was better than other African-American sailors before him who had tried to become Navy divers. He just wasn't easily deterred.
"People give up too easily. I was the type that wouldn't give up because my father wouldn't give up," he said. "My father passed a lot to me: Have a good attitude and keep your spirits high, love your fellow man and work hard, and be the best. I believed all that stuff."
The can-do attitude his father passed down not only drove him to diving school but helped him work his way back to full duty after he lost the lower part of his left leg in an accident in 1966.
"I hadn't reached my goal in the Navy," he said. "I loved the Navy so much that I did not believe, not for one minute, that an amputation would prevent me from continuing my career as a chief petty officer and a deep-sea diver."
The Navy originally had other ideas, but once again Brashear proved his worth and showed the Navy an amputee could still be a deep-sea diver. He remained in the Navy for 13 more years, went on to become a "master diver" and attained the rank of master chief petty officer. He never was placed on limited duty within the Navy because of his supposed disability.
Brashear said he was involved with the movie from the beginning. He helped write the script, and he was present during filming. He's awed by Gooding's portrayal of him.
"I thought Cuba Gooding was a God-sent man to play the role of a Navy deep-sea diver," Brashear said. "He is a fantastic actor. He was the ideal person for this role. He stays upbeat; he's energetic; he's got a good attitude. That's what it takes to be a deep-sea diver."
The movie is dramatized, but Brashear said it's very accurate overall. Perhaps the biggest nod to Hollywood, he said, is DeNiro's character, Master Chief Petty Officer Billy Sunday. The character is a composite of about three men who affected Brashear's career. He also said a highly dramatic scene in the movie is fiction: He was never hung up on a submarine and dragged underwater.
"They just stuck that in there. None of that happened," he said. "My ship did find a nuclear device, but I didn't get hung up on a submarine."
An integral part of the film, one that's true, is Brashear's will to overcome discrimination and succeed. With those real-life experiences in the early days of racial integration, he has definite ideas about race relations in today's military.
"The Navy has made great improvements in race relations, but we've still got a ways to go. Since I joined in the '40s, even since I retired, race relations are much, much better," he said. "People just need to communicate. Blacks and whites aren't talking to each other. You walk into a room and see some blacks in a corner and make your way right over there. I call that segregating yourself. If we could just talk, race relations would be better."
He also had some common-sense advice to pass to young service members today. "Set goals for yourself and work toward them with all your might," he said. "Just love yourself and love other people. Even if people don't like you, you can still talk to them and learn to live with each other's differences."