By Rudi Williams
WASHINGTON, April X, 2000 -- Former boxer and trainer Odell Williams was a realistic young man. "Kid Odell" knew he would never win many bouts, much less be a contender for the welterweight title.
Other than the fight game, "Kid Odell" said he was like a lot of young people in Depression-era 1936, "just out there not knowing what to do with themselves." He made his amateur boxing debut at 14 and had won only nine professional fights when he quit at age 23.
"I tried hard, but I wasnt good enough," said Williams, an 87-year-old resident of the Naval Home in Gulfport, Miss. "I joined the Navy after I discovered Id just be an average fighter, maybe end up being punch drunk." He opted for another living -- in the U.S. Navy.
Williams became interested in becoming a sailor at an exposition in San Diego when he saw three petty officers, two African Americans and one white, decked out in crisp Navy uniforms with gold chevrons, "hash marks" and buttons. He was mesmerized by their appearance and wanted to be just like them.
"I asked them about the Navy, and they said, 'You can't get into the Navy now; you can't be like us," Williams said. But he was so intrigued by them that he ignored their discouraging comments and started searching for ways to get into the Navy. The young pugilist didn't understand racism -- he'd grown up in a Los Angeles neighborhood where his was one of only two African American families, but everybody got along well and looked out for each other.
"Everybody went to school and played together -- Italian, Jewish, whites and blacks," he noted. "If you were out on the streets after nine oclock, an adult would want to know why you were out there that time of night."
Williams was told the Navy only accepted African Americans for its steward service. That didnt deter him. He joined the Navy on May_7, 1936, as one of 12 African Americans from the Los Angeles area selected for an integrated boot camp training program.
"It was an experiment, trying to get blacks back into Navy jobs other than servitude positions -- cooks, stewards and shining officers' shoes and brass," he said. "A lot of people were not aware of this because the Navy was very secretive about it. It was too explosive to go public at the time."
Williams bout with integration in the Navy was short-lived. After boot camp, he and the other African Americans went aboard the battleship USS Texas and headed for Unit K-West U.S. Naval Training Station, Naval Operating Base, Norfolk, Va. -- for training as cooks and stewards.
"Thats when we were introduced to segregation," Williams said. Before retiring with more than 20 years' service, Williams served with Fighting Squadron Six aboard the carrier USS Enterprise; the oiler USS Salamonie; general stores issue ship USS Acubens; the former ocean liner President Jefferson, renamed the attack transport USS Henry T. Allen; attack transport USS Noble; cruiser USS Des Moines; and at Naval Operating Base Argentia, Newfoundland, Canada.
A world war and a manpower shortage during World War II forced the Navy to change it ways and accept African Americans in general service, the Marine Corps and Coast Guard on April 7, 1942. Williams credits President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt and educator Mary McLeod Bethune with spearheading the changes.
During World War II, Williams was a steward aboard the USS Enterprise, which he calls one of the greatest ships in the Navy at that time. When fighting erupted, he said, his battle station was "pyrotechnic engineer" -- "fuzing bombs and making smoke."
"The only other thing I did was work as a storekeeper," he said. "They forgot about you being a steward in those days." The only thing that mattered, he said, was whether you could do the job -- whatever was needed at the time.
Williams still treasures his service aboard the Enterprise as his best career memories. "Ill never forget how the guys cooperated -- no color line or any of that stuff," he said. "You went to your battle station, no matter what your special duties were. Discipline was hard."
He said hell also never forget what happened when he went aboard the heavy cruiser USS Des Moines in 1950 as a young chief petty officer. Thats a bad memory.
When he reported aboard, his belongings were supposed to be taken to the chiefs quarters, but he found them in a passageway. Williams rushed back to the quarterdeck and asked the messenger, "Sailor, where did you put my gear?"
"In the chiefs quarters," the messenger answered.
Bypassing the officer of the deck, Williams complained to the executive officer, who told him, "Were not having any trouble on this ship, so were going to give you a billet in officers country."
"I told him, 'Im not an officer,' and asked to see the commanding officer," Williams said. "The captain called all the chiefs together and asked, 'Who set Chief Williams gear out in the passageway?'
"A chief bosun's mate from South Carolina yelled, 'I did, cap'n. I havent slept with them all these years and Im not going to sleep with them now.'
"No one else said anything," Williams recalled. "The captain told the chief, You take your gear and go down to the first class quarters."
Later, the chief made the mistake of picking a fight with the former pugilist.
"I did a pretty good job on him," Williams said. "He told everybody he fell down a hatch. About a month later, he came to talk to me and turned out to be my best friend. He said he thought all black people didnt do a damn thing in South Carolina but get drunk on Saturdays. That was the impression he had of me.
"Not all of the white people were bad. There were a lot of good people in the Navy, but a lot of them wanted to hold that tradition they had years ago -- whites only," he said.
"My father-in-law was Caucasian and his grandfather owned slaves in Georgia," said Williams, who hasn't seen his wife for nearly 20 years and doesnt have any children. "He treated me better than my own father. Sometimes you meet good people, no matter what their background."
Williams said he was involved in many battles, including the Battle of Midway aboard the Enterprise, but the only time he was wounded was when enemy rounds slammed into the USS Salamonie. He suffered shrapnel wounds, but refused treatment because "there were people laying on the deck."
"I didnt get a Purple Heart because I didnt ask for one -- the medal didnt matter to me," he noted.
Williams is incensed about the way World War II veterans were treated. He doesnt think they've ever received the credit they deserve.
"It bothers me to hear people going ape about the Korean War, Vietnam War and Desert Storm," he said. "If it hadnt been for the guys in World War II, they wouldnt have been around for Korea, Vietnam or Desert Storm. We made it possible for them.
"Why are they just beginning to recognize the guys who fought in World War II?" he asked. "Hell, most of them are dead. Im 87 years old. I dont need their help anymore."
In nearly the same breath, Williams said, "This country has its drawbacks, but its the greatest country in the world."
After retiring from the Navy in January 1956, Williams spent about five years in special security for the Los Angeles Water and Power Department before getting into the entertainment business as a master of ceremonies, singer and piano player.
Years later, he got into trouble with the Internal Revenue Service and decided to seek shelter at the Naval Home. One of the first questions he asked when he inquired about his eligibility was: "Is the home segregated?"
"No, it isnt," the woman on the telephone answered.
"How many nonwhites do you have living there?" Williams asked.
"Four," the woman said.
Williams could hardly believe that. He accepted the woman's invitation to visit and assess the home in person. He liked what he saw and became a resident in August 1993. Even today, only five of the more than 440 residents of the home are African American.
Though retirees from all services are eligible to live at the home, the residents are mostly sailors and Marines, Williams noted. For that reason, he surmises that most of the residents are from World War II and the Korean War, and there weren't many blacks in the Navy in those days.
He also said speculated that many African Americans might not want to live in Mississippi, but he said major changes in race relations have occurred there in past years. For example, Williams takes pride in being invited to schools to talk to students about his military and life experiences. He's particularly proud because the majority of the students he speaks to are white, and he treasures the many letters of thanks they write to him.
He said he's proud because, "Back then, it was unheard of for a black man to go into a school and talk to white kids.
"When Im invited to talk to kids, I stress discipline and ask them to define it for me to get them involved," Williams said. "I talk about self-esteem and tell them if you dont think something of yourself, who is going to think anything of you? I talk about objectives, cooperation and how to get along with people and be responsible. And I tell them they should respect others as you respect yourself and forget racism. And forget peer pressure; if you have an idea, speak up about it."He tells the kids and anybody else who will listen: "The Navy and I grew up together and learned to respect each other."
His impression of living at the retirement home is: "This is like heaven for me," Williams said.
1odell williams Former boxer and retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Odell "Kid Odell" Williams shows off some of the photographic memories he keeps in his room at the Naval Home in Gulfport, Miss. Photo by Rudi Williams.