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The Navy urged to right historic wrongs after landmark discharge decision 

Larry Ponder, son of John Ponder, listening to the ceremony at the Pentagon recognizing the Philadelphia 15. June 16, 2023. Department of Defense
Larry Ponder, son of John Ponder, listening to the ceremony at the Pentagon recognizing the Philadelphia 15. June 16, 2023. Department of Defense

The Navy is searching for the surviving family of 15 Black sailors who were kicked out of the service for protesting racist treatment a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

This comes as advocates say the military needs to take a fresh look at the thousands of service members discharged over the decades.

“They were kicked out of the Navy because they wrote a letter when really, what they were was whistleblowers," said Larry Ponder, the son of a Black sailor named John Ponder.  "They exposed the Navy for what they did, what they did wrong."

John Ponder served on the USS Philadelphia in 1940.

Lured into the Navy with the promise of a career, he found virtually all African Americans were trained as cooks and stewards and sent to serve mainly white officers in the fleet.

After nine months at sea, Ponder and his brother James were two of 15 sailors who signed a letter published in the Pittsburgh Courier on Oct. 5, 1940, which warned other Black people that if they joined the Navy, they would become “seagoing bellhops.” 

The letter talks about nine Black mess attendents on board the ship who were given solitary confinement or punished by being allowed only bread and water. In December 1940, back in Norfolk, Ponder and the others were discharged as unfit. 

Larry Ponder didn’t know his father was dishonorably discharged from the Navy until he found the document among his dad’s papers, after he died in 1997. 

“If I hadn’t found a discharge, it would still be swept under the carpet. It would never have been brought to light. And the fact that we kept pursuing it, then they finally exonerated him,” said Ponder, who lives in Tennesse.

Earlier this year, the Navy took the unprecedented step of upgrading all of the discharges for the 15 sailors who signed the letter warning African American sailors, including John Ponder's discharge. 

For 20 years, Larry Ponder pieced together his father's story on his own, finding newspaper articles and a few references to the Philadelphia 15 in books.

Then he found Elizabeth Kristen, who is one of a  handful of attorneys who handles discharge upgrade cases pro-bono. 

“The Philadelphia 15 was not unknown among the military, and they certainly could have been more proactive in addressing it, not waiting for family members to try to find old paperwork, as Larry had to do,” Kristen said.

A law firm in San Francisco recently filed a lawsuit on behalf a particular class of those veterans, LGBTQ veterans have been allowed to serve openly since 2011, but the process for upgrading other-than-honorable discharges of those kicked out for being queer is so exhaustive, fewer than1,400 vets have even tried to appeal, said attorney Jocelyn Larkin in San Francisco. 

“For people who have other-than-honorable discharges, the burden shouldn't fall on our clients to have to prove that they're entitled to this because we know that their discharge status was tied to their sexual orientation,” she said.

Larkin’s firm is suing to force the Pentagon to do the work themselves rather than have the veteran go through the lengthy upgrade process, which can take years.

Since 2011, the boards that handle discharge upgrades have been given guidance by the Secretary of Defense to give liberal consideration for veterans applying to have their discharge upgraded when their cases involve sexual orientation.

The Pentagon has never issued a blanket policy for upgrading discharges based on racial disparities. 

“The military has a really complicated history with regards to race and racial discrimination,” said Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College. “They should acknowledge that racism has long been part of the military experience for too many Black servicemembers and other people of color.”

Delmont has written extensively about the African-American experience around World War II, including the Philadelphia 15 case. He said it’s common for Black veterans from that era to say very little about their service, especially if they were mistreated. Families may not have the information contained in military service records. 

“I think this could be a starting point for the Navy and for the military more broadly to acknowledge and reckon in some way with the kind of rampant racism that was practiced in the armed forces during World War Two,” he said.

Still seaching for other families

With the Philadelphia 15, the Navy took the unusual step of combining all 15 sailors into one case.

While Larry Ponder pressed his father’s case before the Board for Correction of Naval Records, retired Rear Adml. Daniel McKinnon wrote Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro asking him to overturn all of the other-than-honorable discharges of the Philadelphia 15.

At 90, McKinnon is an amateur Navy historian, who has encouraged the Navy to look at other cases involving systemic racism in the World War II era.

“I threw a rock over the wall,” McKinnon said.

“Larry Ponder thought his dad had been wronged and wrote a letter. So the Navy staff just packaged it up and said, 'Let's do the right thing.' Secretary Del Toro agreed,” McKinnon said. 

From 1933 until 1942, nearly all African Americans in the U.S. Navy would have trained at the Navy Mess School, located at the time on Naval Base Norfolk.

The Navy had purged its ranks of Black members after World War I. It took the intervention of the Roosevelt Administration to force the Navy to begin allowing Black Americans to serve again.

But as documented in the letter signed by the 15 sailors, African Americans would only be allowed in certain positions, akin to servants. In many cases, alongside Filipino sailors, McKinnon said they were paid less and could not transfer to other parts of the Navy. 

 “They couldn't bust out into another rate at all. No, it took a war to get them out of the rate,” McKinnon said.

The Navy held a ceremony June 16 at the Pentagon to announce the decision to upgrade the discharges of the Philadelphia 15.

Franklin Parker, Assistant Secretary of the Navy offered an apology to the family of John Ponder and his brother James. John Ponder’s granddaughter, Erica Thuy LaFaye, was in the audience. She also served in the Navy and the Army under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  

“Anyone we can say at any point in time, you know what? I'm sorry,” she said. "That gives me hope that we can be better.” 

A Navy spokesperson said there had been hope that the publicity surrounding the ceremony might have reached the family members of sailors, but so far no one has come forward. 

Members of the Philadelphia 15 are: Ernest Bosley, Arval Perry Cooper, Shannon Goodwin, Theodore Hansbrough, Byron Johnson, Floyd Owens, James Ponder, John Ponder, James Porter, George Rice, Otto Robinson, Floyd St. Clair, Fred Tucker, Robert Turner and Jesse Watford.

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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