This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Cloudsmith.
June 13, 1945. As the USS Norman Scott sailed into Leyte Gulf, it passed several other destroyers that were heavily damaged. Some were missing smokestacks, others had gaping holes in the decks. Realizing that his ship received only minor damage, Alonzo was grateful.
The war wasn't over yet — something he and the rest of the crew had to come to terms with despite receiving news of Germany’s surrender to the Allies just a few weeks earlier, which signaled the end of the conflict in Europe. It was a tremendous victory for the U.S. but that may as well have been in another universe. The mighty war in the Pacific carried on and rumors swirled around the ship as to what would be the Fighting Scotty’s next assignment.
In the meantime, over the next two weeks, the sailors pitched in with much-needed repairs, repainting, restocking, and there was also a little time to reflect on their good fortune— that after the bloody Battle of Okinawa had ultimately claimed the lives of over 12,000 American soldiers, everyone on the ship came out alive.
July 1, 1945. In the morning, the USS Norman Scott, along with several other vessels, set sail from the Philippines and headed towards Japan. The sailors didn’t know where they would be going until just the night before when the captain announced over the loud speakers that their next mission was shore bombardments off the mainland near Tokyo, and then Hokkaido.
Also that morning, Alonzo was given messman duties for the next three months. It was common for sailors to be assigned extra duties and often they volunteered since they were paid more money for the additional work. Alonzo just hoped he wouldn’t be pigeonholed. He may have been the only Black sailor on the ship who wasn’t a cook or baker, but the same low expectations were put upon all of them…
To make matters worse, he’d be under the command of Chief Petty Officer Thomas McAlister, who was in charge of maintaining the deck. Chief McAlister was notorious for being unreasonable and as a southerner, it was well known that he didn’t like anyone who wasn’t from the South and he definitely didn’t like Negroes.
July 10, 1945. Theirs was among the first U.S. ships to begin direct attacks on the Japanese homeland. The crew also conducted off-shore bombardments in the seaport city of Muroran on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido where the targets were steel mills and other industrial locations. The mission was a major success for the Allies, as the demise of these sites further crippled Japan’s already weakened military. The news was broadcast over several radio airways back home in the U.S., even mentioning the USS Norman Scott by name.
Over the next several days, as the crew continued air strikes from the waters near Japan, Alonzo was on messman duty when the inevitable happened. Chief Petty Officer McAlister ordered him to dispose of the trash, which meant throwing it overboard. However, on this particular day, the ship was sailing in very choppy seas. The wind was fierce and waves were crashing onto the deck.
More than once, Alonzo had witnessed McAlister order Black stewards to empty the trash during rough seas. He’d practically hold his breath as the men performed the task while struggling to keep their footing as the ship rocked side to side. They could’ve easily tumbled over the railing and into the sea, lost forever. That kind of thing did occasionally happen on Naval ships.
As respectfully as he could, Alonzo addressed the officer citing the present dangers of the unfavorable weather conditions. He went on to assure the officer he would dispose of the trash when the storm lightened up.
Unfazed, Chief McAlister gave the order again, but more forcefully this time adding that it was Alonzo’s responsibility to follow orders immediately upon given. This was true, yet as Alonzo looked past the officer and out at the unforgiving sea, he stood his ground assuring the officer that he would indeed empty the trash when the waves calmed down.
What came next happened so quickly that Alonzo barely had time to process it. Dazed, he clutched his head, which was now bleeding profusely. Chief McAlister had grabbed a metal mop and hit him over the head with it. The forceful thrash and burst of sharp pain had nearly knocked Alonzo off of his feet. While he didn’t have a vicious bone in his body, his first impulse was to throw a punch. But now dripping with blood, he composed himself. Striking a White officer would’ve been a terrible mistake, maybe even a death sentence. He’d have to find another way to fight.
Later, after receiving medical attention from the ship’s doctor, Alonzo submitted a formal complaint to his commanding officer. He wasn’t sure how far it would go but it was better than doing nothing. The commanding officer assured Alonzo that he would address the issue and as his head throbbed with pain, he would have to wait and see what, if anything, would happen next.
Back in his quarters, the Black sailors looked at Alonzo with amazement. Most of the stewards had resented him because of his higher rank but on this day, they gave him nothing short of respect. This crazy Negro actually stood up to McAlister. All of the stewards had experienced their own unpleasant run-ins with the officer but they didn’t dare push back. They knew what he did was risky. However, it would’ve been even riskier to follow orders that day.
Alonzo had a painful gash in his head but at least he wasn’t at the bottom of the ocean.
August 4, 1945. Along with Chief McAlister, Alonzo was called into Captain’s Mast, an informal hearing that dealt with minor offenses among enlisted men. The ship’s captain oversaw these hearings and had the authority to take disciplinary action.
In the case of Alonzo’s altercation with the officer, the captain announced the following: McAlister was in violation of assaulting Alonzo with a “heavy weapon, which resulted in severe head injuries.” Hereby, he was ordered to attend a Deck Court Martial for punishment.
Alonzo felt vindicated…until the captain’s next statement. Alonzo was charged with failure to carry out orders and disrespecting a chief petty officer.
Chief McAlister may not have liked the fact that Alonzo refused to comply with his orders, but in doing so he hadn’t used words that were disrespectful. Unless of course, it was perceived that this Negro sailor was acting “uppity.” For white folks, that was synonymous with showing disrespect. But what did that really mean, uppity? Well-spoken, intelligent, reasonable?
Alonzo was sentenced to 20 hours of extra duty. He accepted his punishment and assumed that McAlister would also receive one that was equal to his offense. But as a young sailor, Alonzo was naïve when it came to these matters.
White Navy officers were card-carrying members of the Seamen’s Good Ole Boy Network and McAlister’s membership would pay off the very next day. Although the ship’s Deck Court initially sentenced him to a reduction in rating and a loss of $10/month in pay for three months, the same Court turned right around and immediately mitigated the sentence stating that:
“In view of McAlister’s previous record and long service, the reduction in rating is remitted on condition that McAlister maintain a record satisfactory to his Commanding Officer for a period of three (3) months.”
After receiving such a light sentence the officer was later given “leave” and transferred off of the USS Norman Scott. He never returned.
Alonzo knew the officer had left the ship; he thought it was as a result of the court martial and that the dismissal was a part of his punishment. He could’ve never imagined that McAlister’s departure, his granted leave was actually a sham — most likely a cover for keeping a hot-headed white officer from getting into any more trouble.
You can read more about the experiences of Black servicemen here: