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Legacy of Navy’s first Black deep sea diver is lesson in determination: ‘It is not a sin to get knocked down’

Sailors assigned to the USS Iwo Jima listen to Phillip Brashear, son of the Navy's first Black deep sea diver Carl Brashear, speak about his father's legacy. (Kendall Warner/ The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

“In the word’s of my father, it is not a sin to get knocked down. It is a sin to stay down,” said Phillip Brashear, son of the late Master Chief Carl Brashear, the Navy’s first Black deep sea diver.

Phillip Brashear detailed his father’s unyielding determination with the crew of the USS Iwo Jima on Tuesday at Redeemer Church in Chesapeake in honor of Black History Month.

Five obstacles, Brashear said, were stacked against his father — racism, poverty, illiteracy, disability and later in life, alcoholism.

“But this story is not just meant for Black History Month. This story is universal for 12 months of the year. … This is about taking things you could complain about and make the best of it,” Brashear said to the packed room.

Members of the crew, which is experiencing shipyard life while the Iwo Jima undergoes a maintenance cycle, filled nearly every seat in the church’s auditorium and lined the back wall. Many bobbed their heads in agreement as Brashear spoke.

“You don’t quit because you had a bad experience … Each day you should wake up and think about how to make today better than yesterday,” he said.

Carl Brashear joined the Navy in 1948, enduring daily struggles with racism in a recently desegregated military to become the first Black diver in Navy history in 1953.

Then, on March 23, 1966, Brashear was aboard a salvage ship attempting to recover a nuclear bomb lost off the coast of Spain when a stern mooring line from a landing craft pulled a steel pipe out of the salvage ship’s deck. As the pipe flew across the deck, Brashear pushed another sailor out of the way but the pipe struck Brashear’s left leg.

Doctors in Madrid and Germany attempted to save the leg, but when he arrived at the hospital in Portsmouth in May 1966, an infection had grown worse. According to a 1989 interview published by the U.S. Naval Institute, Brashear refused treatment and asked instead that the leg be amputated.

Yet, that was not the end of Carl Brashear’s military service.

“… My dad had to go through 11 months of strenuous training to prove to the Navy he was fit for duty,” Phillip Brashear said.

Carl Brashear returned to active duty and became executive officer of the Navy’s diving school barge. He advanced to the rank of master chief petty officer and became the Navy’s first Black master diver. He retired in 1979 and died in 2006 at Portsmouth’s Naval Medical Center, the very hospital that fitted him with an artificial leg and designed an exercise program that allowed him to return to diving.

During the presentation, Phillip Brashear played an interview clip of his father so the crew could hear the advice “straight from the horse’s mouth.” In the clip, Carl Brashear said, “(The word) ‘can’t’ is not in my vocabulary. When someone tells me I can’t do something, that means I will work that much harder to show them I can do something.”

While Phillip Brashear did not follow his father’s footsteps into the Navy, he did become a pilot for the Army before his eventual retirement in 2022 as a chief warrant officer 5 after a 40-year career.

The ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Stephen Froehlich, said both Carl and Phillip Brashear are trailblazers, whose lessons will guide the Iwo Jima sailors.

“This is an opportunity to learn about the struggles and challenges of the past and to hopefully improve our future culture and service,” Froehlich said.

Carl Brashear’s words of wisdom are exactly what Jaime Woods needed to hear Tuesday, she said.

“When he was saying, ‘don’t give up,’ I was like, ‘Man, I needed to hear him say that today’,” Woods said with a laugh.

A Black female hospital corpsman, she said she has faced “many adversities” throughout her 10 years of naval service.

“It can be really easy to want to give up, but when you hear about somebody who’s gone through so much, it makes you stop and think. These little things that are bothering me are just little hiccups that I can definitely overcome. I haven’t nearly faced some of these tough adversities like (the Brashears) have. It makes me want to work harder and be a better version of myself,” Woods said.


© 2023 The Virginian-Pilot

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