Black sailors served with distinction on board Intrepid and throughout the U.S. military during World War II. Yet relatively few Black service members received recognition for their valor. After facing down a kamikaze attack in 1944, Alonzo Swann spent years pressing the U.S. Navy for appropriate recognition.
During World War II, the U.S. Navy’s discriminatory policies limited opportunities for Black sailors. On combat ships like Intrepid, the Navy restricted Black sailors to the role of steward. This job entailed serving food to officers and cleaning their rooms.
On certain ships, including Intrepid, some stewards also manned anti-aircraft guns during combat. On October 29, 1944, a Japanese kamikaze pilot barreled toward intrepid, directly at a group of guns manned by Black sailors. The men fired at the incoming airplane. The crash engulfed the gun tub in flames, killing 10 men.
Six surviving gunners received the Bronze Star for valor. Alonzo Swann maintained that they had been promised a higher honor, the Navy Cross, but they instead received the lesser award due to discrimination.
Swann spent decades petitioning the Navy for his Navy Cross. Ultimately, he took his case to court. Documents from the 1940s, including Intrepid’s own newspaper, supported Swann’s assertion that he should have received the Navy Cross. A federal judge ruled in his favor. Swann finally received the Navy Cross in a ceremony at the Museum in 1993. His quest opened the door for some of his shipmates and their families to request their medals, a long-delayed acknowledgment of their courage under fire.
Swann’s story was far from unique. During World War II, Black activists and journalists called out the military for failing to recognize Black personnel for their courage and sacrifice. It took decades for the U.S. military to investigate this pattern. In 1993, the U.S. Army launched a study to examine claims that Black service members had been passed over for the Medal of Honor. The Department of Defense has since commissioned numerous other studies to investigate discrimination in the award of medals.
The Intrepid Museum is proud to highlight the service and stories of the Black sailors and officers who served on Intrepid and Growler. Browse our online collections to view Alonzo Swann’s Navy Cross medal, as well as other items associated with the service of Black crew members