A Navy Veteran’s Story Of Brotherhood During The Jim Crow Era

History
Photo courtesy of Arby L. Hambric.

When Arby L. Hambric speaks, the 89-year-old Navy veteran chooses his words with deliberate care and manages to flank each statement with a polite affectation. If you wish him a good day, he quickly says, “You made it one,” and if you talk with him long enough, the conversation can start to feel like a competition over who can be more polite.


It’s a contest he wins every time.

Hambric was drafted into the Navy in 1945 and served until he retired in 1965. He served during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and has traveled the world. He grew up poor during a time of Jim Crow-era politics, and went from picking cotton in the fields of Texas to serving dignitaries aboard U.S. Navy ships, to penning his memoir, “To Thee I See” in January 2015.

Now, he spends much of his day doing charity work for local veteran or church groups in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he lives.

Hambric’s story is one of brotherhood among service members and how that kind of bond is inherently at odds with racial bias and bigotry.

Related: How the first African-American Marine received the Medal Of Honor 47 years ago »

Hambric was born on the dirt floor of a one-room tin shack in Centerville, Texas, and grew up in neighboring Teague, where for a time, his family lived in a small patchwork house with a hole in the ceiling so wide he could see the stars at night. As children, Hambric and his siblings helped his family make ends meet by picking cotton.

Arby L. Hambric as a child with his uncle Joe Hambric.Photo courtesy of Arby L. Hambric.

When he talks about growing up in a time of Jim Crow laws, Hambric’s words aren’t tinged by anger. Instead there’s a mix of sadness or perhaps disappointment, tempered by a resolve to be neither discouraged or distracted. Jim Crow is a term used to refer to a system of government-sanctioned segregation and racial bias that existed in the United States until the late 1960s.

“I grew up believing that white people treated their dogs better than us, but I refused to allow this notion to interfere with my decision of whether or not to be friends with someone because of the color of their skin,” he wrote in his memoir, “To Thee I See.”

When he was 19 years old, Hambric was drafted into the Navy during World War II, and though his service began as an obligation, he chose to make it an opportunity.

“In Centerville and Teague, every opportunity for black folks came with a sacrifice of self, and any glimmer of hope was soon washed away by senseless acts of discrimination,” Hambric wrote. “The military would not serve as an inconvenience or obligation it would be a way out.”

Hambric was assigned to the USS Palau as a steward where his duties consisted of cooking, cleaning, and assisting the officers.

White sailors were ranked as seamen and not stewards, a title that was reserved for minorities, wrote Hambric. Even the ship itself was segregated, with black sailors restricted from parts of the vessel.

Though discouraging, Hambric told Task & Purpose that it didn’t catch him off guard.

“I didn’t even know that much about segregation throughout the country at that particular time,” said Hambric, who added that having grown up in the segregated South, “I just thought people lived that way throughout the whole country, the whole world.”

While his initial encounters with racism in the Navy may not have been surprising to him at the time, the memories remain poignant to this day.

A portrait of Arby L. Hambric.Photo courtesy of Arby L. Hambric.

“I can still remember in Norfolk, Virginia, where I spent five years, where they had places where no coloreds were allowed, or signs on the grass saying they’d rather have a dog than a black sailor, or something of that nature.”

Hambric was drafted when the Navy was still segregated, and continued serving after President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military on July 26, 1948.

While segregation may have officially ended, it wasn’t immediately clear.

“Even up until 1965, there were many years where you were involved with that segregation,” said Hambric. “It didn’t change overnight or after many years. Blacks were still segregated, they would have their own quarters or things like that. It was just signed in 1948, that segregation had ended. A lot of time, wherever you’re going, wherever you went, you were confronted with that kind of thing, especially as a black man.”

Hambric was frequently the only black sailor in his unit, and though that made him a man apart, and occasionally a target for discrimination, he said he had faith in his fellow sailors and in their shared bond: military service.

“I have never known a racial barrier to cause someone to turn his back on one another, because of his color, or any other thing,” said Hambric of the men with whom he served. “They would die for one another. I would give my life for them today if I had to serve all over again, and I’m sure they would do the same thing for me, just like that young white boy I was in the service with who saved my life.”

The instance Hambric referenced happened near the end of the Korean war, when he was stationed at an Air Force base in Iwakuni, Japan, as part of the VP-7 patrol squadron assigned to the Pacific Fleet.

“It was a hot day. I went to the swimming pool and did one of the most foolish things I ever did in my life and jumped off the board and into the swimming pool, knowing I was not a qualified swimmer,” Hambric said, adding that he was knocked unconscious the moment he hit the water’s surface and immediately sank to the bottom.

“There was this young sailor, this white sailor, who came down and got me off the bottom of the swimming pool. I didn’t know that I had collapsed down there until days later,” said Hambric. “That will live with me for the rest of my life.”

His rescuer's name was Hollinsworth, and while Hambric said he couldn’t recall his first name, he did visit the sailor and his brothers, who also served in the unit, at their home in Phoenix, Arizona, several times.

When asked if he faced discrimination from any of the sailors he served with in that squadron, Hambric’s response was an unequivocal no.

“No, no, no, no, no. In that particular squadron, that group, I was the only black in that squadron, and I guess, the way they treated me and the way we treated one another, we couldn’t treat one another no better, even right today, just like we were born sisters or brothers. … That’s just how we lived back then. We protected one another.”

Casperassets.rbl.ms

Benjamin Franklin nailed it when he said, "Fatigue is the best pillow." True story, Benny. There's nothing like pushing your body so far past exhaustion that you'd willingly, even longingly, take a nap on a concrete slab.

Take $75 off a Casper Mattress and $150 off a Wave Mattress with code TASKANDPURPOSE

And no one knows that better than military service members and we have the pictures to prove it.

Read More Show Less
Staff Sgt. Daniel Christopher Evans was arrested on Jan. 29, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Wilmington Police Department, North Carolina.)

A special operations Marine is due in court on March 7 after being arrested last year for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, Task & Purpose has learned.

Staff Sgt. Daniel Christopher Evans was arrested and charged with assault inflicting serious injury on July 29, 2018, according to Jennifer Dandron, a spokeswoman for police in Wilmington, North Carolina. Evans is currently assigned as a Critical Skills Operator with the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, according to the Marine Corps Personnel Locator.

Read More Show Less
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Elyse Ping Medvigy conducts a call-for-fire during an artillery shoot south of Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2014. Medvigy, a fire support officer assigned to the 4th Infantry Division's Company D, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, is the first female company fire support officer to serve in an infantry brigade combat team supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Whitney Houston (Photo by U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Whitney Houston)

Following Trump's inauguration, some supporters of ground combat integration assumed he would quickly move to reinstate a ban on women in jobs like the infantry. When this did not happen, advocates breathed a collective sigh of relief, and hundreds of qualified women charted a course in history by entering the newly opened occupational fields.

So earlier this week when the Wall Street Journal published an editorial against women in ground combat by conservative political commentator Heather Mac Donald, the inclination of many ground combat integration supporters was to dismiss it outright. But given Trump's proclivity to make knee jerk policy decisions in response to falling approval ratings and the court's tradition of deference to the military when it comes to policies affecting good order and discipline, it would be unwise to assume the 2016 lifting of the ban on women in ground combat is a done deal.

Read More Show Less

R. Lee Ermey was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday.

Best known for his iconic role as the Marine Corps drill instructor Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in the war drama Full Metal Jacket, Ermey died April 15, 2018 at age 74 due to complications from pneumonia, Task & Purpose previously reported.

Read More Show Less
A B-2 Spirit bomber deployed from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, and F-22 Raptors from the Hawaii Air National Guard's 154th Wing fly near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, during a interoperability training mission Jan. 15, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Russ Scalf)

The U.S. Air Force has two of its most elite aircraft — the B-2 Spirit bomber and the F-22 Raptor — training together in the Pacific, reassuring America's allies and sending a warning to strategic competitors and adversaries about the sheer power the U.S. brings to the table.

These stunning photos show the powerful aircraft tearing across the Pacific, where the U.S. has increasingly found itself facing challenges from a rising China.

Read More Show Less