Carl M. Brashear became the United States Navy’s first black master diver in 1970.
Brashear was born on January 19, 1931, in Tonieville, Ky. He was a son of Kentucky sharecroppers and the sixth of eight children. After seventh grade, he left school to help his father work the land.
Young Brashear sought to join the Army in early 1948 but wasn’t accepted so he enlisted in February 1948.
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As would most black navy men at the time, Brashear was placed in the stewards’ branch where he did chores for the officers. He was assigned to the naval station at Key West, Fla. where he made meals for white officers in the officers’ mess.
Brashear was assigned to the aircraft carrier Palau in 1950 where on one occasion, he saw a diver slip into the ocean to recover an airplane that had rolled overboard. He was captivated by what he saw and he longed and looked forward to the diving adventure undersea.
He wrote to the Navy diving school, asking for admittance more than 100 times before being admitted in 1954. Years later, he recounted his letters kept getting lost.
He graduated in 1955 and spent many years as a Navy salvage diver. In 1960, he earned his high school equivalency diploma and entered the Navy’s deep-sea diving school.
Brashear failed the course but he didn’t give up on his dream to dive deep undersea. For three years, he studied while he wasn’t on duty, and in 1963 he was re-admitted. He graduated in the following year as a first-class diver and third in his class of 17.
He endured threats from white shipmates and Navy officers made efforts to disrupt his career and take his life. Nonetheless, Brashear emerged as the Navy’s first African American deep-sea “Master” diver.
He survived a serious accident whilst aboard the Navy salvage ship Hoist off the coast of Spain, helping to recover a hydrogen bomb that had plunged into the Mediterranean after the plane carrying it crashed in 1966.
A heavy steel pipe plunged toward the men on deck. He got his men out of the way but crushed his left leg which resulted in amputation.
His amputated legs weren’t going to stop him from diving. According to the New York Times, he was fitted with a prosthesis, and the Navy sent him his discharge papers which he did not sign. Instead, he signed his own orders for a transfer back to diving school. He dived with his new leg, took photographs and showed them to Navy officials who couldn’t believe what they had seen.
The Navy then put Brashear through a series of tests, including climbing ladders with barbells strapped to his back to simulate a diver’s staggering load. He was required to walk 12 steps unaided, wearing nearly 300 pounds of equipment. He took the steps and was returned to active duty as a diver.
In 1970, Brashear became a master diver, the highest designation a Navy diver can attain and in 1979, he retired as a master chief boatswain’s mate, the highest enlisted rank in the Navy.
Brashear’s story of determination and resilience was portrayed in the 2000 movie “Men of Honor”. Actor Cuba Gooding Jr., who played Brashear in the movie described him as the strongest man he’s ever met.
“He is a symbol of inspiration… a true example of greatness not only to the African American community but to any race today that aims to achieve in the military,” Gooding said.
Brashear received an Outstanding Public Service Award in October 2000 from actor Cuba Gooding Jr. and then-Defense Secretary William Cohen for 42 years of combined military and federal civilian service
Brashear died from heart and respiratory failure in Portsmouth, Va at the age of 75.