Carl Brashear, 75; Navy’s First Black Deep-Sea Diver Inspired Film

Times Staff Writer

After enduring threats from white shipmates and efforts by Navy officers to sabotage his final exam in diving school, Carl Maxie Brashear emerged as the Navy’s first African American deep-sea diver.

So he had no intention of giving up that hard-won position in 1966, after injuries suffered while recovering a bomb from the ocean left him an amputee.

In the months after the accident, Brashear put himself through grueling physical training and held fast to an attitude, learned from his father, that worked in the face of racism as well as disability.


“It’s not a sin to be knocked down,” Brashear told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2002. “It’s a sin to stay down.”

Brashear went on to become the first African American master diver in the U.S. Navy, and the first amputee to be restored to full active duty as a diver. Brashear, whose story was told in the 2000 film “Men of Honor,” died of respiratory and heart failure Tuesday at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. He was 75.

“The movie could well have been called ‘Man of Courage,’ ” said Paul Stillwell, former director of the history division of the U.S. Naval Institute at Annapolis, Md. “The amount of determination and persistence he had and the pain that he put up with was amazing.”

Actor Cuba Gooding Jr., who played Brashear in the movie, called him “the strongest man I have 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 told The Times.

Brashear’s story began in 1948, the year the U.S. armed forces were ordered integrated by President Harry S. Truman. Brashear, the sixth of his parents’ nine children, was a 17-year-old son of a sharecropper from Sonora, Ky. He enlisted in the Navy and, always drawn to a challenge, set his sights on becoming a diver. That the Navy had no African American divers did not stop him from trying.


“I told them they were about to get one,” Brashear told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in 2000.

By law the Navy’s doors were open to African Americans, but in reality Jim Crow was firmly entrenched in the service.

Even though some black men had been commissioned as officers during World War II, early postwar integration mostly meant black men cooking for white men and cleaning ships. Diving, an elite undertaking, was, in the minds of most, reserved for whites.

After several attempts, Brashear was finally allowed into diving school in Bayonne, N.J. Brashear, who entered the Navy with a seventh-grade education, not only had to master the physical requirements of diving but the science behind working in deep water.

“The big obstacle was the attitudes of his classmates, some of whom did not want a black sailor in their presence and issued threats,” said Stillwell, who interviewed Brashear for a Naval Institute oral history. Notes were left on his bunk, threatening to drown him.

But in the midst of the hostility there was an island of support, Stillwell said of a few who encouraged him to continue. “ ‘Those notes are not hurting you. Show them you’re a better man than they are,’ ” Stillwell said, recounting one man’s words of support.

In 1953, after Brashear succeeded in becoming the first African American diver, he set about to achieve even greater heights as a master diver, the highest level in the Navy diving hierarchy, obtained by special training and an examination process. In 1966 he was well on his way to achieving that goal when two U.S. Air Force planes collided off the coast of Spain and a nuclear weapon fell into the water.

The salvage ship Hoist, to which Brashear was assigned, was sent to retrieve the weapon. A large pipe being used in the attempt to lift the bomb “came loose, flew across the deck, and it struck my leg below the knee,” Brashear told Stillwell. “They said I was way up in the air just turning flips.”

By the time he arrived at a hospital hours later, doctors thought he was dead. He was about to be sent to the morgue when one doctor found a faint pulse. Brashear recovered but his injuries were severe. Eventually a portion of his left leg was amputated.

Such an injury guaranteed retirement, but Brashear still wanted to dive.

He refused to appear at a hearing where he would be evaluated and found unfit for duty. Instead he set out to prove he could dive with his prosthetic limb. Eventually, he was allowed to return to duty, but after a year he was to be evaluated.

“Sometimes I would come back from a run, and my artificial leg would have a puddle of blood from my stump,” he told Stillwell. “In that year, if I had gone to sick bay, they would have written me up. I didn’t go to sick bay. I’d go somewhere and hide and soak my leg in a bucket of hot water with salt in it -- an old remedy.”

Brashear was allowed to return to full duty as a diver, the first time in the Navy’s history that an amputee was allowed to do so. Four years after the accident he achieved his goal of becoming a master diver.

In 1979 Brashear retired from the Navy as a master chief petty officer and for the next 20 years there were discussions about a movie based on his life. In 2000 “Men of Honor,” hailed as an inspiring story of triumph over adversity, starring Gooding and Robert De Niro, was released.

Though based on Brashear’s life, the writer and director took certain liberties, such as creating the character Billy Sunday, played by De Niro. Sunday, a training officer who torments and later supports Brashear, was a composite, representing several men Brashear encountered during his career.

Brashear attended one screening with former President Clinton and later remarked that he had “gone from the outhouse,” referring to his days in poverty as a sharecropper, “to the White House.”

In later years Brashear continued sharing his story through talks before a wide range of groups, including college students and corporate types, old and young, said Scott Wolfman, president of Wolfman Productions, Brashear’s booking agency. “Carl was not a polished speaker; he always spoke from the heart,” Wolfman said. “He really touched people.”

One of those he touched was his son Phillip, a helicopter pilot in the Virginia Army National Guard, who was brought back from the war in Iraq last week because of his father’s illness.

In addition to Phillip, Brashear is survived by sons DaWayne Brashear of Newark, N.J., and Patrick Brashear of Portsmouth, Va., all with his first wife Junetta Brashear, whom he married in 1952. Another son, Shazanta Brashear, died in 1996. The couple divorced but remained friends.

Phillip Brashear knew little about his father’s impact on the Navy until the release of the movie.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Phillip Brashear said. “Being in the military myself, I just couldn’t believe he could hold his composure and withstand the things he withstood without going off or getting in trouble.”

What he did understand was his father’s positive approach to life. He had heard it many times before, such as when Phillip Brashear told his father that he wanted to go to flight school and fly helicopters.

“He said, ‘Son, if that’s what you want to do, do it,’ ” Phillip Brashear said. “ ‘Don’t let anything hold you back.’ And of course I didn’t.”