August 31, 1943: USS Harmon, 1st US Ship Named for an African American

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A Brief History

On August 31, 1943, the Buckley Class destroyer, USS Harmon DE-678 was commissioned, the first American Navy ship named after an African-American person.  The Harmon got its name from the heroic Leonard Roy Harmon, a Mess Attendant aboard the USS San Francisco in 1942.

Digging Deeper

Back in World War II there were limited specialties available to African-American sailors in the segregated armed forces of the United States, and for the most part African-American sailors were limited to service type positions.  Of course, on board a warship sailors have to have emergency duties assigned for combat, and Harmon was assigned damage control and caring for wounded sailors.  During the Battle of Guadalcanal on November 13, 1942, the cruiser San Francisco was in a battle for its existence against heavy Japanese naval forces.  Severely damaged, the ship’s captain and Rear Admiral Callaghan in charge of the fleet were both killed, along with a total of 77 killed, 105 wounded and 7 missing crewmen.

Harmon gallantly worked furiously to aid the wounded, and was killed when he protected a wounded shipmate against enemy fire with his own body, costing Harmon his life.  Harmon was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest US medal.  His citation reads: “The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Mess Attendant First Class Leonard Roy Harmon, United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty in action against the enemy while serving on board the Heavy Cruiser U.S.S. SAN FRANCISCO (CA-38), during action against enemy Japanese naval forces near Savo Island in the Solomon Islands on the night of 12–13 November 1942. With persistent disregard of his own personal safety, Mess Attendant First Class Harmon rendered invaluable assistance in caring for the wounded and assisting them to a dressing station. In addition to displaying unusual loyalty in behalf of the injured Executive Officer, he deliberately exposed himself to hostile gunfire in order to protect a shipmate and, as a result of this courageous deed, was killed in action. His heroic spirit of self-sacrifice, maintained above and beyond the call of duty, was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

Originally the ship that became the HMS Aylmer was to be named the USS Harmon, but that ship was transferred to the British Navy, leaving DE-678 to become the Harmon.  A modest sized ship built for escorting larger ships, the Harmon was 306 feet long with a beam of 37 feet, displacing 1673 tons in normal fitting.  Armed with a triple threat of 3 X 3 inch guns, 3 X 40mm guns, and 3 X 21 inch torpedo tubes, as well as depth charges and smaller anti-aircraft guns, the Harmon had a decent bite to accompany its bark.  The Buckley Class Destroyer Escorts (called Frigates by the British) were built in large numbers, with 102 being completed.  Some ships of this design were built as high speed transports.  Speed varied from 24 to 27 knots for this class.  Assigned to the Pacific theater, Harmon earned 3 Battle Stars, but was decommissioned in 1947 as the enormous war sized Navy was trimmed down.  (In March 1945, Harmon’s 3 inch guns were replaced with 5 inch guns.)

Leonard Harmon was just 25 years old when he died, but his legacy should be remembered as long as there is a US Navy.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Navy Emporium USS Harmon DE 678 Framed Navy Ship Display Blue.

US Navy cachet postal cover USS Harmon DE-72 Launching 7/25 1943.

The featured image in this article, “DEMOCRACY IN ACTION” No.IV by Charles Henry Alston (1907-1977), is a work of the United States Department of the Treasury, taken or made as part of an employee’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.