Sixty-six years ago on Saturday, the Fore River Shipyard paused to honor a hero of Guadalcanal, the battle that turned the tide of war in the Pacific. Leonard Roy Harmon, 25, was killed while deliberately exposing himself to enemy gunfire to protect a shipmate. It was the first U.S. warship to carry the name of an African-American.
Sixty-six years ago on Saturday, the Fore River Shipyard paused to honor a hero of Guadalcanal, the battle that turned the tide of war in the Pacific.
Leonard Roy Harmon, 25, was a mess attendant first class aboard the cruiser USS San Francisco. He was killed while deliberately exposing himself to enemy gunfire to protect a shipmate. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy’s highest award for valor.
Two ships were named in his honor. The first was transferred to the British Royal Navy in June 1943 before it was completed. The second, the destroyer escort USS Harmon served actively from 1943 to 1947 and remained in the Reserve Fleet until 1967.
What made the naming of the ship remarkable was that Harmon was black. At a time of segregation at home and in uniform, it was the first U.S. warship to carry the name of an African-American.
His proud family, including his mother, Naunita Harmon Carroll, cracked a bottle of Great Western champagne against the hull of the ship at the christening on July 25, 1943.
The Harmon was a 1,400-ton Buckley class destroyer escort assigned to the Third and Seventh Fleets. It participated in the January 1945 landings at Lingayen Gulf, Leyte, and in March operated off Iwo Jima. It was decommissioned in March 1947 and remained inactive until being scrapped in 1967.
Harmon was born at Cuero, Texas, in 1917. After graduating from high school, he did manual labor for several years before enlisting in the Navy in June 1939.
He trained at Norfolk, Va., and reported to the San Francisco for duty on October 28, 1939. On board the cruiser, Harmon advanced to mess attendant first class, working in one of the less prestigious assignments usually reserved for black sailors.
On Nov. 12, 1942, Japanese planes attacked U.S. warships protecting transports that were unloading reinforcements for the Marines on Guadalcanal. A damaged enemy plane was deliberately crashed into the cruiser’s radar and fire-control station, killing or injuring 50 men.
The next day, enemy fighters opened up on the San Francisco, killing nearly every officer on the bridge. Disregarding his own safety, Harmon helped evacuate the wounded to a dressing station. He died while using his body to shield a wounded shipmate from gunfire.
He left a 5-year-old son.
He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for “extraordinary heroism.” On May 21, 1943, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox announced that a warship would be named for Harmon.
In 1975, the bachelor enlisted quarters at the Naval Air Station at North Island, Calif., was renamed Harmon Hall, and two years later Texas recognized him with a historical marker in his hometown two years later.
The Patriot Ledger