‘Philadelphia 15’ Exonerated 83 Years After Exposing Racism Within the US Navy

Photo Credit: Unknown Author / U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: Unknown Author / U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Department of the Navy (DoN) has announced the exoneration of 15 African-American sailors known as the “Philadelphia 15.” The group, who were assigned to the USS Philadelphia (CL-41) 83 years ago, were kicked out of the US Navy for bringing to light the racist attitudes and discrimination they faced while serving aboard the Brooklyn-class light cruiser.

USS Philadelphia (CL-41) transiting near a motor minesweeper
USS Philadelphia (CL-41) and a minesweeper making a smoke screen to protect the Allied landing area in Salerno, Italy from a German air attack, 1943. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army Signal Corps / Army Signal Corps Collection / U.S. National Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In October 1940, the Philadelphia 15 wrote and published a letter in the Pittsburgh Courier, in which they described not only the abuse they faced while serving aboard Philadelphia, but their inability to advance within the Navy due to their skin colour. In particular, they explained that, while promised opportunities to move up and secure pay raises, they were denied such action. As well, while their White comrades were sent into combat, they were tasked with cleaning and serving other sailors.

The group also urged Black mothers to not allow their sons to enlist, for fear of them suffering the same mistreatment. “We sincerely hope to discourage any other colored boys who might have planned to join the Navy and make the same mistake we did,” they wrote. “All they would become is seagoing bellhops, chambermaids and dishwashers.”

In response to the letter, the Navy kicked out the 15 sailors on “bad conduct discharges.” Some were even jailed. They were aware of the potential consequences of their actions, however, writing, “We take it upon ourselves to write this letter, regardless of any action the naval authorities may take or whatever the consequences may be. We only know that it could not possibly surpass the mental cruelty inflicted upon us on this ship.”

The members of the Philadelphia 15 are Jesse Watford, Ernest Bosley, Robert Turner, Arval Perry Cooper, Fred Tucker, Shannon Goodwin, Floyd St. Clair, Theodore Hansbrough, Otto Robinson, Byron Johnson, George Rice, Floyd Owens, James Porter, and John and James Ponder.

Their dishonorable discharges were met with anger and protests from other Black sailors and members of the African-American community. It was ultimately one of the many incidents that led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to hold a number of meetings with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to discuss desegregating the country’s military.

Recently, the Department of the Navy reviewed the case and determined it would correct the official record and upgrade the Philadelphia 15’s discharges to honorable ones. The changes were approved by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Parker.

“The record contained evidence that suggested the race of these sailors may have been a factor that impermissibly motivated some of the decisions made by the Navy regarding these sailors,” Bobby Hogue, Principal Deputy ASN M&RA, stated in a press release. “That was enough for me to initiate the case.”

Family members of two of the sailors, James and John Ponder, attended a ceremony at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes on June 16, 2023, where they received a formal apology and the long-fought for honorable discharges.

“To you and the other families of the Philadelphia 15 sailors, I wish to extend my sincere regret for their treatment while wearing the uniform, and also for the decades’ delay in taking these measures,” Parker told those in attendance.

USS Philadelphia (CL-41) transiting near two British destroyers
USS Philadelphia (CL-41) and two British destroyers underway in the Atlantic Ocean, 1945. (Photo Credit: Australian Armed Forces / Australian War Memorial / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

“This is something – a wrong that shouldn’t have happened,” John’s son, Larry Ponder, told The New York Times. “My dad and the Philadelphia 15, they were just whistle-blowers. All they did was inform the general public about them being mistreated. They tried to do what was right through the chain of command but it didn’t go anywhere – so they wrote that letter.”

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The US Navy believes all members of the Philadelphia 15 to be deceased, given how long ago their discharges occurred. Given this, they are looking to locate living relatives, so they, too, can be given a proper apology.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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