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Warship named for black Navy pioneer Gravely

April M. Havens | 5/20/2009, 5:57 a.m.
Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding President Mike Petters (center) and U.S. Navy Cmdr. Douglas W. Kunzman, the prospective commanding officer of the Gravely (DDG 107), are sprayed with sparkling wine as Mrs. Alma Gravely, widow of the ship’s namesake, christens the ship at Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding’s facility in Pascagoula, Miss. Her late husband, Samuel L. Gravely Jr., was a pioneer in the Navy for African American officers and sailors. Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding

PASCAGOULA, Miss. — Steadfast and resolute, Vice Adm. Samuel L. Gravely Jr. commanded respect, much like the Navy destroyer named for him.

Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding christened the DDG 107, an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided missile destroyer, in the presence of Gravely’s family members, friends and co-workers during a ceremony at the Pascagoula shipyard last Saturday.

Gravely’s success plotted a new course for black men in the Navy, his admirers said, and he was a man of firsts.

He was the first African American to command a Navy warship, the USS Theodore E. Chandler; the first to command an American warship under combat conditions, the USS Taussig; and the first to command a major naval warship, the USS Jouett.

Also, he was the first African American to command a numbered fleet and to become an admiral. His substantial Naval career spanned World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the Cold War.

“He was a very dedicated man to the Navy and any job he was on,” said 87-year-old Alma Gravely, who was married to the admiral for 58 years.

Samuel Gravely died in 2004 at the age of 82.

Many things have been named in his honor, such as scholarships, a boulevard in his hometown of Richmond, Va., and an elementary school in Haymarket, Va., where he and his wife retired.

But a ship namesake is especially touching, Alma Gravely said.

“I’m so happy with the type of ship they chose because he loved destroyers,” she said. “He commanded four of them.”

Rear Adm. Mack Gaston of Gurnee, Ill., recalled his first meeting with Gravely.

“He was a commander when I was an ensign,” Gaston said. “I had heard about this great man and was anxious to meet him.”

Early one morning, Gaston readied himself for an opportunity to make Gravely’s acquaintance. He’d heard that Gravely’s ship would be docked at the same pier.

“I yelled out across the bridge to his ship and said, ‘Good morning,”’ Gaston said. “He asked me what my name was, and I told him. … He said, ‘Good morning, Mack. It’s nice to see you.’ I never forgot that.”

Gaston described Gravely as inspiring but humble and always selfless.

“He was big in stature and in many other respects,” he said.

The admiral pushed him to move forward, Gaston said.

“One day he told me, ‘It’s time for you to show,’ and I had no idea what he meant,” Gaston said.

Gravely was urging him to let his hard work be known, he said.

For the admiral, it was important for black officers to realize that “there’s an opportunity to excel and become a commanding officer,” he said.

“When people see a success path is possible, they tend to do better,” Gaston said. “And Admiral Gravely paved that path for me and many others. He made a difference for the U.S. Navy.”

Michele Salzano, principal of the newly opened Samuel L. Gravely Jr. Elementary in the Prince William County, Va., school system, said, “The more I get to know about him, the more impressed I am.”

“I think the remarkableness and the magnitude of his impact has been not only his Navy career, but that he made a mark within our community,” Salzano added.

Gravely was a member of the Ruritan national service organization and the local Community Services Board, and was an active church member.

“We’re a pretty big town, but so many people knew him,” Salzano said. “He’s like our own town celebrity.”

The school has tried to incorporate as much of his spirit as possible, she said. The school’s mascot is the seadog, and the school’s motto is Gravely’s own.

“His motto was, ‘Success equals education plus motivation plus perseverance,’” Salzano said.

“When I heard that, I thought, ‘What a perfect formula.’”

(The Mississippi Press)