A fatherís war, A son's hero

by Tyler Roberts
Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Staff photo by Allison Potter

David Seagraves writes about his fatherís life aboard the USS North Carolina in the biography, "John Seagraves: Uncommon Hero."

At 18 years old, John Seagraves found himself staring down a Japanese kamikaze pilot with nothing between him and the plane but a 20-millimeter gun. He could see the whites of the pilotís eyes as the plane threatened to strike. Just 30 meters before impact, Seagraves and his gunner crew shot down the plane and saved the USS North Carolina.

More than 60 years later, he is finally sharing his harrowing account of the Second World War at sea. His son, David Seagraves, is helping him tell the story. His first book, "John Seagraves: Uncommon Hero," details his fatherís life aboard the USS North Carolina as an African American military man.

"I donít think they call themselves heroes. I think they just did what they needed to do to win the war," said David Seagraves. "I look at it as an opportunity to explore the life of a man who is willing to do those things and is willing to put his life on the line for his nation, regardless of what the nation thought of him during segregation."

John Seagraves smiled as he recalled old memories while he and his son strolled the deck of the USS North Carolina on Friday, May 18, one day before the battleshipís reunion celebration. But not all of his memories of the ship are happy.

"There was extreme segregation and racism, especially among the southern sailors," said John Seagraves. "There was a breakdown in communication because, for the most part, the [white] sailors didnít want to have anything to do with the black sailors and vice versa."

It was May 1944 when John Seagraves joined the U.S. Navy. During this time, African American men were admitted to the Navy under the condition that they work as servicemen to officers or as cooks. Seagraves said he passionately objected to serving the officers, so he became a breakfast cook.

"They didnít even want black sailors, but they thought they could be in servitude rather than active fighting," John Seagraves said.

Several months after joining the crew of the USS North Carolina, Seagraves broke racial barriers and became a gunner. Still, he continued to face discrimination on the battleship and on land.

After 87 days at sea, the battleship came to port at Seattle, Wash. He and a friend sat at a diner waiting for the local USO to open that evening. They were confronted by a server who told them the diner would not serve colored people. As they left the building, Seagraves picked up a brick and smashed the window.

"I expected racism in the South," he said, "but to find it in Seattle, Wash.? I couldnít stand it anymore."

Seagraves and his friend were handcuffed, ferried back to the battleship and placed in the shipís brig for five days.

"You are surrounded in hostile territory and you are still willing to defend your country," David Seagraves said. "Those are things to me that are incredibly important and I think it is really important for modern generations to appreciate that."

When John Seagraves left the USS North Carolina in December 1945, he said to himself that he would never return to the ship; however, his hardened feelings have broken down over the years.

"The more I come on the ship, the better I feel about having been on the ship," John Seagraves said. "We just get a feeling of the days we spent on the ship here. In those days during wartime, you didnít really have time to enjoy things. You were always thinking about the next bombardment."

For many years, John Seagraves remained quiet about his service in the military. David Seagraves had never heard any of these stories until he was 50 years old. The story of his fatherís life captivated him and compelled him to write his biography.

"For me it was an opportunity to meet my real dad," David Seagraves said. "I saw the man who became the man I knew as my father."

The biography of John Seagraves debuted at the battleship reunion on Saturday, May 19. The book recounts Seagravesís unlikely journey from a life of poverty to shipís cook, to soldier to successful entrepreneur. He entered the restaurant and catering industry after the war.

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