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First Man Back

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First Man Back: The True Story of Lloyd Prewitt and the Return of the Black Man to the United States Navy
For 14 years, from 1919 to 1933, the U.S. Navy stopped recruiting Blacks, and worked to phase out those who still remained, their duties taken over mostly by Filipinos.
When, in 1933, Blacks were finally allowed back into the Navy, Lloyd Prewitt was one of the first to volunteer. His dedicated service, from 1933 to 1955, proved that Black sailors could perform whatever was asked of them in peacetime and combat, and paved the way for future generations of Black sailors.
African-Americans have always played a valuable role and contributed mightily when it comes to fighting in America’s wars. They were there at the outset during the American Revolution, serving alongside their white comrades-in-arms in a fight for freedom where even their own freedom was not so assured, and they are fighting to this day in the war in Iraq, playing a part in bringing democracy to those who have never known what freedom really means.

Despite this long history of service, few today realize that there was a dark time in our nation’s history between the two world wars when the service of African-Americans in the military, especially the United States Navy, was no longer desired. For fourteen years, from 1919 to 1933, the United States Navy stopped the recruiting of Black servicemen, and worked to phase out those African-Americans who still remained in their ranks. That the navy nearly succeeded in their efforts, though sad, is not all that surprising. Indeed, the period from 1919-1933 was a dark and dismal period in our nation’s history.

While economic ruin reigned supreme with the stock market crash in 1929, and the ensuing Great Depression, social issues were also approaching a critical point. Racism and jim crow legislation reigned supreme in the south and, as if this weren’t enough, incidents of lynching rose dramatically. Indeed, it was not an easy time to be Black; jobs were hard to come by, and the trees that bore their “strange fruit” at the end of a rope were all too common.
However, the time would eventually come when the situation would change. With the rise of worldwide fascism in the early 1930s, the United States began, ever so slowly, to prepare itself for the possibility of another war. For the United States Navy, the time came when they once again needed African-American sailors. The mess duties to which they had been previously assigned had been, in 1919, fully given over to men mostly from the Philippine Islands. But, this source of manpower eventually declined and Blacks were once again to be accepted into the navy, even if it wasn’t with entirely open arms.

When, in 1933, African-Americans were finally allowed back into the United States Navy on a limited basis, Lloyd Prewitt was one of the very first such men to volunteer for duty. His dedicated service to our country, quietly performed but heroic just the same, proved that African-American sailors could perform whatever was asked of them in peacetime and combat, and paved the way for future generations of Black sailors. First Man Back is his story.
From The Author
I first heard about Lloyd Prewitt in 2002 while working on research for my book entitled Black Submariners in the United States Navy, 1939-1975 (McFarland Publishing, 2005). While I was interested in his story, it had no place in my work due to the simple fact that Lloyd, though a World War II veteran, never served in the Submarine Force.

I came near to meeting Lloyd in September 2004 when we were both in Norfolk, Virginia for the annual reunion of the Unit K-West-Unit-B-East Mess Attendants organization, he as the group’s oldest and most honored member, and I as the keynote speaker. Though we never met in person, at some point during the evening activities I was slipped a piece of paper by one of the guests who had some information to share. When I chanced to look at this slip of paper 24 hours later after my arrival at home in New Hampshire, I once again, courtesy of his nephew, became acquainted with Lloyd Prewitt.
I talked to Lloyd for the first time via phone in March 2005, and soon found out that not only was his story, as part of the very first group of African-Americans allowed back in the Navy in 1933, an interesting one, but it was also one that had not previously been well documented.
The work you have before you is the result of hours of interviews with Lloyd Prewitt, both via phone and tape-recorded sessions. It is a good story, and an important one that future generations should know about. In order to truly understand how race-relations in our country stand today, it is important that we look at the past. We’ve improved considerably in the last 70 years, and the noble service of Lloyd Prewitt and others like him have been instrumental in affecting these positive changes.
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • The Early Years: Growing Up in Alabama
  • The Stillman Years
  • African-Americans in the Navy Before Lloyd Prewitt
  • The Navy Boot Camp Experience
  • First Sea Duty on the U.S.S. Wyoming
  • From Civilian Life to Carrier Life
  • Off to War on the “Lady Lex”
  • Continued Service in World War II
  • From Bikini Atoll to the East Coast
  • Later Navy Duty and the End of an Era
  • Lloyd Prewitt’s Legacy
  • Source Bibliography

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