This Day in History: First Naval Ship named after an African American Sailor

Leonard Roy Harmon

On this day in history, July 25, 1943, Leonard Roy Harmon of the Navy Cross was the first person of African-American descent who had a Naval ship named after them.

Harmon was born on January 21, 1917, in Cuero, Texas, to Cornelius and Naunita Mabry (White) Harmon. He graduated from Daule High School and during the Great Depression was hired for various house and grounds chores by the owner of the historic William Frobese home in the city he was born. On December 3, 1937, Elene Ross girlfriend of Harmon, gave birth to his son. On June 10, 1939, Harmon enlisted in the United States Navy in Houston, trained at Norfolk, Virginia, and reported to the USS San Francisco for duty on October 28, 1939.

The battle of Guadalcanal began on November 12, 1942, with a Japanese aerial assault on American warships protecting transports that were unloading reinforcements for the marines on the island. A damaged Japanese plane was deliberately crashed into the cruiser’s radar and fire-control station, killing and injuring the men aboard. The next day the San Francisco was hit by enemy gunfire that killed nearly every officer on the bridge. Harmon, in the heat of the moment, sacrificed his own life and helped evacuate the wounded.

He was killed during the evacuation while shielding a wounded shipmate from gunfire with his own body. It was that act that gained him the lasting legacy, “extraordinary heroism,” awarded him the Navy Cross. On May 21, 1943, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox announced that a warship would be named in Harmon’s honor.

The USS Harmon, a destroyer escort, was launched on July 25, 1943. Other honors bestowed posthumously on Harmon include the naming and dedication of Harmon Hall, bachelor enlisted quarters at the United States Naval Air Station, North Island, California, on July 29, 1975, and the placing of a state historical marker at Cuero Municipal Park in 1977.

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