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Remembering J.G. Black, Cabarrus' first loss in World War II

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Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a series of stories about U.S. Navy Seaman First Class Joseph Grady “JG” Black Jr.

U.S. Navy Seaman First Class Joseph Grady Black Jr. (known as JG) was the first resident of Cabarrus County, North Carolina, to be killed in combat during World War II.

Twenty-one-year-old JG was lost at sea aboard the heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30) when his ship was sunk in a night surface action near Batavia (now Jakarta) Java on Feb. 28 to March 1, 1942. To understand how this came about, one must consider the situation whereby JG joined the Navy and the subsequent orders he received. The obvious question remains, what happened to JG?

During the inter-war years as Germany and Imperial Japan sought expansion, power and dominance, the United States endured the Great Depression, whereby promotions stagnated within the military as spending dwindled. New weapons were on drawing boards, but there was no production. Young Joseph Grady Black Jr. was swept up in cascading global events then unfolding.

Author James D. Hornfischer — “This is the ancient history of a forgotten ship, forgotten because history is story, because memory is fragile, and the human mind — thus the storytellers who write the history — generally accepts only so much sorrow before the impulse prevails to put the story on a brighter path. The Pacific war’s desperate days were dark enough to obscure one of the great naval epics of this or any century.”

In simple terms, we lost JG primarily due to a lack of Allied air cover and antiquated U.S. ships, which were few in numbers and all of which lacked the benefit of radar and adequate anti-aircraft defense. Add to these considerations faulty ammunition was in use, and lastly, frequent incidents of intelligence failures. Aggressive Imperial Japanese doctrine placed ships and planes often closer to the Allied assets than imagined.

The Allies were woefully unprepared for war; on the other hand, the Japanese were well prepared in the air and at sea with the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero,” arguably the best fighter plane in the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) at the time. At sea, they employed the Type 90 and the best torpedo in the world, the Type 93, also known as the “Long Lance,” with a 1,000-pound warhead which was more powerful than those in use by the Allies. Radar was not yet in wide use; however, the Japanese Navy trained extensively with their doctrine of fighting at night.

In December 1941, January and February 1942, the Japanese attacked southward from the “Land of the Rising Sun” with their plan to capture the intact oil fields of Indonesia. America, Australia and the Dutch dropped the ball, although Great Britain had launched its first aircraft carrier at about the time the Japanese had theirs in commission, the British and U.S. Navy did not send one to the Pacific. The first United States carrier designed from the keel up was USS Ranger (CV-4), which was commissioned in 1934. By contrast, the first Japanese purpose-built carrier was already in the fleet in 1922. The U.S. Navy had invested heavily in the battleship during the inter-war years. We were taught a costly lesson on Dec. 7, 1941, when superior air-power was shown to be the future, not big guns.

I offer as an example the Battle of Malaya conducted near Singapore, without airpower, in which the Royal Navy lost two capital ships in one afternoon on Dec. 10, 1941. The new battleship HMS Prince of Wales and aged, yet powerful, Battlecruiser HMS Repulse were sunk by Japanese air-power utilizing aerial torpedo attacks combined with conventional bombs. The lack of Allied airpower was instrumental in this loss. Great Britain had already lost HMS Hood in late May 1941. The fall of Singapore represented the largest surrender of British-led forces in history and despite the sinking of Bismarck by the Royal Navy, British morale was devastated.

“There are many who believe the day of the battleship is over. It is my opinion those who hold this view don’t know what they are talking about.”

Admiral William V. Pratt, USN (1869-1957) [USNA ’89]

In 2014, it was announced that the wreckage of USS Houston had been found and confirmed by a joint United States Navy and Indonesian Navy dive team off the eastern tip of Java nearest Sunda Strait, Indonesia. Another significant event occurred that same year when fellow Legionnaire Bill Derugen visited a nearby flea market and came across a cardboard box that contained news clippings, a Purple Heart medal, and a bundle of old letters wrapped in twine which had been sent home by JG and saved by his mother, Ollie!

A renewed research effort has since taken me to The USS Houston Survivors Association and Next Generations©, and The University of Houston Libraries, which hold copies of Deck Logs generated by USS Houston (CA-30) before her loss. The book by Duane P. Schultz, “The Last Battle Station” (© 1985), chronicled the history of the ship and her loss on March 1, 1942. Since that time, there have been two more books published on the subject: “Ship of Ghosts” by James D. Hornfisher (© 2006) and most recently, “In the Highest Degree Tragic” by Donald M. Kehn Jr. (© 2017).

Author Duane P. Shultz, “The Last Battle Station”: “The Houston’s crew, were mostly professionals from the old Navy, including many old China hands, and were proud and disciplined sailors. They were ready for war but their ship, unfortunately, was not. A victim of budget-slashing and disarmament treaties, the Houston carried thin armor plating, no radar, obsolete fire-control equipment, and faulty ammunition. America had not been willing to spend the money to maintain the nation’s military preparedness, and the Houston and her crew paid the price.”

Joseph Grady Black Jr. was born on July 5, 1920, to Joseph Grady Black and Ollie (Burleson) Black, the first of three children. JG, as he was known, graduated from Bethel High School with the Class of 1938. JG had younger brothers, William and Roy Lee Black. Roy Lee died as an infant. Joseph Black Sr. was known to have a pack of hounds which he would often hunt for fox near the family home in the vicinity of rural Sam Black Road, Cabarrus County. As a youngster, JG would often tag along for the adventure. JG was an active member of the Bethel chapter of the 4-H and he played basketball. Upon graduation from Bethel High School, he was hired by Cannon Mills in Kannapolis and assigned to Plant No. 6 in the dye house.

It is believed that JG felt the winds of war approaching due to the daily reports in both local and national newspapers. Radio WBT (Charlotte) reported daily that Poland had been invaded and France and Britain were under attack by Nazi Germany. In the Orient, Japan had attacked China and his best friend, Lum Hough, had already joined the Navy along with his younger brother Dewy. On July 15, 1940, JG traveled to Raleigh, where he joined the Navy. That evening, JG and several other young men were issued one-way tickets to Norfolk, Virginia. Basic training began upon arrival the following day at the United States Naval Training Station at Norfolk, where he raised his right hand, took the oath to protect and serve, and received his U.S. Navy Service Number: 262 62 01.

Upon graduation from basic training, JG was admitted to the Naval Hospital in nearby Portsmouth where he was treated for pneumonia. Once released from the hospital, he received orders to USS St. Louis (CL-49), a light cruiser that was home-ported at Norfolk. The ship had just returned from an extensive tour seeking potential bases belonging to England (think Lend Lease) for use by the United States from as far north as Newfoundland and as far south as British Guiana. Within days of return to Norfolk, the ship was made ready for sea with orders to transfer its homeport from the Atlantic Fleet to Hawaii as part of the buildup of Naval, Marine and Army forces there. On Nov. 9, 1940, St. Louis (CL-49) with JG embarked, departed Norfolk bound for the Panama Canal with a brief stop at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In a letter home which was dated Thursday, Dec. 19, 1940, JG stated that he was at sea as the cruiser conducted local operations in Hawaiian waters. While still aboard USS St. Louis (CL-49), JG was advanced in rank to S 1/c (Seaman First Class); he would now begin earning $54 per month. JG wanted to get off the deck force and become either a Gunner’s Mate, an Electrician’s Mate, or maybe a Fireman in one of the engine rooms. JG later mentions that he may want to try for the Radioman rate. Likely as not, his desire to become rated was thwarted by the needs of the Navy, manning the various billets aboard ship was then, as it is now, a matter of priority and the prerogative of the commanding officer.

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