Master Chief Boatswain's Mate – Retired
Tidewater Community College, Virginia
College of Southern Maryland
Carl Maxie Brashear was clearly in a class by himself. What other Kentucky sharecropper's son has been portrayed by an Oscar winner in a Hollywood movie about his life? The 2000 film Men of Honor starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Brashear—and Robert DeNiro as his mentor/nemesis—depicted how Brashear overcame tremendous odds to become the U.S. Navy's first African American master diver and then the first amputee to earn master-diver certification.
Sadly, Carl Maxie Brashear died last July of heart and respiratory failure. He was 75.
Brashear joined the recently desegregated U.S. Navy in 1948, determined to become a deep-sea diver but initially assigned to labor in the ship's galley. After writing over 100 letters pleading his case, Brashear was eventually admitted to diving school, where he endured unabated racial discrimination—and a grueling training program—to become the navy's first African American diver.
In 1966, while attempting to recover a nuclear weapon lost off the coast of Spain, Brashear severely injured his left leg in a shipboard accident. "The accident happened at 5 o'clock in the afternoon. When I arrived at the hospital at 11 o'clock at night, the doctor thought I was dead. He had me outside the morgue," said Brashear in a documentary feature on the Men of Honor DVD. "He checked again and said I had a very faint heartbeat. The words I use: I survived the morgue."
To shorten his recuperation period—and thus improve his odds of continuing his diving career—Brashear asked to have his leg amputated. Fitted with a prosthesis, he embarked on an excruciating physical therapy program to get back in shape—and then an almost equally excruciating process of convincing the navy he could still pull his weight. Brashear: "Of all the obstacles and adversity that I met prior to that, that was my biggest challenge—convincing the Navy that I could in fact stay in it and perform my duties and perform maneuvers that you have to do in diving school when you've got two legs."
Men of Honor ends when the navy, grudgingly, permits Brashear to return to diving duty and eventually become Master Chief Petty Officer, its highest rank for enlisted personnel. What did Brashear think of the biopic? "He loved it," say DaWayne Brashear, the second-oldest of Brashear's four sons. "He told me they had to put their Hollywood spin on it so the story would be interesting, but the final product was really right on. Of course, he was a key advisor on the film, so he was there on every significant juncture of shooting."
Although his own schooling had ended at grade seven, Brashear strongly believed in higher education. "He always stressed that education was the key," said DaWayne Brashear. "He said I want all my sons to go to college." Brashear took his own advice and, after retiring from the navy in 1979 with over a dozen decorations and medals to his credit, prepared for a non-military second career by taking courses at two community colleges—Charles County Community College (now College of Southern Maryland) in La Plata and Tidewater Community College in Virginia's Hampton Roads area. Between 1980-83 he earned a total of 36 semester hours.
In 1993 Brashear retired from his civilian career, mostly as an environmental protection and energy conservation specialist. But he continued to work with amputees and, in his personal and professional life, continue to lead by example. "He never ever complained—even when he got his leg cut off," said DaWayne Brashear. "He would always say, 'This will be a handicap for other people but to me it's just an inconvenience.' We were never afraid for him."