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USS Mason, Operating Forward, Then and Now

January 31, 2017 at 2:54 PM UTC
U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet Public Affairs

USS Mason. For generations the name has conjured up images of well-trained warfighters shouldering challenges and meeting them head on. A crew embodying vigilance and resilience as it forges enduring relationships.  A formidable foe to enemies and no better friend to allies.

Whether you’re referring to USS Mason (DE 529), the World War II era Evarts-class destroyer escort, manned with an all African-American crew, fraught with challenges and triumphs, or today’s USS Mason (DDG 87), the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, fresh from combat operations in the Red Sea, with an equally diligent and resilient crew, the USS Mason name and the USS Mason brand of Sailor are great representations of our Navy.

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In October 2016, USS Mason (DDG 87) received indications of inbound missile threats while operating in international waters of the Red Sea with amphibious transport dock USS San Antonio (LPD 17) and afloat forward staging base USS Ponce (ASFB(I) 15). Mason Sailors' training kicked in and they employed both soft-kill and hard-kill responses to defend the Sailors and the ships in company. 

The incident was recalled by the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson in an Oct. 15, 2016 USNI News article. Richardson expressed confidence in Mason’s crew and all Sailors deployed around the world saying “they have everything that they need to defend themselves from these attacks and respond when needed and so we’re proud of the crews – they’ve done terrific.”

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Richardson also stated in the article that “it’s another thing that shows you when we send our sailors overseas that we send them with the very best because it’s dangerous.”

On the heels of conducting the full range of combat operations, the crew later found itself in Belfast on their way home from deployment. 

While most understand that the current USS Mason (DDG 87)  honors its namesake and the crew of the previous USS Mason (DE 529), those who were lucky enough to be in Belfast in December 2016, had the privilege of seeing the two USS Masons culminate in a unique and historically significant way.  The ship was in Belfast to help celebrate the landmark 75th anniversary of Base One Europe, the largest U.S. Navy base in Europe, but the Mason tie goes much deeper.

“The historical significance of Belfast for the men of Mason (DE 529) is, that when pulling the ship into Belfast/Londonderry, the all African-American crew felt for the first time that they were treated as Americans.  At that time in history, it was not uncommon in some countries for the crew to be called "tanned Yanks" or "brown Yanks." However, when they arrived in Londonderry, they were simply referred to as “Yanks” or “Yankees.” Americans,” said Fleet Master Chief Raymond D. Kemp Sr.

Kemp is the U.S. Naval Forces Europe/U.S. Naval Forces Africa Fleet Master Chief and attended the recent ceremonial events in Belfast. Kemp has a special connection to both Masons.  Kemp explains, like any Master Chief in the Navy, he appreciates cutting-edge technology, but he also has a fondness for naval heritage.  Kemp’s first Command Master Chief tour was aboard USS Mason (DDG 87) and he says the ship will always hold a special place in his heart.  However, Kemp’s tie with Mason goes beyond his initial CMC tour.  He was integral in connecting the old and the new.

“A hometown friend of mine had an uncle who was in the Navy,” said Kemp.

After 26 years of serving in the Navy, Kemp returned to visit his hometown and reconnected with a high school friend.  When Kemp told his former classmate that he was headed to the USS Mason, she replied that her uncle was on that ship.

“I smiled and said ‘okay’ because her uncle had to be in his 70s or 80s by then. I knew that the USS Mason (DDG 87) was launched in 2001 and commissioned in 2003, so there was no chance that this elderly gentleman was on that ship,” said Kemp. “Later, upon my arrival to DDG 87, I learned that it was the third ship named Mason.  The first Mason was named after a former Secretary of the Navy, the second after a pilot named Henry Newton Mason who was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in the Battle of Coral Sea, and DDG 87, was named for the crew of the second namesake. As I learned the story of Mason, my pride began to swell at the awesome legacy of our ship.  When I read a book about USS Mason, “Proudly We Served,” and watched the movie, “Proud,” documenting the bravery and honor with which this crew -- the first all-black crew of a combatant ship – served, I was humbled.  I was even more honored as I realized that my high school friend’s uncle, Lorenzo DuFau, was the primary character in the book and movie and was key to the ship’s proud legacy.”

Kemp reached out to Mary Pat Kelly, the author of, “Proudly We Served” on which the movie “Proud” starring Ossie Davis was based, and arranged for a screening of the movie for the crew during his time as Mason’s command master chief.  At that screening, Kemp was able to get DuFau to come speak to the crew of the ship.

“It was an awesome experience and many who attended it – including DuFau -- were brought to tears,” said Kemp.

Years later, Mary Pat Kelly’s special bond with the ship remains and it was largely due to her efforts that the ceremony commemorating the enduring relationship between USS Mason and the people of Belfast occurred.

Two hundred Sailors from the USS Mason paraded at the Beech Hill Country House Hotel to mark 75 years since the U.S. Navy set up its World War II base in the city.

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“Patsy, John and I have been working together to re-enforce the strong links between the US Navy and US Marine Corps and Derry for the last 25 years,” said Kelly.

According to Kemp, Sunday Dec. 18 began with a wreath laying ceremony, where he and the Commanding Officer laid the wreath, followed by a church service which featured musical offerings by Phil Coulter, and the Colmocille Ladies Choir.  Afterwards, there was a reception suited for royalty, gifts were exchanged, toasts lifted, and there was celebration into the night. In attendance was at least one member of Parliament, as well as John Hume, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr Award, and Gandhi Peace Prize. The crew of this Mason were welcomed as warmly as the ones who came before.

 “The crew very much enjoyed our visit to Belfast and Derry, the hospitality shared by the people of Northern Ireland, and celebrating the rich heritage we share.  The performance, bravery, and resiliency of the Sailors of USS Mason, past and present, have been heroic,” said Cmdr. Chris Gilbertson, USS Mason commanding officer.  “This visit served as a great opportunity to remember sacrifices made by our predecessors who served our nation so selflessly.  Whether breaking new ground in the fight against discrimination, or demonstrating the fighting spirit and capability of the U.S. Navy, the Sailors of the Mason continue to set the bar.  I was truly impressed with the reception we received, and even more so with how much the crew enjoyed all the events.” 

The tenacity of the Mason crews, whether forging enduring relationships in Belfast and around the world, or seeing combat and overcoming the obstacles of the day with vigilance, whether in the 1940’s or the 21st century, seems to transcend time.

“This is an experience I’ll cherish always,” said Kemp. 

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To find out more about USS Mason (DDG 87) https://www.facebook.com/MASONDDG87/

To find out more about USS Mason (DE 529)  https://www.history.navy.mil/

https://www.facebook.com/USNavalForcesEuropeAfrica/