54: Men of Honor

Carl Brashear was the first to do many things. This week we’ll compare history with Cuba Gooding Jr and Robert DeNiro’s film Men of Honor.

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Episode Transcript

Toward the end of last year, Marvel and Netflix teamed up for yet another superhero series. This time it was Luke Cage, telling the story of the man with superhuman strength and impenetrable skin.

As is the case with many TV shows, Luke Cage saw a myriad of teams working on the series. Throughout the first season, which consisted of 13 episodes, Luke Cage’s episodes had a total of 12 directors. Only Paul McGuigan directed two episodes—the first two of the season. On the flip side, the third to last episode, episode number 11, was directed by George Tillman Jr.

While many directors start with TV and switch to film, George went the other direction as he directed films before his more recent TV work.

George’s first feature-length film was 1995’s Scenes for the Soul, which saw an actor George Brashear play one of the leading roles. Then, two years later, George Brashear would play a smaller role in a larger of George Tillman, Jr’s films, Soul Food.

Five years after that, George Tillman, Jr. would direct his biggest film yet—and probably one of the of the films he’s still known for today.

Men of Honor tells the story of Carl Brashear who, to my knowledge, isn’t related to the actor George Brashear despite sharing an uncommon surname.

That, it would seem, is just a coincidence.

But what of the story itself? How much of the film Men of Honor is true?

The true story behind Men of Honor

The movie begins with Robert DeNiro’s character, U.S. Navy Master Chief Leslie William Sunday. Although we don’t know his name is Leslie until much later—most people just call him Master Chief Billy Sunday. Anyway, in the film a badly beaten Billy is being held by military police for going AWOL.

And right away we’re hit with the first major inaccuracy in the film. Master Chief Billy Sunday never went AWOL because Master Chief Billy Sunday never existed. Robert DeNiro’s character in the film is a composite character that the filmmakers used to characterize a number of U.S. Navy trainers and servicemen who worked with Carl Brashear.

Speaking of Carl, after this first scene in the movie with Robert DeNiro, we’re whisked back 25 years earlier to meet a very young Carl Brashear who’s played by the young Chris Warren, Jr. This younger version of Carl watches his dad, Mac, who’s played by Carl Lumbly, plow on their farm. In a very sincere moment after realizing he’s plowing fields of another man and still struggling to put food on the table for his family, Mac gives the young child a single piece of advice: Don’t grow up to be like me.

While we don’t know if this specific scene ever took place, the overall gist of this early childhood that the scene in the film is trying to imply is fairly accurate.

The real Carl Brashear was born on January 19th, 1931 as the sixth child to McDonald, or Mac, and Gonzella Brashear. Four years later, Mac and Gonzella took their family to the small town of Sonora, Kentucky.

For a bit of context, Sonora is about 55 miles, or about 88 kilometers, to the south of Louisville, Kentucky. Today, Sonora has little over 400 people living there. So a very small town.

It was here that Mac supported his family by working as a sharecropper.

As the movie implies, sharecropping is where land owners allow a family to live on their land in exchange for their tending the land. In this case, the Brashear family and their eight children—they had two more after Carl—worked on a farm in Kentucky in exchange for a share of the crops. We don’t know the exact share they got, but it’s probably safe to say it was just enough to live on and not much more.

It wasn’t an easy childhood. Carl dropped out of school after seventh grade and went to work, helping his father in the fields.

Back in the movie, we quickly jump forward to an older Carl Brashear as he goes off to join the U.S. Navy. Oh, and this older version of Carl is played by Cuba Gooding Jr.

While Men of Honor doesn’t really give a timeline for when this happens, we know from documentation that Carl enlisted in the Navy on February 25th, 1948. That was exactly one month and six days after Carl’s 17th birthday.

Oh, and the movie doesn’t mention this at all but Carl actually tried to join the U.S. Army first. The Army recruiter was brashly racist to the point of being so abusive that Carl decided not to join the Army, and went to the Navy’s recruiter instead. Apparently that recruiter wasn’t as bad, because Carl ended up joining the Navy.

After joining, according to the film, Carl is subjected to racism. It starts when he’s serving as a cook because, as one actor in the movie says, that’s one of three things a black man can do in the Navy. It’s either cook, officer’s valet or get the fuck out.

That’s another scene that’s made up for the film, but again—unfortunately the gist is true. That gist being, of course, that there was an extreme amount of racism in the U.S. Navy in 1948.

In fact, it was just 23 days before Carl enlisted in the Navy that President Harry Truman instructed the Secretary of Defense to take the steps necessary to, “have the remaining instances of discrimination in the armed services eliminated as rapidly as possible.”

Of course, that didn’t happen in 23 days.

Technically the armed forces were still segregated until July 26th, 1948 when Truman issued Executive Order 9980 and 9981. The former of these tearing down segregation in the workplace and the latter of these tearing down segregation in the U.S. armed forces.

Of course, even with the Executive Order, the racism didn’t go away overnight.

In the movie, there’s a few scenes that lead Carl away from the mess hall and onto the path of a diver. The first happens when we see Carl disobey a segregated swimming time and dives into the water with a bunch of white sailors. He then goes on to outswim them all, impressing the onlooking officers.

Shortly after this, there’s another scene where Carl gets the idea for becoming a diver. This happens when he sees Robert DeNiro’s character go on a dive to rescue a wounded pilot, and then his own colleague when there’s an accident with the second diver.

While the first scene certainly could’ve happened, as best as we can tell it was fictionalized for the film. Of course, it’s not like every swimming break was documented.

As for the second scene, we already know Robert DeNiro’s character was fictional, so there’s probably not much surprise to say this one was made up. However, both of these scenes together do a pretty good job of telling a fairly accurate tale of what happened to Carl.

First, there was the inherent racism at every turn. That’s something we can’t really pinpoint to a single event like the swimming scene we see in the film, but it’s also something we can’t avoid because it’s a huge part of the story.
According to the real Carl Brashear, “Growing up on a farm in Kentucky, I always dreamed of doing something challenging. When I saw the divers for the first time, I knew it was just what I wanted.”

Just wanting to be a diver wasn’t enough. Again, there was the racism to deal with. Carl started to make requests that he go to diving school but was consistently denied. He’d later recall that one Navy personnel officer explained to Carl the Navy didn’t have any “colored” divers.

Carl’s response?

“The Navy’s about ready to have one!”

Five years after joining the Navy, Carl was accepted into diving school. That was in 1953.

In the movie, when Carl goes to diving school he runs into Master Chief Billy Sunday again. As it turns out, the Master Chief is a teacher at the diving school. There’s a brief moment where Robert DeNiro’s version of Billy Sunday thinks Carl is there to be a cook.

Even though Billy Sunday wasn’t a real person, this scene did happen. When Carl reported to the diving school in Bayonne, New Jersey, the training officer on duty at the time just assumed Carl was there to be a cook.

After an uphill battle to even be accepted to the diving school, something like this might seem small. But the mere fact that we know about this little tidbit shows how much it meant to Carl, who clearly remembered this event enough to recount it years later. That goes to show that racism, no matter how small or mundane we may think it is at the time, it has a negative and long-term impact on everyone it affects.

Fortunately, there is common theme among many of the men and women who were brave enough to fight through the racial barriers in the U.S., and like them, Carl wasn’t easily dissuaded.

Back in the movie, once Carl is in diving school there’s two main characters who come to the forefront. One of them is Snowhill, who’s played by Michael Rapaport. The other is a villainous character named Dylan Rourke, who’s played by Holt McCallany.

Like Master Chief Billy Sunday, both Snowhill and Rourke are fictional. The filmmakers created these guys to characterize the two sides of the racial battles the real Carl Brashear had to face.

Because of this, the scenes we see in the film with Rourke antagonizing or berating Carl are made up. So are the scenes where we see Snowhill befriending him—although the closest friend one could probably say Carl had was a man named Rutherford.

Despite not being real people or actual situations, a lot of these events we see are amalgamations of people and things that did happen. For example, hate notes were often left on Carl’s bunk. Other times the sailors would make it clear they didn’t want Carl around. Because of President Truman’s Executive Order, they couldn’t outright kick Carl out, but that didn’t stop them from trying to do all they could to get Carl to break and quit.

Carl recalled many of those events years later and, in fact, the real Carl Brashear was a technical advisor on the movie Men of Honor, so he was there to help steer the filmmakers so that we, the viewers, could get a sense for the hatred he faced.

Of course, as viewers we’re still watching a movie. The real thing had to have been much worse. And for Carl, as if military training isn’t hard enough, with those added pressures it had to have been horrible.

To Carl’s credit, he stuck with it.

Back in the movie, Carl recognizes he has to focus on more than just the act of diving. So he goes to the library in an attempt to find a tutor. He does, and in the movie it’s Aunjanue Ellis’ character, Jo.

Like many of the other scenes we’ve looked at so far, the details of the story here were made up so the film could get the spirit of the story across.

The true story is that Carl Brashear was never married to anyone named Jo, something that happened a bit later in the movie’s timeline. Throughout his life, Carl had three wives. The first, which is probably who Jo was based on the most, was Junetta Wilcoxson.

However, the timeline in the movie is a bit off.

Carl and Junetta were married in 1952, the year before Carl joined diving school. They stayed together for 26 years, divorcing in 1978.

Although the movie’s indication of Jo being pregnant is closer to the real timeline. Carl and Junetta had Shazanta in 1955.

As a little side note, Carl would then have three more children, DaWayne, Phillip and Patrick as well as two more wives, Hattie Elam, from 1980 to 1983 and Jeanette Brundage from 1985 to 1987.

So while the movie may not be entirely accurate depicting Carl’s personal life here, it’s fairly accurate by implying the crazy amount of hard work Carl had to put in to pass the tests required to get through diving school. And, sadly, that hard work had a negative effect on his family at home.

If you remember, Carl quit school in the seventh grade, so he didn’t have the benefit of a great education. While this had to have hindered him, but even this couldn’t stop him.

In the movie, there’s a moment where Robert DeNiro’s version of Master Chief Sunday sees the homemade radio Carl’s father gave him, along with a photo of his dad. When he asks about it, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s version of Carl implies his dad has been a major source of inspiration for him.

That is very true.

Well, again, the gist is true.

The real Carl Brashear would later recall that despite the difficulties, the racism and the massive uphill battles he had to climb, his father’s advice helped him get through the tough times.

According to Carl, his father’s words would be something like, “You get back in there, Carl, and you fight! You do your best!”

So that’s what he did.

If there’s ever something that’s easier said than done, that’s a great example.

In the movie, all of this hard work pays off when Carl manages to overcome yet another attempt by the racist sailors around him trying to kick him out when they rip the bag during his final test. After nine hours and 31 minutes in frigid conditions under water, Carl manages to successfully pass the test.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find something that verified it took Carl nine hours and 31 minutes to finish the test. But then again, Carl Brashear himself was a technical advisor on the film. So it wouldn’t surprise me if that bit is true.

While the bag incident was changed, what we do know is that Carl’s so-called teammates simply didn’t send some of the tools he needed. In a speech to students at Pennsylvania State University, Carl explained, “They really messed with me at diving school. When I was working under 16 feet of water at the training school in Bayonne, they did things like not sending down the welding rods or igniter I needed. I got them later than everyone else. They wanted to see if they could break me down.”

But they couldn’t. There were a total of 17 divers who were in his graduating class in October of 1954. Out of those graduates, Carl’s grades ranked him 16th.

Back in the film, after his graduation we’re shifted back to the scene we saw in the beginning. A battered and bruised Robert DeNiro is in cuffs when sees Carl on TV. On the screen, Carl is getting ready to dive for a nuclear bomb that was on board a plane that crashed into the ocean.

That bit of storyline with the crashed airplane is true. It happened a little over 11 years after Carl graduated from diving school.

On January 17th, 1966, as the residents of the small village of Palomares in the southernmost province of Spain were going about their morning routines, a gut-wrenching sound made them look to the skies.

When they did, all they could see was fire and smoke.

One unidentified person from Palomares was later quoted as saying, “I looked up and saw this huge ball of fire, falling through the sky.”

Just moments before, two massive airplanes collided in midair. One was a KC-135 Stratotanker from the U.S. Air Force and the other was the plane the KC-135 was trying to refuel, a B-52 bomber.

To give you a sense of scale here, the KC-135 is made from a modified Boeing 707—it’s about 136 feet long and a 131 foot wingspan. That’s about 41.4 meters long with about a 40 meter wingspan.

The plane it collided with was even bigger. The B-52 Stratofortress bomber was over 159 feet long with a wingspan of 185 feet. That’s over 48 meters long and a wingspan of over 56 meters.
The entire crew on board both planes were killed as debris started to rain down onto the ground below. No one knew it at the time, but they had just witnessed what would soon become one of the most serious nuclear incidents during the Cold War.

You see, this particular B-52 bomber had been carrying four hydrogen bombs, or H-bombs. If the first H-bomb test gave us any indication as to their devastating power, each of those bombs had the potential to unleash the energy of about 10 million tons of TNT.

And there were four of those bombs that fell out of the air when the planes collided over Spain.

Fortunately, they had never been armed so they didn’t detonate. Three of the bombs fell on land, one of which had a parachute on it so it landed intact. The other two didn’t, and as a result they shattered on impact, spreading plutonium all over the Spanish countryside.

The final of these bombs landed in the ocean, about five miles off the shore.

This was a scenario the U.S. government didn’t have any sort of a plan for. To give you an idea of how crazy of a political situation this was, the it wasn’t until about a month later, on February 16th, when the USS Hoist joined the recovery effort for the bomb.

As we saw in the movie, the USS Hoist was where Carl was stationed.

Oh, and as a little side note, in 1967 and 1968, the commander of the Hoist was a man named Edward Lefebvre. As far as I know there’s no relation to me, but you can probably guess my last name isn’t one that comes up often. So when that came up in my research and I couldn’t help but share it.

Anyway, in the movie there’s a moment that almost seems too made-for-Hollywood to be true. While Carl is walking on the seafloor to try and find the bomb, a Russian sub goes by. Carl’s airline is caught up on the sub and for a while Cuba Gooding Jr.’s version of Carl is dragged by the sub until the airline happens to slip off the sub.

That didn’t happen.

In that same speech at Penn State, Carl explained a few other scenes in the film:

“The barracks walkout didn’t happen in Bayonne, New Jersey. It happened in Florida. The officer didn’t throw my radio on the floor. He pounded on a shelf and it fell off. I wasn’t dragged by any Russian submarine, but it made for good footage.”

But they did find the bomb. The movie doesn’t really mention timelines here, but it was months after the search began that it finally came to an end.

Despite these differences, Carl estimated Men of Honor was about 80 percent accurate.

Speaking of which, the next major scene in the film is something it gets right.

That happens after the H-bomb is found. In the movie, Cuba Gooding Jr. notices something isn’t right with the lines hoisting the bomb. Then it snaps, and he’s just able to shove another sailor out of the way—saving his life—meanwhile, Carl’s leg is snapped nearly off.

Oh, and it’s worth pointing out that the timeline in the movie doesn’t quite matchup. You see, the accident happened on March 23rd, 1966. It wasn’t until April 7th that they were able to successfully recover the final H-bomb from the B-52.

Fortunately, we have Carl’s own recounting of the accident to let us know how accurate that was. This comes from Carl via the U.S. Naval Institute:

“Just as I started to leave, the boat pulled on the pipe that had the mooring line tied to it. That pipe came loose, flew across the deck, and it struck my leg below the knee. They said I was way up in the air just turning flips. I landed about two foot inside of that freeboard. They said if I’d been two feet farther over, I’d have gone over the side. I jumped up and started to run and fell over. That’s when I knew how bad my leg was.”

Carl continued, explaining the real events behind what we saw happen next in the film:

“Then they were going to piece my leg back on and do plastic surgery. Well, they were going to make my leg three inches shorter than the other leg. When they took the bandage off, my foot fell off. So they tried again, and it would fall off. It got gangrene and got infected. Well, I was slowly dying from that. So they transferred me up to Wiesbaden, Germany. There the doctor said that he could fix me, but it would take three years and could have me walking on a brace. So I raised all sorts of hell in that hospital. So he said, ‘Well, do you want to be air-mailed out to the States?’ That’s the term he used. He said, ‘Do you want to be air-mailed out to the States?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir! Air-mail me out of here!'”

After arriving in the United States, Carl had the surgery. As he later explained:

“So they did a guillotine-type of operation, just chopped it off, cleared up the infection. A while later he said, ‘We didn’t go high enough. We need to cut off another inch and a half.’ So they cut off an inch and a half to make sure they got it, and bleed it out and sewed it up. This was in July 1966.”

To give some other insights into the accident, Carl was struck by a pipe that flew across the deck and hit him just below his left knee. The men on board the Hoist weren’t prepared. They didn’t have adequate medical personnel and their helicopter wasn’t even fueled. It took six hours for Carl to make it to the nearest hospital, where he was officially declared dead on arrival.

Upon a closer look, one of the doctors heard a faint heart beat and that declaration was rescinded.

Meanwhile, he’d received 18 pints of blood since the accident. To give some context here, the average human has anywhere from 10 to 12 pints of blood in their entire body. That gives you an idea how much Carl was bleeding.

Needless to say, it was amazing that he was able to survive.

As the movie comes to an end, Carl refuses to let even his amputated leg slow him down. He tries to return to active duty as a diver in the U.S. Navy. We see a scene in the courtroom where Robert DeNiro’s character helps Cuba Gooding Jr.’s portrayal of Carl take the 12 steps necessary inside a new, 290-pound diving suit. No small task for anyone, let alone someone who lost the bottom of their leg just months before.

Oh, and 290 pounds is about 131.5 kilograms.

The way the film depicts this is made up—remember Robert DeNiro’s character didn’t exist, after all. However, the plot points are pretty accurate, even if they are sped up a bit for the film.

After the surgery in July it wasn’t until months later, in November of 1966, when Carl got his prosthetic leg. The movie doesn’t mention this at all, but after he got his leg, Carl snuck out of the hospital to dive. When he did, he snapped photos and documented this. After successfully managing to dive, he used these photos and documentation when he tried to convince his superiors in the Navy to let him return to active duty.

As impressive as his diving exhibition was, the Navy officers were understandably hesitant.

Finally, they gave in and decided to give him a shot. Carl’s rehabilitation took place at the Deep Diving School in Washington DC. He’d already completed diving school once, and here he had to do it again.

Even with everything he’d been through, by his own admission later it was this that was the most difficult thing he ever had to do in his life. But it was something he also said he probably wouldn’t have been able to endure had he not already endured so much.

To give you an idea of how difficult it was, any time Carl would run—something that was required of all trainees at the school—he’s start to bleed into the prosthetic leg. Fearing this would make his doctors deny his re-entry into active service, he hid this from everyone and instead treated himself with things like iodine and peroxide.

And that’s just an example of the physical side. Before he was discriminated against because of his race, and now he received eerily similar treatment because of his disability. Granted, not as hateful and horrible, but more along the lines of officers and doctors trying to push him into a medical discharge.

It didn’t happen like we saw in the movie, but Carl even had to prove himself by walking 12 steps in the 290 pound Mark V deep sea diving suit.

That’s about 131 kilograms.

Amazingly, he did it. But that was just one part in the arduous journey back to active service.

After months of intense training, in March of 1967, Carl’s doctors approved his next step: Second Class Diving School in Norfolk, Virginia.

At the very end of the movie, the text on screen says that Carl became the first amputee in the U.S. Navy to return to active duty in 1968.

That is true.

Two years after the accident, in April of 1968, Carl Brashear once again made history when he was restored to full active duty and became the U.S. Navy’s very first amputee diver.

According to that final text on the screen at the end of the movie, it was two years after being restored to active duty that Carl made history yet again when he earned the rank of Master Diver.

And again, that’s true.

Well, sort of…some have disputed this.

There were other divers in the U.S. Navy before him, for example John Henry “Dick” Turpin was a diver in the early 1900s. However, technically Dick retired from the U.S. Navy and came back as a contractor when he qualified to be a Master Diver.

So while most believe Dick Turpin was the first African-American Master Diver, because he wasn’t active duty in the Navy anymore that’d mean it would be decades until an active duty deep-sea diver for the U.S. Navy earned that distinction.

That’s why most official U.S. Navy historical documents refer to Carl Brashear as the first African-American deep-sea diver in the U.S. Navy’s history, but he was the first amputee diver as well as the first African-American Master Diver while on active duty for the U.S. Navy.

Nine years later, on April 1st, 1979, Master Chief Petty Officer and Master Diver Carl Brashear retired from the U.S. Navy. On top of those other historic moments, he’d earned the highest enlisted rate as Master Chief and the highest diving qualification as a Master Diver.

But he wasn’t quite done, as he served 14 years at the Naval Station in Norfolk, Virginia as a civilian employee. He finally retired from this role in 1993.

Thirteen years later, on July 25th, 2006 and at the age of 75, Carl Brashear passed away at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center—the very same hospital where he recovered from his leg injury decades before.

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