USS McKean: Life and death in the darkness

Twenty-eight minutes.

That’s how long it took from the moment the Japanese torpedo struck the U.S.S. McKean‘s starboard hull until the last of the venerable ship’s four signature stacks disappeared from view beneath Empress Augusta Bay in the early morning hours of November 17, 1943.

For a vessel that had been afloat for a quarter century and had become a workhorse for the Navy and its frequent Marine Corps passengers during the Solomon Islands campaign, the end was swift and tragic.

Of the 338 men aboard, 116 were killed. That the death toll was not even higher was a credit to the coolheadedness of McKean‘s crew, the Marine detachment on board, and the men on nearby U.S. ships who engaged Japanese planes even as they plucked survivors from the water.

In the words of United Press correspondent Frank Tremaine, the “gallant little destroyer-transport … went down with her siren wailing defiance to the Japs and her hull flaming amid a series of heroic exploits which fittingly wound up her 25-year career.”

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Roy Harmon, whose selfless courage broke barriers in the U.S. Navy

Naunita Harmon Carroll stood in silence, her eyes shielded from the late-afternoon sky by her wide-brimmed hat, as the United States Navy’s newest destroyer escort slid down the ways from the Bethlehem Steel Company’s shipyard and into the Fore River.

MAtt1c Roy Harmon (via UT-San Antonio)

MAtt1c Leonard Roy Harmon (via UT-San Antonio)

It was late afternoon on July 25, 1943, a little over eight months since her son and dozens of others had been killed aboard the U.S.S. San Francisco in fierce night fighting off Guadalcanal, and the lifelong Texan had traveled to Quincy, Massachusetts, to see her second born honored in unprecedented fashion.

The U.S.S. Harmon was the first United States warship to be named after an African-American, earning its namesake a now mostly forgotten place in history.

“I hope that this ship will do the work that my boy started and carry on as he would have done,” Harmon’s mother told a reporter from the Afro-American newspapers.

As she spoke, the Navy Cross awarded to Mess Attendant 1st Class Leonard Roy Harmon gleamed on the front of her black-and-white dress. After maintaining her composure throughout the brief ceremony, Naunita broke down in tears.

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