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FAME: Carl Brashear was the original 'man of honor'

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By Linda Ireland

 Carl Brashear was born in Tonieville on Jan. 19, 1931. The son of African American sharecroppers, McDonald and Gonzella Brashear, and the sixth of eight children, grew up to become a breaker of racial barriers and a master in the Navy. 

When he was a child, Brashear and his family moved from Hodgenville to Sonora where Brashear attended grade school. In February of 1948, he enlisted in the recently desegregated United States Navy. Six years later, Brashear became the first African-American Navy Diver when he graduated from the U.S. Navy Diving and Salvage School.

In 1966, an event now referred to as the Palomares incident occurred when a nuclear bomb was lost off the coast of Palomares, Spain. Brashear’s crew was called in to help find the missing bomb for the Air Force. After two and a half months, the crew finally found the bomb and they began an attempt to recover it. During the process, a pipe struck Brashear’s lower leg and damaged it drastically.

Brashear was taken to the Naval Hospital in Portsmough, Va. where doctors were forced to amputate the lower half of his leg. 

For nearly a year, Brashear remained in recovery at the hospital. In March of 1967, he was assigned to return to diving school with plans to return to full active duty. After only a single year of training, Brashear became the first amputee to become a certified diver. He also became the first African-American U.S. Navy Master Diver in 1970, and served for an additional 10 years. 

“They watched me dive for a week as an amputee and run around the building, do physical fitness every morning, lead the calisthenics,” he told interviewer Paul Stillwell (www.usni.org). Brashear began training young recruits  – who did not know he was an amputee. Every day, Brashear said the kids would complain about him swimming them mercilessly. Then, in the third week of training, he would show them his prosthetic leg. 

“When I went to the swimming pool, I came out with my other leg under my arm,” he told Stillwell. “Those kids down there almost had a heart attack. Here is the same guy that was leading them, that they were talking about, had only one leg, and was swimming them to death. But that would build those kids up, make them mad. That was sure a good motivational tool for those kids.”

In 1979, Brashear retired as a Master Chief Petty Officer and a Master Diver. He worked at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va. as a civilian until 1993. 

Brashear was married and divorced three times, and he had four children: Shazanta, DaWayne, Phillip and Patrick. 

In 2000, the movie Men of Honor portrayed Brashear’s heroic life. Cuba Gooding, Jr. played Brashear in the film.

Brashear died in July 2006 due to respiratory and heart failure. He is now buried at Woodland Memorial Gardens in Norfolk, Va. After his death, Brashear’s sons started the Carl Brashear Foundation. 

Through the years, Brashear was given many honors and awards for his 42 years of combined military and federal civilian service. In 2007, the Newport News Fire Department named a high-speed fireboat after Brashear and dedicated it to be used by its Incident Response teams. In 2009, a science and maritime museum in Norfolk, Va. called Nauticus a new exhibit dedicated to Brashear. The full-scale exhibit was called “Dream to Dive: The Life of Master Diver Carl Brashear.” 

The Hardin County History Museum has a display dedicated to Brashear’s life.

His parents are interred in Siberia Church Cemetery in LaRue County.