Guest Blog: African Americans and the USS Robalo (SS-273)

By Abigail Diaz, Director of Education & Public Programs at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum

Of the 28 submarines built during World War II in Manitowoc, four remain on Eternal Patrol. USS Lagarto (SS 317) remained a mystery for more than sixty years after being lost in May 1945. The submarine was discovered in the Gulf of Thailand in 2005, finally giving answers to the family and loved ones who survived the eighty-six crewmen aboard when Lagarto was attacked. USS Golet (SS 361), USS Kete (SS 369) and USS Robalo (SS 273) all remained missing until recently. 

In May 2019, nearly fifteen years to the date of the rediscovery of USS Lagarto (SS 317), the identity of a submarine found near the Palawan Islands in the Philippines was confirmed by the U.S. Navy to be USS Robalo (SS 273). 

The USS Robalo (SS 273) commissioning crew. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

The USS Robalo (SS 273) was commissioned and launched in Manitowoc in 1943. Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company employees worked around the clock and built Robalo in just six months. The commissioning party was held on September 24, 1943 at the Manitowoc Elk’s Club. The submarine was then floated down the Mississippi River to begin its service in the military. 

In the fall of 1944, the submarine did not return from a war patrol and was presumed lost after hitting a mine. Robalo was last heard from on July 2, 1944. Of the eighty-one crewmen, four survived the blast but were later captured. The survivors were taken to a POW camp where they were later able to pass a note to another American and inform them of their capture. These men were never heard from again. Over the course of its time in the war, Robalo completed two war patrols and earned two Battle Stars. 

The USS Robalo (SS 273) launch. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

The story of USS Robalo (SS 273) and its later discovery, is one of bravery, heroism and tragedy. But there is another story less often told about this Manitowoc-built submarine.

 At the time of its sinking, two African Americans were serving aboard the vessel: Steward’s Mate Davie L. Williams and Officer’s Cook Elliot Gleaton, Jr. Their stories, along with the history of African submariners, are an important aspect of American history that is worth retelling. 

USS Robalo. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

African American sailors have played an integral role in the U.S. Navy since its founding during the Revolutionary War. They have served in every American conflict since then including the War of 1812 and the Civil War. It was after the Civil War that formal efforts were made to segregate the Navy, relegating all African American sailors to the positions of messmen, stewards or cooks. Some commanding officers ignored these orders but there was still a devastating effect on the makeup on the naval force. In fact from 1919-1932, African American men were restricted from enlisting. 

African American sailors served throughout all of World War II, from Pearl Harbor to the Japanese surrender, though they were often relegated to working in the mess and prohibited from being a part of gun crews. Finally in 1942, President Roosevelt issued an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in war industries though African American sailors continued to be segregated during naval schooling and training. As an interesting side note, the United States Naval Women’s Reserve (better known as WAVES) recruited African American women starting in 1944 and the following year, the first African American woman enlisted as a member of the Navy. Despite the additional obstacles and barriers, African American submariners and sailors played an integral role during World War II. 

Elliot Gleaton Jr. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

Looking through pictures and records of the crew is a stark reminder of the incredible bravery they displayed. Little is known about the two African American men on Robalo but I was able to piece together small snippets of their lives. Elliot Gleaton, Jr. was from South Carolina and notably made eight war patrols, three of which were on Robalo. He also served on USS Shad. 

Davie Williams was only nineteen when he lost his life on Robalo. Like so many others in wartime, he was just starting his adult life. In the Museum’s collection, we have an image of Williams dancing alone at the commissioning party in Manitowoc. While I don’t know Davie Williams or his family, this picture captures a free-spirited moment in time for a young man who was about to set off to war. Both men, along with the other Robalo crewmen, were awarded Purple Hearts for their service to the country. 

Davie Williams on the dance floor during the commissioning party of the USS Robalo (SS 273) in 1943. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

The Wisconsin Maritime Museum continues to remember and honor all of the brave men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Much of the research in this article was found in Black Submariners in the United States Navy, 1940-1975 by Glenn A. Knoblock.

The USS Robalo (SS 273) underway. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

Abigail Diaz is the Director of Education & Public Programs at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

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