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Brashear, Carl Maxie 1931–

Carl Maxie Brashear 1931

Former Navy diver

Chose Diving

Nearly Died in Accident

Returned to Diving


When an Academy Award-winning actor signs on to play you in the movie of your life story, you truly are a unique individual with an amazing past. So it is with retired Navy diver Carl Brashear. Brashear, the subject of the film, Men of Honor, endured racism in the deep South and in the military, as well as surviving a crippling accident, in order to obtain his lifelong goal.

Born on January 19, 1931 in Larue County, Kentucky, to McDonald and Gonzella Brashear, Carl Brashear was one of eight children. According to an interview found at, Brashear said he and his siblings endured the stereotypical upbringing of a large, but impoverished family in the South. We didnt have electricity or running water, but we were happy, he told interviewer Kam Williams of The entertainment in the evening was my father playing with us and telling jokes. We had a lot of love in the family. I think our faith is what kept us going. My great-uncle was a preacher and there were a lot of deacons and preachers in the family, he continued.

Chose Diving

In 1948 Brashear enlisted in the Navy. He then began to develop an interest in diving. However, African Americans in the Navy during that time were often relegated to stewardships. Essentially, they prepared and served meals. Brashear said it took some time to convince his commanding officer to let him in the diving pool. Even then, his fellow shipmates would leave threatening notes on his bunk, complete with some of the most vile racial slurs one would could call an African American, going so far as to threaten his life if he so much as dipped a toe into the diving pool.

With an anonymous team of so-called shipmates against him, Brashear would encounter other difficulties. Diving gear in the late 1940s and 1950s wasnt exactly the sleek components seen today. Brashear explained that the Mark V deep-sea suit breathing both helium and oxygen weighed 290 pounds. He had to learn the elements of diving: not coming to the surface too fast, developing the stamina to dive more than 300 feet deep while wearing 300 pounds of equipment, condition his body to such elements as joint pains and the bends, and, of course, the threats of his shipmates. Despite it all, inspiration was a surplus for Brashear. My father was my inspiration, he explained to And he said you get in there Carl, and you fight. You be the best! I didnt go outside

At a Glance

Born January 19, 1931 in Tonieville, Kentucky, to parents McDonald and Gonzella Brashear; married Junetta Wilcoxson in 1952, divorced in 1978; married to Hattie Elam in 1980, divorced in 1983; married Jeanette Brundage in 1985, divorced in 1987; children, Shazanta (deceased), DeWayne, Patrick and Phillip; Education: Charles County Community College, Maryland; Tidewater Community College, Virginia; Military: U.S. Navy.

Career: Seaman Recruit (E-1) through Boatswains Mate First Class (E-6), 1048-1955; Chief Boatswains Mate (E-7), 1960-66; Senior Chief Boatswains Mate (E-8), 1966-71; Master Chief Boatswains Mate (E-9), 1971 -79; worked for government as engineering technician, environmental protection specialist, until 1993.

Awards: Good Conduct Medal {eight awards), Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, China Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, United Nations Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Presidential Unit Medal, and Navy Occupation Service Medal.

my family looking for my inspiration. I had all I need right there, he added.

Brashear would claw his way through the Naval ranks with unbridled determination. His oral history interview, conducted by Paul Stillwell, and found at www.history,, reads like a Naval legends resume. By 1951, he was a Master-At-Arms and serving temporary additional duty at salvage diving school. By 1965, aboard the USS Shakori, he became the Ships Chief Boatswains Mate, inching his way through the Navys upper ranks. Soon he became Leading Diver, then Underway Officer of Deck, followed by Acting Master Diver and In-Port Duty Chief. Then, the unthinkable occurred. Brashear would encounter the most intensely painful and assuredly career-threatening experience of his life.

Nearly Died in Accident

According to the oral history, in 1966 the Air Force lost a nuclear bomb off the coast of Palomares, Spain. The Navy went to recover the bomb. After searching along the coastline for months, Brashear said local fisherman who actually saw the bomb drop told them they were too close and needed to go out further. The Navy then crafted a replica of the bomb to see how it would appear on the sonar screen when and if they found it. After locating the bomb, Brashear and his underwater crew eventually brought it part way to the surface. Then we brought a boat alongside to pick the crate up out of the boat and set it on the deck to when I picked that bomb up Id put it in the crate, he told Stillwell.

The boat broke loose and the mooring line became disengaged, threatening the immediate safety of everyone in the area. Brashear began shoving sailors out of the way before a pipe came loose, flew across the deck and smashed his leg below the knee. What happened next would forever change Brashears life, at first for the worst and then ultimately for the better.

Part of Brashears leg suffered multiple fractures by the pipe and the boats mooring line. Out to sea with no doctor and no morphine, Brashear had to settle for two tourniquets. He was lifted to a different boat and scheduled to be shipped via helicopter to a nearby facility in Torrejon. However, the helicopter was not properly fueled so he had to wait on a runway for the next ride out. With the accident happening at 5 a.m. and Brashear sitting on a runway at 9 a.m., it had been four hours since the lower half of his leg had been completely mangled and he still hadnt seen a doctor.

A doctor arrived and Brashear made it to the Air Force base in Torrejon, but he was unconscious, with a heartbeat so faint he was mistaken for dead. He told that once the medics established a faint beat, they pumped 18 pints of blood into him before he regained consciousness. The doctors there were contemplating plastic surgery. Brashears foot became infected with gangrene before they transferred him to a German hospital where doctors told him it would be three years before they could have him walking on a brace. Brashears desire and determination to complete his goal of becoming a master diver was so strong, he requested to be air-mailed to the United States.

Brashear arrived at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Three days later, he was sent to a different hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, where doctors said they would cut his recovery time to 30 months. That was not good enough for Brashear, so he gave the okay to amputate. And for Brashear, whose toughness was astounding doctors, it was not the loss of the lower part of his leg that was bothering him. He was more concerned with when he could return to diving, a feat that doctors found almost humorous. I said, yeah, I cant stay here three years. I cant be tied up that long. Ive got to get back to diving. They just laughed, The fools crazy! He doesnt stand the chance of a snowball in hell of staying in the Navy. And a diver? No way! Impossible!, he recalled to Stillwell.

Returned to Diving

And as if his fathers advice was echoing, Brashear used dogged determination despite how farfetched his goal might seem. He began reading books on amputees who have had other post-surgical success and other books on how to maintain a healthy attitude despite his recent tragedy. After receiving a prosthetic leg, Brashear made good on his pledge to doctors that would never use a crutch after that. Again, they scoffed, and again he handed them a piece of wood and walked out of the hospital.

In an amazing fashion, Brashear said he took a bus to Portsmouth, Virginia, where he tried to convince Navy officials to let him back into the diving school. After tirelessly convincing his chief warrant officer to let him dive with some equipment and have a photographer snap some shots, Brashear returned with the pictures to the hospital, where the head nurse promptly put him on report.

Unfazed, Brashear just kept going. Getting no help from the physical education board and the naval hospitals, Brashear told Stillwell he endorsed my own orders and reported to diving school. He was called back to the board and sent to spend a week at deep-sea diving school to see if he really was fit for duty. He performed before a captain, commander and various members of the medical board.

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 during the interview. He was finally admitted back to diving school. Brashear began driving the young recruits daily, unbeknownst to them that 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, he continued.

Brashear was restored to master diver at the end of 1977. He retired from the Navy as a master diver and master chief petty officer. He attended college in Maryland and Virginia, studying environmental science. Brashear then worked for the government in various positions, including as an engineering technician and as an environmental protection specialist.

There were several attempts to tell Brashears story to the masses. In 1979 NBC chose his story for a TV series, Comeback. It also featured stories on John Wayne and Rosemary Clooney. A deal was considered to make a movie about his life in 1980, but it fell through. God wasnt ready for it to happen, Brashear told UnderWater Magazine.

A film, Men of Honor, finally hit the big screen in 2000. It starred Academy Award-winning actors, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Robert DeNiro. It was directed by George Tillman, Jr. and executive produced by Bill Cosby. Carl Brashear will be remembered not only for being the first African-American Navy diver, but as the man who faced tremendous odds and adversities, and won.



UnderWater Magazine, July/August 2000.

Entertainment Weekly, November 17, 2000.


John Horn and Ashyia N. Henderson

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