Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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  • Theater of Operations--Pacific
  • Operations
  • Boats-Ships--Cruisers
  • People--African Americans
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  • Biography
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  • World War II 1939-1945
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MAtt1/c Leonard R. Harmon and Commander Mark H. Crouter of San Francisco (CA-38)

Two decades separated their births; half a continent separated their birthplaces. One man graduated from the Naval Academy with the Class of 1919, the other enlisted in 1939. One man was white, the other black. The former had no limitations in his service, the latter, because of his race, could only serve in the messman branch. Yet circumstances drew them together in one ship, in one battle, and saw each give up his “life in the defense of his country.”

Mark Hanna Crouter—born in Baker, Ore., on 3 October 1897—was appointed midshipman on 21 June 1916. Known as someone who could achieve academic success without effort (and who exhibited a “handclasp that will bust a couple of fingers”) he graduated with the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1919. Over the next two decades, “Mard” Crouter, “the very best kind of shipmate,” served in cruisers, gunboats, and battleships, from Siberia to Hampton Roads.

Leonard Roy Harmon—born in Cuero, Texas, on 21 January 1917—enlisted in the U.S. Navy at Houston on 10 June 1939 as a mess attendant third class (MAtt3/c). After receiving training at the Naval Training Station, Naval Operating Base, Norfolk, Virginia, he traveled in the heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa (CA-37) to join her sister ship San Francisco (CA-38). Harmon reported onboard the San Francisco on 28 October 1939. Advancements in rate followed: to MAtt2/c on 16 August 1940, and to MAtt1/c on 5 November 1941, a little over a month before Pearl Harbor.

On 11 May 1942, Commander Crouter reported onboard the San Francisco as her executive officer. Less than six months later, he distinguished himself in the Battle of Cape Esperance on 11 October 1942, the ship’s “high morale and outstanding skill displayed by the officers and men during the engagement” directly attributed to the “organization and training [that] he did so much to perfect.”

On 12 November 1942, less than a month after Cape Esperance, the San Francisco was covering a force of transports disembarking reinforcements off Guadalcanal when Japanese land attack planes, carrying torpedoes, attacked. During the ensuing engagement, one of the enemy aircraft crashed the San Francisco despite a withering barrage of antiaircraft fire, and caused “considerable damage and intense fires,” demolishing the after control station and burning out Battle II, which put the after antiaircraft director and radar out of commission.  One officer and 15 men were either killed outright or died of their injuries soon thereafter. Four officers—including Crouter—and 25 men were wounded, most suffering horrible burns. The San Francisco transferred the wounded men to the transport President Jackson (AP-37)—with one exception.

“Rather than submit to transfer for medical treatment,” Crouter, although in “intense pain and waning strength” from severe burns on both legs, insisted on remaining on board “so that he could be returned to duty in a minimum of time,” exhibiting “sturdy endurance and courageous disregard for his own personal safety.” MAtt1/c Harmon had exhibited “unusual loyalty on behalf of” Crouter. It seems most likely that Harmon attended to the wounded executive officer before the young mess attendant had to proceed to his battle station later, since San Francisco fought again that night, this time in a desperate surface engagement at close quarters in the confined waters off Guadalcanal.

The San Francisco suffered heavy damage from Japanese guns ranging from 14-inch shells to machine gun bullets. During the battle, a projectile plowed into Crouter’s cabin and exploded, inflicting fatal wounds. Harmon, meanwhile, was rendering “invaluable service in caring for the wounded and evacuating them to a dressing station” until, as he was working as a stretcher bearer topside near the cruiser’s secondary battery 5-inch mounts amidships, a 6-inch projectile from the secondary battery of the Japanese battleship Hiei struck in the vicinity and exploded. Shouting “Look out, Doc!” Harmon moved to shield Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class Lynford L. Bondsteel from the lethal fragments, pushing him to the deck. Although Bondsteel managed to get his courageous shipmate below, Harmon died of his wounds soon thereafter.

Mark Crouter and Leonard Harmon were each awarded the Navy Cross, posthumously, and the Navy honored each in the naming of a destroyer escort. In Harmon’s case, it proved a double tribute, for he was the first African-American in the U.S. Navy to have a ship named for him. In 1975, a building at NAS North Island was named for him.

“I feel proud always,” AAMM Leonard Roy Harmon, II, his grandson, said in 1982, “I feel he has set us an example to follow.”

                                                              —Robert J. Cressman, Naval History and Heritage Command, November 2011

More "Profiles in Duty: Vignettes of Naval Service and Leadership" 

Published: Wed Oct 25 15:22:36 EDT 2017