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The Philly 15 exonerations are part of a push to revisit dishonorable discharge cases

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Navy continues to search for the descendants of 15 African American sailors who were kicked out for protesting racist treatment in the 1940s. It's part of a broader push to revisit the cases of service members given other-than-honorable discharges. Steve Walsh with WHRO has our story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Larry Ponder didn't know his father had been dishonorably discharged from the Navy until he found the documents among his dad's papers.

LARRY PONDER: If I hadn't found that discharge, it'd still be swept under the carpet. It would never be brought to life - and then the fact that when we kept pursuing it, then they finally exonerated him.

WALSH: John Ponder served on the USS Philadelphia in 1940. Lured into the Navy with the promise of a career, he found virtually all Black sailors were trained in Norfolk as cooks and stewards and then sent to serve mainly white officers in the fleet. Ponder and his brother were two of 15 sailors who signed a letter published in The Pittsburgh Courier. They warned other African Americans who were considering the Navy that they would end up as seagoing bellhops. Within months, Ponder and the others were discharged as unfit.

PONDER: They was kicked out of the Navy because they wrote a letter. Really, what they did - they was whistleblowers. They exposed the Navy for what they did.

WALSH: Larry Ponder is a Vietnam vet. His dad died in 1997. For 20 years, he tried to piece together his father's service. Then he found attorney Elizabeth Kristen.

ELIZABETH KRISTEN: The story of the Philadelphia 15 was not unknown among the military. And they certainly could have been more proactive in addressing it, not waiting for family members to try to find old paperwork, as Larry had to do.

WALSH: There have been recent cases where the military has stepped up to look at historic wrongs. The Pentagon recently pledged to review the thousands of cases of people discharged under "don't ask, don't tell," which ran from 1994 to 2005. The Army recently set aside the court's martial of 110 Black soldiers convicted after the so-called Houston riots in 1917. But the Pentagon has never issued guidance for upgrading discharges based on racial disparities. Matthew Delmont is a history professor at Dartmouth College.

MATTHEW DELMONT: The military has a really complicated history with regards to race and racial discrimination. They should acknowledge that racism has long been part of the military experience for too many Black servicemembers and other people of color.

WALSH: Delmont has written extensively about the African American experience around World War II and has looked at the Philadelphia 15 case. He says there are many families like the Ponders. It's common for African Americans who served during that era to say very little about their service, especially if they were mistreated.

DELMONT: I think this could be a starting point for the Navy and for the military more broadly to acknowledge and reckon in some way with the kind of rampant racism that was practiced in the armed forces during World War II.

WALSH: In the case of the Philadelphia 15, the Navy held a ceremony in June at the Pentagon. The assistant secretary of the Navy offered an apology. Larry Ponder was there. So was his niece, Erica Thuy LaFaye. She's also gay and served in the Navy and the Army under don't ask, don't tell.

ERICA THUY LAFAYE: Anyone - we could say at any point in time, you know what? I'm sorry. You know, that was wrong, and I'm sorry. And we could be better because of that. We could - that gives me a hope that we can be better.

WALSH: The VA estimates roughly 400,000 veterans received some form of other-than-honorable discharge since World War II. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Walsh | WHRO