National Archives News

Philadelphia 15 Exonerated Thanks to NARA Personnel Records Research

By Cara Moore Lebonick | National Archives News

WASHINGTON, August 8, 2023 — The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), recently helped bring closure to one family’s efforts to right an 80-year-long historical wrong.

A Black man stands at a podium flanked by several other people, in front of a seated audience.

Pentagon ceremony correcting discharge status of Philadelphia 15 with Larry Ponder at the podium surrounded by his family. Photo by John Valceanu.

Larry Ponder knew little of his father's and uncle’s Navy service. Larry had never heard of the Philadelphia 15 and wasn’t aware his father John Ponder Jr. and uncle James Ponder had received “undesirable” discharges because of a letter they wrote.

It wasn’t until after his father's death that Larry found the military discharge paperwork in 1997 and began to understand the full story.

Since his father never spoke of his time in the Navy, Larry said he was unaware of what happened to the Philadelphia 15 until he began looking into what happened.

The “Philadelphia 15” was a group of Black U.S. Navy sailors who served aboard the USS Philadelphia just before World War II.

The sailors gained their moniker following a letter they wrote to the Pittsburgh Courier, which was published in October 1940. All 15 sailors signed the letter, which described racial discrimination, racially based abuse, and the inability to advance into higher-ranking positions.

“We sincerely hope to discourage any other colored boys who might have planned to join the Navy and make the same mistake we did,” the letter said. “All they would become is seagoing bellhops, chambermaids and dishwashers. We take it upon ourselves to write this letter, regardless of any action the naval authorities may take or whatever the consequences may be. We only know that it could not possibly surpass the mental cruelty inflicted upon us on this ship.”

A black and white image of handwriting on a hole-punched paper

Letter to President of the Navy challenging discharge status. Byron Cecil Johnson, Official Military Personnel File, National Archives, Records of the U.S. Navy.

As a result of the letter, the men were forced out of military service with either “bad conduct” discharges, or “undesirable” discharges. This deprived them of any entitlements that they or their families may have received from their military service.

It also prevented them from reenlistment, despite their efforts to contribute to the country’s needs during World War II.

The discharge status did not sit well with Larry Ponder, a Vietnam veteran.

"They went through the chain of command and nothing happened," Ponder said in a 2023 interview with The New York Times.

In his research, he found another Black veteran who was granted an honorable discharge 75 years after separation from service.

He reached out to the attorney who had successfully argued the case. She took the Ponders’ cases for free.

During its review of the case, the Department of the Navy requested the Philadelphia 15's Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) from NARA holdings in St. Louis to prove their service.

Records for the Navy

The request consisted of little more than a list of names and branch of service, yet the NARA team was able to provide the Navy with sufficient evidence to result in the correction to the sailors’ records.

Kevin Pratt, then Assistant Director of the National Personnel Records Center, served as the point of contact for the Navy.

Black and white typed letter

Letter to the press from Byron Cecil Johnson's Official Military Personnel File. National Archives, Records of the U.S. Navy.

The project was assigned to Supervisory Archives Specialists Shawn Chevalier and Mersida Planic, and Expert Technician Thomas Richardson.

“We were nervous when we found out how little identification information we had. We thought it would be a project that would take us a lot longer than it did,” Planic said. “I am honored to have been a part of this.”

NPRC staff developed methods to research and collaborate with National Archives at St. Louis staff to fulfill the Navy's needs.

“We knew that the records would be in the Navy archival registry, but without service numbers and dates, searching just by names would take time,” Richardson said. “We were able to cross reference service numbers using Navy Muster Rolls. Due to the time sensitive nature of the request, the records were delivered directly to our desks, rather than being sent to Veterans Affairs for scanning. We created digital copies of the OMPFs and performed the routine redactions per archival release procedures for delivery to the Navy.”

Archival records are the permanent, accessioned holdings of the National Archives at St. Louis and fully open to the public, subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) B6 redactions.

Black and white image of handwriting on lined paper.

Extract of letter requesting reenlistment to fight in World War II from James Ponder's Official Military Personnel File. National Archives, Records of the U.S. Navy.

NPRC handles requests for OMPFs under a contractual agreement to assist the Research Services office of the National Archives at St. Louis. Supervisory Archives Specialist Bradley Abramczyk of the National Archives at St. Louis consulted with NPRC staff to get the correct veterans records.

“It was fascinating going through the records and seeing all of the bad conduct discharges,” Chevalier said . “Only a couple of records referred to the letter that they wrote to the paper. One actually had a letter to their family explaining that they were being mistreated due to penning that letter.”

Eighty years after their discharge, the Philadelphia 15’s records now state that they were honorably discharged.

The Navy announced the correction to the records in a ceremony at the Pentagon on June 16, 2023, and NARA holdings were named as a contributing factor.

“It was a great sense of accomplishment to have located every single record so quickly and in knowing that we were able to assist these families in what was clearly mistreatment of these men,” Chevalier concluded.

Members of the Philadelphia 15:

  • Ernest Bosley
  • Arval Perry Cooper
  • Shannon Goodwin
  • Theodore Hansbrough
  • Byron Johnson
  • Floyd Owens
  • James Ponder
  • John Ponder
  • James Porter
  • George Rice
  • Otto Robinson
  • Floyd St. Clair
  • Fred Tucker
  • Robert Turner
  • Jesse Watford