Lt. Commander John W. Lee Jr. was the first Black commissioned Navy officer, achieving the historic feat on this day in 1947. The late Navy man made it his personal mission to aid other qualified Black servicemen in his branch to get the same opportunities he did.
Lee was born February 13, 1924 and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. Not much is known about his early life, but he entered the Navy in 1944 during the heights of World War II. After leaving boot camp, he was admitted into the V-12 Officer Candidate Program at Indianapolis’ DePauw University and graduated as an Ensign.
In an interview with the Navy back in 1977, Lee shared that his parents weren’t thrilled about his military career and wanted him to join the family business. Instead, he chose to be commissioned as an Ensign by the regular Navy two years after making the rank. Lee shared in his accounts that he believed other Black Navy men could have become officers and worked behind the scenes to move things into that direction.
Along with a stint in World War II, Lee also served in the Korean War and was an assistant navigator for the USS Kearsarge. He also sailed on the USS Toledo and the USS Wright for various war and support missions. In 1960, Lee became the commanding officer of the Oceanographic Detachment Two division. The unit prepared ocean surveys for the deployment of Polaris submarines.
Before his retirement in 1966, Lee served on the NATO staff in Paris and left the Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Afterwards, he worked two years for Indianapolis’ Naval Avionics Center.
Lee died at the age of 85 on September 17, 2009.