Virginia Army veteran remembers being only black captain

Veterans Voices

Chief Warrant Officer III Gragg was one of the first African Americans to earn the rank of Warrant Officer

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WYTV) – Former Army Chief Warrant Officer John Grag remembers details from 74 years ago as if it were yesterday.

In 1945, the Army drafted Gragg while in high school in Wilmar, Arkansas.

Less than a year later, he was 8,000 miles away in the Philippines, serving in the Army’s nearly all-black 24th Infantry Regiment.

“There were about 300 ‘colored troops,’ which is how they were referred to back then,” said Army Chief Warrant Officer Rebecca Brashears.

“We started training on ducks in the middle of ’47,” Gragg said.

During the Korean War, Gragg piloted “duck boats,” which were the Army’s version of a floating truck.

“It was sea and land going, easy on gas… Two and a half ton GMC engine, very powerful. It powers the six engines,” Gragg said.

Gragg remembers getting shot at while crossing a river.

“The enemy opened up on us with small arms, fire from the beach. Well, thanks to the infantry we was carrying, they opened up with their weapons from our ducks. We got one duck hit pretty bad,” he said.

One time, Gragg had a chance to fire back, but in a rather unusual situation.

“They were three miles from the front line in the decks of these vessels, they took Howitzers and brought them to the shore. Only one of the ducks had a crane in it. They off-loaded the Howitzers and loaded them up with ammo, swiveled them around and started firing. It was that close and it’s pretty amazing,” Brashears said.

In 1966, Gragg completed warrant officer school, becoming the first black deck warrant officer and captain of an Army landing craft utility boat.

“We had 12 U-boats, 12 Army captains,” he said. “I’m the only black. Fifteen-man crew — all white.”

“They were good men and [they] found out later… I knew my job and they’d do anything for me,” Gragg said.

He said the biggest Army ship he captained was a 300-foot fuel tanker. Ironically, one of his fondest memories is of helping a 300-foot Coast Guard vessel along the James River.

“I got my tow line on him, was able to pull him off the mud flap, towed him to Fort Eustis,” Gragg said. “The base commander was very happy that the Army had to rescue the Coast Guard”

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