MATT2c Walter Tharnel Smith

Unknown Sailor

MATT2c Walter Tharnel Smith

Walter Tharnel Smith’s obituary said he was “most attentive, keeping in constant touch” with his mother during the four years he served in the Navy.

Born March 26, 1919 in Tennessee, he was the youngest of Rosa Lee Smith’s nine children. His father, also named Walter, died in 1935 in Memphis. The parents were farmers.

The young Mr. Smith attended Porter School and especially admired its principal, Lawyer Edward Brown, who was influential in getting the school built for African-American children.

Mr. Smith enlisted in the Navy on Nov. 6, 1937, and was a mess attendant first class on the U.S.S. Arizona when he was killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

The Messmen Branch was the only path open to Mr. Smith in the segregated Navy dating to the Wilson Administration. Mess attendants cooked, cleaned, and performed other services. They could advance to become a steward or cook for officers up to petty officer first class, but that was the limit.


Sources: Atlanta Daily World; The Chicago Defender; “Notable Black Memphians,” by Miriam De-Costa-Willis; Census; Navy muster roll; Tennessee death certificate. This profile was researched and written on behalf of the U.S.S. Arizona Mall Memorial at the University of Arizona.

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