By Harold Bell
The 4th of July is celebrated by millions of Americans annually. On this day many celebrate Independence Day. We honor those who gave their lives and those who are still giving their lives to make and keep America free to insure that there is equal justice for all.
Frank Knox comes from a long list of military family members that have served proudly, honorably and with impeccable distinction for this great nation of ours.
Many of his family members have served in World War I, II, Korean, Vietnam and the conflict Operation Desert Shield/Storm.
Some family members were led to believe that other relatives may have served during the civil war.
Frank’s quest for a military career was inspired by those family members.
He adamantly wanted to serve with honor and distinction for the country that he and his family love so dearly.
Frank boarded the ship USS Saratoga in 1973. Prior, to boarding his squadron, there had many episodes of racial tension and abundance of hatred aimed directly at black enlisted men. In witnessing and seeing this, it put a tremendous amount of stress on him.
His assistant supervisor was a man called Red (as in Redneck). Red made it his position known as it related to Frank and his kind from the very beginning, he said, “Me and my Klan boys are going to kill all the Niggers and anybody else that don’t look like us when we get out to sea. You won’t be coming back”.
Reds’ words reminded Frank of the many thousands of his ancestors who were thrown overboard during “The Dark Passages” from Africa to the United States. They were thrown overboard just for fun and games.
Overall, he was fearful of Red’s words because there was no one to speak up for him. He knew if he said anything regarding the issue of racism he would have been disciplined in the harshest manner.
Frank feared he would have been kicked out of the Navy which almost occurred on several occasions.
While on the flight deck, he tried desperately to focus on his job because the flight deck was a very, very perilous place, especially, at night. He remembered there were no lights on deck just miles of an endless Dark and scary ocean.
On many occasions he got blown into flight equipment because he expended a tremendous amount of energy worrying about his situation and fearing for his demise.
In addition, all the overwhelming stress led to fatigued, sleeping problems and eating irregularities. He had reduced emotionality from thinking about Red’s fearful threats and throwing him off the ship or Red and his boys killing Frank when he went ashore for liberty.
Sometimes, he felt as though he was walking on thin ice, and the situation only exacerbated his stress when he saw his first plane crash. It was an A-6 that crashed right into the ocean and killed the pilot.
He had to pull himself together and re-group and do his job professionally and competently even though he lived on the edge and with intense fear. Frank was hassled daily and this situation was compounded by his lack of sleep and seeing planes crashes intensified the situation.
To make matter worse, he was assigned to the night shift after complaining that he was having problems with Red. He was then assigned to the day shift, which was not much relief.
Overall, he was never able to relax the entire time he stayed attached to VF-103. On several occasions, he endured a long-grueling-16-20 hour shift, 7 days a week, and in his case, 30 hours.
In preparation of his shift change, he was told that his plane was never secured properly. He was made to stay over many times, even though his plane was secured!
Many of his colleagues knew his plane was secured professionally and competently but never spoke up on his behalf. Painstakingly, this was just one of many of the examples to ostracize him and debased his credibility as a man.
For example, each plane is secured with 16 chains, as a tie-down and he carried chains and did the work of 3 and 4 other people. During his extra working details, he participated in morning operations and witnessed another A-6 crashed right off the flight deck, fortunately, they were able to recover the RIO, but the pilot died.
After the plane crashes, it would take him 3 weeks before he began to slowly get back into the routine of things. With a steadfast desire for success and thanks to mind over manner, Frank maintained positive thoughts such as being with family and close friends. His faith in God helped him through this ordeal.
However, he was always fearful and looking over his shoulder for Red and his gang. Working on the flight deck, was a dangerous job.
Despite the danger, he was not going to let anyone jeopardize his strong patriotic values that he held in the highest regards for his country, and values taught by family.
While all this was going on, he maintained his equanimity and esprit de corps in helping co-workers stay focus during night operation even though he was tormented by his own oppression.
One particular night, he was waiting for his plane to return when an A-5 tried to land on the flight deck and crashed. The pilot missed his mark, the plane ended up into a big inferno ball of fire that killed the pilot andRio instantly.
Shockingly, everyone stood still and couldn’t move at all! Frank jaw dropped to the floor and his legs were immovable. Frank said, “My entire body was shaking from incredible trepidation. Eventually, I told myself to snap out of it and secured my plane. However, others stated that they were not going back on the death zone (flight deck).”
It was no surprise, Frank ended up securing their planes as well. He carried their chains on his already delicate and fragile back.
The latest plane crash did not allow him to sleep for months and the little sleep that he did get- he woke-up with frightening dreams. Prior to witnessing the plane crashes he barely got 3 hours of sleep.
Additionally, he worried about Red’s ignominious and scurrilous reclamations, which only compounded his situation. Frank said, “Red had my body working triple over-time.”
When he finally got liberty, most of the time, he stayed on the ship, it was the safest place to be. If he took liberty it would only provoke an already intolerable malevolent and agonizing situation. There was no telling where Red and his boys maybe lurking.
He decided to take other co-workers’ watches/off-duty assignments for extra money and saved it for his college education.
However, he decided to set his fear aside , the next time liberty came around he had made up his mind he was ashore. He took liberty with Aean Wells. Aean was his dear friend from Alabama and he had been an eye-witness to the trials and tribulations Frank had to endure under Red.
Frank warned Aean that they would avoid Red and his boys at all cost.
Unfortunately, Red saw Frank before he saw him. He called him every inhumane and nasty name he could think of and than followed that up with a brutal physical attack.
He grabbed Frank by the neck and began squeezing and choking the life out of him.
Frank could see several shipmates standing by but no one came to his aid.
He said, “This kind of pluralistic ignorance is the worse case of uncompassionate and shame towards humanity.”
Frank remembers gagging and experiencing breathing problems. He grasped for air and began to pass out, but still no one step-up to stop this horrifying act of attempted murder!
Only by the grace of God was he able to extricate himself from the stronghold of Red’s vise-like death grip.
Frank survived this nefarious and vicious act of physical lynching. He was terrified by what had just happen to him and ran for his life, gagging and coughing all the way.
As luck and God would have it he came upon the Navy Shore Patrol (military police). He explained to them what had happened, while trying to regain his breath.
They ordered him back to the ship. A few minutes later, his friend Aean Wells came along later and said, “Frank, I thought they were going to kill you.”
Frank said, “We must remember during those times (70s) if a black man was involved in any form of altercation with a white person in a supervisory capacity, we (African-Americans) received the maximum punishment, even if we were right.”
He tolerated the cruelty and profound humiliation the best way that he could for him to survive.
Frank sustained emotional fatigue, tension, fearfulness, anger and constantly looking over his shoulder for “The Boggie Man” named Red. There was no cultural sensitivity, racial training or political correctness.
African-Americans and minorities had limited rights and resources. He was reminded on some occasions that the Navy was for white men and not place for monkeys and apes.
Those debasing and derogatory words were harsh reminders that hurt him deeply. These deplorable actions by his shipmates made him reach down deeply to muster all of his strength to upheld his diligence and dedication to duty.
Frank refused to let this chapter of his life be impacted with profound hatred and negativity. After all, they were kicking out minorities in record numbers and all he and other blacks wanted was to serve this great nation of ours honorably and with admiration.
There were also riots in the chow hall because of racial tension and hate. He stayed away from the chow hall just about the entire deployment.
Frank lived on box lunches and sometimes just drank the water which was always tainted with JP-5 fuel. He believes the poison water at Camp Lejeune and tainted water on the ship caused all his abdominal problems.
Red continued to make his threats up until Frank got out of the navy. Red’s bigotry was well known but it was always business as usual in his Navy.
Frank continued to get little sleep and when he did get to sleep he would have nightmares about Red choking the life out of him. Plus, the last horrible inferno plane crash on the flight deck was additional.
After his departure from the navy, Frank still could not sleep and barely ate anything for months. He started working out and that gave me some relief from his anger, frustrations and being on edge. Once home he told of the horrendous atrocities to his family members.
There were many that cried with disgust and wondered how a fellow Navay man would treat another human being of a different color worst than they would treat a wild animal.
Frank’s family advised him to go to the VA and get some immediate help for what he had horribly endured. The nurse told him to file a claim, if he thought the Navy was at fault for all his problems.
Frank told her he did and she directed him to go and file the proper paperwork. He filed in 1976.
Upon filing his paperwork, there was no help at the VA it was a “Dead End Street.” He completed the paper work and was interviewed by some of the most unprofessional, uncaring, and unsympathetic individuals that he ever encountered.
Frank said, “I thought the VA had played a cruel joke on me and hired Red and his boys at the hospital.”
The VA staff had had the same hateful and disgusting traits and characteristics of Red and his boys. There was no compassion whatsoever for black veterans. After about 20 minutes of intense humiliation, he still was not allowed to tell what had happen to him.
The insensitive hospital personnel were only concerned about whether he heard voices or hallucinations? He was hurt and felt deeply disrespected from ship to home.
Frank blurted out, “Sir, I was almost killed and choked to death.”
The doctor stated that he was not interested in hearing about his personal trials and painful tribulations.
Frank remembers saying ‘Enough is enough’ and got up and left the room. He remembers vividly laughter as he exited the room.
He had an ace in the hole, the Reverend Goodman would be his spiritual savior. Frank would tell him about his horrible military life, the racial strife and profound indignation and attempted murder from his supervisor and military members.
He found Reverend Goodman comforting and a strong supporter of his situation.
Months later, he got the “Bad News” he received a letter from the VA denying his claim and minimizing his deeply-rooted traumatic/anxiety situation. His story of horrific and terrifying acts of attempted murder he endured from another service member had fallen on deaf ears.
The rejection hurt deeply, and for months he wondered how he would get the necessary medical treatment to help him cope with all the problems. Especially, when he was denied and coldly turned away by the VA.
The traumatic military experienced did not hinder Frank’s feelings to overtake his ambition for success. Frank refused to allow Red and his Navy cohorts to disrupt his return to a normal life.
Frank, with a little help from his Pastor, friends and relatives began to map out a positive course of action for his return to civilian life.
There were times it was a bitterly and difficult road of uncertainty and there were moments of anger, agitation, overwhelming nightmares, sleeplessness, and frustrations. There were days and nights he fought fatigue but decided failure was not an option despite the laughter he heard from doctors as he left the VA hospital.
It was God, family and friends who directed his destiny.
In addition, some of Frank’s veteran friends were also seeking immediate help from the VA but they also hit a brick wall while applying for the same claims and benefits.
Unfortunately, many of them chose drastic measures while coping with their profound disappointments. Many black vets were left homeless and some lost their minds and souls from uncaring doctors they thought would provide for then the necessary intervention that many so desperately cried out for and needed.
This was a harsh reality of life in the “Real World” no one cared for veterans of color.
“The system failed them and me horribly.” Especially, when we needed them” said, Frank.
Frank chose a positive course of action, even though the VA did not.
Today, he can still see that plane crash and a big ball of fire crashing into the ocean and, on many occasions, there are nightmares when he would wake up thinking Red’s hands around his neck, choking the life out of him. He says, I still have my nervous moments but I am coping.”
Painstakingly, he has been dealing with this situation since 1974 and the VA regional office in Ohio, since 1976 have not resolved his and other veterans’ situations and continue to play games with our lives.
Even today 2010 and he still has those same hateful and bitter individuals whose intentions are not to help the veterans. But instead, they profoundly procrastinate and hope that all veterans just go away and die. This is the American way when it comes to settling claims, especially, by and for African-American veterans.
Frank’s medical conditions only worsen from working on the ship doing paint chipping that involved removal of asbestos materials from the floors, ceilings and walls.
To make matter worse, he was placed on a recalled medication, Reglan, which caused him all sorts of problems. Furthermore, he was hospitalized for severe chest pains and he brought it to the VA medical staff’s attention that he had taken Reglan and they dismissed his claims. The associations of Reglan and his heart problems are all related.
They clearly never gave him a definitive diagnosis. Instead, they just made one up.
The Veteran Administration is a broken system that needs immediate revamping. The Veteran Administration does not facilitate a viable and caring process to hire veterans first or provide top-notched immediate resolution of all veterans’ claims.
Frank is in favor of the Veterans Administration’s Regional offices having an outside independent entity that can resolve the veterans’ claims expeditiously and accurately.
There are Veterans’ Regional offices that act like it’s their money and they play games with the veterans prior to dispensing them their money regarding their claims, especially, black veterans.
It has taken Frank 34 years to resolve some of his claims. He hopes and prays that the people involved in the gulf oil strickened areas do not have to wait as long for their claims like most veterans do.
“Something is awfully wrong with the Veteran’s Administration and Congress. They need to immediately do something about this horrible situation,” says Frank.
According to a study in 1978, if Frank’s prolonged stress persists, the pituitary gland and adrenal cortex will lose their ability to maintain elevated hormone levels. The physiological processes will begin to break down, causing fatigue, depression and can affect all other areas in his body and even cause his demise.
He wondered why had his case lingered for over 34 years and why are veterans like him being treated like 4th class citizens?
One reason is hatred, our country is on the verge of increased racial strife with an increased of hate and militia groups participation, only because a bi-racial man occupies the white house.
The stories found in the media about all of this negativity as relates to racial hatred reminds him deeply of all the overwhelming hate that he and others endured on-broad the USS Saratoga.
Frank Knox joined the military because he loved his country, but it is now evident his country does not love him. It allowed racist like Red to exist and excel in a United States military environment without consequences.
He was totally ostracized and never accepted as Red’s equal, despite the historical Civil Rights march on Washington, DC led by Rev. Martin Luther King in 1964.
The 1960’s assassinations of President Kennedy and his brother Bobby, Rev. King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers all sacrificed their lives fighting for equal justice for all.
Almost 5 decades later despite a black President occupying the White House justice for all still eludes people of color. From “The Dark Passages to the USS Saratoga” we are still being thrown overboard by a system that still operates on Justice and Just-Us.