Wednesday, the fifteenth of September 1926—the day Robert Joseph Washington Forsyth was born as the second child of Percy Campbell Forsythe and Nina Washington—dawned hot and muggy in the city of Savannah, Georgia. Even though the first day of fall was only nine days away, summer was tenaciously refusing to surrender its hold, and the citizens of the city had resigned themselves to another day of sweating in the sweltering heat. To Robert, of course, it made little difference. It was his day and his time.
Unfortunately, it was a difficult time in Georgia. Soaring manufacturing and production were making the early 1920s boom times for much of America, but not for all. In the South, and especially in Georgia, earlier economic good times had been built on the back of a strong cotton industry. By the time Robert was born, overproduction, foreign competition, new man-made fabrics, a long drought—and worst of all, the boll-weevil—had seriously devastated Georgia’s cotton-based economy.
In October of 1929, when Robert was only three years old, the financial collapse became known as the Great Depression began and times got very hard for the entire world. Life was especially harsh for blacks, many of whom were part of Georgia’s sharecropping farming culture. Unable to earn a living, many were forced off their land entirely by declining crop prices. Some took to the road, heading north into major urban areas and industrial centers. But many found themselves forced into Georgia’s towns and cities, where they often competed with locals for menial jobs.
Fortunately, Savannah, as one of America’s premier seaports, fared better than most of Georgia. Some businesses, such as the paper pulp and food- and sugar-processing industries, that had begun prior to the Depression, were able to not only survive, but to thrive. No working man was going to get rich, but there were jobs to be had. This was the environment in which Robert Forsythe spent his first fifteen years
Robert’s father, Percy, was one of those men who benefited from the Port of Savannah. He worked as a cook on a steamship of the Steamship of Savannah Company that hauled cargo and passengers from the Port of New York to Boston and on to Savannah, Georgia. The ship made the same trip in reverse with a new cargo and passenger load. The job was steady, and it probably paid better than many jobs that were available locally. But it was also a job that often left Nina and Robert at home alone for weeks at a time.
Savannah’s port facilities also played a prominent role in World War II. When the war that would soon become World War II started in Europe in 1939, the U.S. started sending supplies overseas to help England. To help do this, they contracted ships belonging to the Savannah Steamship Company. Beginning in September 1941, Percy Forsythe’s ship ended passenger service and began carrying only cargoes considered important to the U.S. war effort. At the same time, the shipyard at the Port of Savannah began gearing up and was soon one of the nation’s most active Atlantic shipyards for the construction of Liberty Ship transports for the U.S. war effort.
At nine minutes after nine, on the evening of January 19, 1942, Percy Forsythe’s ship, the City of Atlanta, was about eight miles off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, en route to Savannah, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine. The ship was badly damaged and quickly rolled over and sank before any lifeboats could be launched. Percy and forty-two other sailors died in the attack. The death of his father at the hands of the German submarine seems to have had a major and very specific effect on sixteen-year-old Robert Forsythe: ten months later, Robert went to the U.S. Navy recruiting station and enlisted. He almost certainly had to lie about his age to do so.
Because of his race and his age, Robert was assigned to the Messman Branch of the Navy—which was soon retitled as the Steward Branch. At the beginning of 1942, whites were not allowed to serve in the Steward Branch, and the entire Branch was made up of black and Filipino sailors. The Steward Branch was responsible for feeding everyone on the ship, but after Robert’s training and satisfaction of a required period of service, he was rated as a Stewards Mate 1st Class. Men in this specialty were essentially waiters for the officer’s mess (dining room).
This should not be taken to mean Robert had no other duties or he never faced the dangers of war. Stewards were the first African Americans to see action in World War II because following Pearl Harbor the Navy was in regular contact with the enemy. Every man on a ship had a battle station when the action started. Indeed, it was after several Stewards had been recognized for extreme bravery in battle the Navy realized it was missing a bet and dropped its ban on African Americans serving in fields outside the Steward Branch. Following three years of service in World War II, Robert was discharged on November 15, 1945. Undoubtedly, he, like most African Americans returning from the war, hoped to find that his service would warrant better treatment than he had experienced growing up. … TBC