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Chambers, Lawrence (1929- )

Lawrence Chambers as a Navy Pilot in
South Vietnam in the 1960s
Image Ownership: Public domain

Lawrence Chambers is a retired Rear Admiral in the United States Navy. He is the first African American to command a United States Navy aircraft carrier, the second African American to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, and the first black Navy officer to reach flag rank. Along with his brother Andrew P. Chambers, a Lieutenant General in the United States Army, the two are the first African American siblings to reach flag rank in the United States Military.

Lawrence Cleveland “Larry” Chambers was born on June 10, 1929 in Bedford, Virginia. His parents were Charlotte Hadessa Chambers and Lawrence Everett Chambers; Lawrence was their third child. Chambers spent his early years in Bedford up until the family moved to Washington, D.C. after his father’s death, where his mother worked as an office clerk for the War Department. Despite growing up in a low-income family, Chambers obtained an exceptional education and excelled in school. He attended Dunbar High School in Washington D.C. where he participated in Junior ROTC, graduating as valedictorian of his class in 1947 and as the commander of the corps of cadets. Although Chambers was offered partial scholarships to multiple colleges, he was convinced by Wesley A. Brown, the first African American to graduate from the US Naval Academy to apply to the school. Chambers decided to apply, he was accepted, and he eventually graduated from the school on June 6, 1952.

Right after graduation, Chambers went on to realize his childhood dream of learning how to fly, which he officially achieved on June 9, 1954 when he became a naval aviator. He spent most of his career at sea, serving on aircraft carriers. From 1968 to 1976, Chambers served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, starting out as a fighter pilot. He eventually commanded the aircraft carrier, USS Midway which evacuated South Vietnamese citizens and American personnel after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Chambers was the first African American to command an aircraft carrier. During this evacuation he made his best-known and most controversial military decision when he ordered $10 million of helicopters and equipment dumped into the South China Sea to make space on deck of the aircraft carrier so a plane carrying South Vietnamese major Buong Ly and his family members had a place to land, allowing the family to survive.

Chambers attained the rank of rear admiral in 1977 and over the next four years he served on ships in the Indian Ocean and in Middle Eastern waters near Iran including serving as commander of another aircraft carrier, the USS Coral Sea. Chambers retired from military service on March 1, 1984. He has received numerous awards for his long and outstanding career in the Navy including the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Vietnam Service Medal.

After retiring, Chambers began working with System Development Corporation supplying computers to the Navy. Since his retirement, Chambers has been able to spend more time with his wife Phyllis and his two daughters, Lori and Leila.

Catherine Reef, African Americans in the Military: A to Z of African Americans (New York: Facts on File Inc., 2014); “Brothers-in-Arms,” Ebony Magazine, November 1981; Robert John Schneller, Blue and Gold and Black: Racial Integration of the U.S. Naval Academy (Close Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007) ProQuest Ebook Central, (login required).


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