First black Army deck warrant officer remembers piloting duck boats during WWII

Veterans Voices

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) — The U.S. Army Transportation Museum may be one of the best kept secrets on the Virginia Peninsula.

Located at Ft. Eustis, the Transportation Museum is home to nearly 100 historic military vehicles, including airplanes, helicopters, tugboats and trains, according to its website.

More important than the artifacts themselves are the stories behind them – and the storytellers who keep those legends alive.

One of those storytellers is retired Chief Warrant Officer 3 John Gragg. Now 92 years old, Gragg can vividly remember his time in the Army as the pilot of duck boats during World War II and the Korean War.

Gragg was a high school student in Wilmar, Ark. when he was drafted into the Army in 1945. Within a year, Gragg found himself 8,000 miles away from home, serving in the Philippines with 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 Rebecca Brashears, a retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 4.

Brashears also serves as a member of the board for the U.S. Army Transportation Museum Foundation.

Gragg trained as a duck boat pilot in 1947. He remembers being shot at while crossing a river in one of the floating trucks. “The enemy opened up on us with small arms fire from the beach,” Gragg said. “Thanks to the infantry we was carrying, they opened up with their weapons from our ducks. We got one duck hit pretty bad.”

Another time, Gragg had a chance to fire back at the enemy from a duck boat. “They were three miles from the front line in the well decks of these vessels. They took Howitzers and brought them back to shore,” Brashears said. “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.”

Gragg completed Warrant Officer Candidate School in 1966, becoming the first African American deck warrant officer and captain of an army landing craft utility boat. He went on to captain a 300-foot fuel tanker and was the only African American in his 15-man crew.

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

One of Gragg’s fondest service memories is towing a 300-foot Coast Guard vessel that ran aground in the James River. “The base commander was very happy that the Army had to rescue the Coast Guard,” he said.

After he got out of the Army, Gragg settled in Hampton where he opened a daycare and raised three children with his wife, Anne.

Although he’s no longer in the military, Gragg is still in the rescuing business – this time working with the U.S. Army Transportation Museum to preserve the military’s historic vehicles.

“I had a wonderful ride,” he said. “I had good days and bad days. More good than bad.”

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