Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2011

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A Quiet Hero: Carl Kimmons '73

A Quiet Hero: Carl Kimmons '73
Charles Levandoski '73 and Carl Kimmons '73. Photo by Jon Crispin.

Now 91 years old, this former history teacher made history himself as one of the first African-American naval officers and a WWII hero

by Charles Levandoski '73


A biographer writing about of the life of Carl Kimmons '73 would be hard-pressed to select the best beginning for his story. It could begin with the 20-year-old Carl enlisting in the segregated U.S. Navy in 1940, or aboard a Navy tender off Hawaii just hours after the attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor.

“When we heard the news it was unbelievable,” Kimmons says, recalling that fateful day. All had been calm aboard his ship, the seaplane tender McFarland. “We'd even had an awning and some deck chairs topside. But in a matter of minutes we threw those deck chairs overboard: we were at war. They sent us right to the front lines.”

But there are other turning points in his story, such as graduating magna cum laude from Connecticut College at the age of 53. Whether deep in the ocean aboard an attack submarine or deep in his studies as a first-time college student, Kimmons is someone who stays the course. The great-grandson of a Mississippi slave and a slave owner, he is a humble man who during his 91 years has helped to shatter racial barriers by his example and given himself to a life of service to others.

Kimmons was raised in a poor family in Hamilton, Ohio, an integrated neighborhood just a short distance from segregated Kentucky. Having to sit in the rear of the bus and back of the movie theater was an experience he says he will always remember. In 1940, when he enlisted in the Navy, his first duty station was in Norfolk, Va., where segregation was commonplace. The only billet open to him as a black recruit was that of mess attendant-officer cook and steward, a position in which black men (and some Filipinos) served as waiters, butlers and cooks for white officers.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, following an open request, he was able to volunteer for submarine duty and was trained in all the operations of a diesel sub. He made seven war patrols, experiencing multiple depth charges and attacks by the Japanese Navy. His boat, the USS Parche, conducted a nighttime surface attack on a Japanese convoy. The battle is famous in Navy lore, earning Cmdr. Lawson Ramage the Medal of Honor and his crew members — including Kimmons — the Presidential Unit Citation for bravery.

After the war, Kimmons was able to change his rate and become a yeoman. Ultimately he was promoted through every enlisted pay grade and finally became a commissioned officer — one of the very first black officers in the submarine service. But his battle with discrimination did not stop. Some white sailors would cross the street rather than have to salute a black officer. Today, when he is on the base, he notes that it's not uncommon to meet African-Americans who are commanders, captains — even an occasional admiral. “We've come a long way,” he says.

After 30 years' service that included World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Lt. Kimmons retired from the Navy in 1970 with numerous awards and medals. He immediately enrolled in Connecticut College, which had started accepting men only a year before.
“Connecticut College was very good to me,” he says, expressing gratitude to Jane Bredeson, former associate director of admission and later secretary of the College. He also credits professors such as Bill Cibes, Richard Birdsall and Ruby Turner Morris. Morris earned his respect with her high standards and notoriously difficult five-part exam questions. “Believe me, she was tough!” he says.

That same toughness, forged in the decades of discipline in the Silent Service, carried Kimmons all the way through May 1973, when he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history. He went on to earn his master's in history from the University of Connecticut and his sixth-year certificate from Southern Connecticut State University. He taught at Waterford Junior and Senior High Schools for 22 years.
“I was a tough teacher too, I guess because of my military background,” he says with a smile. “In study halls I told them 'Either study or fake it!' But many of my old students thank me now and say I really taught them how to study.”

The veteran continues to serve his community by volunteering at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital, the AARP and the Retired Activities Office on the Submarine Base in Groton. In 1987 the Booker T. Washington Community Center of Hamilton, Ohio, awarded him the Hall of Fame Award.

For three decades Kimmons and his wife of 68 years, Thelma Jean, would vacation in Hawaii, where they had honeymooned. On one of their trips they decided to visit the World War II museum at Pearl Harbor, where, to his surprise, he discovered that he was one of the sailors depicted in an exhibit. It was fitting proof that the war hero was now a part of history.

A FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN TWO CAMEL VETS

When Charles Levandoski '73 enrolled as a first-year student at Connecticut College he was a recent veteran of the Vietnam era and 10 years older than a typical first-year student. Associate Director of Admission Jane Bredeson helped open doors for him and prepare him for the challenges ahead.

He found a good friend in classmate Carl Kimmons '73. “Being veterans brought us together,” says Levandoski, who served as a submariner. At a time when anti-war sentiments ran high on college campuses, the two sometimes found themselves under ideological attack from other students, but they took it in stride as part of the learning experience.

Unlike Kimmons, who found his calling in the study of history, Levandoski was always changing majors as his interests shifted. He finally settled on the newly created major of human ecology, one of the first environmental studies programs in the country.

One day Kimmons, a private pilot who owned his own plane for 20 years, invited the younger man to come out to an airfield in Waterford, Conn. “I took him flying, and that was it,” says Kimmons. Levandoski took to the skies himself and has flown for nearly four decades, serving as a flight instructor in Groton and Westerly, R.I.

At a recent meeting in Kimmons' apartment in a retirement community in Waterford, the two men joke about the years of eating powdered eggs and the much-despised concoction most servicemen refer to simply by the acronym SOS. They laugh thinking about how they banded together to wash cars to raise a little cash when they attended Connecticut College. But most of all they enjoy each other's company, knowing they share a common bond. — Lisa Brownell


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