Navy honors first black Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician
By Timothy J. Gibbons, Florida Times Union
Cynthia Conner of Jacksonville was only 13 when her father died, but her memories of him are clear.
Sherman Byrd was a strong man who loved his country and his Navy. A quiet man. A perfectionist.
But he was something else, too – something Conner and the rest of her family just found out earlier this year.
Master Chief Sherman Byrd was the first black sailor to become an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician, breaking the color barrier in 1958 to join an elite group in the Navy that deals with explosive threats anywhere they show up. The force is well-known now for dealing with improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Later a master chief, but then still a boatswain’s mate 2nd class, Byrd graduated from Explosive Ordnance School in 1958, going on to serve in Korea and Vietnam. He died April 9, 1971, after suffering a heart attack during physical training. He was 40 years old.
He spent much of his naval career, which started in 1947, aboard 10 ships and later helped protect four presidents.
Enlisting required heading half an hour away from the small Mississippi town where his parents were sharecroppers to find somewhere with a recruiting station.
Byrd’s accomplishments were recognized Friday during a ceremony at EOD Training and Evaluation Unit 2 in Virginia Beach, where his family gathered from across the country to honor him.
“I’ve been crying ever since hearing about it,” said Ned Byrd, Sherman’s oldest surviving sibling and one of the people who tossed him into a pond to teach him to swim when he was 6 years old. “To realize your kid brother went on to be a great thing for the United States and to have him recognized – I’m just overjoyed.”
Among those who gathered were Conner, who like many of her siblings wound up working for the Navy.
Conner came to Northeast Florida in 2001, working as a civilian at Jacksonville Naval Air Station and then moving to Mayport Naval Station.
She never enlisted – “I was a Navy brat; that should count for something,” she said with a laugh – but said a career with the Navy made perfect sense.
“Subconsciously, I think I felt closer to dad working with the ships,” she said.
Even now, when she sees ships returning to the pier, she remembers standing by the water’s edge in Virginia, waiting for her father to come home. “I get teary-eyed,” she said.
Conner found out about her father’s distinction in May when a representative of the training facility tracked down the family to let them know about the dedication.
“They talk so highly of dad,” Conner said. “He meant a lot to a lot of people.”
The Explosive Ordnance Disposal training facility had a plaque in its exercise yard honoring Byrd, but now has a full-fledged historical display focused on the master chief.
Such a display is important so the community doesn’t forget its history, said Mike Coulter, an EOD technician who coordinated the ceremony.
“The most important thing to me was he was the first African-American to make it through,” Coulter said. “I couldn’t imagine going through it as a young African-American in 1958.”
Byrd left his mark in other ways, too -as a leader remembered long after he was gone. Fourteen years after Byrd died, Coulter worked for master chiefs who had been junior enlisted working for Byrd years before.
“Even then, I had people telling me things about him,” Coulter said. “This is why we start remembering history, so people can pass it down.”