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American Heroes: Carl Brashear

Getty / Carolyn Cole

Saluting the Navy diver whose story was told in "Men of Honor."

If you ever saw the movie "Men of Honor," you know who Carl Brashear was and why he deserves to be remembered as an American hero. But it's almost two decades now since that historical drama, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro, was released -- so we thought we'd take a moment today to salute the memory of the first man who ever became a U.S. Navy master diver with only one leg.

Born in 1931 to Kentucky sharecropper parents, Brashear enlisted in the then-newly desegregated Navy at the age of 17. Despite racist threats against his life from his classmates in the service's Diving & Salvage School, he graduated in 1954 to become the Navy's first African American diver. In 1966, serving aboard the USS Hoist, he dove as part of recovery efforts to retrieve a lost nuclear bomb that had sunk off the coast of Spain. The bomb was recovered, but an equipment accident during operations resulted in Brashear's left leg being horribly injured, and it had to be amputated. 

Brashear spent a year recovering -- and another year retraining as an amputee to be recertified as a Navy diver again. In 1970, he attained the rank of Master Diver -- the first African American to do so. He continued to serve in the Navy for another decade. As he said: "It's not a sin to get knocked down. It's a sin to stay down,"

Carl Brashear died in 2006 at the age of 75. Read more about his life story in his obituary.