Pulling the race card (or How I got to meet Princess Grace)
While making a med cruise on board the USS Piper back in 1964, we received permission to pull into the port of Monaco for Christmas. This was a special port call because we were the first American warships to pull in there since World War Two. Because of this, the principality went all out to make sure that we enjoyed the port visit first by allowing some crew members to stay at the luxurious Monte Carlo hotel for free, a dance put on by the USO with some of the best looking women on the Riviera, and a free account at the famous Monte Carlo casino.
For the Christmas day observance, seven crew members were invited to eat dinner at the castle with Princess Grace and the royal family. Seven crew members were chosen, but no one from the engineering department. Enginemen were considered to be uncouth and smelled of diesel oil even after showering. That’s when I got an idea. One, being a newbie on board, they really couldn’t say that I was totally uncouth, I had not yet been sullied by my apprenticeship with my mentor, Beetle Bailey. Two, being the only Black person on board, it was only appropriate that a “token” be sent as representing part of the crew. How “American” would that be?
After a long debate and an hour or two of my engineering chief pleading my case, the captain capitulated and agreed. What followed was a crash course in formal etiquette, what fork to eat with, how to chew politely, how to address the princess, etc. The only point of disappointment, however, was that I would be sent as the official photographer. So, naval history is devoid of any photographic evidence of one Fred Durrette formally meeting Princess Grace. However, if you ever get to the submarine museum in Groton, Connecticut, ask to see the original photograph and on the back, you’ll see my signature as the official navy photographer.
The Princess was everything that you’d expect a princess to be. She was beautiful, graceful, and still retained her American down home charm.